The eighth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
Cinephilia—in the form in which it can be shared by spectators and filmmakers alike—has two extreme poles, and both of them are associated with fierce, intense drives. There is the cinephilia aligned with love in all its manifestations: romanticism, desire, tenderness, hope. And then there is the cinephilia aligned with aggression, violence, a death-drive. Neither, in an important sense, should be regarded entirely literally: many things on the face of this earth slip under and between love and aggressivity, and these metamorphosing states can stand for, or become attached to, every kind of social, political situation. Samuel Fuller knew the score, in his famous pronouncement for Pierrot le fou (1965): “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word…emotion.” And emotion can be never constrained or explained according to a single track or direction, whether humanist or ideological.
Alfred Hitchcock—no stranger, as an artist, to the extreme (and extremely complicated) emotions of love and hate—made one of the central and most influential films of modern (post-1960) cinema: The Birds (1963). The entire slasher genre—with its waves of attack and killing, separated by tense periods of waiting—would not exist without it; neither would any of those movies based on a central, recurring enigma that gives rise, within the fiction, to an open, unresolved string of interpretive speculations (this structure became Larry Cohen’s speciality, for instance); and neither, in a sense, would avant-garde classics like those of Peter Tscherkassky (Outer Space, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine), which empty out the plot specifics while purifying the aggression, placing it into direct contact with the cinematic apparatus and the spectator.
Yet The Birds was already pure, in its sublime and frightening way: a total fusion of form and content, disquieting and insistent. Through it, we (student or filmmaker) can learn how to build tension, how to make violence explode, how to turn the movie screen itself into a brittle barrier like a pane of glass, just an inch away from the movie viewer’s battered psyche. And it’s utterly impure at the level of its meaning, its ‘moral,’ and the uneasy equilibrium with which it leaves us at the end: the film unleashes so much, in so many contradictory directions, that it refuses any ultimate closure.
When David Cronenberg made his neglected masterpiece The Brood in 1979, he clearly had the lessons of The Birds embedded deep in his conscious or unconscious brain. How does a filmmaker manifest, on screen, anger, rage, murderous violence? How do they find a form, a plastic shape, to express it, mould it, move it around a story? Time and again, The Brood recalls Hitchcock’s masterly tropes—a lone character’s journey to a room where a creature will strike from above; one, two, ten children popping successively into the frame, like the crows on that playground fixture; the shrieks and cries of children, like the squawks of birds, mixed into a wall of noise—and ignites the same concentrated paroxysms of cinematic catastrophe.
But more than this: where is all this aggressivity coming from—and what is it directed at? In his groundbreaking analysis of a scene from The Birds (Melanie’s lake crossing, lovebirds in tow—a scene that also gets special attention from Camille Paglia in her BFI Classics book) back in 1969, Raymond Bellour spoke of a “mutual desire [between the characters] whose transgressive violence is directed at Melanie, who makes the gift and receiver its threatening sign, in the opposed forms of good and bad birds.” The opposed forms of good and bad birds, cute lovebirds and swooping, screeching killers: a wildly uncontrollable and disturbing semantic contagion, like the innocent blonde daughter in The Brood lined up alongside her deformed mirror-images, the deadly child-spawn. But these carriers of evil and death are always themselves (as Bellour never ceases saying) a displacement, a manifestation of someone else’s rage, someone else’s desire, someone else’s fantasy. But whose, exactly? An individual character, a whole society, the nuclear family, a film director?
It all has something, obscurely, to do with mother. Or is it so obscure? ‘A mother’s love’ is the most ambiguous thing in the world for both Hitchcock and Cronenberg. Nola (Samantha Eggar) in The Brood has such a deep and complicated anger—passed down and recreated through the generations, as often in Cronenberg—that her body extrudes mutants who then act out her unconscious wishes. She loves them and licks them, fresh out of their non-fetal sacks, as only a mother can; and she remains oblivious to what her unconscious causes. In the end, she too, like so many, will become a victim of the contagion of enraged violence. But Lydia (Jessica Tandy) in The Birds is, in a way, in a state of far deeper denial: she roils inside possessive jealousy for her son, Mitch (Rod Taylor), and triggers energies and emotions that will never be clearly ascribed to her, that she will never have to own, or own up to. Her cold gaze sets off a ricochet that entangles and connects everybody and everything: child, adult, man, woman, screen, spectator.
Film is like a battleground, with its daylight armies of ambiguously good/bad creatures, its fields of corpses, its unprosecutable crimes of passion—and its energetic, shifting, material shapes of love and rage.