Pretty `Parrots' gives clear-eyed birds' view


March 11, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Watching Judy Irving's beguiling, moving and just plain fun documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, it's tempting to think of it as Dances With Parrots, but there's no hint of ponderous self-righteousness. We watch with oh-my-God delight as the hero, Mark Bittner, a penniless San Francisco musician turned self-taught parrot authority, bonds with a whole other species.

No one knows exactly where this free-roaming flock came from, but these birds make fabulous subjects. Whether in flight or in repose, they appear to be choreographing their own lives. And, as in any great dance film, they charge each of their moves with ritual and emotion. Lovers play out Apache dances. Parents feed their young by clamping their beaks over their children's beaks and wagging their heads back and forth.

Bittner articulates the message of his experience - that there's a Zen oneness to the universe - without pretension or sanctimony. He views the cherry-headed conures - and a mitred conure, and a blue-headed conure, too - as part of one more Bay Area tribe that acquired squatter's rights in a magic city. He defends them against ornithological purists who deride their presence because they aren't Northern California natives or decry the hybrids that emerge from the mating of different breeds.

The film pays tribute to the birds' vitality and hardiness without sentimentalizing them. They adapt to the city's cold and can gather food without Bittner's help. They also can fight savagely and turn on the weakest in the flock. When that happens, or when they're sick or failing, Bittner steps in and protects the victims, taking them into his cottage. Whether lovable or brutal, the refreshing, unruly life and outlandish color these parrots bring into the city proves hard to resist.

Irving always puts her camera in the right spot, then lets us savor what she finds there. Her film seduces you with its easy rhythm and unexpected dramatic potency. Bittner describes one parrot, Connor, as "regal" and another, Mingus, as half-sweet, half-ornery. He imagines a couple he calls Picasso and Sophie as a big, rough guy and a tiny, pert Parisian dame. He describes the heart-rending transfer of emotion that occurred before the death of a feathered friend named Tupelo. And Irving illustrates Bittner's instinctive perceptions so they connect directly with a viewer's intuition.

Her caring observation of Bittner and his birds pays off big-time; there's even a grand romantic fillip. The dual glory of the film is that the birds become characters and Bittner, a San Francisco "character," becomes a human being.

Wild Parrots

Documentary by Judy Irving

Released by Shadow Distribution

Rated G

Time 83 minutes

Sun Score ****

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