Retro Review: Feminine Sexual Threat Meets Avian Apocalypse: THE BIRDS Attack the Plaza Theatre in the Last Weekend of Alfred Hitchcock Month

Posted on: Nov 28th, 2012 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

THE BIRDS (1963); Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McCain); Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy; Fri. Nov. 30 – Sun. Dec. 2; Plaza Theatre (visit Plaza Theatre Website for showtimes and ticket prices); Trailer here.

Alfred Hitchcock, like a lot of thriller and horror filmmakers, always displayed an influence by Freudian theory. In THE BIRDS, he’s pared it down to one essential: all actions are motivated, most motives unconscious. Having first established that with the characters, he shows the same proves to be the apocalyptic secret behind the workings of the whole world.

Loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same title, THE BIRDS is Alfred Hitchcock’s only explicit foray into science fiction and fantasy. The screenplay by Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McCain) is awkward, but also ambitious. It’s Hitchcock’s immediate follow-up to PSYCHO (1960) and borrows from its device of a lengthy preamble, telling a story that proceeds along one narrative line until events outside the so-far-established frame of reference break that line, radically changing what the film’s about. When the main story arrives, it is disorienting and meant to be. Tippi Hedren plays a spoiled heiress who develops a crush on Rod Taylor which seems petulant – she wants to win his affection only to trump his mocking her – and a little creepy in its aggressiveness. She doesn’t know him at all, but stalker-like, she travels a long distance to arrive uninvited at his home.

Taylor lives in an island fishing community, and the first hint of the actual threat/main story comes is when Hedren is approaching the island by motorboat and a seagull flies into her, giving her a minor injury. That minor injury may have influenced Taylor in not immediately demanding she turn around and go home. So Hedren has a small opening and is not without wiles. Taylor starts to respond, but obstacles appear quickly. His clinging mother, Jessica Tandy, doesn’t like Hedren. Then there’s Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Pleshette, who surprisingly befriends Hedren, but also provides some insights into Taylor that suggests he’s as out-of-touch with his motivations as Hedren is.

The dialogue is a little strained, but covering interesting ground. It’s a love story examining people who don’t know why they do the things they do. It’s justifiably talky because every dialogue is a negotiation to establish one’s position in three-or-more-player power relationships.

This is also not at all what the film is about. As the threat escalates at an almost leisurely pace, the amount of dialogue decreases.

THE BIRDS attack Tippi Hedren and a group of children in one of the Hitchcock masterpiece's most iconic scenes. Universal Pictures, 1963.

What this film is about is the revenge of nature and the end of the world. The film won’t tell us why this inexplicable disaster erupts any more than Hedren can honestly explain her pursuit of Taylor. I don’t know if it was Hitchcock or Hunter who made the bold move to violate one of the fundamental rules of monster movies in their refusal to provide even a partial explanation for the events. It was ballsy though. I can’t think of another film driven by seemingly motiveless events that was anything but annoying, because in almost any other example, motivelessness is the same as incoherence. The original short story is ambiguous regarding explanation, but suggestive. The film, though, is completely opaque.

Maybe part of the success is that explanations are dangled in front of us, and they seem to make emotional sense, but clearly don’t make narrative sense. This is another of a string of Hitchcock films where ice-queen blondes appear to be the well from which all evil flows, but always Hitcock is always putting a modest twist on that easily misogynist interpretation of that “evil.” In VERTIGO (1958), Madeleine (Kim Novak) is bad, and drives a innocent man to obsession, but she’s not the main architect of the fiendish plot [Ed. note: Read our Retro Review of VERTIGO, which played last weekend at The Plaza, here]. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) Eve (Eva Marie Saint) is deceitful and part of the circumstances that put our hero at risk, but she is in on her deceit, she is serving a greater good and proves to be almost as much a victim of circumstances as our hero is. In PSYCHO (1960) Marion (Janet Leigh) is a criminal and a betrayer for sure, but none of her sins have any bearing on her fate.

Here, the apocalypse seems to arrive with Hedren, but as weird as she is, she does nothing that could reasonably provoke anything larger than Tandy’s jealous resentment. Moreover, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the disaster is much larger than any of these lives or the geography we see in the film itself. When Hedren is accused of being evil’s harbinger by a hysterical woman, that seems only to reinforce the irrationality of the suggestion. But no other explanation is provided.

Semi-feminist writer Camille Paglia mined the irrational vein in search of meaning. She interpreted THE BIRDS as a celebration of the complex faces and threats female sexuality presents to a man, to the point that nature becomes an extension of that tension. She notes that more women play more pivotal roles in THE BIRDS than in any other Hitchcock film. The hero is defined by his relationships with his mother, younger sister (more like a daughter) and ex-lover, and that careful balance is thrown off by the appearance of Hedren. The disruption of the domestic balance is blown up to become the disruption of the balance of nature.

Once the bird attacks start escalating, each is paced and staged very differently from the one before, and this is where Hitchcock shows his true mastery. Every attack is remembered as a classic moment. Like Hedren sitting on a bench outside a school house waiting for Pleschette, a teacher, to take a break. Hedren lights a cigarette. We hear the children inside singing in unison. Hedren doesn’t notice what we can see over her shoulder, the playground jungle-gym gradually fill with hordes of silent crows.

Or like the largest attack, which, surprisingly, isn’t the last one. It features Hedren, who arrived at the island with caged birds, trapped in a cage-like phone booth while killer birds swirl around her (Hitchcock quite effectively put the camera inside the booth with her, so we shared the claustrophobia and shock of the assault).

And the climax, after the whole community finds itself under siege, and Hedren and Taylor’s family barricade themselves in his house. In the only scene taken directly from Du Maurier’s story, the attack becomes more frenzied, suicidal, and no defense can be adequate because there are so many of them, they are so small and there’s always another way in.

Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Universal Pictures, 1963.

Two things come up in every review of THE BIRDS – Hitchcock’s choice to do without a conventional score and the landmark FX. Though there is no music per se, Hitchcock did use his favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, to create scary, synthesized bird calls to counterpoint the calculated silences. For this reason, THE BIRDS is the eeriest sounding of all his films.

Then there are the special effects. Simply put, what Hitchcock achieved should’ve been impossible with the technology of the day. It contains more than 370 separate trick shots. Every technique then imaginable was employed here including a slew of matte paintings, trained birds lured by feasts of fish and food scraps, mechanical birds, stuffed birds, and a scene during which Hitchcock literally threw live birds at Hedren (under those circumstances, the animals’ aggressiveness was probably sincere and Hedren’s fear wasn’t acting). The scene where the children are attacked on the road (this is part of the same sequence where the birds gather on the jungle-gym) involved most of the above, plus meticulous animations integrated into shots of live actors, through a complex “yellowscreen” process executed by Disney’s Ub Iwerks, who was one of the technique’s inventors. And then there were the two unnamed female artists who spent three months hand-painting seagulls onto tiny film frames for a scene that lasted less than 10 seconds.

David Thomson refers to THE BIRDS as Hitchcock’s “last unflawed film.” These two clips cover the jungle-gym attack of children sequence. I still marvel that this was done in the days before CGI:

watch?v=ydLJtKlVVZw&feature=relmfu

watch?v=hplpQt424Ls

Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr., is based in New York. This article is number 58 in a series of 100 essays he is penning, inspired by the British documentary THE 100 GREATEST SCARY MOMENTS (2003). It is reprinted with permission. The moment selected for the list can be found at the 1 hour, 38 minute marker. 

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‘Tis the Season To Be Bono: Yacht Rock Revue Kicks Off St. Patrick’s Day Early at Park Tavern and Muses on Stepping Into the Shoes of So Many Rock Icons

Posted on: Mar 1st, 2012 By:

Photo courtesy of Yacht Rock Revue.

Shamrock with Yacht Rock Revue kicks off Atlanta’s St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans early this year with the ultimate U2 tribute experience on Sat. March 3 at Park Tavern at Piedmont Park. The event, featuring one of Atlanta’s most popular classic rock cover bands, kicks off at 2 p.m. and live music starts at 4 p.m. with special guests Saturday Night Beaver presenting a glamorous stage show that celebrates the artists that brought sex appeal to popular music such as Rick James, Rod Stewart and George Michael. Then U2 tribute band Uno Dos Tres Catorce performs followed by two sets by Yacht Rock Revue. Drink and eat up with an ultimate Bloody Mary bar, green beer and plenty of hearty fare. ATLRetro caught up with two of the six members of Yacht Rock Revue, Nick Niespodziani and Peter Olson to find out more about the Gaelic goings on and what it’s like to step into the shoes of so many classic rock icons.

What do you have planned for March 3? Will it be an all-U2 show?

Our plan starts with Irish Car Bombs. Then Uno Dos Tres Catorce – starring Bueno and the Wedges. I play Bueno, everyone else is a version of the Wedge. Then it’s a long block of soft rock in our Yacht Rock Revue persona. Actually two long blocks. That’s a lot of music, especially after doing Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side [of the Moon] last night at the 40 Watt and Sgt. Pepper’s tonight at Smith’s.

Yacht Rock Revue does so many specialty shows from Beatles tributes to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon played in sync with WIZARD OF OZ at the Strand last fall. Fans of different bands can have high levels of scrutiny, so what do you do to prepare in general for gigs that focus on a specific band? And what will you be doing to prepare for stepping into the shoes of Bono and The Edge?

Each of the shows requires a totally different approach. It’s a lot like being an actor in the theater. Led Zeppelin is the guns-blazing action star. Yacht Rock is the like-able bad guy in an ’80s movie. How do you play Prince and MJ without coming off as a perverted prick who can’t dance as well as those guys? How do you pay tribute to the Beatles without coming off as a smarmy mop-top wanna-be? These are the questions that challenge us at our job.

U2 is the unironic one-dimensional sci-fi hero.  It’s not much of a stretch for me to play the self-righteous, self-aggrandizing social activist role of Bono…  since it’s basically who I am in real life, without the religion and millions. Their music definitely gets your adrenaline pumping. Vocally, it’s a real workout. So I’ve been increasing my throat push-up regimen in preparation.

Photo courtesy of Yacht Rock Revue.

Is there a particular U2 song you are especially looking forward to playing live?

We’ve never done “Pride” before, and we’re trying it this year.  It’s impossible to sing, so we’ll see how it goes. It seems especially appropriate to play it in the home city of MLK.

What’s your favorite tribute show you’ve done so far?

Purple Rain and Thriller was pretty epic last year – we had a 25-person choir in purple robes singing all of the backing vocals. We’re all big Prince fans, so taking on that album for the first time was a very fulfilling challenge. And then we played Thriller in Storm Trooper outfits.

What’s been your most challenging gig? 

The most challenging gigs are the ones where the music isn’t the reason people are there.  We’re spoiled, in that every time we play a show in public we get so much positive energy back from the audience.  When we get into some (not all) of these corporate event situations and we don’t get that vibe back from the crowd, it becomes a lot more difficult to do our job.

Is there a tribute show you’re really dying to do but haven’t had the opportunity yet?

Queen’s “Night at the Opera” versus Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814.”  Also, some of our guys have a project called “Dwight Snake” that re-envisions White Snake’s best tunes through the lens of Dwight Yoakam.  I can’t wait for that show.

How do stay fresh while working with classic cover material?

We always try to put some of our own stank on the tunes – it’s the only way to make it happen.  The key is not to treat the music with kid gloves, you’ve got to smack it around and roll with it in the dirt.  We treat these tunes irreverently, as if they’re our own songs.  That’s the attitude that makes the music and the show compelling.

What are your parameters in terms of what qualifies as a Yacht Rock Revue song?

Whatever we say goes.  And it can’t be written by Jimmy Buffett.

What’s the story behind how Yacht Rock Revue get started?

We were doing a variety show at the 10 High called the Surprise Party where we did a different show every week, including classic albums, comedy, our own original material, etc.  We thought a ’70s AM Gold Show would be hilarious.  It was spearheaded by our drummer Mark and our guitarist Mark.  I didn’t even know half of the songs.  And now it’s the joke that keeps on giving, as the saying doesn’t go.

St. Paddy’s Day is still coming, so do you have plans for any more U2-inspired shows?

Not this year – Park Tavern is the only one.  So catch it whilst thou can.

What else does Yacht Rock Revue have planned for this spring?

We’re recording a studio album, mixing a live album, planning more national-scale tours, launching another Summer Series at the Park Tavern, and cloning ourselves.

What question do you wish someone would ask you but nobody ever does? And what’s the answer?

Q:  Where’d you get your boots?  A:  I’ll never tell.

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Kool Kat of the Week: Blair Crimmins Promises Prohibition-Era Pandemonium at the Plaza Theatre Premiere of OLD MAN CABBAGE Sat. Feb. 4

Posted on: Feb 3rd, 2012 By:

Blair Crimmins and the Hookers. Photo credit: Scott McKibben.

With HUGO and THE ARTIST nominated for a bevy of Oscars this year, silent films seem to be getting a lot of love lately reimagined in creative ways for the 21st century. From what we’ve heard about OLD MAN CABBAGE, a short film co-produced by popular neo- ragtime band Blair Crimmins and the Hookers and Atlanta’s Ninja Puppet Productions, it sounds like a fantastic local addition to the oeuvre and a great reason to come out to the historic Plaza Theatre again this Sat. Feb. 4 at 10 p.m. But the night’s much more than just seeing a cool movie – Blair and the band will be playing the soundtrack live as the film unwinds on the big screen and then a complete concert afterwards in the alluring art-deco setting of the Plaza stage.

Based on a Blair Crimmins & the Hookers song and set in a farm forgotten by time, OLD MAN CABBAGE tells the tale of two dust bowl farm kids who find their lives flipped upside down when they are caught in an accident with an abusive father. Like so many classic children heroines, they run away to join the circus, only this particular one is distinctly supernatural. Without giving too much away, the cast features performers from the Imperial OPA Circus, well-known to the steampunk community. OLD MAN CABBAGE is directed by Raymond Carr, the founder of Ninja Puppet Productions, a collection of artists and professionals dedicted to the creation of innovative art and storytelling of all sorts.

As we pointed out in a previous short feature on Blair, you might think of ragtime as kind of quaint, but you wouldn’t be talking about his and the Hookers’ take on this 1920s form of jazz. Remember that they didn’t call the Twenties Roaring for nothing. In fact, you might even describe Crimmins’ high-energy style as “in your face” as rock ‘n’ roll. Except the groupies would be flapper girls, and the band is playing instruments your grandparents would approve of from banjo to accordion, saxophone to piano, trumpet to trombone—and may be accompanied by antics inspired by the best vaudeville comedy. Oh, did we mention that while the music swings, the lyrics to many of the songs are also delightfully decadent and dark.

ATLRetro has thought for a long time that it’s high time for Blair to be Kool Kat of the Week, but this week we had no excuse but to catch up with one of the Atlanta Retro scene’s most talented performers to get a sneak peek into what promises to be a sensationally surreal Saturday night at the Plaza. Tickets to the screening and concert are just $10 in advance and can be purchased here or $12 at the door.

What’s the story behind OLD MAN CABBAGE and your involvement with Ninja Puppet Productions?

“Old Man Cabbage” is a track off THE MUSICAL STYLINGS OF, which tells the story about a young man who moves into an old house and becomes possessed by the ghost of an old ragtime musician who lives there. It’s a biographical dramatization on how I became so enamored with early jazz. Raymond Carr took that ghost story and expanded it to give more backstory to the characters, and instead of the haunted house created a whole speakeasy of specters who reenact their gruesome demise every night. Quite a story. I won’t give the whole thing away.

So is it an extended music video or is it a movie? And what’s the running time?

Raymond calls it a short narrative film. I jokingly refer to it as my jazzy version of “Thriller.”  The film runs about 15 minutes long.

Is it performed with puppets or human characters since Imperial OPA is involved?

You won’t find any puppets or ninjas in the film, although we did use some sets built in miniature and green screens.  We brought in a lot of other local talent and used the video as an vehicle to showcase our Atlanta favorites. The circus group Imperial OPA, the cabaret troupe Davina and The Harlots, some aerial acrobats and a number of fantastic swing dancers all put their talents in the film, not to mention the people behind the scenes in makeup and costume who brought the prohibition style to the screen.

There seems to be a rebirth in fascination with circuses and carnivals, from the popularity of Cirque de Soleil to books like THE NIGHT CIRCUS, by Erin Morgenstern, which explore their darker, more mysterious side. There’s even that surreal, crazy Guinness commercial. Do you have any thoughts on the current appeal of circuses and where does OLD MAN CABBAGE fit in?

There certainly seems to be a renewed interest, and I’m glad to see troupes exploring all the different facets of the circus tradition. From the classic freak and sideshow acts to the more bohemian variety stuff, many young performers finding their place on the periphery of mainstream performance theater. I don’t know if that’s entirely new, but I can say I [have seen] a lot of very interesting [acts] just in the last few years.  I do think that Atlanta is grabbing a place in art and culture that can now compete with some other big cities.  There is a very youthful and unjaded excitement in the artistic community here.

How did you prepare for scoring OLD MAN CABBAGE?

I prepared for scoring the film by watching other silent movies. Of course, the classics METROPOLIS and CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, which are always fantastic, but I also watched THE GOLEM for the first time, which was one of the earliest monster movies ever made. It was filmed in 1920 about a rabbi who makes a giant man out of clay and brings him to life to protect the Jewish neighborhoods of Prague. I really dug that one and would recommend that to anyone with an interest in silent film.

Anything you’d like to share about the why behind the 1920s speakeasy setting and what the filmmakers did to ensure set, costumes and music were authentic?  

There wasn’t a lot of discussion on why the film should have a Prohibition era style.  That’s where my inspiration lies. That’s where home is for me. I know Raymond did a lot of research and studied old photos to ensure that film looked authentic.

And it’s silent, which seems even more apropos given the popularity and Oscar nominations for THE ARTIST and HUGO, two movies that pay tribute to the silent era. I’m supposing that was just lucky timing? 

Current trends always herd people to different areas to search for new life, to find something that they’ve been lacking, an oasis. I can see people who are finding that needed refreshment in the silent film era. Being beat over the head with the GLEE stick and AMERICAN IDOL will get anyone to pay for a ticket to silence.

Blair Crimmins. Photo credit: Katie Bricker.

What else do you have planned for Saturday night at the Plaza and do we need to dig out our bowties, golf caps, spats and flapper dresses?

Seeing a well-dressed crowd always brings a smile to my face. You won’t be the only one dressed up if you choose to do so. Davina and The Harlots will be dancing onstage and throughout the room in full flapper gear. The OPA will also be working the crowd in their usual fashion. The whole evening promises to be taste of pandemonium.

How did you personally discover and fall in love with ‘20s ragtime music and vaudeville?

It’s just music that endlessly amuses me. You know when you’re doing something you truly comfortable with as an artist because you never get tired of it. Once my writing steered in the right direction, the ship took off on its own.

Your gigs are always packed and your music and performances embrace the past but sell so well in the 21st century. Are you surprised to see how many people enjoy a musical style that’s nearly a century old in a time of fast-passing fads? Any thoughts on why Retro is so hip?

I don’t think it’s a fad or new thing. I feel as if people of every generation reach an age when they discover something cool from the past. Chances are, if you find something that you identify with, you’ll find a whole group of people that love it, too. As you watch new people discover it, there is a tendency to think “Wow, this is really catching on”; the reality is that it has never gone anywhere.  Its popularity is always fluctuating but never dies or becomes reborn. Some of the bad trends die and hopefully never wake up, i.e. polyester suits, but the really good stuff sticks around forever for generations to enjoy.

After Saturday’s screening, will OLD MAN CABBAGE be heading out on the film festival circuit or what are the plans for the film?

Yeah, Raymond is going to talk more about that at the film premiere.

And of course, what’s next for Blair Crimmins & the Hookers? 

We have a lot of great touring on the books for this year. There will definitely be new singles out this year and maybe a record. I’ve already been talking with some of my favorite local artists about the next music video, and I’ve got some other film opportunities in the pipe. Things are about to get real busy for The Hookers. I’m trying to do as much as I possibly can and never lose an opportunity to let the music take me somewhere new.

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