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'The Wild Parrots Of Telegraph Hill': San Francisco Tweet

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page C01

Meet Pushkin, a single father looking for love. And Connor, a lonely widower who leads the isolated life of a confirmed bachelor. And Sophie, a petite flirt who just might be inclined to cast an eye Connor's way, if only he would notice.

These are just a few of the beguiling lead players in "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," Judy Irving's engrossing, delightful film about a flock of wild parrots living in San Francisco. Pushkin, Connor and Sophie, it turns out, are birds. But by the end of this surprisingly moving documentary, viewers will care about them as deeply as any flawed but endearing human character. And they'll root even harder for Mark Bittner, the self-appointed caretaker at the center of this fascinating, improbably romantic story.

Mark Bittner has his charges eating out of his hand in "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill." (Mark Bittner)

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Although no one is entirely sure how more than 25 electric green parrots came to be living in the Bay Area, most assume that the flock started back in the 1980s, when at least two parrots escaped from a pet shop or a home, or were released by owners frustrated with their insistent cackling. But regardless of their provenance, these radiant, crimson-topped birds have become a beloved part of San Francisco's eccentric local culture, a sort of avian version of their often outlandishly stylish human counterparts who have made that city their home.

As "Wild Parrots" opens, we meet Bittner as he feeds the birds sunflower seeds from his hand and entertains questions from the people who inevitably flock around him; we learn that he doesn't own the birds, he only feeds and observes them, occasionally bringing them into his home when they're sick or injured.

As the film unfolds, however, it becomes clear that this gentle misfit -- who originally came to San Francisco to be a singer-songwriter but who for the past several years has embarked on a somewhat lonely search for spiritual transformation -- has a much more complex relationship with the parrots. He not only names them, it turns out, but he also gives them complicated back stories, usually having to do with love and loss.

As he spins out his anthropomorphic fantasies about his feathered charges' lives, it's impossible not to conclude that this isolated, confirmed bachelor -- who admits he has refused to cut his hair until he finds a girlfriend -- is projecting a few of his own issues onto them. But even that bit of psychoanalyzing proves to be a little too pat, as Irving demonstrates with patience and compassion. Eventually, what starts out as a whimsical tale of a sweet eccentric and his birds becomes a thoroughly absorbing portrait of one man's discipline and commitment -- and, yes, spiritual transformation.

Irving has shot and edited "Wild Parrots" to exploit the drama of Bittner's story, which takes unexpected dips and turns. What's more, she has photographed the movie on film, not video (as most low-budget documentary makers do these days), meaning her richly colored subjects are given the visual depth and texture that is their due.

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is, quite simply, a beautiful film, in both form and content. You'll laugh, you'll cry and your heart is guaranteed to soar at least as high as Pushkin, Connor, Sophie and the rest of the flock.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (83 minutes, at the Avalon and Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated G.

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