What­ever fills the bill

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

Ghost Bird, flighty doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles

IIn the town of Brink­ley, Arkansas, a Wal-Mart gar­ment fac­tory sits empty. Known as “Lick Skil­let” dur­ing cot­ton-belt rail­road ex­pan­sion in the mid 1800s, this small com­mu­nity lo­cated along the Mis­sis­sippi Fly­way bird-mi­gra­tion route is a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for out-of-town duck hunters.

Un­for­tu­nately, duck sea­son is limited to a few months a year, and there are few jobs in the area. Peo­ple in Brink­ley will work for dirt now, ac­cord­ing to a re­porter for the Brink­ley Ar­gus news­pa­per, but “peo­ple in other places will work for much less dirt.”

The bleak eco­nomic fore­cast in Brink­ley seemed end­less, un­til one day in April 2004, when Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock pro­fes­sor M. David Luneau Jr. cap­tured a few sec­onds of blurry video while kayak­ing in the nearby Cache River Na­tional Wildlife Refuge. His al­leged doc­u­men­ta­tion on that video of the Cam­pephilus prin­ci­palis, aka the ivory­billed wood­pecker — long con­sid­ered ex­tinct — brought a taste of pros­per­ity to a town in des­per­ate need of it, thanks in large part to grow­ing pub­lic in­ter­est in bird-watch­ing and a me­dia blitz that drew in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. But the video — and un­sub­stan­ti­ated word-of-mouth ac­counts of ad­di­tional ivory-billed-wood­pecker sight­ings — also dis­turbed a nest of sci­en­tists, skep­tics, bird-guide il­lus­tra­tors, and con­ser­va­tion­ists, many of whom are still em­broiled in a heated de­bate (some­times re­ferred to as “Peck­er­gate”) over the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of what has been called the “Lord God Bird.”

In this 2009 doc­u­men­tary, di­rected by Scott Crocker with cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Damir Frkovic, towns­peo­ple and sci­en­tists pon­der the ve­rac­ity of the sight­ings near Brink­ley, with the for­mer hold­ing out hope that solid ev­i­dence will sur­face, yield­ing an op­por­tu­nity to cash in on the dis­cov­ery.

Af­ter Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity Lab­o­ra­tory of Or­nithol­ogy di­rec­tor John Fitz­patrick’s en­thu­si­as­tic an­nounce­ment at the 2005 con­fer­ence of the Amer­i­can Or­nithol­o­gists’ Union that the ivory-billed wood­pecker was peck­ing away east of Lit­tle Rock, Brink­ley’s cham­ber of com­merce and busi­ness­minded res­i­dents be­gan for­mu­lat­ing a bird-based blue­print for a new lo­cal econ­omy. Swamp tours were planned for the me­dia and tourists; ivory-billed ham­burg­ers and sal­ads be­gan pop­ping up at lo­cal restau­rants; a wood­pecker-themed gift shop opened; the ivory-billed hair­cut be­came a fix­ture at Penny’s Hair Care; and T-shirts em­bla­zoned with the slo­gan “Got Pecker? We Do!” were hot-ticket items.

Through in­ter­views with bird ex­perts and Brink­ley res­i­dents, the film­mak­ers thor­oughly ex­plore the ivory-billed wood­pecker’s path to ex­tinc­tion. A fo­cus on the his­tory of the Singer Sewing Ma­chine Com­pany and the Chicago Mill and Lum­ber Com­pany in ar­eas sur­round­ing Brink­ley helps ex­plain the bird’s dwin­dling habi­tat, which, by the early 1940s, sup­ported only five con­firmed ivory-billed wood­peck­ers. By 1986, one con­ser­va­tion­ist ex­plains, a hun­dred square miles of Arkansas wood­lands where the bird made its home had been re­placed by tree­less soy­bean fields. In the film’s most telling scene, or­nitho­log­i­cal ex­perts re­veal how sci­en­tists’ col­lec­tion of ivory­billed-wood­pecker spec­i­mens ac­cel­er­ated the bird’s demise.

For all of the ac­count­abil­ity of­fered up re­gard­ing the species’ ex­tinc­tion, Ghost Bird avoids mak­ing en­e­mies out of those re­spon­si­ble. If there are bad guys here, they’re the aca­demics who de­clared the ivory-billed wood­pecker no longer ex­tinct with­out solid proof. In light of Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity’s shaky find­ings (the school de­clined in­ter­view re­quests by the film­mak­ers and sus­pended its search for the bird in Arkansas in 2009), the fed­eral govern­ment fun­neled mil­lions of dol­lars ear­marked for the pro­tec­tion of species ac­tu­ally known to be on the brink of ex­tinc­tion into an ef­fort to re­vi­tal­ize the ivory-billed wood­pecker pop­u­la­tion and pre­serve what was left of its habi­tat.

When aca­demic voices ex­press­ing doubts re­gard­ing the bird’s re­turn be­come louder, the film takes flight — al­though it doesn’t re­ally know in which di­rec­tion to flap its wings. In­ter­view seg­ments flit abruptly from ex­pert to ex­pert be­tween snip­pets of archival footage as it be­comes clear that an avian-res­ur­rec­tion flim­flam may be in the breeze. For those with lit­tle to no in­ter­est in the pol­i­tics of wildlife con­ser­va­tion or the hobby of bird-watch­ing, this is when Ghost Bird loses its mojo. The dry sci­ence pre­sented here even­tu­ally strips the film of its emo­tional weight, and the hu­man as­pect of the story — the peo­ple of Brink­ley bet­ting on the ex­is­tence of a species their fel­low men helped de­stroy — suf­fers greatly.

Add to this mis­for­tune a poorly de­vel­oped po­lit­i­cal un­der­cur­rent that un­suc­cess­fully grasps at hu­mor (Don­ald Rums­feld’s fa­mous “There are things we don’t know we don’t know” speech about weapons of mass de­struc­tion makes an ap­pear­ance, but it bombs, so to speak), and Ghost Bird de­volves into cum­ber­some par­ti­san rhetoric about some­thing much larger than the film’s in­tended sub­ject. This doesn’t last long, but the story never fully re­cov­ers from the dis­trac­tion.

Ghost Bird sports a hip sound­track (pre­sum­ably meant to broaden its gen­er­a­tional ap­peal) that runs the gamut from the es­o­teric to some of the most col­lege-cam­pus-and non­profit-ra­dio-friendly mu­sic known to man. An orig­i­nal score by San Fran­cisco-based “avant cel­list” Zoë Keat­ing (she has col­lab­o­rated with Rasputina and The Dres­den Dolls’ Amanda Palmer) sets the somber moods, while a care­ful se­lec­tion of tunes by The Black Keys, White Stripes, Sonny Terry, Pix­ies, and com­poser David Lang punc­tu­ates the film’s themes and set­tings nicely.

The film­mak­ers ad­e­quately cap­ture the buzz and fall­out sur­round­ing the al­leged dis­cov­ery of some­thing many peo­ple be­lieved would never be seen in liv­ing, breath­ing form again. Un­like Big­foot and the chupacabra — whose re­searchers have yet to present ir­refutable ev­i­dence of — the ivory-billed wood­pecker’s his­tory is un­de­ni­able. There are draw­ers full of their ca­dav­ers at uni­ver­si­ties and re­search fa­cil­i­ties across the nation. To avid bird­ers, and to the towns­peo­ple of Brink­ley, the bird’s re­turn rep­re­sents some­thing far be­yond myth. It’s the em­bod­i­ment of winged hope, a sym­bol of sim­pler, more pros­per­ous times. Un­for­tu­nately, what seems more im­por­tant to Crocker is the min­ing of sci­en­tific data for cer­tain­ties. And in Ghost Bird, at least, the story sur­round­ing the truth is in­fin­itely more com­pelling than the truth it­self.

Where’s Woody? M. David Luneau Jr. search­ing for the ivory-billed-wood­pecker in Arkansas

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