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Our review of The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill: Special 2-Disc Collector's Edition, published November 20th, 2008, is also available.
Birds of a feather…well, you know the rest.
The documentary, once the bastard stepchild of genres, released in limited runs and seen only on member-supported television or in revue cinemas and art houses, has become an increasingly popular choice for DVD release into the home theater market. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is the latest such documentary. The question is—does it fly?
Facts of the Case
Mark Bittner, a gentle soul without a fixed place of address and looking for some direction in his life, is inspired by a poem to seek the nature around him. Guess what he finds?
This is the story of a man and his birds—though throughout the documentary Mark will be the first to deny that they are, in fact, his. They are their own birds, he will say. Wild birds, living on their wits in the jungles of San Francisco.
How they actually got to San Francisco is a matter of debate. Some say they are escaped pets. Others say that their owners, sick of all their squawking, let them loose. While others still repeat whatever urban legend they happened to hear first.
The fact remains that these wild parrots of Telegraph Hill have become neighbourhood superstars. And Mark…well, he has become their biggest fan.
When you hear the words "Wild Parrots," what comes to mind? I, for one, can't help but think of snarling, flesh eating birds with crazed looks in their eye. The truth, however, is a lot gentler. What makes them wild is that they are not behind bars. They are wild in the same way that pigeons and squirrels are wild. Therefore, another name for this feature could have easily been "The Free Parrots of Telegraph Hill." So the title itself is a bit of a misnomer.
Another error is in thinking you will be watching a documentary about these birds and nothing but these birds. In truth, the real story is more about Mark Bittner, a man looking for direction and finding it in these feathered friends. In that regard, a much more honest title for this documentary would have really been: "Mark and His Relationship with the Free Parrots of Telegraph Hill." But then maybe it wouldn't have won as many awards with that on the marquee.
Mark Bittner is the conduit through which we get to meet and know these birds, and he makes an affable guide. He introduces us to Picasso and Sofie, a couple of love birds, who each manage to thrive (for a while anyway) in spite of disabilities; there's Mingus, the one parrot from the flock who could truly be called Mark's pet—this character is half parrot half pit-bull, whose worst nightmare is having to go outside; and Conner, the patriarch of the group, probably one of the originals, who is the one blue head in a flock of reds and boy, does that make him one miserable and lonely old cuss. And then of course there's Mark. We learn as much about him as we do about any of the birds.
Here's a guy who drifted to San Francisco with dreams of being a musician; dreams that didn't quite work out. He's quiet, gentle and has been living off the kindness of friends and strangers for his length of time in the city by the bay. When we meet him he's been living rent-free for three years in a cottage that's a part of another property. The owners just couldn't find it in their hearts to tell him to go. After all, he feeds the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and that's made him a bit of a celebrity himself. Only he doesn't look the part—except for maybe his exceptionally long hair, which he's made up his mind not to cut until he finds himself a girlfriend.
Throughout the documentary we learn how some birds died, how others got attacked and eaten by hawks (no, really—there are hawks in San Francisco) and how a couple of them got sick for awhile but are now as healthy as can be. We learn who is dating who, and how it feels to be a single parrot parent, but what we don't learn, not really, is how Mark feels about these situations. For instance, he talks about the death of Picasso with an incredible amount of detachment. The same goes for numerous situations where tragedy strikes. In fact, it's not until the third act until we actually get a sense of what these birds mean to him.
The conflict that enters the picture at this point is a major renovation to the property in which Mark has been staying. He has to leave, and he doesn't know where he's going to go. The only thing he does know is that he's going to have to leave 'the hill' (and his birds), and that wherever he's going he won't be able to take Mingus with him. It's at this late stage in the film, as Mark is packing up his stuff into large garbage bags that he truly opens up. We finally get to see how much he loves these birds; we feel how attached he is to them instead of just listening to a whole bunch of lip (beak?) service. He shares a very intimate and tender story about an experience he had with a very sick bird that anyone with any heart at all will instantly empathize with. And of course we also watch him say his last goodbyes to Mingus.
But don't feel too bad—Mingus is well taken care of, the rest of the parrots continue to thrive and Mark, at long last, finally has a reason to cut his hair.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was a real crowd pleaser in its initial run so maybe something was lost in translation as it made the transition to DVD. Now don't get me wrong, I liked it; I just didn't love it. At 83 minutes, it felt at least 23 minutes too long. The close ups were beautiful, but in general, the camera work wasn't anything too stellar, and the slow motion and freeze frame shots were downright cheesy. As far as the sound went, the 2.0 stereo was fine. The Dolby 5.1, on the other hand, was just downright weird. Now, maybe there was a fault in my copy of the film and my copy alone, but in 5.1, all the sound came out of my left surround speaker. All the other speakers were as silent as poor Picasso after a hawk feeding frenzy.
There were plenty of extras. There's a flock update (which is an absolute must for a DVD like this), a Mingus update chronicling life at his new home, lots of deleted scenes, a series of short films that includes Mark's home movies, and a music video that has to be seen to be believed.
So are you going to like this doc? Probably. But are you going to love, love, LOVE it? It all depends on what kind of bird you are.
Fly. Be free.
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