- Desire and Monstrosity in the Disaster Film:Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
The theme of the relationship between desire and violence appears regularly in modern film criticism, and studies of this issue range in theoretical orientation from the Lacanian to the feminist.1 Though René Girard's view of this relationship is also regularly mentioned in studies of film violence, it is often with less than full appreciation of the way in which it contradicts central features of structuralist and psychoanalytic approaches to film, approaches that, until recently, have dominated film theory. Furthermore, cinema is mentioned only in passing by Girard himself, sometimes derogatorily, while Girardian studies of films and film makers are relatively few and far between.2 One of the yardsticks by which René Girard demonstrates the validity of his theory of violence is the degree to which it illuminates key aspects of great literature that previously remained unexplained or were passed over in silence. The fundamental concepts of the scapegoat, the double, the rival, and triangular desire can be shown to illuminate similar interpretive lacunae in a wide variety of films of many genres.
Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds3 is a case in point. I intend to argue the relevance of the mimetic theory of violence to this film largely as Girard does [End Page 87] himself in relation to works of literature, and hence with no pretense to originality. The theory of the scapegoat and triangular desire persuades because of the particular way it brings to view, and explains, previously unnoticed features of Hitchcock's films, notably The Birds. One must bear in mind, however, that, previous to The Birds, Hitchcock produced a remarkable body of work that is consistently (some would say obsessively) built upon the cluster of themes that Girard identifies with the scapegoat problem. For those who are familiar only with Hitchcock's later, more sensational work, like Psycho4 and The Birds, it may come as a surprise to discover that the director earlier produced films like I Confess5 or The Wrong Man,6 or Vertigo,7 in which the suspense is largely psychological, and in which themes of faith, romantic obsession, or moral conflict take center stage. The Birds is a variation on the works of the 1950s, rather than a completely new point of departure. It is an apocalyptic crystallization of the themes that had always preoccupied Hitchcock.
The Birds is perhaps the only film by Hitchcock that envisions total societal breakdown, a disaster of the proportions of a medieval plague. Generally, Hitchcock's films are set in stable, if modern and troubled, societies in which there are at least more or less unquestioned social and economic orders. Flaws in these social orders, however, are evident in the small-scale disasters that happen to individuals in many of Hitchcock's scenarios. The Wrong Man focuses on the story of Manny Balestreros, who is wrongly identified as a criminal and has his life destroyed by a morally blind justice system. In Rope, the practitioners of a nihilistic thrill-kill are shown to be symptomatic of a pervasive moral and intellectual vacuum in contemporary society. Both these films and others by Hitchcock underline the need for morality and social order to withstand the irrational tendencies of human nature. Psycho, in particular, stresses the ambivalence of man in modern civilization. Norman Bates, it seems, is both the product of and yet the immoveable obstacle to the drive for civilization and order.
In contrast to these films, The Birds is a film in which civilizational disaster is abrupt, all-consuming, and catastrophic. For no reason, out of the blue, birds collectively mass to attack human beings. The film is nothing more, some would argue, than one more film in the "revenge of nature" genre. But the attack of the birds is not a response called forth by a moral transgression. It is not a reciprocal act of violence, as the "revenge of nature" mode of interpretation would imply. In fact, the very randomness, irrationality, and suddenness of the attack is the key to understanding the film. The preeminent question is, as Slavoj Žižek puts it, "the stupid and...