Murder & Unkindness

Nevermore, or When the Corvus
Talked Through Poe & His Poem

Emissaries of rebirth from the great beyond, or omens of bad things to come in ancient traditions, crows have soared over our imaginations for ages. Scientists are baffled by their social skills, cognitive abilities, and use of tools. Old Aesop may have been onto something after all.
As January 19th marks Edgar Allan Poe’s 206th birthday, and The Raven’s first print 170 years ago this month, we review research being done about the black bird that feasts on carrion and whose collective nouns convey the finality of sudden death and sorrow of lost souls.
Before Claude Lévi-Strauss called the raven a mediator, antiquity took care of inscribing the winged creature into an assortment of narratives and roles, including it in all holy books, from the Talmud to the Bible to the Qur’an, Greek-Roman mythologies and Hindu cosmology.
Old Germanic and English texts also assigned the species a prominent role, and so did Pacific tribes and Native Americans. Which may confer oversized meaning to their annual winter arrival at Waterloo, England, for example, or instances of mass deaths, as it just happened in India.
But before going any further, let’s get the distinction between crows and ravens out of the way. Crows are smaller and live only eight years, to raven’s average 30-year lifespan. Crows, which caw-caw, also live closer to humans; ravens’ croaks are heard mostly in the wild.
A crow’s wing is blunt, and its tail, fan-shaped, while ravens have pointed wings and wedge-shaped tails. All else may not be easily noted because the birds are commonly sighted in parks and cemeteries, where people go to fulfill a function or when they’re, well, dead.

We should all be weary of studies comparing the intelligence of radically different species, say primates vs. cetacean, for instance. Mainly because for a long time, we’ve considered cognitive intelligence and social skills to be our monopoly and of a few other animals only.
Also, we still don’t know enough Continue reading


Hitchcock, the Man Who
Knew Too Much (to Tell)

When the British film director Alfred Hitchcock died in Bel Air, 32 years ago today, he was in effect ending the second, and most rewarding, phase of his career. He’d already achieved a level of proficiency and acknowledgment while still in England, as some recently restored silent features show. But it was in America that he mastered his superb skills at building and sustaining suspense.
The box office success of some of his arguably most arresting masterpieces, Psycho, The Birds and North by Northwest, to name only three, tend to obscure their rigorous inner structure, plot development, timing and incomparable sense of style. But not everyone recognized such qualities. The Academy Awards, for one, never gave him an Oscar for Best Director.
In fact, actors and collaborators, such as the also successful author Raymond Chandler, are said to have hated his methods while they were working on the screenplay of Strangers on a Train, and wound up Continue reading