March 05, 2005

MOVIES: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Judy Irving, 2003)

In the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, there's a flock of nearly 50 wild parrots. No one knows exactly how they came to be there; it's generally assumed that the flock began when some pet birds escaped, most likely (because of the large number) from a pet store.

Today, they seem to have adapted quite well to living in the wilds of San Francisco, but they are also regularly fed by Mark Bittner, who has spent a lot of time over the last several years watching and getting to know the birds. They eat from his hands, and he takes sick birds into his home to recuperate.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill tells the story of Bittner and his flock; we are introduced to several of the birds, and Bittner tells us how he got involved with them.

Bittner doesn't appear to do anything but spend time with the parrots; he lives rent-free in a small cottage and has no interest in working (in his words, he's "too spiritual to follow the careerist path"), and though the subject is raised, it's never quite clear exactly how he supports himself.

His hair hangs midway down his back, since he'd promised himself not to cut it until he found a girlfriend. But "I'm not an eccentric," Bittner tells us repeatedly. Well, of course he is, and a charming one at that.

Director Judy Irving has clearly spent a lot of time with Bittner and the parrots; she must have been able to get fairly close to the birds herself to get some of the marvelous shots we see.

The only thing that annoyed me about the movie (and Bittner) is its tendency to anthropomorphize the birds. Shots are edited to create the impression that birds are moving in time to music; Bittner talks about the birds' pair-bonds as if they were romantic relationships; and he's convinced that the birds are capable of feeling (and communicating) human emotions.

That aside, though, Bittner's relationship with the parrots is sweet and endearing, and the movie has a few surprises in store in the last half hour (if this were fiction, I'd call them "plot twists"), with the last few words providing a particularly happy ending to Bittner's story.

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