Even when it didn’t make logical sense, birds kept showing up
in my movies–geese in a film about nuclear power and weapons (Dark
Circle), sandhill cranes in Out of the Way
Café–and I finally admitted to myself that, cool
or not, I really did love birds, and hip or not, I really was by nature
a documentary (not fiction) filmmaker. Around the time of that midlife
reckoning two friends independently of each other told me I should “make
a movie about the guy who feeds the parrots on Telegraph Hill.”
Three years earlier I’d read about Mark Bittner in Bird Talk,
a pet-parrot magazine (I had a cockatiel, Sweetheart). But since Mark
wrote that he’d soon have to move, I figured he’d be gone
before I could shoot the first roll of film. He was still there, though,
and I finally gave him a call.
At first glance, Mark didn’t seem like a natural movie star.
The green-and-red parrots flying around him were exotic and feisty,
but Mark himself was, well…a quiet, long-haired hippie recluse
living in a shack. I also wondered how much story there was in a guy
feeding birds. He called them by name, though. Fanny even landed on
his head and leaned down to chew on his glasses. Where had these parrots
come from? Wasn’t San Francisco too cold for tropical birds?
The initial story seemed to point toward a children’s fable.
What if some kids came upon this bearded St. Francis character, handing
out sunflower seeds to wild parrots, and he somehow managed to get the
parrots to take seeds from the kids’ hands, too?
I realize now that I was trying to re-create an experience from my
childhood. When I was eight years old my grandfather taught me how to
feed wild chickadees. I never forgot the almost weightless touch of
those tiny reptilian feet on my open palm, the fluffy black-and-white
feathers on their round little bodies, and the intense look in their
eyes. Time stopped. It was my first direct contact with wild animals.
But the children’s fable didn’t work. They say you should
never make a movie with wild animals or (wild) children. Plus, I was
trying fiction again, despite my documentary inclinations. Although
Mark did entice Miles to take seeds from three children, the acting
was flat and the kids kept looking at the camera. But as I listened
to Mark describe Olive and Pushkin, Connor, Mingus, Picasso and Sophie,
I saw that he was a great storyteller.
The parrots’ jealousies, divorces, single parenting, illnesses
and tragedies mirrored human society. The birds had a sense of humor,
too, “as if they were concealing the punchline to some joke,”
said Mark. And he himself was a “dharma bum”–a homeless
seeker of truth (Gary Snyder)–as opposed to just a regular bum.
Mark had been on a spiritual path for years, ever since he’d given
up a rock-star fantasy. The parrots, and particularly the death of one
bird called Tupelo, were teaching him truths about consciousness that
he couldn’t get from a book. The story had drama, as well: Mark
would soon lose his
caretaking gig and have to leave Telegraph Hill. He’d never had
a regular job in his twenty-five years in San Francisco, and had never
paid rent either. He had no money, but all the time in the world. How
did he get away with that?
This film wouldn’t be a nature film. It wouldn’t be just
a portrait of a person, either. Mark’s unlikely connection to
wild animals in one of the densest, most expensive cities in the world
was a unique tale, bent in unusual directions because of Mark’s
non-careerist path and by the avian characters who unexpectedly flew
into his life.
I started shooting just in time for a dramatic story to unfold: the
final year of Mark’s life with the flock. The film had its own
built-in beginning, middle, and end, not unlike fiction; it had comedy,
drama, silliness and depth. It also changed my life. I had no idea when
I started this film that it would become my best work. Although I’m
not a New Age person, I have to admit that “parrot angels”
kept turning up to fly the film along to completion. It has something
to do with admitting who I am, and following my own path. I didn’t
really believe this before, but I think it’s the way the universe