This is the very first shot of James Nguyan’s 2010 Birdemic: Shock and Terror.
An establishing shot is a classic cinema technique used to immediately connect audiences with the story about to be told. Location, time, even the protagonist is introduced before all else to emphasise their significance. As film broke from the confines of literal representations, the importance of conveying theme built the emblematic shot. No longer a simple introduction, this opening now provides a richer symbol of the director’s intentions. “Emblematic shots can “tell a story” with a single image”.
Having seen Birdemic numerous times , I now recognise the various messages encoded into the first image Nguyen gives us. Let’s start with the location, the open ocean. Like many emblematic shots, they’re often mirrored in the final image of the film. Birdemic ending with the protagonists reaching the coastline with nowhere left to go, exhausted of options they accept their fate just as the birds begin to migrate out to the horizon. To work backwards, what can we gather from the start of their journey?
I feel that the threat, more than just bird and man, lies beyond. The stillness of the furthest edge against the ever moving waves provides introspection for the more things change the more they stay the same. Nguyen injects the subtext with a clear environmental message yet the apparent consequences of our human actions return to nature just as arbitrarily as they appeared. There is no clear defeat or victory to be found here.
This ambiguity may well be the goal of Nguyen. A self-proclaimed fan of Hitchcock, his ourvre and impact of cinema has left its mark with this Vietnamese director. Birdemic has more than a few references to the 1963 The Birds yet the directorial influence may lie deeper than general plot similarities. Hitchcock’s rule in cinema has been established “to create a composition that emphasizes a particular visual element over another”.
Here is the opening shot, though one has a very slight difference. The one on the left has been edited by myself as I noticed that the oceanic horizon was off kilter, it had to be a mistake that I wanted to check. Then I saw the difference.
It’s literally one degree off. This could not be accidental. Nguyen purposefully and perfectly off centred the horizon to convey his message. This story does not begin with the expected equilibrium of our ordinary world, we are tricked into perceiving this reality as normal. We are horrified when the birds arrive and relieved when they depart, a false sense of safety that we’ve somehow overcome the epidemic.
Following Hitchcock’s emphasis on composition, the canted angle is emblematic of Nguyen’s perspective of our place in the world. As Werner Herzog has repeatedly warned us, nature is uncaring and above our human issues. The world existed before us and will endure past the actions that end us. This Dutch angle gets across that this event, this threat is inevitable, ever-present, and ultimately arbitrary. The characters discuss extinction, pollution, our carbon footprint on the Earth when, as they do, we’ve truly just been wandering aimlessly in our survival.
The world is dangerous and wild and not made for our existence. Nguyen spends his time on this rock, staring out to that ocean and seeing the bigger picture.