Thursday, May 25, 2023

All-Seeing Blindness: THE BIRDS' omniscient POV and the Oedipal Anti-gaze

Today we're using a single shot in Hitchcock's 1963 classic THE BIRDS as a jumping off point for a fusion of Freud, Jung, Paglia, Wood, and Zizek that will catch HALLOWEEN, FORBIDDEN PLANET,  PSYCHO, even SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER in its devouring maternal phallus beak / knife / impossible tree sloth claw maw. 

Do you dare attend?

We will FIGURE out the connection between the weird domestic drama and the bird attacks. Turns out, it's Lydia's fault! I take it you've met Lydia? 

I saw the BIRDS after a long walk in the trees, just cuz it was on Showtime when I got home. This bit of info is important. Like a 'random' spread of tarot cards, the unconscious sometimes finds a functional mythic common language in the images the conscious mind takes in, life finding figures and faces in clouds or rock formations. 

This symbiosis betwixt the personal subconscious (i.e. the viewer) and the collective consciousness (i.e. the film)  might otherwise be denied when the conscious mind 'picks' the film. I wouldn't have chosen THE BIRDS on after getting home, all exercised and starved for TV, it was just on. That's the collective unconscious at work, alive in the randomness of chance, the feeling god or something is always communicating with you through some medium or image, be it a random bird call, the passing cop car siren, the dog food commercial, your unconscious is always watching you somewhere in the field of your vision. Can you spot him/ her / it? That's (the) UNCANNY, bro!

Nowhere is this more vivid than THE BIRDS (1964); its icebergs go so deep their edges cut through the outer hulls of waking sanity. Like any enduring classic, it continues to make more and more sense the longer you watch it (i.e. for me, 40 years of seeing it regularly at least once every couple of years). As a kid I was just irritated waiting for birds to finally attack -then it rocked. Now as an adult whose read Paglia's indispensable BFI book on it, as well as the writing of Robin Wood, Zizek, etc. - it's Lydia's parts that rock me. The bird attacks can get indulgent, but Lydia is always watching.... us 

As the unrelated (or so I thought as a child) connection between the human drama and the bird attacks becomes clearer and clearer until a certain awareness of nature as a reflection of the human unconscious (or vice versa) takes shape. We don't see the link until the link sees us first. Watching Birds as a child with my own parents, we used to bemoan the boring subplots of Melanie and her facile would-be screwball flirtation. ("Get to the birds already!" my dad would shout). If there's a direct link between the domestic drama part- the strange love quadrangle going on between Mitch, Melanie, Annie, and Lydia of Bodega Bay--and the birds attacking, it eludes most casual monster-craving viewers, maybe for good reason. And for the first dozen viewings I didn't see it either; I still felt it was all more akin to the obligatory qua-romantic sidebars of things like It Came from Beneath the SeaBeast from 20,000 Fathoms, or Tarantula, rather than the deep dish Id dive of Forbidden Planet.  

That's the connection so key to this post: When you remember woman shares her elemental subconscious with nature itself, and that Lydia is a quintessential devouring mother archetype, suddenly the bird attacks make perfect connection with the drama.

Freud was a huge talking point in the late-50s/early-60s. Freud became suburban, a bookshelf staple of every liberated couple, alongside the Kinsey Report, and paved the way for a swinger explosion.  The Freud most clearly handed to us children on a PSYCH 101 platter comes form Psycho and Forbidden Planet

The latter offers the explanation of the monster from the id in a way that makes sense even as kids: our repressed (verboten!) hormonal desires seeping through the fabric of our veil and into the natural world. We can imagine our own monster tearing up the school, teachers, bullies, while we sleep, sort of glad we never have to take responsibility for our desires coming true the way Morbius does. But if we woke up to find them all ripped limb-from-limb, we might get a guilty feeling without knowing quite why we should. We didn't have anything to do with it, and that's true in a way. Should Jekyll be punished for Hyde's crimes? The realization that the crux of the ego and its centered 'consciousness' is just the loudest voice in the room, and when it finally quiets, strange beings living downstairs in our brain take over the controls, eager to throw out all the poisoned shit you've been dumping down in their living rooms. 

And there's someone else down in there too, boy, and they resent being locked down in the fruit cellar. 

Do you think they're fruity, boy?  


No matter how many times we get that oft-bemoaned epilogue lecture in PSYCHO, for example, the implications of Norman and his mother complex stay mysterious. The elemental subconscious doesn't suddenly become 'solved' just because we're given the cinematic definition by a learned psychiatrist.  The idea of "mother" transcends our own psyche, envelops and devours us.The psychiatrist shows us the ladder down into the hole but only guides us far down as the censor will allow. There's still an endless abyss waiting below. It's a cesspool roiling under the walls between ourselves and our own mother. 

If she can reach... under... and hijack our unconscious id monster, maybe she can hijack the natural world's as well... the birds can become her own id monster. She's connected to the turnings of nature the way can never be, consciously.

As with Morbius' Id monster, Lydia can't be blamed for the bird attacks. It wouldn't / couldn't be a conscious connection. She wouldn't even be aware she's causing it. There's no one to tell her either. No PSYCHO psychiatrist inhabits Bodega Bay to explain the link. There's  no Krell brain boost equivalent that would allow Mitch to guess the origin of the bird attacks (i.e. paraphrasing Forbidden Planet: "Mitch, the birds are your mother's fear! Tell her you don't love this girl! Tell her you'll never leave home!").  No one in Bodega Bay understands poltergeist activity, nor do they know of animal familiars, elemental manifestations of unconscious drives, or the dangers when the wise old woman's natural magic is misappropriated by the her jealous savage devouring mother unconscious (inside every Athena is a Medusa trying to get out). Lydia can't quite control her powers--or even be fully aware of them--any more than could Morbius, or Norman. Each kills--or tries to kill--all younger rivals, be they Leslie Nielsen or Melanie or Marion. to keep their child at home, to foil attempts to empty their recessive egomaniac remote planet / small town kingdom. Empty nest syndrome has its roots in some vile pre-Promethean mire of incest and human sacrifice, Cronus eating his own young, and all that shit. 

Autonomous Oedipal Expressions - Bob (Twin Peaks) Morbius' Id (Forbidden Planet) ,

After a few dozen viewings of each of the three films, after age and insight and the human mind's need to find meaning even in random coincidence, it all makes sense as if some GRE series of associative thinking questions:

Norman <--> Mother  --> Knife--> Janet Leigh

Alta < --> Morbius--> Monster --> Leslie Nielsen

Mitch <---> Lydia --> Birds-->-Tippi Hedren

For Psycho, the mother in Norman's mind is a horribly blurred version of the superego's harnessing the Id to manifest the phallus of the mother (the knife) before the phallus of the Norman gets to experience enough pleasure/power to escape the poisonous incestuous bond. Norman killed the mother and her lover the way Lydia tries to stuff Mitch, like some ornithological specimen, in her living room and keep any interested females in Bodega Bay blinded by her flying monkey gulls and kept where she can keep an 'eye' on them. When Melanie devolves into a child after her bird attack, her voice gets a note of hysteria, all high and whispery in a kind of super demented child kind of way, indicating she's regressed and is no longer a threat; Lydia instantly relaxes her grip (note that the birds don't attack after that). 

The borderline between Norman and his mother and the (phallic) knife; Mitch and Lydia and her birds, (or the opposite version, Morbius, Alta and the Id) all become startlingly clear once they're all compared and filtered through your Penguin Freud. How could we have ever missed them? 

It's no idle accident the kids are watching Forbidden Planet on TV in Halloween. The equation is one slightly altered since there's no strong parental figure therefore, aside from Dr. Loomis and the sheriff. Here the instigator is biology and the forceful peer pressure of Jame Lee's friends.   

Jamie lee Curtis <----> virginity // Michael -->sex

FORBIDDEN PLANET on TV (left) in HALLOWEEN at left: The approaching (invisible) id monster's footprints onscreen go unnoticed by Nancy Loomis and her babysitting charge; heightening subliminal associative chills. 

Let's take a deep look at one very telling shot that makes the Halloween parallel clear:

Part I:


 "an anthill at the foot of a bridge" 

It's an extraordinarily eerie moment, giddy and exciting: we go from the noise of the cafe--the doubting ornithologist with her dry, chirpy lecturing; the hysterical mother frightening her own children (a clear case of maternal projection in microcosm to lend a shadow to the larger one outside); the old drunk repeating "it's the end of the world!" - it all instantly stops with the cry of "LOOK!" and a rush to the window. 

Outside, the gas station attendant is hit by a gull and falls over, dropping the gas nozzle; the gas leaks in a fast downhill pool towards the feet of the traveler trying to understand the panicked noise from inside the cafe. He drops his cigar match... BOOM

Halloween (1978) Killer POV
It's like the explosion knocks our POV into the sky. After all the noise and action below, up here in the sky it's quiet and peaceful. We feel strangely safe for a moment. It's as if we just joined the winning side so all our worries are over

But something is off. The camera isn't floating or swaying in the air currents. The POV camera is just standing still up there. It's not a bird's eye view. Birds don't usually stand stock still, neither do helicopters, usually. And weirder still, we hear a muffled but heavy breathing, as if through a thick heavy mask, or from inside a snorkel.

 Seeing it this time, after the walk, by chance, I was reminded of Halloween's opening tracking shot with POV clown mask as young Michael mounts the stairs. Here it's the same sense that we're wearing the mask. This arial god's eye / bird's eye view comes with breathing that sounds like we're a kid in a snorkel looking down hundreds of feet through clear turquoise water/sky to the ocean floor/fire, people scrambling like tiny crabs in the sand below. 

Even then we wouldn't be able to hang suspended in place, not this Steadicam smooth. 

This shot in The Birds though, this high up, the person whose eyes we're looking through seems to have his feet firmly planted on some invisible ground. Can it be Lydia, up there, like Marcello Mastroanni in the beginning dream of 8 1/2? while asleep back at home, shuddering from the sight of her eyeless neighbor Fred, her elemental unconscious soaring skywards above the damage her id is causing, but connected to her death driving instinct while asleep, forced to look down through her rending harpy bird of prey eyes at the carnage below, like Faye Dunaway forced to see the killer's POV in Eyes of Laura Mars? But she's not bobbing in the wind as she's also grounded in her bed? 

At the time, the first viewings, we may not even notice how odd that is, that weird breathing and sense of motionlessness, such odd choices go unnoticed in the chaos of the scene. We're too busy enjoying what we assume is the 'bird's eye view.' The change in shot helps us even out our sympathies. Rather than the sense of eerie dislocation and unwilling complicity we get from a killer POV in a good slasher film, we're allowed a kind of lordly relaxation. Now we're running with the flock, so we can size up our own target for the dive bombing. The killer POV implicates us and scares us with its 'too close for comfort' mortality. The bird / Lydia POV is so abstract it frees us from responsibility.

Dozens of viewings over the years later, and the odd details start to accrue in our minds but this motionless, heavy breathing arial shot refuses familiarization. The sound of muffled breathing is eerie. This is certainly not meant to be a bird's eye view in the traditional sense, Hitchcock would not miss even one key detail of this sort by accident. He brings us somewhere way outside normal space, some giant deer-stand or motionless Ferris wheel from which to peer down on all those scurrying, burning ants.

 How did Hitch get such a still shot? It's not a photo, (maybe a process shot) as we can see the flames burning below; even as the birds gradually circle down around and into the frame in front of it, there is no movement from the camera. The birds come in on all sides of the camera but the camera doesn't even flinch, as if it is representing some out of body experiencer, ordering her minions down into the scene like the wicked witch directing her monkeys from a bomb sight in the belly of a frozen in time B-17 while lying in bed at the same time.... Lydia... is that you?.


In grand Oedipal style, wherever Lydia's goes with her animus bird force, she leaves only blinded reflections, henpecked children, and symbolically neutered adults in her wake--the anti-sighted. The male gaze, the female gaze, all gazes are snuffed out, the bird claws and beaks act as the censoring scissors; Medusa, turning men from gazers into inanimate portraits or pajama wearing eyeless corpses. Amok maternal instinct creates a legion of blind, hobbled, castrated men, ala the men who crash the matriarchal corn king crowning in The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, or the remake of The Wicker Man. 

But as the snapping biting birds rage out of control, children too are symbolically violated, like an out of control once-benign victorious army "looting and pillaging" a defenseless civilian population, one that poses no threat at all to Lydia's maternal empire; and finally spilling over and threatening even Lydia herself (just as Morbius is threatened by his own id).

Even Melanie is guilty of this, noting proudly of her nonprofit: "We're sending a little Korean Boy Through School." sounds almost like their keel-hauling him through the sky somehow, or floating through the belly of a whale: "After that we're sending a German girl through a jet engine."

Even the daughter, Cathy is guilty of this: she has the two imprisoned love birds, as trapped in their cage as Lydia wants to make Mitch and Cathy in Bodega Bay. The two imprisoned birdies, forced to shelter in one spot while all around the fellow creatures are flying loose and free, attacking their former oppressors and jailers (one can see them flying up to SF to blind the pet shop owner from the first scene  on her way home from work). 

By the presence of the blinded father (above) in the upper left portrait (the darkened eyes is no coincidence), we realize the return of the blinding agent (the maternal phallus - beaks, knife, etc) is inherent in this dynasty. Note the arrangement of the scene: Lydia, sitting, cuddled with Cathy, denotes her new place as another child of the Lydia, or at any rate, subservient. Mitch seated below the portrait, uncomfortable on a bench, as if waiting in line for an Oedipal "haircut" (his eyes darkened beneath his heavy brow) and Lydia, centered, organizing the table as if arranging a tea party for her stuffed animals. The father's expression in the painting is one of bland eyeless contentment - death has allowed him to escape the predicament the others are in; being dead and blind means he's paid for his escape already --he's out of Lydia's reach. This is the aspiration of Mitch - an escape from Lydia's clutches, from the rending scissor talons of the enucleating barber.

But the father's blindness is more than just a symbolic castration in the Lacanian sense. In joining the social order, submitting to symbolic castration, one gains a third eye vision not limited to any one POV. In a way it's like the privileged position of the viewer. We have no visible representation in the film, so can move our sympathies everywhere and nowhere. Most of the time our action is squarely centered on Melanie, but then Lydia goes by herself to Dan's farm; we even get the omnipotent POV the master of the birds. We're free.

And we still have our eyes.

(above: X, Halloween, The Birds (dad's painting), Jaws, Psycho)

It's not just that Michael never speaks in Halloween that makes him scary, it's that you can't see his eyes. The black socket effect we get from Mrs. Bates or Dan with his broken tea cups, may be 'actual' rather than merely hidden, but the omnipresent aura is the same. Note that Michael's eyes are not hidden by, say, sunglasses or even a more recognizable mask, something that would bring a distinct symbolic identity - i.e. sunglasses, an Italian giallo killer ski mask, a rapist-style nylon over head, a motorcycle helmet, a clown mask etc.) The features or identifiable marks of the mask of Myers are stripped away, even the skin pigment of the original (William Shatner) mask is removed. The lack of identification of those images by which we detect a soul's presence, is what creates the uncanny chill - the blinded person is made tragic yet free- the movie can't 'get' them now. They see no evil. Forever.

Of all the imitators that came after Halloween, only Jason --the first Jason, with the sack cloth mask-- in Part 2, understands the importance of the banal / nondescript in a facial covering, something to drain every last possible attachable symbolic reference from our pareidolia lexicon. Our egoic consciousness is revealed as a desperation--to the point of panic-- to label and therefore dismiss the as yet unidentified possible threat. Any attempt at humanization therefore comes via the 'window to the soul.' Michael is rendered at least 50% less terrifying in the original Halloween once his mask is torn off and we briefly see a vaguely mongoloid young man with glazed-eyes and a slack-jaw. Jane Addams is terrified by a savage cry in the jungle night is terrifying until smarmy David points out it's a "guarana monkey" (in Creature from the Black Lagoon). A photo of a strange beast in the water is freaky and exciting--is it the Loch Ness monster!!?!!-- until someone points out it's an 'Irrawaddy dolphin.' Hey, stop ruining this for us, science!

The dolphin, is still the same uncanny monster but now it's suddenly 'friendly.' as someone calls it a dolphin. The cry is still the same bit rendered banal by knowing it's a monkey. The mask of Michael cannot be quantified or safely ensconced in the symbolic rolodex however. We can know it's a Capt. Kirk mask, but it's at best an uncanny variation. The lack of features helps it resist personification.

Acid trippers know this too well. Staring into the bathroom mirror to check your pupil dilation (proof your dose has 'kicked in') is a time-honored tripping tradition. You lean in to check your pupils for the tell-tale in-out dilation, but then you're pulled through into the inky void inside your own pupils. You too, in your deepest core - the black hole in your being-- are a shark, or a killer, or a doll--emptiness finally recognizing its total lack of distinguishing features. At your core you are the black pool deep inside the electric well from which all perception flows. To have perfect vision would be for the whole eye - and beyond-- to encompass the black of the pupil... an eternal stare in the mirror void. All is else is transitory, shadows and light. The blackness of the pupil, beholding its own darkness, the void staring into the void, this is our eternal truth --it cannot be qualified or labelled. The self and the emptiness of space are one; suddenly you are like a cloud finally realizing you were only ever water and air; you've never been permanent - just a sudden locus of perception through which the I AM tries to understand its own black vastness. The dark of the dark is technically blindness - but it is all-seeing. You are seeing through its porthole right now.

The concept of 'all-seeing blindness' can expand to the merely limited rather than blind outright: a killer in a full head latex mask has their vision and hearing substantially curtailed, making them easy to evade in real life; but in the case of Michael Myers, he crosses past human associations and into the god/dead zone (the lofty arial perch we 'see' from above Bodega Bay). Even with obscured eyes, this chthonic devouring god 'sees' the total picture, i.e. Oedipus' full realization of who killed his father and just who Jocasta really is (or Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer, seeing "the fact of God" by watching the sky fill with hungry black birds swarming down on baby sea turtles).

Even Dan, the neighbor friend of Lydia's, who is the first killed by the birds is granted a kind of lewd all-seeing power in the jagged jump cut close-ups as Lydia sees him (top), as if he's sitting up in bed to receive an early morning lap dance.

Or as Ray Milland originally said in X-the Man with X-ray Eyes after he had blinded himself, "I can still see!" - a line considered too horrible for mid-60s audiences to contemplate so was edited out of the final cut.

Our unconscious selves--the monsters from the id included--after all, see without benefit of our open eyes (i.e. we're usually asleep when they come) and they see and know way more than us. And its their job to process things we've seen that are so shocking our conscious selves can't even admit they happened. We black it out. But something in us still has to have seen it, the thing that has no eyes of its own, only the plates, the films, it reviews and stores after our eyes finally go dark.

Violet Venable (Devouring Mom #3)

IV: "With all due respect to Oedipus"

All of the Birds' id-generated carnage is Mitch Brenner's fault. 

If he was stronger--less a mama's boy--he would have shacked up with Annie Hayworth regardless of his mother's machinations, and they would have escaped Bodega Bay, Lydia's fledgeling bird volleys crashing harmlessy against their windshield. 

Now it's too late: the combination of Lydia's grief over her husband, plus the supportive presence of Annie Hayworth ensures a kind of continued arrested development for Mitch (does he sneak over to Annie's house for booty call quickies after Lydia and the censors go to bed?)

Coded Sex references abound in The Birds. They "strike, disappear, then start massing again" not unlike an erection during an extended sexual bout, 

Lydia does some massing herself, gradually working herself into panicked frenzy worrying about what will happen if the birds--her own monsters from the id--get into her house--or consciousness--penetrating her Krell steel shutters, so to speak, like tissue paper. 

Now that I'm engaged in the Freudian reading of the film, I think having a radio announcement that the birds have risen up all across the west coast, maybe even the world, is contradictory and unneeded; The radio announcer says "the reason for this does not seem clear as yet" - but years in the psychiatrist's chair would help explain the reason for the birds to attack in Bodega Bay. The shrink at the end of Psycho talks about how Norman became his mother, only in reverse. In The Birds the mother becomes her dead husband in a weird attempt to become the non du père Mitch. She wants to become a good 'pack leader' (to use the Dog Whisperer vernacular), but she is too scared and full of self-doubt, so a demonic air elemental takes over the job, her fusion of Ariel and Caliban, who, like Morbius's monster from the id, makes Lydia's most perverse unconscious desires, her repressed-libidinal paternal phallus burlesque-- come true. In each case-- The Tempest, Forbidden Planet, Psycho, The Birds, Suddenly Last Summer-- a single parent uses and then is used by the fermented power generated by their unconscious repression of base incestuous desire. Morbius can't have/keep his daughter away from the alpha male visitors, but the beast of the Id, perhaps, can, just as the birds can see to it that no one disrupts Lydia's dominion over the Bodega Bay matriarchy, and that Mitch never finds a mate that might keep him in SF instead of with her, cleaning the gutters or fixing the leaks,

Similarly, once Melanie is 'broken' like a wild mustang by Lydia's rending avian animus, she too is no longer a threat, and the mother assumes matriarchal dominance. Her relieved smile as she cradles Melanie's head says it all. The birds are calm. Lydia has what she wants. She's gained a child rather than lost one. We can only assume now that Melanie is reduced to a monosyllabic traumatized PTSD sufferer, dependent on Lydia's care, the birds will gradually begin to disperse, the maternal panic that launched them now organically re-adjusting itself to peaceful living there in the Bay. 

Similarly, if the captain had decided to stay on the Forbidden Planet to marry Alta and father some grandchildren for Morbius, it's likely that monster from the id would gradually dissolve down to some poltergeist dish rattling when Morbius felt too ignored or unappreciated. All the captain and Alta would have to do is come visit on the weekends, help fix the leaks Robby can't reach, so to speak, and the monster shall be tamed. (The tigers and edited-out unicorns friends to Alta again rather than threats.)

As with Norman in Psycho, the death or absence of the father gives the maternal animus a figure to project in its bid for total control. Lydia does everything with the idea of a correct way based on memories of the dead husband ("if your father were here!" is her rallying cry) in a classic example of what Jung called a woman being 'animus-dominant.; The figure of dreams that was once a demonic dream lover is now a humorless patriarch whose possibly arbitrary patriarchal laws (rendered overly inflexible by Lydia's animus' interpretation) are part of the natural moral order of things. 

Probably always a bit controlling to begin with, the death of Lydia's husband triggers the demonic bird version of the Krell brain boost. Lydia lies there for "a night and a day" (grieving) and then emerges from her cocoon with a vast power not available to her consciously - but the birds can sense the power of her bottled up anxiety and controlling nature of her animus. They're reacting to it like they would a call to migration, the kind of internal code that leads them to all fly south at the same time, or make the same turns and not collide as they fly in circles. 

Consciously neither Morbius nor Lydia can't recognize this force as their other self, of course, the sustainability of their overdeveloped egos hinge on not being able to recognize their complicity in anything evil. In fact blindness to their complicity is what causes the 'hysterical symptom' in the first place- a build up of repressed energy (3). If they were the type to be able to recognize it, it wouldn't happen in the first place! This is one of the reasons therapy is so effective over self-help. The therapist is able to hold a mirror up to the ego and show it all the things it cannot or will not see about itself (i.e. the ugly back of its own beautiful head). The ego may lash out and call the therapist a quack but if the patient is smart enough to interrogate that knee-jerk response within themselves, they realize that as I once said to my own therapist "If what you say gets me so mad I want throw something at you and run out of the room, I know you must be right."  With confession, and self-acceptance, the pressure of being bottled in and ignored the fuels the outbreak of beaks or claws dissipates like opening a well-shook soda bottle only tiny tiny bit, so the air can gradually leak out rather than explode.

In short, if Lydia had a therapist, there wouldn't be a bird problem in Bodega Bay. This is the miracle of our modern age, and a perfect place to stop. Until next week then, and here's your bill. 



1) If you read certain passages of the Old Testament, you know which god I mean. It's the god that puts the Jews through hell with painful prolonged rituals, and animals with endless sacrifice (each new member must bring 20 doves and a sheep, letting their blood washes over the altar before they're nailed to the church door, etc. It's the god of the Aztecs and Mayans and maybe the Picts and Romans, a god recognizably bloodthirsty, who spares you his wrath when you throw him someone or something else's soul torment, their life energy. 
3. i.e. like Poltergeists!!


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