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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 24.14%
Average: 6.9%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 3.45%

3 reviews, 11 user ratings

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Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, The
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by PaulBryant

"Will soothe the distrust we have all felt since seeing Alfred's bird movie"
5 stars

Meet Mark Bittner. He’s in his late forties, single, unemployed, lives in San Francisco, thinks the hippies were too airy, and the beatniks were too down. Oh, right... and he has immersed virtually his entire life in birds.

No, not the type of birds Alfie Elkins was immersed in – we’re talking parrots here. Wild, South American parrots to be exact; a red crowned flock – save for an ornery blue crowned individual named (by Mark of course) Conner – that congregates incessantly around Telegraph Hill, beneath San Fran’s Coit Tower.

When Wild Parrots begins you’ll think to yourself, ‘okay, here is some random flock of birds tended to by some unemployed oddball – big deal, I could probably head down to Skid Row and see the same thing 25 times over’. But by the end of the film you’ll know the birds’ names, recognize their personalities, realize they have separate, funny, sometimes heartbreaking life stories, and you’ll say to yourself, ‘wow, I sure take a lot of things for granted’.

As the unofficial caretaker of the wild flock, Bittner knows that people around town see him as a little bit eccentric. He’s a walking spectacle of faded denim, long, graying hair, giant glasses, and unruly beard. And, of course, he’s usually surrounded by little green birds who nibble away at seed all over him. He hasn’t paid rent in over 25 years of living in San Francisco, nor does it appear he’s done much cleaning in the place he does stay, and to boot, he’s given his various feathered friends monikers like Picasso, Puskin, and Scraperella. Eccentric? Mark? Really??

And yet, the realization that Mark is an intelligent, extremely passionate, fascinating guy, convinces us pretty early in the documentary. Its question and answer format with director/writer Judy Irving is a touch awkward at times (but fails to mar the film by the time we’ve seen it all), but mostly Bittner is just given the chance to talk. And he’s a brilliant storyteller, explaining the individual tales of his birds – though he considers them wild, it’s hard to not to see that these birds belong to Mark, as much as Mark belongs to the birds – as though they’re characters in a quirky little novel he’s writing.

Like the story of Mingus, a temperamental little conure who has taken to Mark more than the others, and has lived in his apartment since Mark nursed him back to health. Instead of caging Mingus up when he throws a tantrum, Mark lets him outside – to the bird this is the harshest punishment – and waits till he is calm enough to come back in. Mingus likes living away from the wild, and doesn’t look at Mark’s walls as his prison, but as his home.

Adding to the film’s charm is the mystery surrounding the parrots’ arrival in San Francisco. Urban legends are abound in Telegraph Hill about how their area acquired the exotic flock, and Irving serves up some more local color to present us the various theories. It’s a nice diversion, and an intriguing one, not only to hear the possibilities of how the birds actually made the cross-continental journey, but to recognize how their existence has sparked such a connection between people. When at the start of the film a suit-and-tie go-getter questions Mark’s motivations towards the birds, he is shrugged off, and looked down upon for his ignorance. He's got too many things on his mind to see the big picture, obviously, whereas Mark has had 25 years to sit back discover that what matters is to live his own life - his way.

The parrots, we’re told, are nearly impossible to study in the wild, which makes Mark’s “hobby” not only fascinating, but an influential case study in its own right. Of course, if it were only science, it wouldn’t have made a great movie – and Wild Parrots is a great movie – but it is Mark’s humanity and endearing sincerity that makes the film what it is, when it could have easily been just a photo-op of some rare birds.

Some conservationists see the birds as a threat – as a disruption to the natural eco-system; an argument which is understandable in theory, but not if you see the film. The birds live their lives around Telegraph Hill with their modern-day Saint Francis, try to avoid the constant threat of disease and predatory hawks, and look for a mate who will complement their lives. That’s what its all about. Not about foreign species or disrupting natural habitats – especially since the species of parrot isn't exactly thriving – just about life, and everyday problems… bird-wise.

Cynicism is easy and simple, and Mark is not a simple person. His personality may be easy to label, but the label is far too effortless to hold any water. Those who get to know Mark understand him, and connect with his innocence and compassion in a real way, because of those little birds. Anyone who sees the film will too. It’s a film about connectedness; and by watching it, we are added to a growing list of bird-lovers that, unbeknownst to us, is rather long.

It’s a great film we don’t expect to be great – which makes it all the more fun.

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originally posted: 07/16/05 08:00:19
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User Comments

3/22/08 Pamela White facinating, funny and a few tears 5 stars
4/15/06 NoRefill This movie was really just OK. Nothing life changing or even exciting. 3 stars
1/03/06 Suzz One of the best films of 2005 5 stars
12/14/05 Corinne the story and the cinematography kept me entranced. 5 stars
10/26/05 Anita Bath terrific. Absolutely fantastic. Just great. Loved it. Well, it was nice. Actually it sucked 1 stars
8/03/05 Maire Percy truly awesome 5 stars
5/22/05 Avi we love this movie 5 stars
5/02/05 Dorothy Malm fascinating movie, I could watch it twice 5 stars
4/03/05 NEBulous truly enjoyable story of both the birds and Mark. Wild parrots 4 neighbors too. 5 stars
3/10/05 jonh isverygood 4 stars
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Directed by
  Judy Irving

Written by
  Judy Irving

  Mark Bittner

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