The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Bill Gibron

This film reminds us that natures surrounds us everyday, and provides us with much of what makes life worth living.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Director: Judy Irving
Cast: Mark Bittner, Sobey Martin
Distributor: New Video Group
MPAA rating: G
Studio: Pelican Media
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2005-12-26
Amazon affiliate

Nature has a funny way of playing metaphysical mirror every now and then. Take our current status as a possible victim of global warming. The atmosphere is not taking out its anger on us. In truth, we created the septic scenario thanks, to years of ecological abuse and regulatory rejection. The depleted ozone is a reflection of our abuse of the environment, and this image is not pretty.

It even works on a far more individual level. Humans become uniquely attached to their pets, and a kind of symbiotic synthesis occurs. We give them anthropomorphic attributes � like emotions, and personalities � and they provide a non-stop lesson in the reasons why the wilderness was tamed and tempered by man for his own glorified gains.

Then there is the story of Mark Bittner and the flocks of wild birds that live among the gardens and parks of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. More or less a homeless rock and roll musician, Bittner still carries the shredded remnants of the freak flag he so effortlessly flew back in his hippy days. Though his denim jacket is faded, and his long ponytail has started to gray, Bittner believes in the spiritual and the ethereal connections between all living things. When he came to California, he was looking for purpose and direction. Yet after two decades, he still hadn't found it; that is, until he noticed the feral cherry headed Conures roosting in the trees outside his squat. Observation became obsession, obsession turned to co-habitation, and before he knew it, Bittner found his mission in life. Conversely, the parrots also discovered a patron and a partner.

Awe-inspiring, and emotional without being mawkish, Judy Irving's amazing documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is not just a nature travelogue cast within an unusual urban setting. Nor is it just the story of Mark Bittner, why he came to the famous Golden Gate city, and how he learned to speak for an entire population of non-indigenous wildlife. In truth, it's both, but it also manages to transcend those traditional trappings to become a statement about life's potential to be one big Zen arcade.

Toward the end of the narrative, Bittner quotes an influential Japanese master who points out that a waterfall is really just one river. Sure, as the falls cascade and break apart into a billion liquid pieces, there is a momentary sense of individual importance. Yet they all fall back into the wake below, continuing on their communal process. Bittner believes the world is like this thought provoking maxim, and he proves it with the bond to his birds.

Actually, they really aren't 'his', though many of the man-on-the-street conversations we see conclude that they are. People press Bittner for the difference between a pet and a part of nature. When he responds about their freedom and self-sufficiency, others argue that he feeds them everyday, and even has names for them. Though he may want to deny it, Bittner is truly the keeper of this amazing fluke of a flock. His position is more cosmic than concrete, however. He will take in a bird if it is sick or lame, but he never forces his feathered friends into being his source of amusement. Instead, Bittner opens his soul, and lets decades of disappointment and a life in pursuit of legitimized leisure pour out in waves of concern. Thus opened, purpose comes flooding in, along with a sense of connection to the universe and himself that just wasn't there before.

What Irving does so expertly, then, is parallel Bittner's views with the reality of what he's working with. She never lets us forget that we are dealing with nature here � wild, unpredictable, and not always pretty. There are several heart-wrenching scenes when dying, despondent birds are discussed by Bittner, and as much as we realize his insights are just instinctual inner reactions, we also sense he has found a way inside these beings, feeling their pain and then sense of pride. Anyone who's ever loved a pet so much that their impending death seemed like the end of everything will find all those emotions reoccurring as Bittner tells the tragic tale of a very ill-bird named Tupelo. In combination with other elements that tug at the very core of our heartstrings, the last 20 minutes of this movie are a devastating experience.

And it's not just because we all have a soft spot for cute and cuddly things. Certainly, these parrots are precious, but Bittner has studied them for years, and his insights and instincts are uncanny. He really reads these birds, learns their behavioral patterns and reflects on their ability to survive thousands of miles away from their native habitat. With all this consideration comes empathy, and soon we start seeing the same things that Bittner does. That is why the story of Conner the outcast (a blue headed Conure in a realm made up almost exclusively of reds) becomes so touching � and so tragic � and why the case of couples like Picasso and Sophie take on far more meaning. Though we haven't been around them, day in and day out like Bittner, we feel we establish a similar sympathetic lifeline with these critters, and what happens to them moves us deeply.

This is not a study in manipulation, however. Irving, an expert nature photographer (the DVD presentation of the film offers excellent examples of her work) realizes the raw power in imagery, and lets a great deal of what Bittner says match up effortlessly with her gorgeous action footage of these birds. The combination is electric, like getting the chance to listen in on the underlying dialogue of nature. When describing his one real "pet", a crippled parrot named Mingus who has a strange sort of split personality, we see that Irving can handle the fragile grace of humanity, as well.

Bittner will go through a lot in this film: he loses his home when the more than understanding owners decide to renovate and rent it out, and we prepare for what will be a series of sad goodbyes. But Irving doesn't indulge the emotion. Indeed, Bittner will not allow it. He views this entire enterprise as a personal reawakening, and he realizes that once you've brushed the sleep from your eyes, it's time to get on with the rest of existence.

It is philosophical facets like this that make The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill more than just an engaging entertainment with a subtle environmental message. Sure, we hear from city officials who have been asked to destroy the parrot population, as well as others who believe that Bittner is a bit, shall we say, "eccentric". It's a word that this amiable arrested adolescent will never cop to, however. Toward the middle of the movie, he wonders aloud why anyone who tunes in to the normalcy of nature is considered odd, or unusual. Since it surrounds us everyday, and provides us with much of what makes life worth living, he thinks everyone should be so "peculiar".

Maybe it's like Bittner says; the human and animal worlds are far more similar than we think. Then again, the wild parrots are themselves an anomaly as only the wilderness can create. And thanks to the tireless efforts of Bittner, and the cinematic artistry of Irving, they are part of one amazing motion picture experience.

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