Telegraph Hill is a steep ridge of land jutting up from San Francisco’s waterfront. On the evidence of Judy Irving’s documentary “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” however, it would seem to rise from the valley that time forgot.
In this enchanted haven—where the maritime mist is tinged a faintly psychedelic purple and the Summer of Love never quite ended—dwells a real-life, middle-aged Rip van Winkle. Aspiring musician Mark Bittner “dropped out” during the counterculture’s twilight and eventually hit skid row, spending some 15 years on the streets. Years later, he has awakened to redemption by tending an improbable flock of wild South American parrots that have forged a unique niche in San Francisco’s urban jungle.
Bittner’s recently published memoir underpins Irving’s film, which opens February 11.
Bittner achieves local notoriety for his uncanny communion with the parrots, and tourists congregate to wonder at this paunchy, blissed-out bohemian hand-feeding the noisy emerald birds which line his arms and shoulders. Minutes into the film, one such onlooker conveniently dubs Bittner the “St. Francis of Telegraph Hill,” a pat moment that feels rehearsed. Irving plays a few merry pranks with documentary convention in “Parrots,” but is clearly enraptured by her subject—she visually beatifies Bittner, framing him with a corona of golden rays caught in his scraggly, pony-tailed mane.
Like San Francisco’s other famous birdman, whom Irving honors with a view of Alcatraz prison seen from Russian Hill, the autodidact Bittner has gone deep into an avian groove, expounding on the genealogy of flock formation and dropping such bon mots as, “I don’t tell anybody where the nests are. I just call it The Republic of El Coto.”
Bittner feeds, nurses and apparently dialogues with this bevy of 40-odd birds, to which he’s given names––Mingus, Picasso, Pushkin, Tupelo. He faithfully charts the travails of coupled parrots and relates the fraught group dynamics among the flock with a richness of psychological nuance usually reserved for a daytime soap opera.
Irving’s formal strategy is to replicate Bittner’s Zen concentration on the parrots, following them in magnifying telephoto shots frequently slowed down to a stoned reverie. A seasoned hand at nature documentaries, Irving’s supple, precise 16mm cinematography is the film’s strongest asset. Topping it all, of course, are the antic, shockingly intelligent, sumptuously hued parrots, reciprocating human attention with raw candor. The birds, however, are only half the story.
Although Irving displayed an acute conscience in the classic anti-nuclear exposé “Dark Circle” (1983), “Parrots” suffers a strange myopia, ironically effacing the very social problem embodied by Bittner himself––San Francisco’s homeless. Irving’s portrait of one charmed semi-transient condenses the rest of the city’s 15,000 homeless into shots of a toothless black man posing for tourists at City Lights Bookstore and a solitary white woman camped on a sidewalk, adorably slurping a spoonful of molasses. In voice-over, Irving rhetorically queries Bittner, “I’m sorry I have to ask, but what’s the difference between you and the pigeon lady?” Sighing ruefully, he replies, “I don’t know.”
Well I’m sorry I have to answer, but the average pigeon lady isn’t squatting in a bungalow on Telegraph Hill’s highly desirable Greenwich Steps, and publishers aren’t bidding over her memoirs. First “Parrots” mystifies the circumstances of Bittner’s survival—we’re to believe, for example, that he subsists on the largesse of an old-world Italian barista, dispensing lattes and sweet rolls to grateful hobos. Then it asks us to get worked up when the bungalow’s legal owners, a contrite middle-class couple whose house perches overhead, belatedly set about evicting Bittner to clear the way for construction.
In light of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s reactivation of the homeless issue—campaigning for expanded services despite a $350 million-plus budget gap and unreliable federal support—Irving’s ode to her Dharma bum comes across as solipsistic. The lovingly photographed parrot flock stands in for the city’s “untamed” street population, but more perniciously, her portrayal of Bittner as saved from homelessness by his “intuitive” gifts also implies the inverse—that the majority of homeless remain destitute because of innate personal deficiencies, the punitive logic behind many anti-welfare measures.
Near the end Bittner waxes Buddhist, reciting a parable of a great river that fragments into millions of drops as it descends a waterfall, rejoined as one flowing mass again at the bottom—a thought-figure symbolizing the transit of our individual lives while emphasizing the larger oneness of all existence. Complacently assured of its own enlightenment, “Parrots” is disinclined to acknowledge how many drops land hard.