Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill


Dir: Judy Irving

On the recommendation of I Just Saw's own Maxwell, and through my own interest in nature documentaries, I sought out this short but very interesting examination of a sub-tropical bird flock in San Francisco and the man who cares for them. Max highlights the fact that nature flourishes in an urban environment and the focus on the individual personalities of the birds in the film. I echo those comments (especially the former) and would direct you to his earlier review.

But a few things struck me beyond what he writes. San Francisco itself takes a starring role, as the only city where this sort of human/animal relationship could happen. The caretaker is essentially a squatter, a homeless wanderer who spouts Corso and eschews "the system." It is not suprising that this guy exists, but that he is so organically integrated into the cityscape is great. A local coffee shop feeds him, the ornithologists treat him like any other citizen, and the owners of the cabin where he lives wouldn't dream of kicking him out. The jokes I whispered to myslef about the hippie were soon overtaken by a less cynical awe of the tolerance and easy going nature of one of the world's great cities.

On the other hand, the film does not do near enough to explore the human end of this equation. The anthropenctrism that Max alludes to is an inescapable component of this narrative, especially during a brief meeting with a couple that rescues birds. A visit to their home gives us a glimpse of almost destructive animal care, the house strewn with bird cages and (to my mind) close to unliveable. The type of people so commited to animal care that their enitre life revolves around it, who are so obsessed that they stand on the precipice of being "the crazy cat lady" and hoarding the very creatures they love, is a very important cultural phenomenon. That the film avoids this subject is unfortunate; it is indicative of a fear of offering any nuanced or potentially negative view of the humans. Not that this sort of advocacy documentary making is wrong, but there is another side to this story, one that is not as flattering to the humans, that I would have liked explored.

The upshot is a very watchable film that is somewhat slight. A more ambitious approach would have made a more evocative film. But it remains a fascinating micro-sociology of animals adapting to an unfamiliar environment.



Blogger Felicia noted on 2/25/2006 06:05:00 PM that...

I didn't really like the movie so much. I read the book about a year before the movie came out. Mark Bittner (the hippie) is, suprisingly, a pretty good writer, and he has a big heart.

As for your saying, "but there is another side to this story, one that is not as flattering to the humans," I don't understand. Are you comparing the couple that rescues parrots to say, Star Trek fanatics or the like?

I guarantee that the very people we view as having "odd" hobbies are happier and have more satisfying lives than most.

While I will never understand those grown men and women that collect stamps, attend Big Foot conventions, or come together to play games with tiny, painted figurines, I do understand the people who choose to live with parrots.

I discovered parrots about three years ago. I have three of them, all similar to the parrots in this movie. Before them, my life was stale and stagnant, even a little depressing. But my parrots bring just enough extra joy into my life and the lives of my family.

I like to tell people that it is a very exciting time in history to be a parrot owner. They have almost completely been ignored by science and the rests of humanity for thousands of years, prized only for their beauty and mimickry siklls. We're just starting to figure out what intelligence they are really capable of.  

Blogger paroske noted on 2/25/2006 10:44:00 PM that...

Well, there are Star Trek fans (your's truly, at least the early stuff) and then there is this woman:

Watching Start Trek is fine, having seen every episode in acheivement, but there is a level beyond that is more . . . complicated.

I don't deny that anyone with a hobby, or even an obsession is happier for it; they wouldn't have one if it made their lives miserable. But when the obesssion becomes an all consuming practice, their is a trade-off.

The movie hints enough at that aspect of these particular parrot lovers (not all, obviously) that I thought it would be intersting to explore. Of course, for the filmmaker to be dating the subject precludes that sort of examination.

All right, I gave away the ending. The birds are still cute!


Blogger maxwell noted on 3/04/2006 12:11:00 PM that...

Nice review MAP. And you look good in that hat.

The anthropocentrism in this film is troubling because it goes hand in hand with the suffering of animals.

People who "care" about animals too often give them human personalities, start feeding them human foods, and letting gators live in the bathtub.

Animals live according to their own needs & capacities and when humans forget that they tend to sweeep up animals into their lonely dramas. Animals usually suffer.

The scenes where Connor (the 'different' bird) and Mark spend time together made me pretty uncomfortable for this reason.

But Mark seems to remember that his job is support for these birds, not to live their lives for his own.

Now as for star trek. I'll simply say that many star trek folks lead happy and healthy lives. Check the doc Trekkies for this point to be made -- including a much more deep analysis of the woman who wore her dress uniform to court that MAP references.