WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL
Directed by Judy Irving
Angelika Film Center
The zen of parrot maintenance
San Franciscan bohemian finds meaning in life amidst a flock of wild parrots
By IOANNIS MOOKAS
Telegraph Hill is a steep ridge of land jutting up from San Franciscos waterfront. On the evidence of Judy Irvings documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, however, it would seem to rise from the valley that time forgot.
In this enchanted havenwhere the maritime mist is tinged a faintly psychedelic purple and the Summer of Love never quite endeddwells a real-life, middle-aged Rip van Winkle. Aspiring musician Mark Bittner dropped out during the countercultures twilight and eventually hit skid row, spending some 15 years on the streets. Years later, he has awakened to redemption by tending an improbable flock of wild South American parrots that have forged a unique niche in San Franciscos urban jungle.
Bittners recently published memoir underpins Irvings film, which is playing at the Angelika.
Bittner achieves local notoriety for his uncanny communion with the parrots, and tourists congregate to wonder at this paunchy, blissed-out bohemian hand-feeding the noisy emerald birds which line his arms and shoulders. Minutes into the film, one such onlooker conveniently dubs Bittner the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill, a pat moment that feels rehearsed. Irving plays a few merry pranks with documentary convention in Parrots, but is clearly enraptured by her subjectshe visually beatifies Bittner, framing him with a corona of golden rays caught in his scraggly, pony-tailed mane.
Like San Franciscos other famous birdman, whom Irving honors with a view of Alcatraz prison seen from Russian Hill, the autodidact Bittner has gone deep into an avian groove, expounding on the genealogy of flock formation and dropping such bon mots as, I dont tell anybody where the nests are. I just call it The Republic of El Coto.
Bittner feeds, nurses and apparently dialogues with this bevy of 40-odd birds, to which hes given namesMingus, Picasso, Pushkin, Tupelo. He faithfully charts the travails of coupled parrots and relates the fraught group dynamics among the flock with a richness of psychological nuance usually reserved for a daytime soap opera.
Irvings formal strategy is to replicate Bittners Zen concentration on the parrots, following them in magnifying telephoto shots frequently slowed down to a stoned reverie. A seasoned hand at nature documentaries, Irvings supple, precise 16mm cinematography is the films strongest asset. Topping it all, of course, are the antic, shockingly intelligent, sumptuously hued parrots, reciprocating human attention with raw candor. The birds, however, are only half the story.
Although Irving displayed an acute conscience in the classic anti-nuclear exposé Dark Circle (1983), Parrots suffers a strange myopia, ironically effacing the very social problem embodied by Bittner himselfSan Franciscos homeless. Irvings portrait of one charmed semi-transient condenses the rest of the citys 15,000 homeless into shots of a toothless black man posing for tourists at City Lights Bookstore and a solitary white woman camped on a sidewalk, adorably slurping a spoonful of molasses. In voice-over, Irving rhetorically queries Bittner, Im sorry I have to ask, but whats the difference between you and the pigeon lady? Sighing ruefully, he replies, I dont know.
Well Im sorry I have to answer, but the average pigeon lady isnt squatting in a bungalow on Telegraph Hills highly desirable Greenwich Steps, and publishers arent bidding over her memoirs. First Parrots mystifies the circumstances of Bittners survivalwere to believe, for example, that he subsists on the Catholic largesse of an old-world Italian barista, dispensing lattes and sweet rolls to grateful hobos. Then it asks us to get worked up when the bungalows legal owners, a contrite middle-class couple whose house perches overhead, belatedly set about evicting Bittner to clear the way for construction.
In light of Mayor Gavin Newsoms reactivation of the homeless issuecampaigning for expanded services despite a $350 million-plus budget gap and unreliable federal supportIrvings ode to her Dharma bum comes across as solipsistic. The lovingly photographed parrot flock stands in for the citys untamed street population, but more perniciously, her portrayal of Bittner as saved from homelessness by his intuitive gifts also implies the inversethat the majority of homeless remain destitute because of innate personal deficiencies, the punitive logic behind many anti-welfare measures.
Near the end Bittner waxes Buddhist, reciting a parable of a great river that fragments into millions of drops as it descends a waterfall, rejoined as one flowing mass again at the bottoma thought-figure symbolizing the transit of our individual lives while emphasizing the larger oneness of all existence. Complacently assured of its own enlightenment, Parrots is disinclined to acknowledge how many drops land hard.