The Legend of Pale Male

by Cynthia Fuchs

29 November 2010

It may be, as The Legend of Pale Male proposes, that observers see in the hawk an admirable wildness and primacy, their own better selves reflected.

Holy Grail

The Legend of Pale Male

Director: Frederic Lilien
Cast: Frederic Lilien, Charles Kennedy, Mary Tyler Moore

(Balcony Releasing)
US theatrical: 24 Nov 2010 (Limited release)

When Frederic Lilien first spotted a red tailed hawk in New York City, he felt a kinship. The bird, the Belgian-born filmmaker says, “was completely wild, a stranger to the city like I was.” But Pale Male, the hawk, was also different. “He was no lost soul.”

It’s this belief in the bird’s sensibility, its purpose and resolve, that sustains The Legend of Pale Male. Lilien’s film is less about Pale Male than about the many New Yorkers who saw and adopted the hawk as a kind of projection of their own desires and hopes. As the bird took up residence on a Fifth Avenue apartment building, and from there soared through the sky over Central Park in search of prey (namely, pigeons), he also provided inspiration for a dogged community of New Yorkers.

Lilien makes clear from the start of his documentary that his own life is shaped in part by his relationship to Pale Male. According to the film, the hawk’s arrival in the city in the early 1990s coincided more or less with the filmmaker’s own. At the time, he didn’t know he was a filmmaker. Rather, as he confesses to a camera he’s set up in a grassy location, he was seeking his “destiny.” He’s come to escape his father’s plan for him, that he would be a lawyer. And now, his younger self says, “I’ve been living here in New York for a few years. I don’t really know what I want to do with my life.” One afternoon, while he’s lunching in the Park, he looks up to see the hawk, “fierce and wild, devouring a freshly caught pigeon.” Now, Lilien says, he has a focus: the next day he purchases a camera and the next frame shows what he (may have) shot, the soundtrack music swelling as the hawk flies overhead.

With his “destiny” found, Lilien goes on to document the hawk’s effects for years. First, he makes friends with likeminded observers like Charles Kennedy, who generously gives Lilien the 500 mm lens off his own camera, and Marie Winn, who writes a wildlife column for the Wall Street Journal and eventually writes a book about Pale Male (whom she also names, for his unusually white head feathers). Kennedy provides narration describing the hawk’s majesty: “We order our food,” he says, “This guy pulls it out of the air. He hunts and invents it. He’s life and death right next to each other, and we’re not used to that.”

As Kennedy and Lilien adopt the bird as their “holy grail,” Pale Male provides yet another “wild” activity for their observation: he finds “himself a girl,” and begins mating. Soon after, he and the mate (called First Love) build a nest on the 12th floor ledge of a building that also happens to house Woody Allen (shown here in a brief, furtive-seeming shot on his terrace). Pale Male’s story garners attention from other birders, who begin to gather regularly near a bench in the Park. As the crowd grows and the watchers get to know one another, they form a community, thrilled by wait for chicks to hatch.

Over the course of the film, Pale Male finds apparent wedded bliss with a series of girl birds (he loses his mates to mishaps, like a poisoned pigeon, a car on the New Jersey Turnpike), with each, he produces progeny (26 chicks in all, the film notes), shot by long lenses in breathtaking close-ups. Lilien extols the excitement shared by the group of observers, including a three-year-old redhead named Brian, who follows Pale Male’s progress through his own 12th year. “Every June,” says Lilien, “we all became nervous parents ourselves.” As the film cuts from human face to bird face, the soundtrack music keeps pace, building anticipation; when some of the chicks begin to fledge—leap from 12 stories up into the sky—the film offers “The Ride of the Valkyries,” reclaiming Wagner’s theme at last from Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. The birdwatchers cheer and gasp, the young birds sputter and soar.

Following an exceedingly brief reference to 9/11 (“That September, our lives were about to change,” Lilien notes, as sirens sound beneath), the film cuts to 2002, when Pale Male and Lola set up a nest at 927 Fifth Avenue, an address they share with Mary Tyler Moore. She becomes an earnest supporter not only of the birds but also their observers, whose numbers have grown to a point of disturbing other residents of the building. When the co-op board votes in 2004 to take the nest down, the observers near the bench protest.

Their demonstrations—endorsed by the city’s chapter of the Audubon Society—take up a boisterous few minutes of the film’s running time. While the birds do appear here, their heads cocked as they sit near where the nest used to be, the focus now is most certainly on the people who see their own expectations and ideals dashed by the evil co-op board. Here the film makes clear its focal point. The hawks are lovely, and the footage Lilien and others have captured over some 18 years is surely impressive (some of it aired on PBS as a film called Pale Male, he says, before he came back to cover the protests), but the point is the people who have identified with the birds, who have taken up their cause.

It may be, as The Legend of Pale Male proposes, that the people see in the hawk an admirable wildness and primacy, their own better selves reflected. It may also be, as an early interview subject grimaces, that the entire spectacle is in fact, “Not the wild, and it’s not really a pleasant sight to see city birds attacked and devoured by hawks.” The man goes on, “What I abhor is the attitude of people, that ‘Well, we’re doing a good thing for the city by ridding it of pigeons.’” It’s true that Lilien’s movie doesn’t offer much sympathy for the everyday pigeons that are caught and eaten—repeatedly. Instead, it celebrates the unusual, the first hawk to be spotted living in New York for 100 years. In that, it follows a typical story of celebrity.

The Legend of Pale Male


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