Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Croneberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 1984. Drama directed by Alan Parker
Birdy is a film that almost defies description, seeing how it blends so many different genres and styles. Part period drama, part psychological portrait, part anti-war film, part buddy-comedy and even part natural Audubon society promotional film, Birdy is a little film with big aspirations. While it could be categorized under any of the aforementioned genre tags, it actually transcends simplistic categories and succeeds in being a unique portrait of friendship and obsession.
The movies central characters are played by Matthew Modine (Birdy) and Nicolas Cage, (Al) who at the time of release were virtual unknowns. While both actors have gone on to receive much critical acclaim for their work, their performances in Birdy remain among their best. The seemingly mismatched pair is a study in contrasting personalities. Cage’s character Al is an extrovert, combining sports idol good looks, charm, and a false sense of bravado that belies the somewhat frightened and bewildered boy underneath. Modine’s character, on the other hand, is certainly introspective, if not an all out introvert. A solitary figure by choice, Birdy (as nicknamed by Al) spends the majority of his time alone, mostly pursuing his hobby/obsession with birds and the mechanics of flight. In fact, Birdy is something of an expert on the topic of birds and flight and some of the more humorous and engaging scenes focus on his own attempts to fly himself, aided by his befuddled yet enthusiastic cohort Al.
The movie opens with a disfigured soldier (Cage) who, after recently returning from combat zone, visits his friend at a Veterans hospital. For reasons that are not disclosed until later in the film, his friend (Modine) has retreated into a catatonic-like state. Refusing or unable to speak, he must be fed and tended to by hospital staff. He does not appear to engage in even the simplest forms of communication and spends his time mostly crouched, with his head occasionally awkwardly moving from side to side. His posture and manner are strikingly birdlike. It is Al’s task to draw Birdy out of this state or else the staff psychiatrist will determine him untreatable, and his fate will likely be to languish in a military hospital for life.
The film flips between the present events at the hospital where Al is repeatedly frustrated and concerned over his inability to draw Birdy out, and more or less chronological flashbacks of the genesis of their friendship, detailing Birdy’s obsession along the way.
Initially their relationship is an antagonistic one. When Al’s younger brother falsely accuses the freak (Birdy) of stealing a pen-knife from him, Al comes to his brother’s rescue and a physical struggle over the knife ensues. Eventually Al overpowers Birdy but upon learning the accusation was false, returns the knife to him. Al compliments him on the way he handled himself during their tussle and a new friendship is forged.
Birdy introduces Al to his fascination with homing pigeons and Al is intrigued, perhaps not so much by the pigeons themselves as by his new friend’s infectious enthusiasm. Al willingly becomes Birdy’s pupil and assistant in all bird-related matters. While Al can hardly be described as an intellectual, he is smart enough to recognize that Birdy may be some kind of peculiar genius and we suspect that the partnership provides Al with a new kind of stimulation that is a welcome change from his usual interests of sports and skirt-chasing.
Over time Al begins to tire of the whole bird-boy shtick, however. His attempts to facilitate Birdy’s interest in the opposite sex are met with dismay and confusion. When Al tries to explain the unearthly delights of the female breast to Birdy, he responds, “What’s the big deal, they’re just overgrown mammary glands!” For a while Al enlists Birdy’s help in restoring an old beat-up car, a project that Birdy attacks with unrelenting fervor but when the project comes to an abrupt end, Birdy retreats to his bird-obsessed ways. Eventually, the former best friends drift apart and Al leaves for a stint in Vietnam with little fanfare or acknowledgement from his best friend. In time, Birdy will also leave for Vietnam.