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.
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!
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.
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.