The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill(New Video, 12.26.2005)
Normally when a movie title includes "Wild" and a San Francisco landmark, it's not a family film. But instead of being slang for heathen boys in the Tenderloin, "The Wild Parrots" are actually birds, red-crowned conures to be precise. I had somehow avoided any publicity or reviews for the movie. For all I knew, this would be an extended Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom episode. Luckily this was more than just a nature documentary with Marlin Perkins' narrating.
The film centers on the parrots and the man who somewhat takes care of them. The best way to describe it as Grizzly Man without the feeling of doom. Mark Bittner is a man who moved to San Francisco hoping to be a working musician. Unfortunately, he didn't hit it big and found himself working odd jobs and squatting all around town for decades. And then, while being a caretaker on Telegraph Hill, he encountered the parrots and a bond formed.
Like Tim Treadwell of Grizzly Man, Mark's time with the parrots becomes a major part of his identity. He feeds and cares for the parrots. He names the parrots and charts their relationships and offspring. Mark becomes the liaison between the birds and the people who are curious about them. Unlike Treadwell, Bittner doesn't nearly orgasm from touching parrot poop. He gets emotional about his feathered friends when they die, but he understands the way nature works. Unlike Treadwell, who declares himself a protector of the grizzly bears, Bittner knows that if he's not around to pass out seeds to the flock, they'll still survive.
The film explores the several theories of how the flock formed. Did they escape from a ship? Did they bust out from a pet store. Were they tossed out by someone who no longer wanted squawkers in the house? It doesn't matter too much since these South American birds have adapted well to life in the city of Rice-a-Roni. The only people that don't like them are local environmentalists that want them exterminated since they are a non-native species.
Director Judy Irving does an amazing job of balancing the flock with Bittner's life. You learn a lot about the life of birds and their friend. She even answers the pesky question of how does this guy live in the most expensive city in mainland America in a cottage with an amazing view of the bay without being the CEO of a cyber company. When she asks what's the difference between him and the homeless pigeon ladies, he's not sure if there is one. The reality of his living arrangement allows us to see that Bittner is just like his bird pals. Maybe that's why they flock to him?
Wild Parrots ultimately is the anti-Grizzly Man. I don't want to give away the ending, but let me hint without spoiling. In Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog is able to distance himself from Treadwell at the end of the film. Irving does not reach that conclusion with Bittner. Unlike Grizzly, this is a date film. If you know an adult who enjoyed Winged Migration and March of the Penguins, you might get some action by showing them Wild Parrots.
The bonus content includes "Flock Update" that allows us to know what's happened to both Bittner and the parrots since the film came out. There's also a short with Bittner visiting Mingus at a bird care compound. There's nearly 30 minutes of home video Mark shot before the film project. And there's a brief piece on the California Quail. Among the deleted scenes is "Flock Origins" where we meet a woman who adopted the parrots when they lived around her apartment in Frisco. She could have become Mark if she hadn't moved.
It's nice to watch a film on a whim and be rewarded with something of substance. That is so rare in these days of hype that bludgeons us into accepting meaningless moments as entertaining. Who would imagine a bird documentary wouldn't turn out flighty? -- Joe Corey