He is rather careful to say that he is not anthromorphizing the birds, and I believe that he is correct. What happens is much more fascinating: Without fully realizing it, he seems to be "avianizing" humans—or at least letting some parallels between the two species float suggestively. Asked by Irving why he has such long, straggly salt-and-pepper hair (it reaches to his waist), he replies that he will cut it when he finds a mate. He follows avidly the couplings and uncouplings of various parrots—among them a self-pecker that drives her significant other away by attempting to defeather him as well. Most of all, he is deeply empathetic towards a bird he names "Connor," a parrot from a different species (the blue head) that seems to have reluctantly taken up with this flock—proud, isolated, but often gruffly helping out the weak or injured birds cast off by the cherry heads.
"I don't think of myself as an eccentric," Bittner says, and he isn't—except, perhaps, in his serene indifference to questions of money, employment, and shelter. If he is an eccentric, we should all have the time, space, and temperament for such eccentricity. A loner who arrived in San Francisco in the '60s but regarded the Beats as "too down" and the hippies as "too airy," he has staked out a nature-reverent middle position embodied by the poet Gary Snyder. He's one of the gentle creatures of San Francisco—the city where people who want to be in a city but can't deal with cities end up, if they're lucky.
Irving (along with Bittner, who shot some of the footage) lingers on the vividly-colored parrots without overdoing the lyricism, using slow motion only to capture (astonishingly) an instant or two in which the birds' emotions are plain. There is a split-second punchline that sends you out giggling, but the principal mood of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is one of yearning and heartbreak. These non-native birds seem much more vulnerable than their truly independent native counterparts, and Bittner might be fighting a losing battle with nature to keep them healthy. In many ways, this is a movie for outcasts and outcasts at heart—most of us, I'll wager.
Even more melancholy is Winter Solstice (Paramount Classics)—the title implies that it's no barrel of monkeys. Written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, it's a quivering portrait of a grief-stricken family, all male, after the loss of a wife and mom. Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is a suburban landscaper with two sons who barely pay attention to him: They are obstinately embarrassed by displays of emotion. The dinner table scenes are pure torture in the monosyllables and hanging silences, as the patriarch reaches out and, unanswered, remains helplessly extended, a very Quasimodo of mute despair.
For the first 20 minutes or so, I was impatient with the longeurs, but then it became clear that the movie is one long longeur, and that each still frame is bursting with emotional desperation. You can feel your inner rhythms slow as the film takes hold—enough for you to take in the details of the houses, yards, garages, and basements. I found myself almost in tears over a minor item in the cellar—a Calphalon box on a crowded shelf, maybe a piece of kitchen equipment bought by the mother and now stowed away, unused. (It's worth singling out the production designer, Jody Asnes.) (Actually, it's often worth singling out production designers—we don't do it enough.)
I can't think of too many actors who could bring off Jim Winters. LaPaglia manages to convey, wordlessly, the man's inner struggle: between his own instinct for emotional retreat and his conscience as a father, which impels him to try to break through to his boys, however imperfectly. Aaron Stanford is very fine as the elder son; as the younger, Mark Webber is remarkable. Partially deaf from an accident, Webber's Pete hides behind an all-purpose smirk, cultivating a sort of laconic superiority that might be the last refuge of the emotionally crippled. Allison Janney plays a paralegal who's housesitting in the neighborhood and attempts, in her awkward way, to engage this stunted family. Freed from the brittle, headlong pacing that is her (superb) specialty, she is beautiful and real.
One more thing: The first line of the Winter Solstice coming attraction is the revelation to which the entire movie is building. The next lines are smaller revelations to which other scenes are building. Now, I know that previews are constructed out of highlights and that they almost always show you more of a film than you want to see. But this might be the most gruesomely insensitive coming attraction ever made. By removing the silences (not even suggesting that there are silences) and cutting among all the big dramatic moments (which, in the film itself, are squeezed like blood from proverbial stones), the preview effectively disembowels the movie. If you're in a theater where it's shown, plug your ears and hum... 1:20 PT
It's no big news that people who aren't conventionally attractive, especially women, tend to be overlooked—professionally, socially, even walking by on the street. Agnes Jaoui's new film Look at Me (Sony Pictures Classics) uses this harsh fact of life as the springboard for the drama of an overweight young woman (Marilou Berry), her famous and indifferent father (Look at Me co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri), and the vocal teacher (director Jaoui) who doesn't pay much attention until she finds out who that father is.
Already I've made Look at Me—the French title is Comme une Image—sound too tidy, too pointed. This is an uninsistent film, its pacing casual, its camera somewhat detached. It dawdles—yet it builds, almost imperceptibly, to a vision of a world in which no one looks at anyone, at least deeply enough to see beyond the trappings of beauty or fame.
It's an ensemble movie, set among self-centered intellectuals, but Jaoui doesn't take easy shots at her characters—she's one of them. The choral teacher she plays, Sylvia, dreads being accosted after rehearsals by the plain, self-conscious Lolita (Berry). What a bother that woman is, she tells her husband, Pierre (the amusingly morose Laurent Grevill), an unsuccessful novelist given to spasms of self-pity. How can she be expected to spare her precious energies for someone like that?
And then, on the verge of telling Lolita that she just doesn't have time to advise her and her little vocal group, Sylvia discovers she's Lolita Cassard, the daughter of the celebrated novelist and publisher Etienne Cassard—whose last novel has just been made into a big-deal movie. And suddenly she sees the girl, and suddenly she's dazzled by the prospect of squeezing into that inner circle. When her husband's new novel gets a rave review in Le Monde, she knows she has really arrived. It's only then that she begins to feel guilty about the way that she and everyone else have treated Cassard's homely daughter.