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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
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Filmmaker Judy Irving has created an exemplary documentary simply by paying attention to the details of the world around her subject.
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.
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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.
- 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
- California Quail Bonus Short
Top Customer Reviews
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-
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. But the flock included around 160 birds by the time this DVD was finished.
It's incredible to see these birds living and thriving in an urban environment, feeding on fellow non-natives: the subtropical plants imported for landscaping. Judy Irving has captured some of the most engaging footage of parrots that I've ever seen on film. And this film adds some value to Mark Bittner's book beyond visuals: Bittner comes across as less reclusive and eccentric than he did in his book. And I got a much stronger sense of Conner's plight, as the flock's regal, thoughtful outsider, from the film than I did from the book, which I really appreciated. "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is a vivid account of some very out-of-place parrots who have made a place for themselves in an urban jungle filled with humans and other oddities. A great film for bird-lovers -and take a look at the book too, if you can.
The DVD (New Video Group 2005): This DVD is loaded with extras as long as the film itself, and you won't want to miss them if you're interested in the origins of the flock, updates on the flock, or just want to see more parrot pictures. There is a "Flock Update" (7 min), containing info on the birds and Mark's move back to Telegraph Hill, which I believe is in the book but not the movie. There are 7 deleted scenes (25 min) available, including a long sequence, "Flock Origins" (14 min), on the early days of the flock, in which Laurel Wroten recounts her observations of how 2 apparently escaped cherry-headed conures became 7 and then were joined by Conner and his blue-crowned mate. This ends a lot of speculation about how the flock began. There are 4 short films (51 min) about Conner, Mingus' life at the Oasis Sanctuary, and "Mark's Home Movies", which include a lot of footage of birds discussed in the book. There is a Music Video (4 min) of a song about Dojen, Conner, and Tupelo, recorded by Roberta Fabiano. Also: a theatrical trailer (2 min), "Filmmaker Bio" (text), "About the Book" (text), including how to order a signed copy, "About the Soundtrack" (how to order), "About Pelican Media" (where to get t-shirts and other movie paraphernalia), and DVD credits. No subtitles.
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. When a city councilman reveals that some environmentalists wanted the birds captured and exterminated since they are considered invaders, viewers will be horrified since, unlike the environmentalists, they have come to know and love these birds.
Irving provides context for the man/bird relationship through interviews with a lorikeet zookeeper at the San Francisco zoo, the locals who have their own theories about how the flock came to be, politicians, and tourists. This film is not a hard-hitting documentary since it fails to fully explore the underlying conditions and politics of the situation. Instead, it is a tribute to Bittner and the individual parrots he adopts as his friends. Viewers who cannot get enough of the conures will be delighted with the DVD extras, several of which follow up on events.
The film shows how right Bittner's fatalistic sixties' philosophy can be: if something doesn't work out, then it wasn't meant to be. You just have to wait for the right calling to come along. In Bittner's case, he has become a champion not only of these conures but of animal right/intelligence in general. -- Debbie Lee Wesselmann