Part I: Summary
The movie told the story of a boy named Birdy who wanted to be a bird but wasn't so when he tried to fly he fell and plowed into the sand; nonetheless he was determined to try. As his fascination with birds and flight grew his involvement with human affairs dwindled accordingly until he finally separated himself from the ugly world of people entirely and adopted an avian perspective. It turned out that he wasn't much happier as a bird than as a boy because nobody else believed he was a bird and kept him cooped up in a cage like he was a crazy person. Also he still couldn't fly very well, even if he wasn't locked in a cell. So he padded around in his cozy corral and stared miserably out the barred window at the blue sky which was seemingly filled with fluttering hovering parties of birds.
The movie also told the story of Al Columbato who was Birdy's best friend before he turned into a bird. Al was a pretty earthy guy himself and didn't understand the flights of fancy that so captivated his companion. He was drafted into the army just ahead of his feathered friend, and in Viet Nam received a nasty blow to the head that may or may not have cost him his face. On his return to the States, he was diverted to a psychiatric ward by military doctors desperate to understand Birdy's ailment. Apparently Birdy's final dive into delirium occurred when he was on military time, so they felt a certain obligation to either help him or at least get their investment back. Thus the friends were reunited in the white-walled wastes of the military mental infirmity, Al with his humanity torn from him on the outside, Birdy rejecting his from within.
There is an ending, of course, so far as any story ever ends; but if you've seen the film you know it, and otherwise I wouldn't want to spoil it.
Part II: Technical Discussion
Technically the film displayed a predictable Alan Parker brilliance. Matching the characters and dialogue of William Wharton's novel to visual and aural motifs took a daring and creativity he and his production team were quick to prove. Interspersing their own unique style of presentation with cinematic quotes from historically classic sources, allusions ranging from "Citizen Kane" (the opening shot of cross-linked fencing) to "Olympia" (the diving sequence), they formed a characteristically uncommon fusion liable to trap the viewer in his distinctive mesh of humanity and horror. The images of birds and flight were subliminalized throughout in a deft progression of hints and subtleties: the roller coaster named "Flyer," the school mascot "Falcons," even the recurrent baseball metaphor, all speak of the human urge to flee from the grave of gravity into a higher plane.
Much of Parker's individual style can be highlighted by comparison to one of his earlier endeavors, the screen version of "The Wall." Any number of directorial parallels can be drawn between the two films, especially in terms of camera action and sound editing. For example, Parker's audio-visual interpretation of Roger Water's "One of My Turns" contained two strong images which would reappear in "Birdy." In "The Wall," the soundtrack moves from an external diegetic clamor (the groupie's voice, the everpresent television murmur) to a harmony composed of internal diegetic and nondiegetic strains, reflecting Pink's shift from the tangible to the ethereal: "Day after day, love turns grey...." Likewise, when Birdy first meets Purda, the droning lecture of the saleslady slowly fades out while Birdy's thoughts fade in: "The first time I saw birds..." The violent conclusion to "One of My Turns" features a visual close-up of Pink as he hangs out through his hotel window, screaming incoherently at the countless crowds stories below. Both the image and the cry bear a striking resemblance to Birdy's inarticulate shriek of horror during the bombing raid in Viet Nam.
Much of Parker's cinematic success comes from the potent collaborations of musical talent he has brought together for each of his projects. Peter Gabriel's compelling rhythms form as formidable a contribution to the emotional impact of "Birdy" as did David Gilmore's brooding guitar and Water's condemning cry on "The Wall." Similar to his work with Martin Scorsese in "The Last Temptation of Christ," Gabriel draws heavily on North African and Kurdish sources to stir a gut-wrenching, primal urgency within the audience. During the two flight sequences, his pulsating cadence awakens a tribal yearning within each of us, an animal urge that longs to break free of the tethers of earth and soar with the spirits of the open sky. Mystical, mysterious, his ghostly melodies speak of something not quite there, not easily grasped with the analytical thumb-grips of our over-evolved minds. Like Birdy himself affirms, "When I fly...it's not something you can really take apart." Gabriel creates an atmosphere that defies rational explication while exciting passions buried under centuries of land-locked logic.
Coming full circle, a brief comparison with Scorsese's controversial picture can add further insight into the underlying images which give "Birdy" such depth. Not infrequently, Birdy is portrayed as a martyr for the unreleased common man. Although direct religious implications are left undeveloped by the film-maker, Birdy's impalement on a rationalistic crucifix casts a noteworthy element of doubt on our own role within the story. The Biblical allusion can be seen most clearly in an early shot of the mental ward, where Birdy's motionless body on the floor forms the crux of two shadows cast by intersecting bars on his window. The cross is conceived through the transformation of iron bars, forged by the military and placed with the implicit sanction of a sensible American culture, by the watchful light of The Hunter's eye into a centuries-old symbol of man's customary intolerance for dreamers and free thinkers. As Birdy adopts the crestfallen pose of a wearied and nailed Jesus, we are reminded that in the film's allegory it is us, not jealous Jewish leaders, who are staking the love-torn poet to the possessive earth.
Part III: Theological Dialogue
The keystone of the film's theological portent comes almost at the very end, during Al's dramatic monologue amidst decaying baseballs. "Every so often," Al advises his comatose friend, "we should just go crazy and run up the wall." All of the conflict within the film seems to lie within the ambiguity of those final four words: "run up the wall." Dr. Weiss and his madhouse associates would no doubt interpret them to mean: act asocial; display manic tendencies; throw food at other inmates and in general, flip out. However, careful scrutiny of Birdy's actual behavior throughout the film, brought into outstanding clarity by the most summary of comparisons with Parker's previous work, suggests a different translation: raise your shields; erect your barricades; lock out the world and in general, act as one dead. In this hermeneutical light, Birdy's escapist schizophrenia can be seen as an eminently sensible reaction made by one lost and confused and disgusted by a world which makes no sense at all.
As Birdy moves from the closeted ignorance of adolescence into the more cognizant and therefore more frightening world of puberty and young adulthood, he is increasingly stupefied at the apparent idiocy of modern society. His love of birds takes a more personal turn as he learns to envy their ability to fly away from any oncoming threats of pain or injury, for with each new perception of his terrestrial prison his inherit sensitivity is battered by a world which refuses to justify itself. A natural transfer follows as his angst at the general world malaise is removed to humanity by default complicity. His uneasiness with the brokenness he finds prevalent on earth is thus expressed through his gradual rejection of humanity itself. As each new feather is brushed into place within his reconstructed self-image, a new platelet is secured in the wall being formed between his self and the world of sin and separation.
"Have you ever wondered what our lives must look like to birds, Al?" Birdy asks after their brief incarceration in jail. The answer to that Brain Teaser was mistakenly printed in the next day's "The Far Side" strip, authored by Gary Larson. The view depicted was drawn looking down as if from the sky, and showed large circular targets on the top of every human's head. Targets. Bullseyes. "I"'s so full of bull and false pretenses that they no longer had the decency even to express self-loathing. For example, when the girl Al picked up for Birdy on the boardwalk asks, "So you're on the [discus] team?" she is surprised and confused when he responds "No, we just throw it to see how far it will go." The very concept of sports and athletic endeavor had been so twisted in her mind that she could no longer comprehend the simple pleasure in striving against physical limitations to hurl an annexed part of oneself into a heaving sky. Another brick in the wall is mortared and set.
The entire issue of human sexuality has suffered a similar perversion. Indeed, the rough belly-slapping enjoyed by Al seems closer to animalistic rutting than anything to be associated with human love. It is easy to see how Birdy might come to be ashamed of such lowly origins, when even birds are legendary for the care and protection they issue on their young. One can predict the blank, uncomprehending stare Birdy might display as Al's girl #1 vanquishes any romantic involvement in lovemaking with the easy bargain "Well, if I let you, can I wear your letter jacket?" Even Al is quick to deny the possibility of nobility within coitus, with the ready disclaimer that "if there were any dignity in [life], there wouldn't be any sex." As intercourse, one of the deepest and most meaningful paths of contact between lost and broken humans, is shunted into a fanciful memory of regality past, another brick is baked and placed in the mould of the flourishing wall.
When Al is called in to somehow bring his buddy back from the brink of legal sanity, his own long-fomented doubts as to the feasibility of the human condition begin to surface. Dismayed and disarmed under the deliberate gaze of the Inquisitive Doctor, it dawns on Al that even he with his native Italian adaptability has a few cracks in his inner armor. Soon he is worrying that "if Weiss gets a look inside my head, he'll lock me up too." As Al's awareness of his own flaws broadens, his fear of his "deviance" increases. When he is accidentally locked for a few moments inside Birdy's cell, Birdy's world, he shudders with terror and screams "Let me out!" The nervousness Al feels towards the removal of his bandages and subsequent inspection of his face is paralleled by his growing reluctance to look past the mask of machismo he has held up for so long and stare unobstructed at his true self. Thus rather than bringing Birdy out of his shell as per his assignment, Al chooses to move in with his own walls and protective panelling. As he mutters in the final moments of the film, "I don't want to talk. Besides, nobody listens to anybody anyway, even if you're not crazy." Having grown acclimated to the idea of separation whether within craziness or without, he settled down to spend his remaining time in contact with the only friend he knew.
In Telling the Truth Buechner talks about shedding our clothes, the intrinsic need for nakedness before we can achieve an understanding of the truth. The night after his first prom, Birdy shed his and found that barren flesh wasn't answer enough. He took the next step and several steps beyond, eventually proceeding to the point where he shed his humanity itself, leaving behind his last poisoned bias in exchange for a cleaner view. It is significant that the person who came closest to Birdy, the one man who went to the trouble of trying to empathize with the forlorn soul, was so struck and troubled and finally captivated by the strength of Birdy's vision that he, too, finally succumbed to the overwhelming urge to flee the roots of our brokenness. Whether they chose correctly in assuaging guilt within humanity itself or if their futile attempt at escape only compounded a problem which has dogged and defeated mankind for millennia, the film gave no conclusive answer.
And yet, it seems unlikely that building walls will ever solve a problem which is itself rooted in separation.