THE WILD PARROTS OF TELEGRAPH HILL
directed by Judy Irving
La marche de l'empereur
directed by Luc Jacquet
directed by Werner Herzog
by Walter Chaw Nature documentaries have been the non-fiction standby ever since Marlin Perkins began manipulating dramatic moments for the edification of horrified youngsters. (I used to play a game of imagining what a "Mutual of Omaha's" would be like if it were to focus on people and feature narration from, say, prairie chickens.) So with three high-profile nature documentaries hitting screens more or less simultaneously this summer, it's the perfect--well, inevitable--opportunity to compare how far some have come in resisting the urge to project human behaviour onto animals, and how unapologetic others are in indulging in the insanity of pretending that gophers are tiny, furry people. Understand that far from speaking to any overt insensitivity on my part, pretending animals are people, too, tends to put both the animal and human at risk. More than just pathetic, there's a moral repugnance to it. (Blame a country reared on a steady diet of Disney.) And though some--like Mark Bittner of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill--can't be blamed for the jackholes who acquire pets without a commensurate sense of obligation to them for the whole of their lives, others, like self-taught naturalist Timothy Treadwell (the subject of Werner Herzog's astounding Grizzly Man), really deserve to get pureed in Darwin's cosmic blender. The tricky thing is that I'm guessing most of the folks who love Animal Planet wouldn't love it as much if it were hammered home to them repeatedly that animals are alien entities without compassion--that given half the chance, many a critter wouldn't think twice (or at all) about eating your baby. (Something to ponder over a plate of veal sausage and scrambled eggs, maybe.) Acknowledging that animals are animals, after all, cuts too close to the bone of the startling revelation that humans are also animals, and the only inauthentic bullshit in this ever-lovin' world of ours is a product of our need to obsessively self-deceive.
Credit where credit is due Bittner, the "star" of Judy Irving's The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, for being possessed of an inordinate amount of self-awareness. He details over the course of Irving's film his inability to find a vocation in a life that most people in polite society would politely call a failure. A bearded, befuddled transplant to socially-permissive San Francisco who identifies with neither the right nor the left (seeing as both sides have, literally, direction), Bittner plays the guitar and squats in a temporarily abandoned building. The picture is uplifting in the sense that while Bittner was patiently waiting for life to give him meaning, life proceeded to give him meaning in a colony of parrots abandoned by people we can only presume are as flaky as Bittner upon learning that, for whatever reason, they weren't cut out for bird ownership. Bittner befriends the critters, furnishing them with names and extensive backstories and journalizing their actions and relationships with the precision of Dian Fossey. He's a self-taught avian behaviourist, and the ways that he interprets this foreign colony, abandoned in a strange land to fend for itself, is touching in that it reflects Bittner's gentle melancholia and loneliness: he identifies with the birds' plight and, like the birds again, has managed to eke out an existence in a place that has no use for him based largely on a native will to survive. And, of course, on the kindness of others.
The temptation is to be drawn into the drama of the parrots, and where Irving's film fails is that it spends far too much time looking at the parrots as Bittner describes how this one is grumpy, how these two are in love, and how that one is jealous of their happiness. But once The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill turns to people and how animals can sometimes, like art, serve as a reflection of the hopes and fears of their caretakers, Irving taps a deep vein of self-awareness that culminates in one of the more hopeful surprise endings in this year's cinematic crop. In the end, the picture is about Bittner's courage in coming to terms with the transitory nature of what he loves and with the fact that what he loves speaks clearly to not only who he sees himself as, but also who he might actually be. Bittner and his story are attractive not because he's a homeless man taking care of a bunch of orphaned pets, but because he's a homeless man taking care of a bunch of birds who discovers the one thing in his life that can provide greater insight into his life. And maybe, if we pay close attention, we can locate the inspiration to look for our proverbial parrots.
If Irving's film doesn't reach that point until halfway through, at least it gets there--unlike Luc Jacquet's condescending tongue bath of a pic March of the Penguins. Read the reviews of the picture and you'll hear oodles about the nobility of the brave emperor penguin and the difficulty of filming in such harsh environments but very little about how much the narration (recited by Morgan Freeman, natch) is geared towards making us believe that these animals are little people who love ("This is a love story!"), grieve ("The pain of her loss is unimaginable!"), and persevere against all odds because of some existential imperative. Critics seem to be reviewing the penguins, proof positive that the film's grammar-school machinations have worked. March of the Penguins casts the penguins as little Lord Byrons trekking seventy miles from the ocean to their inland breeding ground (and it doesn't hurt that penguins, waddling around on their two ridiculous legs, remind us of ourselves), braving winds of over a hundred miles an hour and temperatures that dip into the seventy-degrees below zero range. Once there, mates are chosen, eggs are laid, and then the fathers wait it out while the mothers go back to the ocean, eat, and return to feed the chicks. First point is that if we're invested in anthropomorphizing these birds, we should rightly ask why it is that the penguins do this when it would appear they have other options. A better explanation may be that they're driven more by Darwin than by a well-defined set of emotions and judgments.
When a mother loses her chick, Freeman intones that she's so mad with grief that she tries to steal a chick from another mother--yet there's no compensatory narration later as a group of chicks is menaced by a predator and not one adult penguin lifts a wing in its defense. Suddenly don't seem very maternal, do they? Nor does the revelation that as soon as the chicks reach a year of age, the parents take off, never to be seen again. So it isn't just that March of the Penguins is ridiculous, it's that it doesn't adhere to its own internal logic. As a silent film, it'd be breathtaking: the nature photography is extraordinary, and I dare say that what the penguins do to perpetuate their species is among the most unique adaptive evolutionary behaviours around. (And I've heard that the French version is tonally different.) But March of the Penguins isn't silent: it's a film obsessed with massaging middlebrow audiences to fawn over these cyclical creatures that mate and nurse their offspring 'til they're of a viable age. Just like everything does--even the wicked, evil predators that prey on the noble penguin (a leopard seal is shot in a way that suggests the baddies from Jaws or The Terminator), even the film's slack-jawed audience of children and seniors: the former looking for sanitized truths regarding the world out of doors, the latter for a sympathetic excuse for their prolonged existence.
Werner Herzog's extraordinary Grizzly Man, his best film in almost ten years (since another documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly), is the antidote to everything that's wrong with March of the Penguins. Though it's hard to know who's crazier, Herzog, his subject (faux-naturalist Timothy Treadwell), or freaked-out coroner Franc Fallico (who takes altogether too much pleasure in speculating Treadwell's last, painful, confused moments on Mother Earth), Grizzly Man cuts together hundreds of hours of Treadwell's footage into a piece that goes from sympathetic to wry to, ultimately, scornful in steps subtle and hilarious. As the film gets underway, you feel something like admiration for Treadwell--by the time Grizzly Man ends, you hope the grizzly bear that ate him took its time. What emerges in-between is an astonishing portrait of the dysfunction that drove Treadwell to sacrifice himself and his girlfriend, the bear-fearing Amy Huguenard, to one of his beloved pals, as well as the mania that drives Herzog to retrace Treadwell's steps on Alaska's Kodiak Island, right into the heart of an unburnished nature he once called seething and obscene.
Later, as we look at what's probably the bear that dines on Treadwell on the last tape the guy ever shot, Herzog informs by way of narrative that where Timothy saw friends and family, he himself sees in "the bear's blank stare only the sleepy half-interest of an animal looking at a potential meal." Herzog is of course unbalanced one way and Treadwell another--but the genius of Herzog is that he begins the picture by engendering in us a deep sympathy for this lovable, elfin eccentric (he resembles the queerest queer on "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"), this man who only wants to save the bears and speaks to schools for free to educate children on the evils of mistreating bears--what's not to like? Then you have the bit where Timothy actually pets a bear, and the interview with the native park ranger who says that getting bears accustomed to humans is like writing a death sentence for bears and humans coming into contact (later, while a group of hunters tries to scare away a bear that Timothy's named "Freckles," we think about that), and finally Timothy's scary screed against the wicked park service that seeks to thwart his interaction with the gentle grizzly.
Herzog laces his film with moments of epic absurdity: the passing on of Timothy's wristwatch, which the coroner religiously touts has continued to tick since the day Timothy and his girl were reduced to forty pounds of biological material (would that Timothy were wearing a Timex suit on that fateful day); Timothy calling down a rainstorm, only to get battered by a monsoon until he's huddling with his Teddy bear under a crushed tent; Herzog listening to Timothy's death wails (we don't hear them, but they are described to us in a lot of detail) and then advising an ex-girlfriend to destroy them because they'll be the "white elephant" in her room for the rest of her life; and on and on. It's not meant to be funny, I think (not all of it, at least), but in terms of Herzog's auteur obsessions with man in nature, madness, and the thin line (if there is a line) between documentary and narrative filmmaking, Grizzly Man is pure, unfiltered delight. Freebase at your own peril. Originally published: August 3, 2005.