Sunday, December 5, 2010
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)
Most people have movies that they return to, like an old blanket. Objectively they may know these aren’t the best movies ever made, and that time would be better spent seeking out something new, but when that rare unoccupied evening opens up, it’s often safer to stick with the safe bet. Supposedly, an uncle of my wife’s in England watches only three films: The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Lawrence Of Arabia. A recent article speculated that DVD sales are starting to level off because people have now “built their DVD libraries.” And so Hollywood’s latest avenue of hope may be killed off by the joy of losing oneself endlessly within Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings trilogies (extended versions of course).
I don’t spend a lot of time on this kind of movie viewing. Regular readers may recall my ongoing neurosis about trying not to exceed seven movies a week, a quota rapidly used up by new releases, Cinematheque seasons, DVD discoveries of treasures I’ve never seen before, and the odd thing taped from cable. This hardly leaves much time to spend on already established territory. The closest I have to a “comfort” movie might be Michael Mann’s Heat – I watched that one last December, in July 2002, and maybe three more times since its 1995 release. I don’t think I’ve watched any other movie as often over that period, and although Heat is a fine film, I wouldn’t claim my motives are primarily aesthetic. I just get off on it – and in particular on Al Pacino’s performance. I’ve been known to steal lines from that and drop them into my own conversations, although I admit I have a hard time making “She’s got a great ass, and your head is all the way up it” sound like something I came up with.
Pacino is surely my favourite actor because in the last year or two I also rewatched People I Know and City Hall, neither of which would possibly warrant revisiting otherwise (and I rewound several times to the funeral address in City Hall). But otherwise, I’m not sure I have much to report. My closest thing to a “guilty pleasure” might be Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales. The film is wholly defensible on numerous grounds, but I admit that’s not why I watch it – I just like the bawdiness of it, the sense it almost turned into Carry On Chaucer. Unfortunately, it’s not on DVD and my tape is just about falling apart, so I haven’t seen that one for a long time either. Otherwise, if I think about those of my DVD’s I might watch slightly more than the others (by which I mean more than once, although I hate to admit it given the price tags), I come up with things like Citizen Kane, films by Jacques Rivette and John Cassavetes, and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. No possible reason for guilt there.
The Wild Parrots
I know I sometimes get a little haughty in my writings on popular movies, but it’s often not the movies that get to me so much as the cloud of hype, lies and delusion that surround them. I certainly get more irritated than I used to by the number of times I’m expected to debate some aspect of Revenge Of The Sith or Batman Begins, a conversation that I truly can’t see is worth having (I wrote a mere 161 words on Batman Begins a few weeks ago, and even that was a strain). As I write, the last movie I saw was Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, about which I can think of almost nothing worthwhile to say. Other than to note that whereas the 1971 Gene Wilder movie is itself comfort viewing for a fair number of people, the Tim Burton version most definitely won’t be.
This is all something of a preamble to saying that it would be no surprise if Judy Miller’s film The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill ended up as repeated viewing in more than a few households. The epitome of the little film that got lucky, it’s a documentary about a middle-aged semi-bum called Mark Bittner who became enchanted by a colony of forty or fifty wild parrots living in downtown San Francisco, and eventually started to devote his life to them. Every parrot has a name, and – in Bittner’s telling – a distinct personality, and the film conveys this with extreme charm. There’s a bit of a plot relating to some changes in Bittner’s life, but basically it’s just under ninety minutes of parrot shots.
These ninety minutes were surely assembled from hundreds of hours of footage, which could cause you to wonder whether the visual proof of the parrots’ individual characteristics doesn’t belong to the same genre of documentary as the videotape that supposedly showed Terri Schiavo responding to her parents and struggling to express her desire to live. But as my wife pointed out the other day, I would never have liked this film as much if we hadn’t got a dog (named Pasolini, in tribute to the abovementioned), which caused me to evolve into a vastly sentimental disciple of animal idiosyncrasy (actually, my favourite part of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory was probably the squirrels). So now I can understand what Bittner means when he says it’s not that he’s anthropomorphic about the parrots; it’s that the rest of us are too anthropocentric in general.
The film is no great shakes by usual measures, allowing opportunities to get away in several directions. For example, it’s asserted several times that Bittner’s work has scientific value, but it’s never enunciated what that is. He’s criticized the movie himself, for portraying an excessively easy-going sense of the life he was leading (in reality, he says, he “was constantly struggling to stay afloat”), and creating “an image which I’m not particularly crazy about.” Irving inserts herself into the movie, and frankly doesn’t come across as the most scintillating intellect.
But none of this matters, because The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill contains some of the most memorable, engaging, and moving character portraits in years. I’m talking of course about Picasso, Mingus, Sophie, Olive, Tupelo and the rest. Connor, the crusty but kind-hearted senior bird, is a particularly central figure, but I warn you now, he comes to a sad end. The film has a G rating, but it seems to me that Connor’s demise would be way more traumatic for a young child than breasts or swearwords. As I write that, I recall accounts of young dreams shaken by memories of the death of Bambi’s mother. The Wild Parrots is not a Disney movie, but in the same way that animation at its best might appear purer and more magical than life, it resembles an oasis of empathy amid so many cold and barely approachable films.