Comfortable and Furious

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003)

Directed by Judy Irving

Matt Cale sounds an alarm…

Fucking hippies. Nixon was right to fear them, though not because their silly idealism and bed-ins would have accomplished little more than ensuring that otherwise ugly people got laid. Their so-called revolution, something about freedom and an absence of inhibitions, would have destroyed everything worth living for had it taken root, and with the perspective of history, it becomes even more clear that what they had in mind for us was on the level of firebombing the country and starting from scratch.

To a man (and mannish woman), they were incompetent, spoiled, no-account, and fiendishly selfish, as most were products of affluent homes where “rules” became too stifling, leading the egomaniacal shits to the streets where they opposed Vietnam not because it was an unjust war, but rather because the possibility existed that they might have to go themselves. Curiously, not a single one of these layabouts gave a shit while the poor were dying, but suddenly, as the deferments became more difficult to obtain, they stormed the campuses with their unique brand of self-righteous fury. So, while I’d like to believe that I would have been chasing McGovern around the country or passing out leaflets for Eugene McCarthy, part of me suspects that when it came to the hippies, I would have been in closed-door sessions with Nixon and Haldeman, hatching some plot that would have left a good number of the bastards writhing in their own blood from the wrong-end of a two-by-four.

And so, we have the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, purportedly the story of a group of beautiful birds who have flocked to the San Francisco home of Mark Bittner, an eccentric man to be sure, but one so infuriating that I spent less time caring about the birds and much more time wishing this fucker would get a job. Bittner is clearly not mentally ill (he has a strange obsession, but he’s articulate and seemingly well-adjusted), but he hasn’t held a job for 13 years, and even when he did, it was little more than day labor. And yet, he has managed to con a gentle couple into allowing him to squat, rent-free, in one of America’s most expensive cities.

He has furniture, clothing, dozens of bags of birdseed, and enough money to wander the city indulging in the expensive hobby of photography. When he’s not talking to the birds (he has names for all of them and claims he can tell them apart), he writes in his journal and pounds out articles while sitting in front of a computer that has been, in a term he uses quite liberally, borrowed. Believe me, I am far from a reactionary and never judge the homeless (I give money freely and hope that they are spending it on drugs and alcohol, as living on the street would make anyone want to avoid sobriety), and I also recognize that with many, they suffer from problems (addictions and mental illness, usually) that all the sanctimonious bootstrap talk in the world won’t fix. Some people, due to their unfortunate lots in life, simply cannot hold down a job. Given that reality, let’s do our best to feed and shelter them and leave the finger-wagging to the assholes who think that all they need is Jesus.

Nevertheless, I fucking loathed Mark Bittner. He passive-aggressively pulls out a bill from his wallet everywhere he goes; knowing full well that the people behind the counter will simply hand over the food for nothing. And sorry, given San Francisco’s majestic beauty, I’d like a cozy apartment overlooking the bay for three years without paying a dime, but that’s just not going to happen. How did he swing it? He’s apparently found the secret of charming (or badgering) everyone is his presence into thinking he’s some throwback to more carefree times, but all I see is some burnout who speaks of Jack Kerouac in hushed tones and pontificates about life and finding one’s calling.

One shouldn’t do something one doesn’t like, apparently, and for Mark that means picking up the fucking check just once. But rather than lay all the blame at this idiot’s doorstep, I have more than a few harsh words for the people in his life who haven’t told him that perhaps he should find something more productive to do than handle sunflower seeds all day. The birds he cares for are lovely, but they are in fact wild and not native to the area. Perhaps he should have just left them alone. Sadly, not a single one made a pecking move for his blasted eyes.

By the end, Mark is forced to move because the building he occupies undergoes extensive renovation. After bidding goodbye to his beloved creatures, we sit in anticipation, wondering where he’ll go from here. Suddenly, we see Mark cutting his long hair, something he said he would never do until he found a girlfriend. Has he found love at last? In a stunning turn that had me fuming, it is revealed that he is moving in with the director herself — Judy Irving — which means that he managed to find someone even more pathetic in a city known for pathetically crazy loons.

But as Irving has shoved her mug and voice into the film out of pure narcissism, we already know she’s an insufferable creep, so why not take on a world-class mooch as your mate? While she is pounding the pavement making Jonathan Livingston Seagull-style films that fell out of favor when folks moved from groovy acid to less romantic meth, Mark will be feeding even more birds and shoving everything she bought into his nasty, bearded mug. You’re shacking up with a certifiable bum, Judy — is that what you envisioned when you set out on life’s course?

And from what I can tell, he has no other interests or even little things to add to a conversation. His existence proves beyond a doubt that having somewhere to go during the day, while a pisser if you have to wake up early and sit in traffic, builds not only character and a sense of responsibility, but makes you more well-rounded and interesting. There’s a reason why lunatics in the asylum are fixated on trivia; they lack all perspective because they’ve never had to get in the arena. Their world is the obliterated desert of their own minds, and for that — even more than a lack of sustenance — they should be pitied. But no pity for dear Mark. Just go away.