THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL directed by Judy Irving. 83 minutes. A Mongrel release. Opens Friday (July 15). For venues and times, see Movies, page 89. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Movies are going to the birds. It says something about the current state of film that two of the most engaging movies of 2005 are documentaries about winged creatures: first March Of The Penguins, now The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill.
Of the two, Parrots is the more absorbing. It's subtler, less Discovery Channel-ish, and reveals more about the human condition. I'm not kidding. It's one of the best films of the year.
Mark Bittner is a straggly-haired, bespectacled creature straight out of an R. Crumb drawing. Attracted to the bohemian lifestyle and the Zen-like insights of San Francisco's beat writers, the Washington state native moved there, tried to become a singer/songwriter, failed and ended up living on the streets for more than 14 years.
Once there, he took up with a flock of wild conures, feeding and occasionally nursing them, as one sage observer points out in the film, like a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi.
Filmmaker Judy Irving follows the philosophical, sensitive Bittner and his quirky birds - many of whom we come to know and recognize - over nearly five years, filming mostly outside his dishevelled rent-free apartment on Telegraph Hill.
Bittner's insights into the birds' personalities are remarkably perceptive, and Irving always finds a way to illustrate his points. We meet the solitary, music-loving Mingus, the unlikely parrot couple Picasso and Sophie, as well as Connor, the flock's one blue- crowned conure.
Irving never over-emphasizes the connection between the wild, freedom-seeking Bittner and the birds, who have either escaped from zoos or been released by pet owners. (A very funny sequence documents urban legends about how the non-native parrots first arrived in the city.)
Calm and clear-eyed, Bittner doesn't oversell his life philosophy. He's not out to prove anything or justify his non-traditional way of life. Even when he's faced with emotional crises, he never comes across as sentimental.
Wild Parrots covers it all: life, death, work, love, partnership and having kids - only these kids have feathers.
If pinot noir sales shot up after Sideways, try finding a parrot in a pet store after this remarkable film.