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Juan Miranda
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« on: February 14, 2007, 08:55:49 AM »

Dave Jenkin's recent mention of Hitch's picture prompted me to post this, written previously for the Brit Horror board, which I no longer post on.

THE BIRDS is certainly a puzzle, mainly because the sudden homicidal bent of our feathered friends is never explained, and the film ends on a moment of extreme darkness, with all the characters either dead or traumatized forever. As Hitchcock's movies through out the 1950's became increasingly cynical, cumulating in the 1960's opener, PSYCHO, this turn towards such a bleak world view seems in retrospect inevitable. His next production THE BIRDS, (1963) Hitch's most nakedly Surrealist work, also shows the directors craving to be taken serious as an “artist”, a journey which cumulated in his never made KALEIDOSCOPE FRENZY.

Following a still striking looking pre-credit sequence by James S Pollak (shot on lith film stock), we are plunged straight into VERTIGO territory, as in the space of a single take we see Union Square, traffic lights changing and an image of the Golden Gate Bridge, all of which featured heavily in that movie. Hitch himself appears in the same take, wandering out of a pet shop with two dogs. Like the Love Birds his heroine will buy in the same shop, we can't see “which is the boy and which is the girl”, and in this seeming, throwaway sight gag much of the duality which clings to the film like a fever is revealed. 

“Tippi” Hedren is looking to buy a Myna bird for a prim relative, so she can teach it to swear. Her character, Melanie, is a filthy rich lass who just swans around being a celebrity and getting into scrapes and practical jokes. She's spotted going into the pet shop by steely jawed and morally self righteous Mitch, played by Rod Taylor. He turns the tables by playing a joke on her instead. Intrigued, she gets her own back by buying a pair of Love Birds for his 11 year old sister and delivers them to his out of town house in Bodega Bay. This seemingly simple action releases a steady, cumulative attack on people by birds, starting with Melanie herself. Why is this happening?




Irrational mindscapes.

In practical terms, at one point in the film, the townsfolk gather in The Tides Diner to discuss the matter, and an Irish drunk decides happily “It's the end o' the world!” An English Ornithologist declares the whole thing impossible, and following another mass bird attack, the scene climaxes with Doreen Lang blaming “Tippi” Hedren, “I think you're evil. EVIL!!” As far as Rod Taylor's character Mitch is concerned, she is probably right. It seems to me the whole thing is a projection of Mitch's extremely sick and repressed sexuality. This was just a couple of years after PSYCHO, with Norrie Bates and his fetish for stuffed birds.

Through a series of events Mitch thinks he “knows” Melanie. He has seen her in court over a prank she played which ended in a broken window, and smashed glass becomes a signature feature of bird attacks. He has also read about her in tabloid newspapers because of her outrageous behavior in Rome (based very much on LA DOLCE VITA). Clearly he thinks she is some sort of a tart. Still spending much of his time living at home with his mother Lydia and 11 year old sister, Mitch is an extremely repressed man, who had to finish his pervious relationship with Annie Hayworth due to his mother's disapproval. The fact that Melanie is his mother's spitting image probably doesn't help either.


Hedren and Jessica Tandy. Love for Lydia.

It seems to me that THE BIRDS is a dramatization of the Freudian projections of hate, desire, revulsion and lust Melanie provokes in Mitch. The bird attacks are all aimed either directly at her, or are designed to delay her constantly announced departure so he can posess her. The appearance of Melanie also rekindles his own totally unresolved Oedipal crisis after the death of his father, something Annie Hayworth, his dumped girlfriend speculates on before her own horrible death. If this all sounds rather unlikely, don't forget that at that time Hitch was totally immersed in Freud's universe, employing it blatantly in PSYCHO, and less so in VERIGO, which was basically a dramatization of Freud's essay A SPECIAL CHOICE OF OBJECT MADE BY MEN. Mitch despises Melanie because of her apparent freedom and wealth, but at the same time craves recognition from her and wants her sexually, thus appropriating her power. His needs conjure a pathological and insane series of events, springing from an unconscious dream power involving birds killing, subduing and defeating not just Melanie, but all the women in the film.


Happy families.

It's noticeable that following the attack on The Tides, all the people hiding and terrified in the diner are women. In the film's most searingly memorable moment, Mitch scars his mother with the image of a man with his his eyes torn out, the fate of Oedipus himself. He visits the same scene on his own little sister (played by horror film regular Veronica Cartwright) who witnesses Annie's similar fate. Indeed when he first follows Melanie into the pet shop at the start of the film he pauses and stands beside an identical looking little girl who is watching two puppies in a cage.

The sleeping dreamer Mitch ends the film by staging a massed and sustained assault on Melanie in his own boyhood bedroom by the birds, a sequence nothing short of a rape. Following this he has Melanie, his mother and his sister where his secret desires want them, in thrall of his power of resourcefulness, in need of his aggressive strength, and in the case of Melanie, now a totally subdued victim looking for his  own mother's sickly love. No wonder the film ends in such a queasy place, with possibly the most depressing final shot in the history of cinema. The unconscious, perverse universe of Mitch's mind has triumphed.

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« Reply #1 on: February 14, 2007, 09:14:23 AM »

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, in my opinion.

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« Reply #2 on: February 14, 2007, 09:37:02 AM »

I think the point of the Tides Restaurant scene is to forestall explanations for the bird attacks. Different theories are advanced, none are endorsed by the director. The natural world does not entirely yield to human reason, it remains "other" and, to a great extent, unknowable. Hitchcock was a secret Lemian (follower of Polish Sci-fi writer Stanislav Lem).

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« Reply #3 on: February 15, 2007, 04:38:29 PM »

And now a more considered response:

A Freudian reading of the film is certainly possible, but which one should we settle for? There’s the one in which the birds are a projection of Mitch’s “hate, desires” etc. cleverly worked up by our friend Juan here. The Paglia monograph, on the other hand, promotes the idea the birds are a projection of Lydia’s fears, insecurities, etc. And I’m sure someone has demonstrated how Melanie’s feelings are the trigger for all the commotion. Heck, even Mr. Brinkmeyer at the general store could be the culprit. The problem with such approaches is that all seem plausible, but each excludes the others and there is really no way to choose among them.

Other difficulties abound. For one, the bird attacks are literally happening. What then is the mechanism by which the alleged dreams/wishes/subconscious desires are made manifest? At least in the Freudian Forbidden Planet a Sci-Fi magic wand was posited for getting the Monsters From The Id from the id into the waking world (in case you’ve forgotten, it was called “Krell instrumentalities”). Unless the entire movie is a dream (auggghh!), something is missing from The Birds. Well, Freudians have never let the hard sciences stand in the way of a good theory.

Another problem has to do with the fact that--not once, but twice--groups of children are attacked. How does that square with either Mitch or Lydia or Melanie projecting their what-have-yous? Mitch wants to do vile things to women so he unleashes the birds to do just that AND kill all the children in town (including his sister)? Lydia is threatened by attractive women who will take Mitch away from her so she attacks them AND all the children in town (including her daughter)? Melanie wants to disrupt Mitch’s square world so she dive bombs all the adults in Bodega Bay AND all the innocent children (including her new friend Kathy)? Clever readings can be ginned up to account for these attacks (“Mitch is expressing his fear of children and the commitment they entail”) but at the end of the day Mitch, Lydia, Melanie—whoever is launching the bird sorties—is projecting genocide. Sure, Hitch liked a good villain, but Himmler?

A non-Freudian explanation that better accords with not some but all the attacks is that the agency responsible IS attempting genocide. On this view, the birds are waging war on their own behalf against mankind, but like good terrorists everywhere, they’re attacking the weakest targets first: lone women in boats, isolated farmers, small kids. Success in these endeavors emboldens them to finally hit the whole town at once: first they’ll take Bodega Bay, then they’ll take Berlin. Of course, this would require amazing coordination and intelligence, something far beyond what birds and their tiny ‘brain pans” can normally manage. But perhaps a Collective Avian Intelligence was meant to have been envisioned. Again, Sci-Fi helps us out here (remember the brain bug from Starship Troopers?) Still, this explanation, key to our understanding, is oddly missing from the film.

So, following the method of the great detective, having eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. And in this case the solution is that there is no solution. The natural world is a mysterious place that we may apprehend without fully being able to comprehend. “All you can say about The Birds,” Hitchcock told an interviewer, “is nature can be awful rough on you.” [quoted in Sullivan, 271, see below]

But Hitchcock wasn’t always reliable when speaking of his films, and intelligent people can differ on matters of interpretation, so I’d be willing to have us all shake hands and return to our respective corners if it weren’t for just one thing: the music. Or perhaps I should say, lack of the same. As Jack Sullivan points out in his new book Hitchcock’s Music, The Birds presents “a new concept in mainstream film scoring whereby melody, harmony, rhythm, orchestration—all the traditional elements of Western music—simply vanish from the film.” (260)

Quote
In The Birds, Hitchcock achieved his most revolutionary sound track. The great paradox of the film is that it ostensibly has no music yet delivers one of the most daring “scores” in the Hitchcock canon. The murderous birds have their own music and don’t need anyone else’s, not even Bernard Herrmann’s. In the most insidious sense, this is the music of nature, a natural world gone awry, not the benevolent force of Wordsworth and Whitman but the chaos of Poe—the raven, the black cat, the maelstrom.
(259)


The implications for this approach are far reaching. The film is not about the humans, it’s about (duh!) the birds. Doubters can be directed once more to the film’s bleak ending:

Quote
The finale has some of the film’s most subtle musical effects: the birds mass for their final attack, then suddenly scream in unison a crescendo that dies into eerie quiet. Their haunting hum in the final shot is a near-subliminal pedal point. At the last instant, in an exquisite final subtlety, the bird noises rise again in a tiny final crescendo, a preapocalyptic shiver.
(268) [This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a . . . shiver?]

The projections—Freudian or otherwise—“of hate, desire, revulsion and lust” of individual men and women are nothing in the face of this Revelation. Indeed, what is striking about the final shot of the film is its utter absence of anything human. Sullivan sums the matter thus:

Quote
The Birds is not about explanations but about a strange new world of sound and silence. The latter gradually takes over as the film winds down from violent noise through delicate flutters to ghostly quiet—the final isolation in a hostile universe. This film is exactly what its title implies. At the end, there are only the birds.
(272)

Coming as it does between Psycho and Marnie, two highly Freudian films, it is perhaps natural to first look for a similar quality in The Birds. But the radical approach to scoring gives the game away. Whereas the stark Expressionism of the Psycho score and the broody Romantic cues supplied for Marnie are both appropriate, in their respective ways, for those highly interior, psychological films, the radical atonal score for The Birds signals a compulsion to look outward. And the view is not pretty. The natural world we are shown is a strange, confusing place, confusing precisely because it does not operate according to the workings of human psychology. And sensing that can really put a scare into you.

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« Reply #4 on: February 15, 2007, 06:04:34 PM »

written previously for the Brit Horror board, which I no longer post on.




Their a reason for that?

We love ya more I suppose.

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« Reply #5 on: February 16, 2007, 04:31:04 PM »

Dave, Juan you guys should have your own film mag columns  Afro (And by that I don't mean Empire or Total Film)

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« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2007, 07:42:47 AM »

Can't face HTML coding stuff, so I'm afraid I'll be replying to folk without "quotes".

Thanks for the kind words, LA. I don't post on the Brit Horror board any more as it was taking up far too much of my creative time both physically and mentally. I may go back to it when I have made the two film's I'm developing at the moment (a short and a feature) but not until then. I'm happy to stay here, as it doesn't take up much time.

Back to DA BOIDS (as they call it in New Jersey). I've been thinking about this film and just what the hell is actually going on in it for years. Yes, the film is available to all sorts of critical deconstruction and multiple readings, this is what makes it such an endlessly compulsive experience. Yes, it's easy to casually dismiss Freudian ideas with a glib little joke, however, as Hitchcock himself was thinking and conceiving plots and characters using Freud at the time he made THE BIRDS, it seems rather blinkered.

Mitch seems to be a perfect example of what Freud called Displacement and Condensation in dream censorship, where the unconscious in it's anxiety to remain hidden shifts the dreamer's perception else where.

Mitch tells mother he know what he wants.

Most of the film is taken up with "Tippi" Hedren. Huge chunks of it are devoted to her alone, and are seen from her point of view. Therefor the film feels like it is hers.

Mitch on the other hand is seen alone only on three occasions when not being observed by another. And all his point of view shots are of birds. The first is after Melanie drives away from his house in the dark after she first meets Mitch's family. After she's gone he pauses and notices with only slight puzzlement the huge number of birds perched on the power lines leading to his house. The second occasion is just before the final bird attack on his house. He goes into the kitchen and observes the Love Birds are still passive, unlike the Hate Birds gathering outside (Freudian Inversion?). The third is after the attack on the house and he goes to the garage to prepare the getaway car (significantly Melanie's). Again he looks at birds, this time a crow, unable to smash through the wire meshed window on the garage roof. He smirks at this.

Three tiny but telling moments. The other most striking moment comes in The Tides when Doreen Lang says to Hedren "I think you're responsible for all this." Taylor looks curiously at Hedren as if to say "Oh yeah, so she is." It's up to Hedren herself to subdue the hysterical woman with a slap. Taylor is exhausted after the bird attack, and anyway has already defeated all the women in The Tides. His attacks themselves resemble sexual acts in their build up, frenzy of sound and movement, satiety and then rest before beginning again. Regarding the attack on the school, as a younger child who would rob Mitch of a large potion of his mother's love, he would obviously be jealous of his little sister, she is a natural target for any repressed Oedipal rage. The farmer is brutally killed because he is a potential suitor for his mother, indeed she visits him with one glove off, a traditional symbol of sexual availability in (per-Freudian) art history.

Back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.

I find it odd to argue that because the picture lacks a "traditional" musical score means that any Freudian intentions on Hitchcock's part must be considered abandoned. Your entire argument here seems to ignore the fact that Bernard Herrmann is still credited as the composer of the film's music, and that an arabesque by Debussy is also credited (can't remember where it's used through). Remi Gassmann did provide the sound of the birds, but clearly Herrmann was "conducting" these sounds as a new kind of tuneless music (Herrmann always said in interviews that he "hated tunes"  for composing film scores), just as Morricone uses sounds like burps as tuneless music in Leone' pictures. You also neatly ignore the fact that the final sound of the birds is also accompanied until the end credit with the roar of Melanie Daniel's European sports car, an entirely man made and now in the hands of Mitch, man mastered machine.
 
As much of Freudian thought concerned "what women want" and the seeming unknowability of this, your assertion that "The natural world is a mysterious place that we may apprehend without fully being able to comprehend." could have come from the pages of the INTRODUCTORY LECTURES ON PSYCHOANALASIS themselves.


 

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« Reply #7 on: February 21, 2007, 04:18:52 PM »

I reply to selected comments from Juan Miranda:

Quote
Yes, it's easy to casually dismiss Freudian ideas with a glib little joke, however, as Hitchcock himself was thinking and conceiving plots and characters using Freud at the time he made THE BIRDS, it seems rather blinkered.

Did you actually say “blinkered”? I made it very clear, I think, that even as I was training my field glasses upon The Birds I was keeping the periphery in view (with Psycho to the left, Marnie to the right). Blinkered, did you say? HA!

And I put it to you [Freud alert! Freud alert!]: just because Hitchcock himself was thinking and conceiving plots and characters using Freud at the time he made The Birds, was it therefore impossible for him to entertain other paradigms (Roman Catholicism, naturalism, et. al.) for ordering his fictional world? Your Hitchcock is too small! The man was a mass of contradictions, and capable of repeated surprises (e.g. Hitchcock was an ardent devotee of montage, yet one day he decided to make Rope).

Quote
I find it odd to argue that because the picture lacks a "traditional" musical score means that any Freudian intentions on Hitchcock's part must be considered abandoned. Your entire argument here seems to ignore the fact that Bernard Herrmann is still credited as the composer of the film's music, and that an arabesque by Debussy is also credited (can't remember where it's used through).

It’s the piano piece Melanie plays in the Brenner home. There is also the “Risseldy, Rosseldey” song annoyingly sung by the schoolchildren. Some instances of traditional music (from human sources) occur in the film, but they are inconsequential blips in an enveloping soundscape of non-human sounds ("underscoring" H's theme, heh).

 
Quote
Remi Gassmann did provide the sound of the birds, but clearly Herrmann was "conducting" these sounds as a new kind of tuneless music (Herrmann always said in interviews that he "hated tunes"  for composing film scores), just as Morricone uses sounds like burps as tuneless music in Leone' pictures. You also neatly ignore the fact that the final sound of the birds is also accompanied until the end credit with the roar of Melanie Daniel's European sports car, an entirely man made and now in the hands of Mitch, man mastered machine.

The sounds of civilization in retreat from the sounds of the nature, no? Traditionally, victory laurels go to those who, having seen off their opponents, hold the field. This is the situation at the end of The Birds, where human sounds retreat and eventually disappear beneath the cacophony of non-human ones, the perfect sonic accompaniment to the film’s final shot.
 
Yes, the score for The Birds was certainly composed, although whether it was entirely the product of the composer of record is debatable (Sullivan suggests that Hitchcock himself had a lot to do with its composition, referencing a set of notes for “Background Sounds” dated October 23, 1962 (famously, Hitch had claimed he wanted to play an audience as if it were an organ; perhaps he really meant a Trautonium?))

Even if Herrmann were entirely responsible for the score, the question remains, why is it so different from all the others he composed for Hitchcock? Herrmann’s distinctive scoring accompanies the six Hitchcock films made prior to The BirdsThe Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho. Herrmann of course also did the music for Marnie, the film that followed The Birds. A strong family resemblance is detectable among these compositions, with one exception. The soundtrack for The Birds is completely unlike anything Herrmann did before or after that picture. In fact, it is completely unlike anything ever done for any picture. Such a radical departure from traditional scoring must be immensely significant, especially if, as we hear, forty percent of a film consists of its music.

This brings us to the issue of diegetic and non-diegetic music (sorry to have to use these snooty film-crit terms, but I’ve nothing else at hand). Herrmann’s scores, for Hitchcock and anyone else, are usually entirely non-diegetic (only one counter example immediately comes to mind, the opera performed in Citizen Kane). Herrmann was the guy you went to for the music under the action, not in it. This truth was so well understood that Herrmann, when making a cameo in TMWKTM, was shown conducting music composed by somebody else.

How did Hitchcock usually employ this non-diegetic music? Given his approach to filmmaking, one dependent on images rather than dialogue, Hitchcock relied on the music to add emotional depth and give an audience insight into the psyches of his laconic characters. In Vertigo, to take one score I know well, Herrmann’s cues frequently communicate how we are to view a scene or action (think of the “sting” indicating shock and alarm that accompanies Madeleine’s jump into San Francisco Bay), but just as often they provide an index to Scottie’s psychological state. The recurring love theme, for example, testifies to both the constancy and depth of Scottie’s obsession (Cleverly, Herrmann, by choosing to appropriate music from Tristan and Isolde, not only advances Hitchcock’s purpose but comments on it as well). Without the music, Vertigo would largely be about a man who stares blankly for two hours, rather than the penetrating study of male psychology it is.

Contrast Vertigo’s non-diegetic score with The Birds’ score, which, besides being unprecedentedly atonal, is used diegetically, contrary to Herrmann’s (and Hitchcock’s) usual practice. What the audience hears is only what the characters hear. And what the audience doesn’t hear is what is happening with the inner lives of Mitch, Melanie, Lydia, whoever.

The fact that Hitchcock decided to inhibit his usual medium of emotional expression may in fact mean he was less concerned than usual with the psychology of his characters. Certainly The Birds seems less emotionally charged than, say, Vertigo or Marnie, the characters appearing flatter than those in any other Hitchcock film of the period. This is not to say that Hitchcock abandons such matters entirely (as the dialogue awkward in many places, makes clear), only that the primary focus of the film is elsewhere. Apparently, Hitch decided that instead of looking in, for a change he’d look out. Afterwards, with Marnie, he returned to his interest in psychological portraiture.

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« Reply #8 on: February 21, 2007, 04:38:42 PM »

This is a decent little horror movie, but nothing special in my eyes.  Sorry.  Undecided

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« Reply #9 on: February 21, 2007, 04:53:22 PM »

I wrote some cinquains about members of this board.



Dave
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Cry myself to sleep
Confusion





Juan
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make me happy yes
GUh

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« Reply #10 on: February 21, 2007, 05:02:21 PM »

I wrote some cinquains about members of this board.



Dave
Long posts
Hurt my eyes
Cry myself to sleep
Confusion





Juan
Long posts
But cool images
make me happy yes
GUh
Haha, you nailed it.

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Juan Miranda
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« Reply #11 on: February 22, 2007, 06:30:35 AM »

Now now lads. I always find Dave's posts interesting. Sometimes it's impossible to talk about aspects of cinema without using an academic vocabulary to make your points. Or indeed with brevity. Just be glad I didn't start banging on about Jaques Lacan, meconnaissance and suture. At least there don't seem to be any Saussureans on the board. Yet.  Shocked

I must admit that the diegetic aspects of the "scoring" hadn't occured to me before, and only highlights even more what a remarkable achievment THE BIRDS was. We really must mention the complete absence of "score" too, during the "rape" scene when Melony Daniels is finally defeated and subjued into traumatised silence by the birds. A sequence accompanied only by the sound of beating wings. This takes place while Mitch is asleep.

Dave mentions the apparent flatness and lack of emotional engagement compared to many of Hitch's other Herrmann scored films. Reportedly Hitch enjoyed himself while shooting THE BIRDS so much (a process he usually claimed bored him, having already shot the picture in his head) that he began to improvise on set. Something he usualy eschewed (certainly sequences as shot depart significantly from Robert Boyle's exquisite storyboards, whenever I've seen them published). However, where he was let down was by his performers. Hedren and Taylor were strictly "B" material, at a time when Hitch was used to working only with "A" list stars who's charisma could paper over any of their faults as actors (as good a definition of a "star" as any, I guess). While likeable enough, Rod Taylor never gave an interesting performance in his entire career, and may be yet another reason why Mitch is always overlooked as the "instigator" of events in the movie. Hedren, one or two brief moments excepted, only ever seemed another artifical Hitchcock construct, an assemblege of feteshistic objects (the hair, the fur coat, the handbag, the gloves). There is a bit of a black hole in terms of audience emotional identification at the centre of the film: as such actors in minor roles like Suzanne Pleshette, Veronica Cartwright, Charles McGraw and even John McGovern as Mr. Brinkmeyer remain strangely memorable in comparison.

Going back to Boyle for a moment, it's interesting that he claimed his main inspiration for his production design on the film was Edvard Munch, suggesting a return to Hitchcock's pre-Hollywood, German Expressionist style. However, nobody seemed to have told Hitch (or Rober Burkes, his DOP) this, and one shot excepted, he remains firmly with his established, hyper perception images, more akin to Dali.



Hitchcock's early and mature styles

I guess the debate between Dave and myself, boils down to our definition of the interior and the exterior of the film. For me it remains all interior, including the sound of the birds. The "nature" of Hitchcock is a manifestation of human hostility and desire. Whereas Dave sees nature in the film as "apart" and implacable from the human aspirations. In this case we'll have to agree to differ, and I for one enjoyed the debate.

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« Reply #12 on: February 22, 2007, 03:51:47 PM »

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I must admit that the diegetic aspects of the "scoring" hadn't occured to me before, and only highlights even more what a remarkable achievment THE BIRDS was.

Juan, there are actually a few other examples of diegetic scores in Hitchcock; apparently, he saved this approach for his most experimental films. Can you name the others?

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« Reply #13 on: February 22, 2007, 03:53:32 PM »

Thats a tough one, can I fire on in and say Rear Window, the only thing with that being the music over the credits.

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« Reply #14 on: February 22, 2007, 04:01:42 PM »

That IS one I was thinking of. Afro

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