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Quiet patience and an observant eye turn a seemingly unpromising subject into a rich and fascinating movie. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill captures the life of Mark Bittner, a gentle homeless musician who's befriended a flock of wild parrots in a neighborhood of San Francisco. Following Bittner, the
camera zooms in on individual parrots, revealing their individual personalities and the traits of their species. This leads to Bittner's own life, the network of friendships that support him, and the ways in which the parrots--a non-native species--interact with both the natural ecosystem and the city government; just about every topic opens up another until a flock of colorful birds represents a microcosm of nature and society.
Filmmaker Judy Irving has created an exemplary documentary simply by paying attention to the details of the world around her subject.
Everything you expect from a Hollywood blockbuster--romance, violence, humor, sorrow, strong personalities in conflict--is here in spades, except that the heroes and heroines have bright red and green feathers. Utterly rewarding. --Bret Fetzer
Product Description: An "engrossing, delightful film" (The Washington Post), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is the bonafide sleeper theatrical hit of the year. The film's endearing guide is Mark Bittner, an aging bohemian, but the supporting cast members, a rambunctious flock of urban parrots, are the true stars, and their surprisingly humanlike behavior makes for a wondrous and rare experience. The film follows the ups-and-downs of these wild birds within the green niches of San Francisco as Bittner befriends, feeds, and names the members of the flock. Along the way, we meet many unforgettable characters: among them Connor, the grouchy yet lovable outcast of the flock, crying for a mate but luckless in his pursuits, and "the lovers," Picasso and Sophie, inseparable until Sophie is forced into mourning when Picasso disappears. More than a mere birdwatcher, Bittner finds solace in his immersion with these strikingly beautiful creatures - but how will he cope when he's evicted from his sanctuary and forced to live away from the parrots? Packed with romance, comedy and a surprise ending that "makes you feel like you could fly out of the theater" (San Jose Mercury News), The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill shows just how wondrously similar the human and animal worlds really can be.
Below, Cinephile Ned Viall interviews producer/director Judy Irving:
Ned: There's a scene early on where you ask, "Why don't you cut your hair?" Mark says, "I'm not going to cut my hair until I have a girlfriend." So I wondered, "Will there be a scene at the end where he cuts his hair?" Did you know what was going to happen when you recorded that scene?
Judy: I recorded that close to the beginning of the project. I didn't know how things would end up. As I was editing, I knew what I was doing, though. Like in dramatic films, I wanted to have setups and payoffs throughout the movie. That was one of them. I also wanted folks almost to forget it after it happened.
Ned: I was struck by the narrative quality of Parrots. It’s almost like a fiction film. There’s Connor, the outcast. He's like the tough guy who turns out to have a heart of gold, sticking up for the injured birds as their fellow cherry heads attack them. Then he suffers his apparent tragic demise—like the brother in Slumdog Millionaire.
Judy: Connor was the classic outsider. I didn’t make anything up. The cherry heads didn't like him because of his blue head. Discrimination happens even in the bird world.
Ned: Another part of the story arc was where you create this beautiful world, and then it has to end. Mark has to leave. What's going to happen to the birds?
Judy: That all happened while I was filming. Mark was living in the cottage, and the owners had to ask him to move because it was literally sliding down the hill. I knew that might happen when I started filming. I just hoped I’d get enough shot before he had to go. So his moving became part of the story. But in a documentary you can't control those things. There's no script. That's the risk you take. You just hope events will unfold in a way that makes a good story. I much prefer storyline documentaries to standard “talking heads and b-roll” type documentaries
Ned: In the movie you’re not antagonistic exactly, but you keep asking Mark questions like, how come you don't get a job? Gradually, that changes. There’s more to him than you thought.
Judy: When I first met Mark, I wasn't sure he was movie material, frankly. (Laughs.) After awhile I realized he was a great storyteller, with a good voice and screen presence. I needed to ask the questions that the audience would ask.
Ned: The film is not at all what most people expect it to be.
Judy: Right. And because of the title, a lot of guys aren’t interested in watching it. Then their girlfriends or wives drag them to it, and they’re moved. They find out that it's about much more than just parrots. It's about personality, consciousness, and life and death.
Ned: And love.
Judy: (Laughs.) And love.
An "engrossing, delightful film" (The Washington Post), THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL is the bonafide sleeper theatrical hit of the year. The film's endearing guide is Mark Bittner, an aging bohemian, but the supporting cast members, a rambunctious flock of urban parrots, are the true stars, and their surprisingly humanlike behavior makes for a wondrous and rare experience. The film follows the ups-and-downs of these wild birds within the green niches of San Francisco as Bittner befriends, feeds, and names the members of the flock. Along the way, we meet many unforgettable characters: among them Connor, the grouchy yet lovable outcast of the flock, crying for a mate but luckless in his pursuits, and "the lovers," Picasso and Sophie, inseparable until Sophie is forced into mourning when Picasso disappears. More than a mere birdwatcher, Bittner finds solace in his immersion with these strikingly beautiful creatures - but how will he cope when he's evicted from his sanctuary and forced to live away from the parrots? Packed with romance, comedy and a surprise ending that "makes you feel like you could fly out of the theater" (San Jose Mercury News), THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL shows just how wondrously similar the human and animal worlds really can be. DVD Features: Origins of the Flock; Urban Legends; Update: Mingus at the Oasis; Parrots Music Video; Mark Bittner's Home Movies; Flock Updates; Deleted Scenes; Theatrical Trailer; Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround; California Quail Bonus Short; Interactive Menus; Scene Selection
I'm Judy Irving, the producer/director of "Wild Parrots," and I'd like to address Wes's misconceptions in "Warning: DVD is not in wide screen." The film was shot in 16mm (1.66 to 1), which is the same shape as a tv screen. When it was blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, each shot in the movie has to lose 39% of its original image at top and/or bottom, to arrive at the 1.85 to 1 wide-screen aspect ratio. For each shot, I had to decide what to lose: head room? bottom? or a little of both? For the DVD release, I specifically requested that the film be mastered in its original 16mm dimensions, so that viewers could see 1) 39% more image, and 2) how each shot was originally framed. Wes's confusion may have resulted from IMDB stating that the film was shot in wide-screen. It wasn't. Enjoy!
Not only an endearing, entertaining and environmentally intelligent documentary, this film is also funny, thought-provoking and inspiring. The story of Mark Bittner's journey to become the expert on and the caretaker of the flock of wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, while he avoids most of the appearances of being connected to society or to society's values along the way, certainly makes one wonder about the importance of some of the taken-for-granted symbols of success. The respect he earns for the study of the birds is a result of the intelligence, sensitivity, and acute observation skills he brings to his passion, while he wryly maintains a charmingly self-deprecating view of himself-- even if he DOES deny being eccentric. What's wrong with eccentric?
It is a movie about the parrots as much as about Mark. If you can watch this movie and not be convinced of the individuality of the birds' personalities, then you are hopelessly anthropocentric. If you watch Mingus dance and are not convinced he's enjoying the music, or if Connor's story in no way moves you, then you may have become far too limited in your view of the world; a bird's eye view is certainly called for. This is a quirky and lovely story, lovingly told. I did not find the ending to be a surprise, as many did, but agree that it was uplifting.
Congratulations to director Judy Irving. Like the other reviewers, I will buy the DVD because this is one I'll want to see again over time. A-
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"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" bears the same title as the 2004 book by Mark Bittner, the bohemian resident of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill who chronicled his experiences with a flock of cherry-headed conures whom he befriended and cared for. This film by Judy Irving begins later in Bittner's relationship with the birds and ends sooner than the book, which covers more time and goes into more depth in describing the individual birds' personalities. You don't need to have read the book to understand the film, though. Anyone who loves parrots will enjoy seeing the characters among San Francisco's wild flock. But I think the book does increase the audience's appreciation of the flock and Bittner's role in helping them along. If you have read the book, it is extraordinary to see the birds in action in this film, which includes a lot of colorful footage of these playful, vivacious parrots.
As the film starts, the flock numbers about 45 birds, cherry-headed conures plus one blue-crowned conure, Conner, and an occasional budgie. It ends around the time Mark Bittner moved away from Telegraph Hill due to renovations. In addition to observing the flock, we hear Bittner recount his life in San Francisco as a bohemian drifter in search of direction, which he finally found in the unlikely form of a flock of displaced parrots. Bittner does most of the talking about the parrots, through interviews and voice-over narration. There are also interviews with his Telegraph Hill neighbors, the curator of birds at San Francisco's Lorikeet Aviary, John Aiken, and a host of people speculating on the flock's origins. By the film's end, the flock included a mitred conure and hybrid offspring, and it's unclear to me how many birds it numbered.Read more ›
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This gentle documentary features Mark Bittner, an aging hippy and once-musician living in San Francisco, and the birds he loves, a flock of now-wild and breeding cherry-headed conures (and a few hangers-on) who reside in the city's trees. Viewers who don't have experience with the intelligence and antics of the parrot family might approach this film the way one of the tourists does at the beginning when he says, "If they have names, then they can't be wild." Viewers will soon understand the unique niche these parrots have forged for themselves in the urban environment. Non-native and yet able to find food because of imported landscape plants, these birds swoop over the hills in a raucous flock and have become as much a part of San Francisco as the more numerous pigeons.
Filmmaker Judy Irving captures Bittner's need to do right by the parrots with loving photography and soft-spoken questions. When she asks her most pointed question, "What is the difference between you and the pigeon lady?", Bittner pauses for several beats before finally answering, with some pain, "I don't know." But we do know by then. His feeding the birds might not be any different but his curiosity about them and his drive to protect them distinguishes him. Irving has managed to portray, through Bittner's interactions and thoughts about "his" flock, the individuality of the birds: Mingus, an escaped conure who would rather live inside with Bittner than outside; Connor, the lonely blue-headed conure who inhabits the fringes of the cherry-headed society but who values his freedom over companionship; little nerve-damaged Sophie whose poignant devotion to her mate Picasso is heart-breaking; and, most touching of all, the cripple Tupelo who adores her trips into the garden while cradled in Bittner's hands.Read more ›
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