The San Francisco way of life seems righteous and wonderful while you're there, and completely divorced from reality as soon as you leave. That alternate-universe vibe pervades The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a documentary about one Mark Bittner, a resident of the city's North Beach neighborhood who cares for some 45 conures that congregate in and around his cottage. As a profile of an "alternative" lifestyle, Bittner's story hits all the right notes the love of nature trumping the rat race and all that but something about the way in which it's been told can turn even a fellow fauna fancier into a harrumphing curmudgeon.
Maybe it's the cloying soundtrack music that accompanies scenes of Bittner tending to his birds, which he refuses to call pets despite feeding them daily and having assigned them all names. Or maybe it's the hippy-dippy evasiveness with which he greets filmmaker Judy Irving's highly reasonable questions like how a grown man can afford to be a full-time birdkeeper while enjoying no visible income. (A former street person now living off the kindness of a well-to-do couple, he says he hasn't paid rent in 25 years.) Bittner never really answers the latter query, just mumbles some mumbo-jumbo about having bypassed the "careerist" path for a more "spiritual" one.
Irving's willingness to call him on his idleness positions the film as interesting and atypical, but the rapidity with which she lets him off the hook carries the stink of advocacy. As such, even the wealth of knowledge he's accumulated about the conure species verges on the grating, especially when he imagines their individual emotional lives in detail and without especial irony.
The real irony is that parrots just ain't that enthralling. In close-up, they have a certain flat-eyed inscrutability, and it's always cute to watch them do that little repeated head-duck that can look like dancing when performed to the right music. After a few minutes of feathered fun, however, there's no denying that they're only slightly more exciting than goldfish. Bittner is similarly unremarkable, except for his ability to take advantage. By the movie's end, he's ended one era of his layabout life and moved on to the next, thanks to the attentions of another indulgent party. But who's better equipped than a bird expert to spot a pigeon?
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