Cinema has been for the birds from the get-go: It was the puzzle of winged flight that drove Frenchie Étiennes-Jules Marey to build a pioneering 12-frame-per-second camera he called a “photographic gun” (imagine a tommy-gun with film instead of a clip). This week, stoked by a programming birder on staff, Anthology lets loose a flock of avian features and shorts alongside a premiere of Scott Crocker’s Ghost Bird, a documentary about the search for the elusive (or illusory) ivory-billed woodpecker. The program’s feathered friends reveal a bird’s cinematic as well as paradoxical attractions—at once a vividly present pocket of life and fleeting blip on the landscape, intimately observed and physically remote, free and wild but compulsively tracked.
Backed by an eclectic soundtrack, Crocker’s 2009 doc traces the hubbub around the decades-departed ivory-billed woodpecker, purportedly rediscovered near Brinkley, Arkansas. It’s the sort of film that builds up familiar frenzy—newspaper notoriety, tourism uptick, government attention—only to dissolve in a what-just-happened daze. The mania starts when one enthusiast captures a glimpse of the thought-to-be-extinct bird with an endlessly looping canoe-mounted camera, from which it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to a besotted Interior official shifting millions in grants. (Rounding out the Bush-era boondoggle feel is a playful clip of Rumsfeld’s swaggering WMD syllogisms.) Well-grounded hunters and soft-spoken obsessives like guide guru David Sibley swap skeptical reactions, as Crocker plays a kind of visual three-card-monte with bird images, culminating in the mesmerizing multiplicity of crowded drawerfuls of hyperreal stuffed birds at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Although the story made the media rounds back in 2005 (recycled sources include a hairdresser, Chamber of Commerce rep, and an Argus editor), Crocker’s folksy head-scratching gets at the hope behind the hunt. Or, in the words of one observer, “You can never prove it doesn’t exist.” Filmmaker Alex Karpovsky takes a different approach with his strained Woodpecker, which restages the fruitless search as a mockumentary spiked with real Brinkley folks, but it’s less amusing than Rare Bird, Lucinda Spurling’s 2006 doc about the coelacanth-like rediscovery of the Bermudan petrel (whose adorable young look like blow-dried lint balls). It’s informative—and hilariously hypnotic in its Time/Life behold-the-secrets-of-the-ancients style, replete with enveloping synths, faded-snapshot re-enactments, and an intent female-smoker voiceover delivering lines like, “On their search for the immortal, they longed to prove once and for all an illusion lived on.”
A program of lovely experimental shorts evokes beauty more than obsession—though 2005 NYUFF alum Birdpeople reaffirms birding’s intensity. Filmmaker Michael Gitlin suspends birds and their admirers in rich 16mm, dives into disparate sources like a 19th-century account of a pet bird attacking a mahogany table, and dwells on stop-motion close-ups of a sightseeing journal that includes what an Audubon vet informs me is known as a “life list.” Though the uncanniness can be forced (in an already dated way), Gitlin catches gestures, such as how tagging conservationists hold birds like syringes, head scissored between middle two fingers. Rounding out the program are Williamsburg’s old-school coop culture in rooftop doc Up on the Roof, the Avatar-trumping Winged Migration, in awe of the natural world, and Hitchcock’s desperately bravura Psycho follow-up—a vital reminder to watch your back around sparrows.