The accidental ornithologist

A lighthearted flight of fancy

by

At first glance, Mark Bittner seems to be the quintessential San Francisco eccentric. A gentle, aging hippie whose dreams of becoming a rock musician never panned out, he lives a meager existence in a dilapidated cottage on Telegraph Hill. Sporting a faded jean jacket, middle-aged gut and epic ponytail, he’s as amiable as he is aimless. He’d make a pretty dull subject for a documentary film … if not for the parrots.

Though accounts and urban legends disagree as to how, a flock of about 50 cherry-headed conure parrots (indigenous to Ecuador and Peru) improbably made their way to San Francisco and stayed. Bittner, with his infinite serenity (and lots of time on his hands), slowly attracts and befriends these exotic birds. Feeding them, studying them and even caring for them when they become injured or sick, he begins to learn their individual personalities and quite accidentally ends up discovering a greater meaning and purpose to the world.

Bittner is careful not to domesticate his feathered friends and, more importantly, avoids romantic notions about their existence. Instead, he seeks to understand the conures on their own terms and becomes not only an expert of sorts but also a local celebrity. Though slow to reveal himself, Bittner turns out to be anything but the typical hippie outcast. Humble, thoughtful and astonishingly spiritual, he wins us over with his affable resilience and modest epiphanies.

The story behind filmmaker Judy Irving’s deeply personal documentary speaks volumes about the subtle magnetic draw of Bittner’s relationship with the parrots. On a whim, Irving decided shoot a short about this “inarticulate hermit” she had stumbled across, using some unexposed film stock. That whim turned into four and a half years of filming, and, eventually, a best-selling book.

It’s shouldn’t be surprising that the bright-eyed and beautiful parrots steal most of the show. There’s Mingus, an emotionally volatile charmer who refuses to leave Mark’s apartment. There’s the complicated and tragic love affair between the elder Picasso and the younger Sophie, and the sad death of the lethally ill Tupelo. Bittner finds his deepest connection with Conner, the sole blue-crowned conure in the flock. Defiantly independent and a bit disgruntled, it’s easy to see why he identifies with this proud but lonely bird.

The documentary does manage to find a few dramatic turns, especially when the yuppies who allowed Mark three years of rent-free living evict him from their property and, in turn, the parrot’s lives. Bittner accepts the change philosophically even if the rest of San Francisco panics over the birds’ fate. Most unexpected is filmmaker Irving’s eventual role in Mark’s life. It adds a nice twist to the story and justifies her early narrative intrusions.

Given that most documentaries tend to dwell on dysfunctional personal stories and acts of social and political injustice, you might be inclined to pass over a film that, on its surface, seems lightweight. Far from provocative, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill could be accused of not asking tough or challenging questions about man and his relationship with the wild. But that would be missing the point. Irving’s portrait of Bittner and his birds earns its sentimentality and becomes an invaluable testament of human kindness. Engaging and thoroughly charming, her feel-good documentary does something quite remarkable: It makes you happy you saw it.

 

Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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