On it’s release in 1984, Birdy received a strong critical reception, currently standing at 88% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The New York Times review said of it ‘The most unusual thing about ”Birdy,”… is its lack of allegorical implications.” but that could not be more wrong. Most people might think that Birdy is a story of two men finding their way back from the trauma and tragedy of the Vietnam War, and one man’s strange lifelong obsession with birds, but Birdy is actually a shockingly visionary, forward-looking and prescient film. About the Internet. Well, more specifically, it’s about the ways that the Internet has given rise to a number of subcultures of mentally, emotionally and socially-stunted individuals who are wholly unprepared to deal with the rigors of everyday existence.
Our film begins with stark, white-on-black credits with the score in the background, before dialogue starts to gradually bleed in. This may be perhaps to highlight the music scored by Peter Gabriel, who receives a prominent place in the credits. The music during the film is a little strange and uneven at times, belying the work of someone unused to creating a consistent aural soundscape across 2 hours. The music playing over the credits is all menacing orchestral drone and discordant melodies. It sounds a little bit like a perfume advert in Silent Hill. In a pleasant change to the last few films, we get our quickest introduction to Cage yet, with the film opening to a shot of him being wheeled on a gurney so that we can appreciate the extent of the wounds his character, Al, has received in his time at Vietnam. After a couple of much more Cage-light films, it’s a refreshing change to have him placed front and centre throughout the whole film, forced to do much of the dramatic heavy-lifting as Matthew Modine spends much of his time squatting naked and staring at windows.
But I get ahead of myself, after we establish that Al needs to keep his facial bandages on for a few days, that he won’t know the extent of his facial scarring until they come off and that he’s travelling back home, we get the first of many flashbacks through which most of the story is told. This first is a scene of Nic Cage playing baseball with a number of small children. It’s an odd scene for a couple of reasons. The first is that the surroundings are a weird kind of blend of pastoral, idyllic, smalltown America and grimy depression-era decay. The back yards are covered with bare dirt and dead grass, everyone looks like they’ve been artfully rubbed down with dirt but it’s all presented as happy nostalgia funtime. The second reason is that, at this point, Cage would have been 20. Every one of the kids he is playing baseball with is aged 7 to 12. He looks like either someone’s hyper-competitive dad trying to make damn sure his kid’s team wins their Little League match or a pedophile content to play the long game. Regardless, through this game we receive our first introduction to the character played by Matthew Modine, Birdy, as he perches in a tree, watching the game disinterestedly.
In the next scene we see that, in keeping with previous films, Cage is a playa. He’s busy getting to solid second base with a young lady under the bleachers before one of the kids from earlier rather rudely interrupts and tells him that Birdy has his knife. One minor tussle and misunderstanding later and Birdy is winning over Al with the magical powers of pigeons. Once more we encounter what I’m going to term the Cage motif of main characters being lucky with women despite being terrible at them when Al sends away his girlfriend in a huff because he wants to stay and hear more about pigeons. One of the kids opines that he’d buy a carrier pigeon if he had the chance and Al decides the pigeons represent a valuable business opportunity (some people are not born entrepreneurs). We are then treated to a montage as Al and Birdy attempt to start their pigeon-raising business, with the both of them clambering around under bridges, building pigeon coops, Al yelling ‘Fuck you’ at a bird and Al screaming in triumph because they have trained a bird to fly back home from 10 feet away. At this point the music has changed tone dramatically from weird menacing orchestral stings and drone to meandering plinky-plonky piano music that sounds like it’s been miked up to an amplifier in a tin bathtub full of tinsel and aluminium foil. We can tell we have reached the climax of this portion of the film when the score changes up yet again to someone tunelessly noodling away on a flute over the top of what sounds like industrial threshing machines engaged in foreplay. It is at this point that Birdy crafts a pair of pigeon suits which he claims will help him and Al catch more pigeons. Wearing the suits, they break into a factory but Birdy has an accident and ends up dangling off the side of the building. He tells Al he’s going to fly and lets go of the building. Shockingly, his flight ends up somewhat vertical and luckily he falls into the nearest sandpile.
It is with the introduction of the pigeon suits that the nascent themes of the Internet first became apparent to me. By the standards of the time, Birdy might just be judged a weirdo. An odd fellow with an unusual prediliction for birds. In a modern context, however, we have another word for him: Otherkin. For those not familiar with the term, Otherkin are people who are convinced that they have the soul of another creature born into a human body by mistake. For a wonderfully concise summation of Otherkin, read this blog entry from a winning specimen of humanity who, so thoroughly unable to deal with even a single shift of actual work, starts ‘shifting’ into their wolf form, growling at customers, gets fired and cries oppression. Birdy is a prime candidate for Otherkin, he is obsessed with birds, feels an unusual kinship with them, wants to fuck them (more on that later I’m afraid) and, possibly the most important qualifier for being Otherkin, is a lonely, socially-inept person with few friends and fewer prospects.
But I digress, after Birdy’s inelegant swandive off a building we skip back to the ‘present’ for a while. Birdy’s doctor explains to Al that they brought him here in the hopes that it would prove good therapy for the both of them, and reveals that Birdy’s wounds when he was brought in were minor, but that he was MIA for a month. We also see that Al has some damage of his own, as he nervously jokes with the doctor about how he hoped the steel jaw they fit him with would make him a great boxer, but apparently one punch will send the pins into his brain and kill him and ha ha ha isn’t that funny? Cage sells this part well, his breathy, nervous laughter showing what a thin veneer he has over the mental scarring he’s carrying around inside. The role is a good fit for Cage, all the outward trappings of the smalltown manly war hero, all covering up a smouldering self-destructiveness and fear of the future.
At this point Al and Birdy have their first meeting in the present day. Al does all the talking, as Birdy just squats and glares nervously around the room, at least until a cute nurse enters the room to feed Birdy and Al proves that no matter what, Cage is still Cage by macking on her while both her and birdy are covered in what looks like mashed potatoes mixed with rubber cement and roofing tiles. You would think this an inelegant opportunity to make a move, but he does later on end up almost fucking her in a store cupboard before breaking down and crying. Yeah, I’m gonna chalk that one up to ‘unusually successful with women despite being terrible at them’.
We eventually find out that during Birdy’s stay at the hospital following his less-than-successful attempt at flight, his parents trashed their birdhouse, poisoned half the pigeons and had a local poultry butcher take away the rest. A somewhat reasonable reaction really considering that Birdy’s obsession led him to break into a factory and jump off it. Birdy, however, remains totally unconvinced, attempting to assure Al that ‘pigeons aren’t stupid’. This will, of course, come as a shock to those amongst you who have ever come across a pigeon, in the real world, ever. Again, Otherkin are notoriously prone to exaggerating and romanticising the characteristics of the animals they claim to be, claiming that wolves, for example, are kind and noble creatures as opposed to overgrown dogs. While Al is more grounded and accepts their pigeon-farming days are over, moving on to the next money-making project (fixing up an old car), Birdy descends further into his obsession. Evidently believing that the only thing stopping him from flying last time was not really knowing how to, he builds a giant birdcage in his bedroom and squats in it naked while monologuing that the birds must be as free as possible (not the smartest, this guy).
The guys eventually fix up the car and drive down to the ocean. Birdy is ecstatic, as there are so many exciting new experiences that can be related back to flying. Swimming! It’s like flying! Rollercoasters! They’re like flying! Al, meanwhile, has more prosaic concerns, and is more focused on meeting young women. Leading to a lovely freak-out moment where he stands there screaming ‘THAT’S FIFTEEN MISSISSIPI BIRDY!’ at a seemingly empty ocean. Birdy then goes on to demonstrate an almost aggressive cluelessness around women. While Al is busy screwing his young lady under the boardwalk, Birdy keeps his entertained by seeing how long he can hold his breath and inviting her to try. Al tries to talk some sense into him, giving him advice on talking to women, but Birdy is too busy running up and down the beach flapping his arms at the time. Hardy Internet veterans will recognise some of these characteristics: a cluelessness about sex that borders on intentional, an almost pathologic inability to empathise with others interests or conversations and a single-minded fixation on the object of obsession. Birdy is not just an Otherkin, he is starting to embody the very worst of all Internet subcultures. From Internet asexuals to fandom nerds to otherkin, he has become the platonic form of the Internet loser.
Birdy’s obsession only deepens as he switches the object of his affection from pigeons to a yellow songbird he purchases from an old woman. He sits naked in his cage with it, looks at it adoringly as it perches on his finger, has erotic dreams about it, at this point he has fully fallen down the rabbit hole as Al, born in an age without the Internet to consult, remains obliviousness to the extent of Birdy’s sickness and carries on attempting to lead a normal friendship with him. However, for someone so obsessed with birds, Birdy proves to be a truly shitty birdkeeper. First he lets a cat get into his room through his lack of attention and, although the yellow songbird is injured, he manages to save it from the cat. Secondly, however, he lets it out of the room to fly, forgetting that the window was partially open. The bird flies out of the window and Birdy is unable to fully open it in time before the bird flies smack into the window and dies. Despite profession to be some kind of expert on birds, Birdy doesn’t really seem to know fuck all (another sentiment common to Otherkin).
Eventually, after a strict training regimen (consisting of lots of flapping) and entirely too much indulgence from his genuinely kind, caring and loving father Birdy attempts to fly. He perches on the front of Al’s bicycle and is launched off a pile of garbage at the dump, flapping a pair of homemade wings. Despite his constant assurances that he need only truly need believe he can fly, Birdy ends up in a pond.
Things really continue on much the same trajectory, as we see how Birdy’s deepening obsession leads to him rejecting any chance of a normal life of actual worthwhile human interaction. A cute young girl takes a liking to him, asks him to the prom and gets topless in a car with him, for him to just sit there and stare at her rather lovely rack in a state of puzzlement. He screams at Al’s father like a petulant child for selling the car after they crash it (not to mention the fact that neither of them has a license or are old enough to drive). He has a naked makeout session with one of his birds. Meanwhile, in the present day, Al does his best to reach Birdy but his condition fails to improve and the situation looks dire, as if this therapy is not successful, Birdy will merely be left to exist in his catatonic state with no further attempts to bring him out of it. The film reaches its climax as we see what happened to him in Vietnam to bring about his trauma. He is left for dead after an ambush and comes to surrounded by the bodies of his fellow soldiers, and sees wings of birds take flight and fly away.
The film itself is actually a worthwhile piece of cinema. Sloppy and uneven score aside, the cinematography is good, including a gorgeous crane-shot sequence as Birdy imagines himself a bird (what else) flying over his neighbourhood, and we can become invested in the relationship between Al and Birdy. It is interesting that the film completely recontextualises itself in light of modern social developments on the Internet, becoming not a story about a young man’s trauma, but an elegy of a sad loner’s social disfunction, driving him away from the rest of society into the arms of his barely-understood obsession.