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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
Director: Judy Irving
Cast: Mark Bittner
mily Dickinson wrote “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” And by that, I think she meant hope soars. It allows us to transcend earthly boundaries and look beyond the limited reach and daily humdrum of our plain lives toward something greater.
But then again, Dickinson, genius poetess that she was, also had a bit of the crazy in her, if you know what I mean. So, I suppose, it is possible that the famed recluse, that sweet belle of Amherst, wasn’t talking figuratively at all, but in fact, was simply writing obsessively about some bird named Hope, a wild parrot say, one of a flock for whom she cared daily and with whom she was passionately, neurotically, and maternally infatuated. Now wouldn’t that be strange?
Oh! And speaking of strange: meet Mark Bittner. He’s the primary human character in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a new, earnest, geeky, and awkward documentary. It features an intriguing subject and pulls you in with a charming, basic, and original hook: odd but good-hearted man obsesses with odd but stunning flock of birds. But although Judy Irving, the film’s writer-producer-director, succeeds in creating a warm and loving portrait of one seriously eccentric dude, the work ultimately fails to make its own case, to sell its subject as something more compelling than just sweet or bizarre.
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It’s one of those quirky tales—the kind of story you might hear on Morning Edition at five minutes before the hour. A few dozen exotic parrots, mostly cherry-headed conures native to South America, had taken up residence in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Likely caught in the wild and imported to the States many years ago to be sold as pets, they somehow (no one knows for sure) were freed or escaped. Now, they live in the foggy tree-lined hills overlooking the bay, where they continue to breed and thrive. Today they number over a hundred.
And yet, bright green with fiery red feathers crowning their heads and a ring of white to highlight the sharp, piercing black of their eyes, these beautiful parrots seem colorless in comparison to Bittner himself. He was a homeless guy, moving around the city for years. He’d come to the streets of North Beach in order to be a musician, to sync up with one generation of beats and another of hippies, but he found neither. What he did find though, were all those damned exotic parrots. Of course, a friendship began.
Since the early ‘90s, Bittner’s primary occupation in life has been to support and study these birds. They all have names—Pushkin, Picasso, Sophie, Tupelo—and they trust him in ways that they don’t trust other people. He knows when one goes missing, and watches carefully as they pair up and separate. He loves these birds. He talks with genuine compassion and feeling about them and it’s hard not to warm to the ragged dirty guy as he addresses the camera, his unkempt hair running long over the back of his torn denim jacket.
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Bittner has transformed himself, undoubtedly, into the world’s foremost expert on an especially discrete subject. And while those parrots are indeed fascinating (and photographed magnificently), it is not the subject of that expertise that draws us in, it’s the expert himself. And it’s our own questions of how and why someone like Bittner becomes an expert like Bittner.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Christopher Guest mock documentary with the very same title and subjects as this film and it would be hilarious, I’m sure. Bittner has even written a blues tune about his beloved parrots, which in a too-good-to-be-true moment, he performs for us. But this stuff is real human territory and so creates a genuine challenge for the filmmaker. With fodder so kooky and a character so weird, it would be easy for the filmmaker to patronize, to take quick shots for easy laughs, and to play up the snark. But The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is beguiling because it is sincere and humane. In that sense, it shares its special nature with Spellbound that brilliant and illuminating documentary from 2002 about our achingly awkward spelling-bee participants: always heartfelt, frequently hilarious, and never snide.
And yet, it’s that same reflexive refusal to condescend that I think also keeps this film from digging in when it most needs to. Bittner is weird and we get that message clearly; but it seems like the filmmaker adores him too much to seriously probe that weirdness. She shies away from considering the forces that drew him to these birds and the circumstances that drive him to obsess. Early in the film, Irving, in a rare voiceover, wonders how Bittner could maintain his lifestyle after all these years. It’s the overriding question of the film, but it’s hardly touched on again. And when she asks Bittner what distinguishes him from the thoroughly 100-percent cracked pigeon-lady, another skid row fixture, he can’t answer. And so, disappointed, we’re left to question.
By: Rob Lott
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