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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" (2005)

Sometimes you meet a person and you just know that their life would make an interesting movie. You can just see by watching them for a while that their life is in a constant state of turnaround and that an arc of some sort seems inevitable, provided the cameras are rolling at the right time. Mark Bittner, the subject of “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” has that kind of life. He’s unemployed. He does not have to pay rent where he lives. He’s a parrot enthusiast and spends most of his time looking after a group of wild parrots that inhabit his apartment. He cares for them as any parent cares for their child. Just don’t call him “eccentric.” He would probably prefer “interesting.”

Bittner has a gentleness about him that makes it easy for parrots to gravitate toward him. He looks a bit scruffy with his worn out denim jacket and long hair. He looks to be in his fifties. He names all the parrots and even knows some of their back stories. He feeds them, plays music for them, lets them fly in and out on their own, punishes them when they’ve been bad and talks to total strangers about them at the local zoo. This guy knows his parrots.

In turn, so do we. Just as Bittner becomes all the more interesting as we get to know him, his parrots also have a story all their own. One parrot, Mingus, likes to dance as Bittner plays him a little tune (a scene that will put a smile on any curmudgeon’s face). Mingus also has a Jekyll and Hyde personality that causes him to be punished once in a while. Bittner will put him outside to fend for himself in the wild, but Mingus will always come back inside and behave. We also get to know Connor, the ugly duckling of the bunch, who has little fear of being eaten by hawks, a major threat to all parrots. We also learn about two lovebirds, Picasso and Sophie, and find that love seems no less complicated amongst birds than it is amongst humans.

Director Judy Irving narrates her movie and informs us up front why she found Bittner so fascinating. It’s an off-putting declaration and brings up the inevitable question of “who is this movie really about?” Throughout the proceedings, it seems unnecessary for Irving to insert herself into her own movie. By the end, it makes perfect sense. The movie tells a story about the complications of being human as much as it does the dangers and joys of being a parrot.

Of course, the movie probably wouldn’t get a release if tragedy didn’t ensue in some way. Bittner has his share of problems in regards to his lifestyle and how he’s forced to alter it. Certainly, nobody will pay him to house and study parrots, but we leave the theater thankful knowing that he’s out there looking after them. Irving’s film gives us many real-life characters worth knowing, only a couple of which are human. Thus, we leave the theater reminded that there’s more to animals than stupid pet tricks or funny home videos. They can actually be quite interesting once you get to know them.

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