Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Conversation with Mark Bittner

Tonight at 7:00PM, the South Pasadena Public Library Community Room will screen the award winning 2005 documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. This rich and fascinating film captures several months in the life of Mark Bittner -- a gentle bohemian who in the process of befriending a flock of wild San Francisco parrots discovers his own true path.

Through Mark's narration -- and the brilliant cinematography of filmmaker Judy Irving -- we meet a cast of feathered characters right out of a Hollywood blockbuster. There is Connor the outcast, a lonely outsider whose blue feathered crown sets him apart from the red-headed flock. There is the mischievous homebody Mingus who wants more than anything to hang out inside Mark's apartment -- and under his refrigerator. There is frail, noble Tupulo who ultimately teaches Mark a heartbreaking lesson about connectedness that comes right from the pages of Zen poetry. These birds and many others round out a multifaceted cast in a surprisingly moving story about fitting in, finding yourself and falling in love.

Mark Bittner will introduce the film tonight, conduct a Q&A session and read passages from his bestselling book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill: A Love Story ... With Wings. He will also read a short section from his newest book in progress, Street Song.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Mark on the phone yesterday and came away from the exchange feeling a lot like how I felt when I first saw the movie: inspired. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

LA: When you were approached about this documentary were you excited about the idea or did you think you didn’t want someone intruding on this personal part of your life?

MB: I knew I wouldn’t be doing it forever, and I’d hoped that somebody would come along and do some kind of video so that I could have a visual memory later. When Judy first came up to me, her idea wasn’t to make a feature length film at all, it was just to shoot something and see where it went. It sounded fine to me, I thought it was just going to be some kind of collection of memories for me. It just gradually developed into what it became.

LA: When you guys were shooting the film, did you have any idea it would be so special and resonate with people the way it has?

MB: I think by the time the editing was done, yes. You can do something good but that doesn’t mean it’s going to really get out there. I mean, we all have all kinds of books and records that are great that hardly anybody knows about.

LA: And we lend those books and hope people will like them the way we do.

MB: Exactly.

LA: Well this film obviously struck a universal nerve. I was struck by a metaphor -- and I've thought about this with regard to the parrots in South Pasadena, too. You mentioned it in the film that naturalists find these birds to be intruders, to be encroaching on the natural habitat. Bird watchers don’t care much about them. Parrot owners often consider them to be escaped pets. So these birds don't really fit in anywhere. They are, in a way, a metaphor for the black sheep, the rebels and the outsiders of society.

MB: Yes they are.

LA: Do you think that because you were on a kind of outsider path in your own life that they spoke to you on a certain level?

MB: I can't say that exactly, but that is a very interesting idea. You know, it’s important to note that there are a lot of parrot flocks across the United States. All of them are non native, existing in the unnatural environments of suburban planted gardens. That’s the only way they can survive because they come from areas where there is food growing all year round and they don’t have the seasons that we have here. Because people plant gardens and have food, they thrive.

LA: It begs the question of when something actually becomes native. The parrots here love the palm trees

MB: Non native palm trees!

LA: Right!

MB: But to get back to your question, I don’t know that I felt a connection to them as an outsider but Judy always connected Connor and me. She always said we were connected. I didn’t see it at the time -- I was too close to it, maybe. But I can see it now. I was an outsider and I especially liked Connor for his outsiderness, I guess.

LA: You experienced a "tune in, turn on, drop out" lifestyle for a period of time.

MB: Absolutely.

LA: You mentioned in the film that pursuing a traditional career seemed counter intuitive to your spiritual path. Do you think these birds were the gatekeepers for you to find your true path?

MB: Yes I do. The way I look at it is that I’m still on the same course. When I was 21 I dropped what I was doing. Nothing was working out for me because I was trying to do something I just wasn’t equipped to do -- to be a musician. If I work hard at it, I’m okay, I’m competent, but I’m not a natural musician. But I liked it because that was what was happening at the time. When I was 21, I dropped everything and I just went down this road and I didn’t know where I was going, and I certainly didn’t foresee where it would lead me. There is stuff that’s not included in the film, that’s not even in the book that I’ve discovered recently. I’m convinced that the parrots were what I was supposed to do. I was just meant to do it. I'm on the same path, but they were at the very end of a particular segment and at the doorway of the next segment.

LA: So it's kinda like when Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim talked about the archetypes that lead you to your next place, your revelation. The birds served that purpose.

MB: Very much so. Absolutely.

LA: There is a profound and tragic moment in the film where you experience the loss of a parrot you were particularly close to. As an animal lover, I was extremely moved by your transformation after this happened. How did that experience change your opinion of consciousness and life and personality and, I guess, your sense of interconnectedness?

MB: At that point I think I began to look much more seriously at what I was doing. It’s like the pain of her passing made me question some very basic things. What is a personality? What happens when you die? I was forced to tie together a bunch of ideas that had been hanging loose in my brain for a long time and I finally understood something that I didn’t or couldn’t understand before.

LA: And what was that? What did you understand?

MB: Well, we often hear the idea that all life is one, that mind is one. I’d always paid lip service to that but I still sort of thought of it as a metaphor. I don’t think of it as a metaphor anymore. I think of it as an actual living reality.

Join Mark Bittner tonight at the South Pasadena Library Community Room. It is located at 1115 El Centro Street. No tickets or reservations are necessary and refreshments will be provided. The film is Rated G and doors will open at 6:30 p.m.

Check out Mark's website here.

Listen to South Pasadena's own wild parrots right here.


Anonymous said...

This is so incredibly fascinating. I was deeply touched by this film and wish I still lived in South Pasadena so I could attend.

Judy Williams said...

Your questions were so well thought out and I'm sure he was surprised at your ability to feel what he was feeling and understand with the same depth as he. WOW - you're some kind of good.

I love the idea of life and mind as one living reality. Profoundly simple.

Mister Earl said...

Wonderful interview, Laurie. I love this movie, and mention it every chance I get. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if I was the one who told you about it. I wish I could go tonight, but alas, I can't. :-(

-K- said...

This interview really takes me back to what a fine film "Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" is, from beginning to end - especially the end.

Mister Earl said...

By the way, shouldn't that be, "The World Series Champion Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"?

Johnny Brown said...

This is a wonderful interview, with very astute questions, Laurie. I wish I were in town because I would love to see the film again. I am going to order the book from Amazon.

Michelle said...

This is a fantastic interview. I have not seen the film before but now I really want to. If I can get off work, I'll be there.

Green Guy said...

Favorite documentary of all time. This is great, Laurie. I don't know how Steve Feldstatt manages to put together these programs at the library.
Love the interview.

Petrea Burchard said...

Wow. Must rearrange my schedule and try to get there tonight.

I love our parrots. I love their outsiderness. At the Hahamongna Walkabout last weekend, Laura Garrett of the Audubon Society said they are not an encroachment on the environment specifically because they don't feed on native plants. The only thing not to like about them is their noise, and I love that crazy noise.

Laurie Allee said...

Hi everyone!

I can't tell you how inspirational it was to chat with Mark. There was much more to our conversation, but I would have broken my blog including all of it. ;-) Let's just say, he's our like-minded tribe.

Everyone try to make it to the event!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

May I suggest putting the conversation into two parts? You got my attention with the mention of Carl Jung and Bruno Bettelheim. More please! Excellent interview

Sally said...

Splendid interview. I would live to see you do more of these.

Virginia said...

What a fascinating interview. Wonderful my dear! I wish I could be there with you all.

Access Required said...

I would be there right now if there were no access issue to get to the Community room. I did call and there are steps. The main library is closed on Thursday nights.
I was given the cell phone number of the head librarian who would have accomodated me by opening the front door. That was nice. But we were running (ha ha) a little late and I did not feel like creating an imposition.
A simple porch lift would probably be the easiest access solution. Of course, a ramp might be considered.

wv: ambcked. I am backed by the ADA.

Shanna said...

This interview is really fantastic! I loved it that you mentioned Bruno Bettleheim and Carl Jung,,, my faves!

Bellis said...

I've only just read this, so missed the show (sad), yet I was thinking about the movie just earlier today, because parrots have found my olive tree. Their visits make me very happy. The movie is wonderful and I would like everyone in the whole wide world to see it.

Question: why do we tolerate the noise of parrots? Is it because it resembles speech? I'd love to know what they're gossiping about.

Auntie S said...

Wonderful interview! I saw the movie some time ago afer my sister recommended it...time to watch it again. It's great.

That's a nice little video of the Parrots of So. Pasadena, I love the sound track!

Anonymous said...

The show tonight was very moving and inspirational. I particularly liked the question session after the movie. I got a signed copy of the book. I was going to introduce myself to you Laurie but I was too shy! You are even prettier in person! Thank you for keeping us informed about such interesting events.

Dixie Jane said...

I enjoyed your interview so much. You are so good! I am eager to get the movie and wish I weren't 2000 miles away. Otherwise I would have attended tonight.

Laurie Allee said...

Hi everyone,

It was a great night and Mark Bittner's question and answer session was illuminating and fun. We all learned a lot about parrots and it was great to see so many neighbors and friends in a packed house. Mister Earl, thanks for the great talk after the show!

Anon, thanks for the compliment! Those old library lamps give great lighting! ;-) I would have loved to have met you.

Access Required, Steve would have been happy to let you in!!! I believe there is some kind of restriction about building ramps to historic buildings if there is possible access from another side. I don't know for sure. This is definitely a cause worth pursuing because we don't want anyone to be unable to go to library functions based on something like steps.

Shanna, you gave me my first Jung as well as Uses of Enchantment. Thank you!

Pasadena Adjacent, now why didn't I think of a two-part series?

Dixie Mom, wish you'd been there. I bought you a DVD and I'll send it your way.

Until tomorrow, everyone...

Anonymous said...

Laurie, I met you last night at the presentation. Thank you for letting me know how to find your wonderful blog. I had heard people talking about it at the Senior Center and I must say, it is just top notch!

Laurie Allee said...

Just to follow up about handicapped access issues. I've emailed Steve F about this and I will update when I know more. We want to make sure nobody is left out of these wonderful events at the library!

Patrizzi Intergarlictica said...

I love your questions and the way the whole thing flows.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Great interview. I just saw the film on Netflix. Brilliant and not at all what I expected.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Hi Laurie
Sounds like the event was a success: and your a topic of interest at the Senior Center (how cool is that? and I say so without irony).

I meant to come REALLY. I came home from my Tujunga walk with Mr V, sat in bed fully dressed (because I had plans on showing up) then closed my eyes for a minute of rest. Woke up at 11:00 pm

Anonymous said...

This is great!

Laurie Allee said...

Update on handicapped access issues: I heard from Steve and there will soon be an ADA ramp for the Community Room. The architect's plans have been approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission to preserve the integrity of our historic building. After July 1 the library will have Community Development Block Grant funds to build the ramp. Until then, wheelchair-bound citizens and othes with special needs can be brought up the elevator.

Anonymous said...

Wow, how did you get this interview? It's great! I'm a big fan of the film.

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