Movin’ on up
IThe Legend of Pale Male, urban raptor doc, not rated, CCA Cinematheque, 3 chiles That old canard — if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere — goes double if you’re a red-tail hawk in Central Park. Pale Male, as the fair-colored raptor is known, has made a base for himself on the Upper East Side since the early 1990s. Urban hawks are exceedingly rare, much less so in the world’s most well-known metropolis.
In this 2009 documentary by Frederic Lilien, we follow Pale Male, his mates, and their brood as they soar over New York City. Like any ambitious arriviste in the Big Apple, Pale lives by his wits and daring. He catches and shreds pigeons in midair, delights hundreds of binocular-toting followers in Central Park, and makes his nest on a ledge 12 floors up at 927 Fifth Avenue, near the penthouse balcony of Woody Allen’s apartment.
But the building’s much-feared co-op board frets over the hordes of people in Central Park with telescopes aimed squarely at the windows of their residents’ tony apartments, which come with the promise of security and anonymity. In 2004, the building managers dismantle Pale Male’s sizable nest in the middle of the night. In response, the outraged bird watchers band together, enlisting the aid of the Audubon Society and Mary Tyler Moore, one of the building’s residents, to their cause.
Soon, the Pale Male story became national news and nighttime comedy fodder. Daunted by the media pressure and the rabid crowds of sidewalk protesters, the co-op board relents, building a high-tech frame for the birds to nest on. Mayor Michael Bloomberg fast-tracks all the building permits. Slowly, Pale Male and Lola, his female hawk companion, begin rebuilding their home, twig by twig.
The real drama of this film lies not only with Pale Male but also with the hundreds of humans who while away years of their free time watching him. Lilien, the filmmaker, has been following Pale Male with few breaks since 1993. The aspiring filmmaker said he came to New York from Belgium to “escape” a narrow life in his family’s multigenerational law practice. Jumping from waiter jobs to hair-salon managing gigs, Lilien said he was searching for meaning in the big city when he happened upon Pale Male. The next day, he picked up a video camera. He had at one point thought of becoming a wilderness photographer. While that goal never panned out, he did become an able and inveterate chronicler of Pale Male’s world, whether feeding his chicks or executing soaring flying maneuvers to fend off a pack of crows.
The viewer soon realizes that Pale Male’s charisma, at least for his followers, lies in the hawk’s perceived ability to salve the wounds of the past. One woman in the film talks about how Pale Male helped her process the parental neglect she experienced as a child. She came to see the hawk’s constant feeding and guarding of his brood as something both heroic and redemptive. Near the end of the film, Lilien talks about how watching Pale Male for two decades prepared him to become a father.
As you might guess, the film’s voice-over narration never finds a cliché too shameful to use. But there’s something about Lilien’s accented delivery and his perpetually naive, awe-struck newcomer personality that makes many of the film’s hoariest lines tolerable, if not uplifting.
This urban nature doc unabashedly indulges its anthropomorphism, and we root for Pale Male as a plucky, up-by-his-bootstraps New Yorker fending off both gentrification and the city’s terrors to keep his mates and brood alive. His first mate — unimaginatively dubbed First Love by his followers — meets her end after consuming a poisoned pigeon. His second paramour, Chocolate, winds up struck by a car on the New Jersey Turnpike, while his mate Blue is ominously never seen again after Sept. 11, 2001. By the time Pale Male and his fifth mate endure eviction at the hands of the co-op board, it’s hard not to see the film as a naked parable of New Yorkers of a certain age — scarred by serial dating and the collapse of rent control.
Using a high-powered zoom lens, Lilien captures wonderful footage of the chicks, beset by fear and ecstasy, as they attempt their first flights from a 12th-floor ledge atop Fifth Avenue. It turns out the kids are all right. They not only take flight but establish urban broods of their own. One takes up residence in a comely stone building on the campus of Fordham University. Another moves uptown, winging among the religious statuary of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Still others establish nests in actual trees. Pale Male has effectively reintroduced the red-tailed hawk to Gotham. To date, 26 hawks have been seen flying over Manhattan air space, the exact same number he is known to have fathered.
He’s going to make it after all: Pale Male