February 25, 2005


C R I T I C ' S   C H O I C E

The Birdpeople




Like most well-made documentaries, this 2004 film presents its subject from a variety of angles: birders in New York's Central Park together with telephoto close-ups of their quarry, stuffed birds seen alone and in museum dioramas, a search for the presumedly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, an affecting text about a woodpecker's nearly successful attempt at pecking out of captivity. What makes Michael Gitlin's film extraordinary is the way it represents birding as a special way of seeing. Close-ups of birds in the field isolated by surrounding branches in soft focus are paralleled by jerky zoom-ins on book pages or stuffed specimens, echoing the way the collector's eye homes in on prized treasures. Paired with the theme of ecological ruin--the sheer number of birds worldwide has declined steeply--the birder's quest is given a melancholy poignancy. 61 min. Sat 2/26, 8 PM, Chicago Filmmakers. Gitlin will attend the screening.




February 25, 2005


The Birdpeople ***




New York filmmaker Michael Gitlin creates a bird's-eye view on people who look at birds -- all kinds of birds, hours at a time, from year to year -- for recreation and research. In this meditative essay film, Gitlin learns to look at the bird people the way they look at birds.


Binoculars perched on their chests, bird watchers face his camera without speaking. They look like the specimens arrayed in the 10 museums that Gitlin visits. Elsewhere in the hourlong film, Gitlin edits together excerpts from interviews on the soundtrack. Some birders in Central Park cluster sociably; others flee the flock for solo reveries. In a slightly mystical passage, we watch ornithologists gently cradle birds in their palms and blow aside feathers with their breath to take measurements before letting them fly away.


"The Birdpeople" weaves an idiosyncratic nest for two species of avid viewers: seekers of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker and fans of allusive 16mm filmmakers.


(No MPAA rating. Running time: 61 minutes. Screens at 8 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark. Filmmaker Michael Gitlin will appear.)


Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and critic.





March 8th, 2005


New York Underground Film Festival






The best conventional docs of the fest (whose executive director is   Voice contributor Ed Halter), Code 33 and The Birdpeople, both brandish a fine, human-sized detailing. A smart rebuke to true-crime TV flash, Code (from a team including Horns and Halos directors Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley) is a procedural about a Miami Police Department search for a serial rapist, tracking the life of the crime itself, from 911 call to sketch to arraignment. The loping pace brings out neat stomach-bracing moments, like when the MPD's sketch artist mocks her America's Most Wanted hotshot counterpart or, in the coda, a long shot of the Peter Lorre-ish culprit sobbing and blaming the crimes on pills. Michael Gitlin's mellower The Birdpeople is even stronger, a study of ornithologists in which the observers merge indissolubly with their subjects. The film, shot on 16mm, divorces image from sound, creating a flurry of testimonials and readings that place it far above most talking-head docs. Abetted by Gitlin's ultra-intimate eye, The Birdpeople goes beyond the usual issues of human-bird interaction (tagging, nets, pouches, hunting, taxidermy) into profitably weird turf, such as the potent effect one warbler species had on the McCarthy hearings.





May 17th, 2005


Magnificent obsessions

Deep focus rules at the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival.






DocFest's obsession with obsession continues in Other People's Pictures, Lorca Sheppard and Cabot Philbrick's insightful study of Chelsea Flea Market denizens who spend every weekend pawing through stacks of old photographs. The most intriguing collectors search within very specific, very personal themes. One Holocaust survivor's son seeks what he calls "banality of evil" images and has amassed a huge array of shots depicting uniformed Nazis chilling in social settings. Other People's Pictures is co-billed with Monica Bigler and Sarah Prior's Buried in the Backyard, which affirms that Americans are still paranoid enough to build bomb shelters (and wear unironic T-shirts that read, "I have a shelter if you see me running, try to keep up"). Less straightforward but equally compelling is Michael Gitlin's The Birdpeople, which details the hunt for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, the equivalent of Bigfoot in ornithology circles.





Wednesday, May 11, 2005


True Lives

Is it real or is it magic? Decide at the S.F. Documentary Film Festival.






Stephen Tobolowsky, best known as a middle-aged ugly duckling in films like Groundhog Day and Memento, comes out as a swan in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, holding forth straight to Robert Brinkmann's camera for a full 90 minutes, telling stories about auditions gone awry and other misadventures. Amazingly, it's not boring. Michael Gitlin's The Birdpeople registers as the most artistically ambitious movie being screened, telling its bird-watching tales through a series of silent tableaux, collages of voice-over narration, maps, bird paintings, and other devices. At its narrative core is the hunt for the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker; the bird's recent rediscovery is the happiest of coincidences.