Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wild Parrots

Should you need a brief break from the burdens of office, Bush--as surely you must, from time to time--and opt for something other than the mountain bike, you could do a lot worse than rent yourself a copy of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." It's an hour and a half of sheer pleasure, and places not too great a demand on a brain that might be weary from the challenges of a day in the Oval Office.

Okay, so it sounds like a movie about birds, and in a way it is. There's a flock of some forty-five of these small-ish green and red parrots that have made this hilly green patch at the center of San Francisco their habitat. No one seems to know quite how they got there, but they are clearly not native inhabitants: the breed originates, as I understand it, in South America and they are imported to this country and sold as exotic pets, so it's entirely possible that the first arrivals escaped from the confinement of their cages, or were unceremoniously ejected by their owners. They are noisy creatures, with their constant screams and squawks, their table manners are messy at best--and they do have to answer the call of nature from time to time. Human pet owners notoriously have a nasty tendency to acquire their animals with little regard for the potential hazards, and are known to dispose of them heartlessly when they become a nuisance.

No matter how they arrived, there they are: beautiful with their flashes of bright green and red, a chattering community of exotic invaders that graces this small urban enclave with its restless, noisy presence. But the story is only partly about them. It's really about the salvation they brought to a lost human being who came to San Francisco as a would-be rock musician and spent years living on the streets, casting about for some anchor and direction in his life until he found them--and fell in love.

For a period of several years, Mark Bittner took up residence with the birds on Telegraph Hill. He fed them, named many of them, studied their individual quirks and characters, observed their pairing, mating and breeding, and cultivated their friendship and trust. When they were sick or injured, he took them into the home that he "rented"--at no cost: he had no job, no source of income, no money, and the owners of his tiny abode, I suppose, sensed the quality of the man and the goodness of his intentions, and simply allowed him to live there. He found similar means of support in the local community, and attracted crowds of fans to the spectacle of his special relationship with his flock of winged friends.

Bearded, burly, slightly unkempt and heedless of the conventional props with which we humans surround ourselves for our comfort, Bittner devoted himself to the birds. So perhaps he was guilty of a little anthropocentrism, a little projection of his human qualities and feelings onto these creatures of the wild. Perhaps he used them more than a bit to get the love that he failed to attract, for whatever reason, from his fellow human beings. Or was unable to give. But at the same time, he recognized and nurtured their special character, respected their wildness and freedom, took joy in their company.

In return, they changed his life. From a rootless, restless vagabond, he became something of a St. Francis of Assisi. He developed a real sense of mission, a sense of responsibility for himself and the world around him, an understanding of his own need for freedom and the limitations of the freedom he could choose. With a great blend of humor, tenderness and devotion, he charms us into accepting him precisely for what he does not want to be known by--his eccentricity. He engages us with his delightfully individual humanity.

And we, of course, learn about our own humanity along with him. We laugh at the birds' antics, we admire their devotion to each other, we worry about their welfare, their protection from predatory hawks and prying humans, and their future in an urban environment where civic bureaucrats are empowered to destroy them. We find ourselves reflected in their love affairs and lovers' spats, we watch them jockey for position and indulge in both vanity and wounded pride. We learn that there are risks in asserting our freedom, and that the world around us is not always benign. We learn about heroism, and about the pain of separation and death.

Oh, yes, be warned, Bush, if your heart is soft: there are tears as well as laughter in this short film. I won't spoil it for you by revealing how it ends, but be prepared for heartbreak as well as for redemption. Perhaps we humans really can't have one without the other. Rent it, anyway. You'll get a rich reward.


David said...

Peter, I just caught the end of it the other night when I got back from the studio, and my wife was watching the copy we got from Netflix. What I saw was really good, including the surprise ending.

When I lived in the Pasadena area, I remember a flock of parrots there too. There were like a traveling circus, total clowns.

PeterAtLarge said...

Yes, David, we had a small flock of them at our former home, too: they would visit our neighbor's coral tree once in a while, and were always a joy to see. That vibrant green! Cheers, PaL

PK said...

I saw it...glad I kept the Kleenex close by:).