The ways in which we, as an audience, assign meaning to film is fascinating. In some ways we have unwittingly learned alongside Hollywood’s developing experimentation. Of course, another way to spin it is that Hollywood has studied natural behavior long enough to categorize and name the filming processes that invoke certain audience perceptions and reactions. I believe that this has clearly been a joint venture.
From the Birds
In raising birds, I’ve learned a great deal about their visual language. When one wishes to exert power over another, he or she stands taller and looks down upon the flock. Those who offer submission bow their heads and agree to be led. Like dogs, birds are comfortable in either role as long as they know which behavior to assume. In my experience with macaws, amazons and cockatoos, the human must become the alpha bird or flock leader to establish order. Otherwise, and trust me on this, these highly intelligent beings know how to manipulate humans (through screaming, biting, destructive chewing, etc.) and they will take control in a hurry. To establish the alpha position, human eye level must be elevated above that of the bird at all times. If the tables do turn, they can be reversed again through this simple act of elevation (and a great deal of patience).
For The Birds
This same principle explains why cinematographers tell a story using different camera angles and heights as discussed in Chapter 4 of Barsam’s Looking at Movies. To look specifically at Alfred Hitchcock?s The Birds, the camera’s behavior mirrors the behavior of the birds, placing both the human characters and audience in an unsettling position. Hitchcock understands that our participation and perspective as viewer is controlled through the eye of the lens. Each height and angle means something entirely different:
• Eye level neutrality
• Characters are in common predicament as they become prey
• High angle superiority
• Black, large and looming birds look down from ledges, rooftops
• Low angle – intimidation
• People look up at birds with fear
• Ariel view omniscience
The “bird’s eye view” over the exploding gas station creates a sense of the birds knowing that they have destroyed a human sense of order while reducing the image of humans to very small, and powerless creatures.
These types of manipulation are understood on many levels to be a typically unnatural reversal of power. Hitchcock plays with this idea of humans becoming the prey, ensuring that his audience is justifiably horrified as they helplessly watch their own kind be destroyed through the eye of the destroyer, the bird.
A Bird of a Different Feather
Of course, visual language has grown into a complicated and multifaceted set of meanings. Now that the audience has grown to understand the basic functions of certain shots, these almost innate assumptions can (and must) be turned against us. Of course, I deal here with a limited range of film conventions. Still, once one convention becomes expected, filmmakers must shake things up a bit through somewhat unconventional use of shot length, zoom, framing, lighting, etc. Only by diverting away from the expected will an audience be continually surprised and willing to fork out the cash for more, keeping the film industry plied with a budget for another round of thrillers and chillers.