Customer Reviews: The Birds (BFI Film Classics)
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on July 21, 2000
Camille Paglia is a controverisal choice to review the Birds which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1962. She is a writer with her own mind and this approach puts her out of step with nearly everyone in academia. Paglia is a always readable and controversial. She has put a generation of feminist's teeth on edge. And on occasion she gets distracted from the task in hand to take a jab at her opponents.
Yet this is a superb piece of criticism taking in every apsect of the production of Hitchcock's masterwork. Paglia is very good at the sexual and oedipal politics that pervade Hitchock's work.
It shows that film criticism needs not be dense writing aimed solely at obscuring meaning.
Her discussion on the ending of the Birds certainly opened my eyes to a flaw of the film. As great as the film is, the ending does not work. The original ending would have provided a great climax to a masterwork, yet it was not chosen. Anyone interested in the Birds or hitchcock should read this book.
The book covers a lot of ground and is immensely readable. The best of the series which has shown good marketing sense, but really not a lot of good criticism.
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on March 6, 2015
Truly interesting, entertaining, and original analysis of Hitchcock's cinematic masterpiece. Paglia is one of my very favorite writers; she can veer from the poetic and profound to the chatty, catty, and fun with the agility and grace of an Olympic-class ice-skater. This tome is an excellent addition of any Hitchcock fanatic's library. Not only is Paglia's interpretation of "The Birds" insightful and vivid - the book is filled with loads of little background details, I recommend this book with the avidity of the seagull tearing into one of the hapless residents of Bodega Bay! Enjoy!
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on November 3, 2003
Those who would like to learn to write well could hardly do better than study Camille Paglia's 'The Birds' (1998), the author's exhilarating monograph on Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 suspense masterpiece.

The British Film Institute (BFI), which sponsored the book in its BFI Film Classics series, has made some highly questionable choices in its "modern" selection of "the 360 key films in the history of cinema," including such mediocre productions as John Carpenter's 'The Thing' (1982), James Cameron's 'The Terminator' (1984), Michael Mann's 'Heat' (1995), and Stanley Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' (1999), but their pairing of Camille Paglia with 'The Birds'--the choice of film was probably hers--is nothing less than inspired.

In 104 concise, robust pages, Paglia proves that depth of perception can be readily expressed without recourse to the labrinthian doublespeak that has infected American academia via the French Structuralists over the last quarter century.

Paglia communicates clearly without seeming to try: the emphasis throughout is squarely on the intelligent conveyance of her ideas, and not on dreary abstractions and intellectualism. Her sentences virtually crackle with energy and verve, humor and acuity.

Readers familiar with Paglia's previous work already know her to be a walking testament to Western culture.

Here, Paglia brings the same brilliant contextual ability to 'The Birds' that she brought to the work of Spencer, Byron, Swinburne, Wilde, Hawthorne, and Dickinson in 1990's 'Sexual Personae.'

Whether discussing Hitchcock's oeuvre or psychology, Tippi Hedren's facial expressions, wardrobe or coiffure, the original Daphne du Maurier short story upon which the film was based, real episodes of bird attacks along the California coast, or the myriad technical processes involved in the making of the film, from sound and cinematography to special effects, Paglia, who seems to know everything, is in top form. If a character so much as crosses their legs, Paglia has something revealing to say about it.

Paglia carefully moves through and interprets each scene, expressing surprising and persuasive theories about the smallest of details, demonstrating in the process how absolutely nothing should be overlooked, assumed, or taken for granted in films as carefully planned and executed as Hitchcock's.

Moving from episode to episode, Paglia cumulatively offers her own astute interpretation of the film's notoriously ambiguous meaning.

Paglia has scrupulously researched her subject, interviewed Tippi Hedren, who she clearly reveres, and obviously enjoyed the writing of 'The Birds' tremendously.

Less hilarious than some of her other work, 'The Birds,' film writing at its best and a cut well above most of the other titles in the BFI series, is a sheer pleasure to read. Illustrated with color and black and white photographs.
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on May 23, 2003
I got a bowl of popcorn, my DVD of The Birds and this book, and settled on the couch. I read her scene-by-scene interpretations, played that scene on my DVD player, paused it, read, watched, etc. It was heaven. I have watched The Birds several times, but this book brought a whole new depth to the experience. She directed my attention to details I had never seen before. She delved a bit into Hitchcock's psychology as a auteur, and psychoanalyzed the characters and their actions. It was so much fun!
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on February 18, 2016
I love film analysis; essays that go beyond thumbs-up vs. thumbs-down and offer real insight into the hidden language of movies that operates on our subconscious. Camille Paglia has given us such a tome on Hitchcock's last great* work.

My only beef with the book is Paglia's hysterical hatred of the Cathy Brenner character. One suspects the young Veronica Cartwright's resemblance to some junior high tormentor of Ms. Paglia's is inducing PTSD, causing her to project her painful memories onto this fictional character. Setting aside that irrational bias, and this is a terrific book.

* Marnie is grossly under-appreciated, but not quite up to "great" status.
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on July 14, 2002
Blimey, can it really be almost four years since Paglia has published a book? Her critique of 'The Birds' is one of the best of the BFI Classics series for several reasons. First, she approaches her nervy text like a detective, similar to the way Pauline Kael set about her research for 'The Citizen Kane Book'. Second, the book is thoughtfully designed and includes some nice photos that are not just the usual poorly reproduced film stills in faulty black and white; there is a startling pic on page 38 where Tippi Hedren resembles that other sensation of the early 1960s, Edie Sedgwick. Paglia probably insisted on the inclusion of the not-bad color film stills in the middle of the book; other BFI Classics I own show only poor B&W. (Remember, this is the woman who was going to "save" Madonna's 'Sex' book with layout advice!) Third, Paglia does a nice job of reviving Hedren's reputation as an actress and legitimate Hitchcock heroine, no easy feat after forty years of being hammered by most critics for not being Grace Kelly. A rare voice is scholar William Rothman's in 'Hitchcock - The Murderous Gaze' who calls Hedren "an exemplar of the difficulty and pain of expressing love", something that could never be said of wooden clotheshorse Kelly. Fourth, I like Paglia's ability to make fun of things she can't tolerate, her willingness to forgo a middlebrow politeness in her opinions, like Kael. "I want to slap her!" she writes contemptuously of "icky-sweet" Cathy Brenner, played by the youthful Veronica Cartwright. (Paglia might enjoy Cartwright's performances in both 'Alien' and 'The Witches of Eastwick': she is gruesomely dispatched in both, with virtuoso projectile vomiting special effects in 'Eastwick', a development undreamt of by Hitchcock, who merely has Cartwright run to the bathroom when she needs to purge.) Finally, Paglia is unique among most BFI Classics writers in that she does not impose incompatible intellectual or academic theories on a movie that can't support them. She is completely straightforward, something rare in 90s film studies.
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on August 17, 1999
One of Hitchcock's half-dozen authentic masterpieces, The Birds still manages to titilate as it terrifies; its poetically bleak yet mordantly witty vision of the random shattering of everyday life has only gained clarity and luster. The madcap Paglia has risen to the occasion--this treatment is the most sustained critical piece ive read from her in some time, and the focus it requires of her frees her--for the most part--from her characteristic insecurities (manifested by wearying "shock" tactics) while it brings out her most appealing qualities, daring insight and psychological acuity and historical breadth. She does a first-rate job of depicting and scrutinizing the great women of the film--Hedren, Pleshette, Tandy--bringing out their decadent sultriness and mysterious sexual glamour, in ways that successfully underpin her view of the film as a Romantic treatise on the vagaries of "rapacious nature" and Woman's enigmatic sexual allure and power. The only real failing is the ending--where is it? A carefully orchestrated finale of insight would have made this fine, rousing piece a real showstopper.
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Camille Paglia is the perfect cultural critic to analyze the icy blond and Oedipal insinuations of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963). Her genuine admiration for Melanie Daniels' (Tippi Hedren) arrogance and manipulations, her refreshing ability to write clearly, without devolving into theoretical opacity, her undisguised enthusiasm for this film make for lively, readable analysis that is nearly as compelling as the film itself. Paglia opens by explaining her perspective: "The Birds...directly addresses the theme of destructive, rapacious nature that was always implicit in [Hitchcock's] fascination with crime." "I view it as a perverse ode to woman's sexual glamour, which Hitchcock shows in all its seductive phases, from brittle artifice to melting vulnerability." Sounds like fun. And it is.

Before she begins her analysis, Paglia gives us some much-appreciated background, including comparisons to the Daphne Du Maurier story and the real-life incidents that inspired the screenplay, the casting of Tippi Hedren, Hitchcock's meticulous preparation and very expensive special effects, and how some of the bird effects were achieved. It should be noted that Evan Hunter wrote the screenplay for "The Birds", but Hitchcock was so influential in shaping the screenplays for his films that he was always an uncredited co-writer. There are 12 pages of this introductory material before Paglia begins her scene-by-scene analysis of themes, characters, visuals, with some information about filming interspersed. Naturally, she focuses on psychosexual undertones.

Paglia spends more ink on the female characters than on Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The film's protagonist is Melanie Daniels, and her interactions with other women, Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and friend Annie (Suzanne Pleshette), are more explosive and significant than with men, so this emphasis comes as no surprise. But some readers may feel that Mitch has been shortchanged a little. Paglia occasionally takes issue with common critical interpretations, but she is generally adding to conventional criticism rather than disputing it. Does Paglia's highly sexed interpretation read too much into some elements? Yes, but Hitchcock was a very deliberate man, and most of the subjects of Paglia's observations are definitely, intentionally there.

It surprised me that Paglia was not explicit on one point. She is a Sadean, and her introduction refers to "destructive, rapacious nature", so I thought we might get some Sadean analysis along with the psychosexual. Although that may be implicit in her analysis, Paglia writes more about character -and nature as a reflection of character- than about the behavior of nature itself. So this analysis could have gone further. I'm not going to reduce my rating of the book for that, because it is probably best that a critic choose one approach in such a short book, for the sake of coherence. The book is 104 pages long, around 75 pages of which are critical text. There are 8 pages of color stills in the center and 22 black & white photos scattered throughout.
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VINE VOICEon February 6, 2000
I often think Camille Paglia is really dippy, but I just adored this book nonetheless. Her characteristic hyperbole works terrifically when talking about a movie she adores (who doesn't like to go off the deep end when discussing a favorite film?), and she keeps her pet rants about feminism and academia to a minimum. Her analysis of "The Birds" is often first-rate and engaging, and though she does go on in places about her insane Nietzschean paradigms even there she's very funny. Best of all, this book includes an insightful and intelligent interview with that most gifted and most neglected of Hitchcock's icy blondes, Tippi Hedren, which does much towards illuminating her famous performance in this film and also dispelling some of the myths promulgated by Donald Spoto. Highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon January 10, 2005
I usually stay away from contemporary artistic criticism as literary and film criticism of the past twenty years has simply been ridiculously pretentious. Interpretations have followed strains of politically correct/leftist thought regarding gender relations, homosexuality, consumerism, and other such drivel while the critics' own arrogance prevent them from recognizing that they have not produced an original thought in years.

The BFI Film Classics series has therefore been refreshing. Although I have read a few others in the series, it was THE BIRDS that captured my attention. Hitchcock was an exciting director who was willing to use women's sexuality in ways that has gotten him trashed as a sexist today, The Birds is one of his classics and Camille Paglia is the cultural gadfly whose intellect is matched by her willingness to call things as she sees them without a concern as to what others may think.

Not surprisingly, the result is quite a bit of fun. Paglia takes us through the film bit by bit adding her own personal wit along the way. We learn that The Birds was based on a Daphne du Maurier story which itself may have been based on German airstrikes during World War II. But nature has always been more destructive than man in Paglia's viewpoint and her interpretation of the film is consistent with this view.

Paglia's strength is in her discussion of Tippi Hedren. Although never a major actress in the Hitchcock universe, Hedren holds her own in The Birds, which Paglia correctly points out. Hedren has as much sexual power as any buxom blond in any Hitchcock film. For anyone familiar with Paglia, it will come as no surprise that her analysis of Hedren exploits that to the max.

It is also worth pointing out that this book is packaged very nicely. Its color photographs and reproduction of the movie poster on its cover makes THE BIRDS a visual treat as well as a literary one. A nice job all around.
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