By Julie Lawrence Special to Published May 13, 2005 at 5:17 AM

{image1}If we've ever needed proof of the adage "life is what happens while you're out looking for it," Judy Irving's documentary, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," might be it. This film intimately follows the life of Mark Bittner as he transforms from homeless North Beach bum to a modern-day St. Francis of San Francisco.

With his dreams of becoming a musician slipping away and no stable income or home, a lonely and somewhat misguided Bittner spends his days reading nature poetry hoping to find meaning in his life. A quote by Gary Snyder -- "If you want to find nature, start where you are." -- prompts his desperate quest for self-discovery. Not knowing where to begin, he looks to the sky only to discover a vibrant flock of wild parrots. Inevitably, these intriguing city-dwelling birds become the life calling he sought after.

His curiosity about the non-native species leads to an on-going in-depth study and eventual friendship with the flock. He immediately feels a connection to the birds: they are rebellious, free, and no one seems to fully understand why they are there. Within no time, Bittner has the wild birds eating out of his hands.

The film introduces a few of his favorites: There's Mingus, the cherry head conure who insists on co-habitating with Bittner in his temporary digs. There's also Connor, the only blue-crowned conure of the group, who, much like Bittner himself, is more of a freedom-seeking loner.

Bittner candidly reveals each bird's seemingly distinct personality, as if they were his own children, prompting Irving to query about the idea of anthropomorphism, a question that never fully gets answered. Irving leaves it up to the individual to decide if this inter-species relationship is genuinely endearing or just a little creepy?

The film's obvious strength is its ability to make you care about a subject matter which, in and of itself, is perhaps not overly interesting. Admittedly, your mind starts to drift from time to time when the she focuses a bit too much on the birds because, in this film, it's not really the birds themselves that you care most about.

It's Bittner's curious and remarkable connection with them. For the most part, she does good job of keeping it interesting with probes into Bittner's unstable past, his continuous struggle with living in near-poverty and his, what some might call, dependency on the parrots.

It's an oddly complex film because it almost seems too simple. It's hard to imagine a person devoting so much of his life to a flock of parrots without any sort of real scientific or scholarly motive. Although you may find yourself at times wavering back and forth on the issue of Bitter's eccentricity, the film overall delivers a heartwarming tale of friendship and self discovery.

"The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill" opens Friday, May 13 at Landmark's Downer Theatre.

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”