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Film Notes

Judy Irving, Bird Watcher

Friday, March 11, 2005; Page WE39

IT WAS an article about parrots that drew filmmaker Judy Irving to San Francisco, where the author, Mark Bittner, resided.

Bittner, a bearded, ponytailed, formerly homeless ex-musician, was taking care of a flock of wild conures (the correct term for parrots) on the Greenwich Steps of tony Telegraph Hill. They weren't his birds, per se, but he fed them regularly. And they kept coming back. People called him the Saint Francis of Telegraph Hill.

When she first met Bittner, Irving says, "he was this longhaired hippie recluse living in a shack. And I thought he was probably inarticulate. He seemed kinda shy, I think, because he'd been reclusive for so long. But the birds were colorful and exotic and fabulous from a cinematic point of view."

Her initial idea, she says, was to make a "children's fable," in which she would shoot Bittner with the birds, while schoolchildren watched him. But she changed her strategy when she heard Bittner talking to the kids.

"He was telling these great stories and very articulately. And his voice sounded terrific. That helps in a movie. So it evolved into a full-length portrait documentary of him and the birds. Actually, I call it a nonfiction feature because it's a story. More like a fiction film with a beginning, middle and end, a main character, supporting roles, cameo appearances."

The filming of "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" (see review on Page 37), took 4 1/2 years, Irving says, because she was trying to capture the perfect footage of Bittner's birds, to whom he had given exotic names such as Picasso and Mingus, and who all had distinctive personalities.

"It's tough to get good nature footage. You have to wait around, and you miss a lot. And a lot ends up on the cutting room floor. I spent 21 days, for instance, under a tree, waiting for a baby bird to fledge. I didn't have any money, but I had lots of time."

The movie, showing at Landmark's E Street Cinema (11th and E streets NW; 202-452-7672) and the Avalon Theatre (5612 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-966-6000), captures that bird's first flight, as well as other unfolding events. And it outlines the personal life journey that brought Bittner into this almost mythical relationship with his various species of conures.

"I had no idea what I was getting into when I started," says Irving, 58, who had been looking to do something more "creative and fun" than the environmental issue films she had been doing. "After you turn 50, you start thinking, 'I want to do what I want to do.' And I loved birds. . . . I never really believed that if you follow what you love, it'll turn out okay. But it sure did."


While we're thinking nature thoughts, how about a three-dimensional dive under the sea? All you need are your yellow 3-D glasses, handed to you at the entrance of the National Museum of Natural History's Johnson Imax Theater (10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW). And then you can watch "Into the Deep 3D," a 35-minute exploration of the great underwater.

Thanks to the amazing sensations of Imax, we find ourselves diving into the Pacific amid undulating forests of kelp. There are all sorts of wonders down there: Moray eels. Sea urchins. Corals. Sea lions. Opalescent squid. It's amusing to watch a garibaldi fish that escorts a sea urchin away from his nest like a patient bouncer at a nightclub. You'll also get the chance to see a school of fish that would make an excellent band name: the Sarcastic Fringeheads, whose oddly shaped mouths open and close like Christo designs in miniature. There are few better ways to impress a kid (and yourself) than to plunk down in front of these images.

Admission is $8 per adult ($6.50 for children ages 2 through 12). For tickets and information, visit www.si.edu/imax/#johnson or call 202-633-4629 or 877-932-4629.

And while we're on the subject of Imax movies, "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag" makes its Washington debut this weekend (starting Friday at 11:25) at the National Air and Space Museum (Sixth Street and Independence Avenue SW). It was showing since December at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.

The 40-minute film (which screens four times daily at the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater) is about Operation Red Flag, the international training program for air forces of allied countries. It follows American F-15 Eagle pilot John Stratton as he trains with some of the world's best pilots and negotiates the program's challenging and dangerous exercises. Admission is $8 per adult ($6.50 for children ages 2 through 12). For information and tickets, visit www.nasm.si.edu/visit/imax. For information, call 877-932-4629.

As part of the D.C. Environmental Film Festival (visit www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org), two more Imax films can be seen at the Museum of Natural History: The 40-minute film "Roar: Lions of the Kalahari," screening Monday at 7, was filmed in the African wilds by Tim Liversedge and is said to capture some amazing lion footage. The other film is "Coral Reef Adventure," screening Wednesday at 7 and 9. In this 46-minute film, underwater filmmakers Howard and Michele Hall lead an expedition through the South Pacific on a mission to help save endangered coral reefs from extinction. Chris Palmer, president and chief executive of National Wildlife Productions Inc., will introduce "Coral Reef" and answer questions afterward. Admission for both films is $13 for adults and $7 for children younger than 10. For tickets and information, call 202-357-3030 or visit www.residentassociates.org.


"The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson's religious film, has been rereleased in a slightly tamer form to appeal to those uncomfortable with the original release's harrowing scenes of violence. Newmarket Films has shaved about five minutes from the film's more intense sequences. "The Passion Recut" follows the agonizing final 12 hours of Jesus's life, taken from four separate accounts in the New Testament of the Bible.

The Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board did not give "Passion" the PG-13 rating the filmmakers hoped for, so Newmarket is releasing "The Passion Recut" as an unrated film, with a new running time of 122 minutes. See the movie directory for a complete list of local theaters. You can also visit www.thepassionrecut.com for information about the new film.


At the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre (8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring), the wonderful documentary filmmaker Les Blank will attend two screenings. Friday at 9, two films will be shown: the 1982 "Burden of Dreams," his memorable record of German filmmaker Werner Herzog's eventful filming of "Fitzcarraldo," made in the same year, and 1980's "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe," another documentary on the director. Both films show memorable clashes between Herzog and his flamboyant (many considered downright insane) star, Klaus Kinski. Both are very entertaining. Blank will also attend a screening Saturday at 4 of "Yum, Yum, Yum" and other food documentaries.

Also at the Silver, Saturday at 7, screenwriter Walter Bernstein will present 1976's "The Front," the movie he wrote, which is set during the McCarthy era of Hollywood blacklistings. It stars Woody Allen and Zero Mostel. Bernstein will discuss the film as well as the times it portrays. Admission is $8.50. Check www.AFI.com/silver for other information, or call 301-495-6720.

-- Desson Thomson

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