Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

Doc Soup: Reviewing Docs from the Past: ‘Wild Parrots’ – For the Birds

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So many docs, so little time.

As a service to you, dear reader, I’ve been wanting to occasionally review classic or otherwise notable documentaries for some time now. I’m going to look back at these films with the hope that I can help guide you to select well-known documentaries that are worth seeing, long after they were released.

It’s not entirely an act of selflessness, I must admit. We all want to fill the gaps in our doc-viewing repertoires. I, for one, have been carrying such deep guilt about never having seen Frederick Wiseman‘s Titicut Follies, I can’t stand it any more. Having read countless essays and references to it, I feel like I know that groundbreaking film from 1967 like the back of my hand. But, for shame, I still haven’t seen it. Look for a review of it soon.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph HilUntil then, I’m going to start with the unlikely The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill; the 2005 film is not a classic by any means, but it made such a huge splash — imore than $3 million at the box office, and I was always curious as to what the big fuss was about.

Let me start with a slight digression. At the end of Winged Migration, an even bigger bird-documentary phenomenon, which my wife and I had rushed to see in the theaters, I turned to her and said, “That was just a dumb movie about birds.” OK, so it was beautifully shot and had a cute French narrator, but, outside of the cameras-hooked-to-birds thing, it really didn’t offer much more than an episode of Nature.

So, my cards are on the table: I’m not a bird person. And while watching Wild Parrots, I was repeatedly reminded of that fact. In the documentary, as we get to know these San Francisco parrots who’ve been befriended by a long-haired, failed musician, I kept thinking, “What’s the big deal?” Matters weren’t helped by a cheesy electric guitar score, and the rather laborious metaphors: OK, I get it, the parrots are us and we are the parrots.

I’m not saying that I didn’t like Wild Parrots. It’s actually a good doc. The parrots are endearing and interesting as we follow their lives and relationships, and the little corner of San Francisco that’s revealed is equally charming. But that’s the problem with the film: it’s too enamored with its subject. And though I don’t want to give away a spoiler here, it becomes apparent by the end that director Judy Irving is indeed quite smitten with her subject.

Good for her. Good for bird lovers. Good for someone looking for a film with hokey charm. But the standard here is whether it’s worth taking an hour and half out of our busy lives to see the film. And with that in mind, Wild Parrots is not something I’d recommend.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki
  • Valerie Kelly

    FOREIGNID: 24436
    Birds re such amazing creatures and unless you live with one (as I do) you would probably be unaware. My husband felt the same way (take them or leave them) until our little one came to live with us, and now he is smitten and amazed every day. I love POV because their documentaries show us worlds that we may have been unaware of, or even worlds that we may not have appreciated until the films were made. We take animals for granted and tend to be wrapped up in our own lives.POV brings the reality of those worlds into our own. VK

  • Karen

    FOREIGNID: 24449
    Yeah, I guess you do have to be a bird person. I live with four parrots. I appreciated the work involved with these complex little beings and how much fun they are, so I enjoyed the documentary and the goofy young man who was its human subject as much as the flock dynamic. I wasn’t expecting Citizen Kane with feathers. Why were you? Beats the hell out of the average vampire chronicle. Winged Migration is like all those surfer movies: lots of gorgeous photography and nice music. I’m stunned that you missed trashing the penguin film.

  • Mark

    FOREIGNID: 24451
    There is a fallacy that continually undermines what passes for, what’s left of the serious art/intellectual community. It says that for a work to be taken seriously, it must be dark—or absurd and humorous in a quirky way. I think it’s Western intellectualism struggling to maintain a connection to some feeling of heaviness or relevance at the same time that it continues to waste away. Heart is not hokey. This is a film about heart. There was no dark secret to expose. But ironic post-modernists and the MFAs don’t take heart seriously. There has to be a tragedy or some corruption somewhere. I don’t buy it.

  • Doc Soup Man

    FOREIGNID: 24454
    I may not be a bird lover but I am a bird lover’s lover. That might sound odd (especially to Mrs. Soup), but what I’m saying is that despite the differences expressed here, no one took a shot at me (except for “Citizen Kane with feathers” which is too apt/funny so it doesn’t hurt.) And that speaks to the very point of my review. It’s very difficult to be critical of something without seeming disparaging or dismissive. I probably wasn’t tactful enough to do so, and for that I apologize. And, Mark, you’re probably right, I’m one of those tragically afflicted post-modern ironists who have a hard time settling down with a story that is simply humane and heartfelt. I am not always this way, especially when in the presence of children. The childlike appreciation of life, whether it’s birds or stories, is something many of us lose as we get older. Bravo to you for not falling into that trap.