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Shadow Distribution, Inc.

Official Site

Director: Judy Irving

Producer: Judy Irving

Cast: Mark Bittner, Judy Irving, a host of squawking but personable parakeets


As far as the recent crop of big-time documentaries is concerned, your Saturday-evening choices run the gamut from fiscally unsettling (Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room), to nutritionally unsettling (Super Size Me) to politically unsettling (Fahrenheit 9/11). Regardless of what you feel about these films, their collective thrust seems clear: People are out to screw you, so stay on your toes. Useful, perhaps, but pretty non-partisanly bleak—at least in date-night terms.

Then there’s the warm little dash of color called The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill. If the former three are the kind of muckraking, whistle-blowing exposes you’d expect to see on the front page of a watchdog newspaper, then flip to the Life/Arts section and you’d find Parrots, nestled somewhere between “Dear Abby” and the sort of light-in-heart, “human angle” features that start, “Martha Huggins has been selling oranges on this street corner for 25 years now.” Environmental filmmaker Judy Irving’s epically-titled piece (which, by the way, is not about the best party band you’ve never heard of, or a particularly devout sect of Jimmy Buffett faithful,) is short (83 minutes), sweet, and chock-full of heart and personal redemption, with perhaps the happiest ending you’ll see in theatres this year—made all the happier and more satisfying because it’s true. Fluffy? Okay, maybe a little, but come on. It’s about a guy who befriends parrots—what do you want, Oliver Stone? The story is touching, joyful, and genuinely uplifting, and if that sort of thing doesn’t suit you, then you and the other Goth kids can go have your rainy-day espresso party somewhere else, got it?

The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill is Irving’s cinematic document of a short period in the life of Mark Bittner, an itinerant, technically homeless would-be musician who has found both calling and communion with a bustling population of wild parakeets in the North Beach area of San Francisco. Bittner, a softhearted Jerry Garcia look-alike who came to the city chasing rock ’n’ roll dreams and spent a decade and a half on the street, estimates a flock of about 45 birds at the time of filming—the vast majority of which belong to a breed known as the cherry-headed conure (pronounced kahn’ yer). After first noticing the patently non-native species in 1990, he’s been getting closer to them ever since: feeding them, caring for them, observing them; learning both their habits and, ultimately, in many cases, their individual foibles and personalities. In an early scene, Bittner is surrounded by a fluttering cloud of intent beaks, which he is feeding, and an equally-rapt crowd of human onlookers, which he is (less deliberately, perhaps) entertaining. He calls one conure, Gibson, by name. A small girl asks if the birds are his. He says no, that they’re wild, but concedes that he did name them, pointing to grooves on Gibson’s beak that help Bittner distinguish him from the rest. After a moment, a clean-cut, 40ish fellow speaks up. His tone is mildly bratty and condescending—the question may be a shade sarcastic, but it sort of sums things up, nonetheless: “You’re kind of like the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill, huh?” Bittner laughs, a little awkwardly. But he doesn’t quite say no.

But you paid to see wild parrots, right? Well, be not afeared; Irving (by way of Bittner) gives you your money’s worth. There’s Mingus, the lame-legged, wanna-be-domesticated goofball who won’t stay out of the house and bobs his head to Bittner’s guitar-playing (seriously, you’ve got to see it—it’s puppies-in-baby-bonnets cute). There’s Connor, the only blue-crowned conure of the bunch, who struggles with love and identity in an aesthetic red state (and dabbles in a little same-sex flirtation along the way). There’s Sophie, the demure “little French girl” (that’s right—Bittner not only anthropomorphizes, he Franco-pomorphizes) who looks to her strong but partially blind gentleman Picasso for protection, until he disappears…. And there’s the sincerely heart-breaking tragedy of Tupelo, which still moves Bittner to near-tears. You want parrots? It’s a freaking parrot Real World up in here.

Irving’s film is, as she intended it to be, less a nature film than a personal one. Bittner comes across as a particularly sensitive, gentle, eminently respectful fella—the sort of protagonist you can, and do, root for. And if you’ve ever had a pet of any kind, this movie is for you. (That last line used with permission from some third-grader’s Reading Rainbow book report.) Parrots, incidentally, is also quite effective as a travelogue, as Irving’s camera frequently and lovingly captures breathtaking panoramic shots of the very photogenic city by the bay. Irving’s editing, though mildly cornball in one or two parts (ditto for the score by Chris Michie), is on the whole masterfully sharp and sure-handed, and contributes subtly but substantially to a narrative that is both smooth and surprisingly tidy—especially for a documentary film. At day’s end, The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill is a simple, soothing, vaguely spiritual tale that will (if you’ve got a soul at all) leave you smiling. If you’ve got issues with adorable-animal pictures, take your mom. She’ll like it, and she can be your excuse. Then you’re free to cry softly to yourself. (You pansy.)

—Brian Villalobos

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