Saturday, August 06, 2005

Of Penguins and Parrots

I’m a documentary junkie. When I was a teen, I’d sometimes get up late at night so that I could catch HBO documentaries that might parents thought might be inappropriate for my age (when I wasn’t doing so to catch the occasional R-rated movie in the hopes of glimpsing a boob or two, but that's another story).

I have an especial fondness for nature documentaries which goes all the way back to watching Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Looking back, of course, it’s hard not to seen an essential corniness to that show which seemed to have the goal of moving every single animal in Africa to some other place on the continent using rocket propelled nets and tranquilizer guns as primary props.

Be that as it may, there’s something about wild animals that has an irresistible appeal. For a kid like me, born and raised in the suburbs of the Bay Area, there’s a fascinating sense of otherness that shows about animals convey. Along with Marlin and his poor side-kick Jim (who was always given the task of actually capturing dragging the poor beasts from place to place) I would go out of my way to catch National Geographic episodes. I remember pitching a nasty fit, once, because my dad had the audacity to preempt one of their specials with a football game that went into overtime. The nerve!

Of course, now that we have Animal Planet on as a 24-hour basic cable television show, as well as an honest to grog National Geographic channel, I’ve found that my interest in animal shows has waned. What has become common is no longer special. Fortunately, there’s still something about seeing that sort of thing on the big screen that allows me to slip past my own sense of jadedness. Something about the bigger-than-life magnitude of a movie screen can still transport and delight me. Alas, quality animal documentary movies are hard to find, even when one has a good independent theater to rely upon.

This summer has given me a double treat. I’ve had the chance to see not one but two animal documentaries, both about birds as it happens, albeit rather different sorts of birds. March of the Penguins is about the life-cycle of Emperor Penguins struggling to live in the very harsh environment of the Antarctic. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, by contrast, is about a flock of wild parrots living well outside of their native environment, having established themselves in San Francisco.

Penguins is a National Geographic film and it shows. If you’ve seen any National Geographic films it’s fair to say that, to a first approximation, you’ve seen all of them. You know, walking in, that you will see examples of birth, of life, and of death. You will recognize the careful style of editing. You will know that there will be a deep and somber voiced narrator (in this case Morgan Freeman). You will anticipate that there will be some truly exquisite cinematography. The pictures and the sounds will be crisp and have an indefinable glossiness to them, as though they could be taken directly from the screen and placed on the cover of a National Geographic magazine.

Penguins has all of those features. Never the less, it is an undeniably captivating format in spite of the fact that it closely adheres to a formula. Indeed, one of the reasons that National Geographic specials stand out in our minds is that the formula is such a successful one at capturing our attention. One of the things that make it work is that the focus is squarely on the animals. We hear the narrator but his sole role is to bring us closer to the animals. There is a very definite sense of being there.

Penguins are hard birds to empathize with. Their faces not only lack expression but, in fact, look more like a sort of abstract sculpture: a small round lump tapering to a long, cruelly hooked point. You can barely see their eyes. All the sorts of cues that human brains focus as points of projection are lacking. Making it worse, full-grown emperor penguins are far from being like their smaller, cuter counterparts. They simply don’t look friendly or playful and, for the most part, they aren’t: they are big, loud, ungainly creatures.

It says something about the talent of the editors that we do empathize with them in spite of these. When the penguins are doing the seventy mile trek to their breeding grounds, we are amused at they sometimes flop down on their bellies and push themselves along like tubby sleds (the producers also give us a couple of pratfalls to chuckle over). When an inexperienced penguin couple accidentally breaks their egg, we feel sorry for them. The sight of the penguin fathers bravely enduring a storm while trying to protects their eggs gives us a profound sense of sympathy. The sight of a penguin mother, driven to a kind of madness by the loss of her chick, trying to take another chick, and the other penguin mothers holding her back, is actually heart rending. Then there are the chicks themselves.

While adult Emperors may not be cute and cuddly, their chicks certainly are. They’re chubby, little bundles of grey fuzz. There’s not a child on the planet that wouldn’t want one of these things. Of course, National Geographic plays that up in a number of ways. We feel good when we see them playing, we feel warm when we see them interacting with their parents (no siblings here -- penguin chicks are born one to a couple), and we feel awful when we see a big seagull trying to make one of them its dinner.

If you are getting the idea that the film is emotionally manipulative, it is. It’s a shameless manipulation that, never the less, perfectly managed to bypass my natural sense of cynicism towards such tactics. While I was aware that the editing and the narration were deliberately dragging me on an emotional ride the fact remains that there are some absolutely remarkable animals and that their story is genuinely compelling.

Penguins live in a harsh world. The amount of investment they need to put into a single chick is staggering (Focus on the Family might want to consider making them their symbol of committed parenting). First they need to make a long journey to their breeding ground during the winter (necessitated by the fact that during the summer the ocean will come to the breeding place… if they didn’t make the march, the chicks would drown). During this time, they can not forage or hunt for food since there is none. After the mother’s lay their eggs, they need to go back to the ocean and hunt for fish. In the meanwhile, the fathers have to stand vigil over the eggs, using their own feet as nests (since there’s no other material to be found). The father’s go a full 180 days without food of any kind. Eventually the mothers come back (assuming they haven’t been killed by seals) and the fathers take their turn.

There are so many ways for an egg to be lost, or for a chick to be killed, that it’s remarkable that any manage to survive at all. The degree of sacrifice that parental penguins make is, of course, a product of natural selection -- nothing less than such an investment would get their genes into the next generation -- but it’s still awe inspiring and incredible to watch.

If Penguins is a representation of the pinnacle of spit and polish for animal documentaries, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is its conceptual opposite.

National Geographic documentaries always make their animals the sole focus for the audience. Parrots not only spends much of its time on the person of Mark Bittner, who observes and interacts with the birds, but even has the narrator step out in front of the camera! In documentary land, this is almost always an immense faux pas. One reason that a lot of people reject the idea that Roger Moore is a documentarian (as opposed to a propagandist) is precisely because he makes himself such a big part of his own film.

Where Penguins has polish, Parrots is fairly amateurish. The film is often grainy and frequently washed out or dim, the sound is considerably less than excellent, and the editing doesn’t provide us with a clean narrative story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Honestly, I enjoyed Parrots far more than I did Penguins for the precise reason that it was such an unaffected production.

The movie starts with an opening sequence in which we meet Mark and the Parrots. Please notice that I didn’t say Mark and his parrots. He’s out in public feeding the birds which draws the attention of a number of passers-by and tourists. One guy (who you can’t help but to instantly dislike) insists that the birds must be his pets. Mark assures him that the birds are genuinely wild. The guy asks if he’s given the birds names. Mark admits that he has. “Well, you feed them and you have names for them. That makes them your pets.”

Understanding why that’s wrong is one of the almost inadvertent themes of the film and one of the things that make it most captivating. Curiously that same guy provides the solution when he sarcastically says that Mark is the St. Francis of Telegraph Hill.

Wild Parrot flocks are surprisingly common. Almost every major city has them. What’s remarkable is how hardy the birds are. Parrots are tropical birds. One would suppose that they would perish, if not cared for, when taken out of their warm environment but wild parrot flocks have been found to flourish even in Chicago. More over, the birds have proven adaptive in other ways. The ones in San Francisco, for instance, have devised strategies -- and there’s no exaggeration to that term -- for dealing with hawk attacks. Among other things, the birds set up a sentinel to keep watch for hawks while the other birds rest. When they do spot a hawk, they have a number of ways of avoiding attack. The most remarkable is that sometimes they will fly behind the hawk, keeping themselves out of its attack radius.

Much of the film is about Mark Bittner. Mark isn’t an ornithologist (real ornithologists aren’t very interested in the birds since, technically, they are an invading species -- some conservationists, indeed, advocate their capture and destruction for that very reason). In point of fact, he looks a lot like a hippy. This impression is amplified when we learn that he doesn’t have a job. He lives rent free and survives on the charity of his friends. Given this first impression, one might expect that his relationship with the birds is a shallow one.

It’s a mistaken impression. It quickly becomes clear that Bittner has not only a keen intelligence but that that he also has the sort of eye for observation that makes for a good naturalist. The reason that the birds have names isn’t because he is declaring himself their owner; they’re named because he sees them as individuals. Make no mistake, Mark loves the birds, but also observes them with an objective eye. I found myself reminded of Jane Goodall and her relationship with the Kenyan chimps she observed.

Lest I go too far, Mark, unlike a real naturalist, does cross the line from observer to participant. When one of the birds becomes sick or injured, he’ll take it inside and tend to it; however, he never tries to keep the wild birds (he does own some domesticated parrots). One curious exception is Mingus. Mingus was a wild parrot that decided that it didn’t want to leave Mark’s care once he was healed. There’s an absolutely amazing segment where Mark punishes Mingus for acting aggressively by taking him outside and forcing him to stay out of the house for five minutes. Mingus clearly finds this to be a distressing experience.

The film often rambles. It lacks the clear narrative that we tend to expect in documentaries. In one scene, Mark is talking about a lonely blue-crested parrot named Connor. The rest of the parrots are red crested. When one of the red crested parrots loses her mate, Mark muses that it would be wonderful if Conner got together with her and had some purple-headed babies. In another documentary this would be a cue that by the end of the film there would, in fact, be a nest full of purple-headed chicks. I am sorry to report that Conner’s story has a rather different ending.

What makes the film succeed is that we do come to understand and appreciate these anomalous parrots. We also come to understand how they could have such a profound effect on Mark. In one segment he talks about the death of one of the birds under his care. It's a poignant story but it's told matter-of-factly with a profound lack of histrionics. It pulls at our hearts precisely because it isn't an emotionally manipulative telling.

Mark understands that his birds aren't people while at the same time insisting that they are individuals and that they have personalities and life histories which merit our respect and due consideration. In the end, Mark is forced to move out of his home and away from the parrots that he so dearly loves. There is a segment where he's addressing the San Francisco city council. One might expect that he would have begged for them to take care of his birds. He doesn't. He assures the council members that they can take care of themselves and all he asks is that they be left alone to do so. This, finally, is what proves him right when he insists that there birds aren't his pets: although the birds have come to consider him someone that they can rely on for food and help, they are not dependent on him. They are, in fact, independent and free.

Both films are, I think, worthy in their own way. Penguins is, by far, the more polished of the two products as well as being the more educational. It is a genuinely good movie that leads one to an appreciation for some magnificent animals living in an exceedingly inimical environment. Parrots, by contrast, is less polished and less focused on being education (although it does educate!). What it lacks in polish, though, it more than makes up in heart and soul. If I had to recommend one above the other, I would encourage you to see Parrots when and if it comes to your town; however, I can, in good conscience, suggest that you give yourself the pleasure of seeing both movies. Each has a different focus and each comes with different strengths. Both movies are worth seeing.

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