Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Birds

Last Tuesday I attended the Turner Classic Movies screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, the happiest place on earth. But what I witnessed there did not make me happy at all.

I will resist the temptation to make jokes about birds shitting all over everything because in this case, a misguided audience shit all over The Birds.
At the end of March, Turner Classic Movies hosted screenings in major cities of classic films. The screenings were free, every city hosted a different film, and famous movie stars and TCM hosts were on hand as well.

Chicago’s The Birds screening featured TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz interviewing star Tippi Hedren before the film and a brief Q&A with the audience. I was expecting the screening to be video projection, but lo and behold, an actual 35mm print was run through an actual projector. It was one of the nicest looking prints of The Birds I have ever seen.

The tickets were free. Tippi was there. What could possibly go wrong?

Why, sociopaths, of course. I was shocked by the audience reaction to the film, specifically the many instances of inappropriate laughter. This is a film about people being attacked by birds. It is a horror film; it is not a comedy.

I have witnessed this phenomenon before, most notably at a screening of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate at Ebertfest a few years ago. The audience was so primed to find the film quaint and antiquated that they missed the fact that this particular film is deliberately tongue-in-cheek and over the top. The smug audience had quite a time laughing at material it felt was exaggerated and unbelievable, never considering that the filmmakers had made it that way on purpose. It was as if the audience needed to club the film into submission with inappropriate laughter: “Lay down, Movie! You will be ironic fun whether you like it or not!”

What was really disturbing about the laughter during The Birds screening, though, was how often it occurred during scenes where children were terrorized and hurt.
I found this bizarre and confusing. I recognize that a film as complex as The Birds might engender a range of audience reactions, but this just seemed cruel and inappropriate. At one point after the birthday party attack, two terrified little girls are seen framed in a doorway, searching the empty sky. That is when the idiot girl sitting behind me actually laughed and shouted, “It’s so campy!”

I found this laughter perplexing, and I continued to think about the screening for the rest of the week. I longed to figure out how that film could have invited that reaction. I was desperate to hunt down these hipster douchebags like the dogs they were, roughly tackle them to the pavement, and peck at their bleeding, naked skulls with a rusty icepick. (These are the leisure pursuits that kept me out of the really good schools.)

I developed six “theories” about what these idiots may have been “thinking:”

1.    “This is an event. I want to be part of the show. I like audience participation. This is my way of participating. Ha ha! That little child is BLEEDING! And I am drunk.”

2.    “Any film made more than ten years ago (The Birds celebrates its 50th birthday next year) has to be ridiculous. It is just so OLD—ha ha!”

3.    “I am superior to this film. Ha ha! I am not stupid enough to be attacked by a bird. The helpless children on screen are dopes!”

4.    “It is fun to be scared. This scene is scaring me. This is my way of sharing my reaction with the audience. Ha ha! This is like going through a haunted house together.”

5.    “I do not understand irony and demand that all entertainment be somehow ironic, whether it actually is or not. Ha ha, if you get my drift.”

6.    “This film is touching me in a way that I do not wish to be touched. My laughter is my defense against this film. Ha ha?” (I noticed this during the latest theatrical rerelease of The Exorcist. Young people in the audience seemed to laugh at inappropriate times as a defense.)

F-Heads, my jury is still out. Why would anyone laugh at children getting hurt? If you agree with any of my theories or have one of your own, I welcome your comments below.

Well, back to my latest hobby—training large birds to attack loud, clueless audience members. Watch for them at a theater near YOU!


  1. I love that we have a post label called "Hipster Douchebags." Why did I not notice this before.

    1. It's sad the term "Hipster Douchebag" has been co-opted by the media elite, and no longer retains its original meaning: a feminine hygiene product that affixes at the waist.

  2. Shouldn't the title of this article be changed to either 'Sh!#ting on the Classics: Hipster Douchebags Who Laugh Inappropriately at The Birds' or '(Moronic Hipsters) Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Birds'? Months/years from now, when new readers come across these archived articles, they might just skim the titles to see which one's to click. Just from seeing 'The Birds' in the column's title they might think JB's taking a verbal dump on Hitchcock's classic, which is not the case. 'F This Movie' isn't like a NY Times where everyone knows going in you have to read the scoreless review to get the context of the article. It's called 'Sh!#ting on the Classics' followed by a movie title in a column where JB shat on every movie that's been in the title. All I'm saying is that it's not fair to the movie, at all.

    As for laughing at children being tortured/killed/abused, I don't have to tell the parents who work (volunteer?) for this blogspot that the world is divided between people who have children and people who don't. You (Patrick, Mike and JB) have kids, I don't. WITHIN THE FICTITIOUS CONTEXT OF EACH INDIVIDUAL MOVIE ON A CASE-BY-CASE BASIS (real-life exploitation of children for entertainment is clearly off limits) I have no trouble finding humor or entertainmnet value (shock in a horror movie, sadness in a drama, educational enlightment in a true-story re-enactment, irony in a dark comedy, adrenaline-rush in an action flick, etc.) in the hurting/killing of children.

    A director/writer needs to sustain a consistent-enough narrative through the whole movie to make a child hurting/dying be worth the upset he/she knows this will cause on a large-enough segment of the audience. Maybe Spielberg did intend to kill the little girl at the beginning of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," saw the finished movie, realized he botched it and added the 'she's OK' ADR voice-over to take back a child death the final product hadn't earned. Some examples of children harm/death done right: Dusan Makavejev's "Montenegro," "Frankenstein," "Pet Semetary" (no dead kid = no movie), "Assault on Precint 13" (Carpenter's), "Jaws," "The Mist," "Pan's Labyrinth," etc. Children death/harm done badly: Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses," "Amytiville," "The Happening," "Haute Tension," "The Good Son" (direction didn't earn it), etc.

    "The Birds" also suffers from dated special effects from an era (late 50's to early 70's) when the technology and know-how just weren't there to make some ambitious ideas come alive on-screen really well (the satellite/laser effects on 1971's "Diamonds Are Forever" come to mind). If you're a cinephile used to seeing old movies you adjust your brain to the era of the feature you watch, but many people that live in the present just can't do that. So, when these 'hipster douchebags' see the cartoony-to-them matte effects of the birds over kid actors they know are pretending to be pecked to death, they're probably laughing more at how silly these scenes look to them (the effect and the child actor pretending) rather than at the idea that a child is being killed. I like "The Birds," but those effects are quite dated for someone reared on post-80's ILM special effects.

    And please don't confuse "MST3K" fans with your 'hipster douchebags' JB. MiSTieS know better than to laugh at classics that have stood the test of time. Silly/crappy stuff that's borderline worthless/junk and can only be enjoyed as camp or ironically (and yes, all of Ed Wood's canon belongs here) is fair game.

  3. JB,
    I've experienced this same shit with THE BIRDS twice! Once was a few years ago when my lovely wife took me to see it at Hollywood Blvd in Lombard. There was a small section of people laughing throughout the movie. The other time was in a Hitchcock class in school. A Hitchcock class in FILM school. I don’t get it.

  4. I've never had the urge to laugh during "The Birds" but I was laughing while reading this entire column!

    I think you hit it spot on with theory 2 and 6. When I saw "El Topo" at the Music Box, audience members were laughing at inappropriate times; two guys actually stood up and left after screaming some profanity. I don't get it.

    Great column though, JB. You never fail to make me laugh.

  5. Sorry to hear about your viewing experience, JB. My worst viewing experience was when our entire High School rented out the theatre to watch a screening of Schindeler's List. Every execution was met with laughter and anti-semetic remarks. I knew the people that were behaving this way and that it was totally forced behaviour in an effort to appear cool.

  6. I attended a 35mm screening of Kubrick's ''The Shining'' where two people were loudly laughing at it; probably taking an ironic attitude to Shelley Duvall's histrionic performance. I wanted to kill them.

    I've seen around 12 Hitchcock movies and The Birds is the one I liked the least. I can understand laughing at it - te premiiss is fairly ridiculous and, like Vargas said,the effects are dated. I admit that the fact that they were laughing at the children getting hurt is weird.

  7. That's really sad, but not unexpected, unfortunately. I hate how hipsters have become so ubiquitous. It can't last forever, can it?
    That screening, aside from the ironic laughter, sounds like a really nice evening at the cinema, however. We don't get a lot of older films playing on any screens here.

    Off topic but addressing a past S.O.t.C. column, I'm wondering if you picked up the Casablanca blu-ray mega-huge set that came out recently. Forgive me if that's been addressed elsewhere. They had a one disc version at Target for 15 dollars, and it didn't have all the bells and whistles. It also didn't have the 5 part PBS documentary on Warner Brothers, but that is available separately, so I felt pretty good about the 15 dollar purchase. I was just happy I was able to get the movie on blu-ray without supporting those ridiculous box sets that contain things you want to immediately throw away.

    Great column!

    1. Yes, I picked up the megaset because a) I found it for about forty bucks, b) I wanted the 5 part Warner Doc and figured that alone was worth twenty bucks, and c) who couldn't use another set of coasters? The book included in the megaset is worthless, and if they are going to have to fold the damn poster to fit into the damn box anyway, why not go all out and include a fullsized 27" x 41" one-sheet? Grrrrr. The transfer is stunning-- it actually looks better than the TCM/Fathom Events screening I attended a few weeks ago. The Roger Ebert commentary is excellent.

  8. "We don't get a lot of older films playing on any screens here."

    Just curious Heath, where is here?

  9. Reminds me of a recent trip to see The Wizard of Oz only to have my first big-screen experience of one of my favorite movies nearly ruined by Hip'D'Bags laughing at all sorts of inappropriate moments:
    1) Dorothy falls off the fence -- HILARIOUS
    2) Uncle Henry tells off Miss Gulch -- HAHA
    3) Any scene involving the Cowardly Lion (esp. the "King of the Forest" song) -- "HAHA, he's so GAY!" (actual quote).

    I think you get the point. The irony is that this screening was in a "VIP" section -- essentially a 19-and-over-only screen that lets adults (I use the term loosely) enjoy their PG-13+ movies without any annoying kids who shouldn't be there in the first place while being able to drink alcohol. I feel that these screenings of older films should come with the following waiver that must be signed (with references to films for which I wish it had been used):

    "I understand that this movie was made prior to the use of CGI. Thus, the effects in this film may not be amazing now, but I understand that they may have been state-of-the-art at the time. In any event, I will not laugh at the "cheesiness" of said effects. (see Birds, The).

    "I understand that, back when this movie made, there may have been different attitudes towards choreography be it of the sword fighting (see Adventures of Robin Hood, The) or dancing/musicals (see West Side Story).

    "Finally, I understand that, back when this movie was made, there were differing uses of commonly encountered words (e.g., "gay"; again, see West Side Story).

    With apologies.