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The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

(2005) *** G
83 min. Shadow Distribution. Director: Judy Irving. Cast: Mark Bittner, Connor, Olive, Mingus, Picasso.

The gentle, G-rated documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill records the sort of story that used to simply pass into urban legend. In the Telegraph Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, one-time street musician Mark Bittner house-sat a perched apartment and pondered his next move. Without a steady income, Bittner was borderline homeless and convinced music would no longer sustain him. Taking inspiration from Gary Snyder, aspiring writer Bittner decided to find the nature around him.

Quickly, he discovered the flock of wild parrots living in the city: cherry-headed, mitred, and blue-crown conures. Originally from South America, the birds have evolved into a unique San Francisco hybridization as distinct as the famous sights of the City-By-The-Bay (the Golden Gate Bridge and Park, Alcatraz, Caffe Trieste, and Coit Tower all make cameo appearances).

Though no one knows exactly how San Francisco became home to this flock—which has grown in size from 26 to 160 despite predatory hawks—Bittner has done the service of recording their behavior, feeding them, and caring for them when they are hurt. In a humorous prologue, passersby size up Bittner and try to wrap their heads around his lifestyle; one ironically dubs him "the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill."

Producer-director-photographer-editor Judy Irving notes a transitional period in Bittner's life and work, as Bittner faces eviction, but the film is surprisingly upbeat. Irving's observation of both the man and the parrots coalesces in Bittner's psychoanalysis of his beloved birds. "I'd like to see Sophie and Connor get together. I think they'd be ideal for each other," he chuckles. "I think Connor's interested. I think Sophie is dubious, but, y'know, she just lost Picasso, so maybe she needs more time to mourn..." Any anthropomorphizing pet owner will be able to relate; besides, Bittner's thorough observation makes him a credible interpreter.

Irving's cheeky construction feints at story points than delays their resolution, creating a sort of expository suspense and allowing for a hinted-at surprise ending. The question of how Bittner has maintained his existence with no visible means of income is a big one, which Irving eventually answers, if not thoroughly. Bittner, author of a memoir of the same title as the film, makes a soothing storyteller, and his open-book emotion speaks volumes about himself and the parrots (he describes one late bird in terms usually reserved for dearly departed family). Though Bittner's story has a bittersweet ending, his optimism is ultimately rewarded.

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