Unlike pop stars, documentary filmmakers rarely have to grapple with crafting a follow-up to a mammoth hit. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Judy Irving’s profound and moving 2003 portrait of Mark Bittner and his feathered friends, was embraced by San Franciscans immediately upon its release and by viewers everywhere when it aired a few years later on PBS’ Independent Lens series. Hike the Greenwich steps today and you’ll find tourists from around the world pining for a glimpse of the winged movie stars.
After Parrots took off, Irving remained alert to the winds that would bring her next project. Her approach is to pick up on a subject and pick up her camera; her joy is in not knowing where it will take her. Irving’s wonderful new film, Pelican Dreams, took flight when the North Beach filmmaker heard about the California brown pelican that landed on the Golden Gate Bridge in late 2009, tying up traffic. The injured bird provides the through-line for Irving’s documentary, which gracefully entwines informed commentary on the pelicans with an evocative personal essay about flight, freedom and the ever-increasing encroachment of people.
“I didn’t want to make a standard nature documentary, the kind that you see on TV,” Irving declares. “I didn’t want to make a science doc. I didn’t want to make an educational film. I wanted to tell a story about trying to get to know a wild animal, and can you get to know a wild animal? Can you get to know one of these flying dinosaurs? How close can you get and still keep them wild?”
Between Parrots and Pelican, Irving has perfected a style of personal filmmaking that leaves ample space for the viewer to think, breathe, meditate and feel. Actually, I suspect Irving will hate that last sentence.
“I didn’t want Pelican Dreams to be New-Agey, or a hippie spirituality kind of thing,” she says. “I’m not that way. I live in San Francisco. I don’t live in Marin. Sorry, Marin.” Irving laughs, and continues. “Working out the correct tone for this movie, the voice was very, very important to me and took forever. I literally did hundreds of sessions of test narration where I recorded myself in this editing room, right here in this chair, trying out lines. I would always edit the visuals first. The visuals have to take priority. Then I would try to find -- what do I actually need to say here or do I need to say nothing? How little can I say? I experimented with lines that were more touchy-feely, you might say. I took them out. They didn’t work for me and they didn’t work for test audiences.”
One of the great things about Pelican Dreams is Irving’s refusal to romanticize or sentimentalize her subjects. We are cursed with a surplus of animated children’s films that anthropomorphize animals and birds, and hardly need nonfiction to pander to the same level. At the other extreme is Werner Herzog, an unquestionably great filmmaker who imagines the oceans and wild nature as places of unbridled terror.
“There are several approaches to nature filmmaking that I don’t like, frankly, and one of them is what I call tooth and claw,” Irving says. “It’s where the filmmaker stresses the violence and the aggression of the animal. It doesn’t paint an accurate picture of those animals, usually. There’s also lots of manipulation in nature films these days, lots of outright fakery.”
The fluidity, beauty and spirit of Pelican Dreams derives in large measure from the elegant marriage of artfully edited sequences with sparse voice-over narration. The film contains exactly one bit that could be described as a talking-head interview.
“It’s a style that I learned at Stanford in the ‘70s which is a sequence-based style of storytelling that’s very similar to fiction filmmaking,” Irving explains. “In fiction you call it a scene, and I tend to think of them as sequences. I understand how talking heads and B-roll would be appropriate for news reporting, but it’s really a shame to have a person just sitting there yapping in a movie. A movie should move.”
Pelican Dreams is always moving, always flowing, perpetually alive. It’s a kind of investigation, one both urgent and patient.
“I think what happens is that people script these films ahead of time and it’s dead,” Irving says. “I like sort of launching myself into some story that’s unrolling at the time, in the present, and I do not know where it’s going to go. I’m taking a risk by following it, but it’s really interesting to me to do that. I go out searching for something. I usually don’t get it, but I get something else. Reality is always handing me something else.”
Irving laughs again, this time at the unpredictability, luck and perhaps magic that is so essential to her filmmaking.
“One of the key images that I had in my head before I started the film,” she recalls, “and that kind of launched it for me in a way, at least thematically, was when I saw this bird on a very, very, very foggy day in the Marin Headlands soar out of the fog towards me, past me, back into the fog. It was so mysterious. It happened quickly. I couldn’t film it. It was too quick. On the other hand, it was timeless. That bird spoke to me of the mystery of these pelicans, and the mystery of all wild animals. What are their lives really like? How can we tell? How much can we know about what it means to be wild on this planet in the 21st century?”
Pelican Dreams opens Friday, Oct. 24, 2014 at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco, the Rialto Cinema Elmwood in Berkeley and Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The film subsequently opens Oct. 31 at the Rialto Cinemas Sebastopol, the Sebastiani Theatre in Sonoma and the Camera 3 in San Jose, and Nov. 7 at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. For more information, visit pelicandreams.com.