Fear of fly­ing

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Pel­i­can Dreams, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, The Screen, 2.5 chiles Gigi is the kind of chick who stops traf­fic. More specif­i­cally, she is a young Cal­i­for­nia brown pel­i­can who was dis­cov­ered in 2008 wan­der­ing along the Golden Gate Bridge, de­hy­drated and dis­ori­ented, un­able to fly, and clos­ing down a lane of busy bridge traf­fic with the aplomb of Chris Christie while cops and by­standers tried to wran­gle and re­move her.

Shortly after this res­cue, the bird was re­manded to a wildlife re­hab fa­cil­ity to be nursed and coaxed back to health for re­lease into the wild. If she doesn’t make it, she will, as the film del­i­cately eu­phem­izes, be eu­th­a­nized. It was at this point that avian doc­u­men­tar­ian Judy Irv­ing ( The Wild Par­rots of Tele­graph Hill), who had heard about the in­ci­dent, tracked her down. Irv­ing had been fas­ci­nated by th­ese birds since child­hood. “As a lit­tle girl,” she re­calls, “I used to have fly­ing dreams.” She got hold of am­a­teur footage of the pel­i­can’s bridge cap­ture, which, she says, “felt like an invitation to follow it,” and used it as an open­ing for the film she had long wanted to make about th­ese ex­tra­or­di­nary crea­tures. “They look like fly­ing di­nosaurs,” Irv­ing muses.

“She was found on the Golden Gate,” Irv­ing ex­claims to Monte, the bearded young wildlife re­ha­bil­i­ta­tor (who knew?) in charge of the fa­cil­ity. “Let’s call her Gigi!” Monte greets this sug­ges­tion with re­strained en­thu­si­asm. “We don’t usu­ally name them,” he tells her drily. “We don’t hand-feed them. We try not to even make eye con­tact.” Monte fits the pel­i­can with an an­kle tag and calls her by a num­ber, not a name (rem­i­nis­cent of an old Johnny Cash prison song: “On this old rock pile with a ball and chain/They call me by a num­ber, not a name, Lord, Lord”). The job of re­hab is to make th­ese birds fit to re­turn to the wild, not to make pets of them.

Irv­ing’s doc­u­men­tary takes us to the Chan­nel Is­lands, home to the only ma­jor breed­ing pop­u­la­tion of Cal­i­for­nia brown pel­i­cans in the western U.S., and cap­tures some ex­hil­a­rat­ing na­ture footage, in­clud­ing early at­tempts of the pel­i­can young to learn to fly, a ten­ta­tive process that re­sem­bles hang-glid­ing as they take off from the rocky coast­line with wings awk­wardly spread and catch the wind and the air. She shows us their early ef­forts to hunt, and the some­times bru­tal, even fra­t­ri­ci­dal, sib­ling ri­valry in which the chicks en­gage as they com­pete for food. She takes us through the re­cent his­tory of the species — the ter­ri­ble blight of mas­sive coastal oil spills that leave them coated with sludge and help­less, their near-ex­tinc­tion in the mid-20th cen­tury un­der the now- banned scourge of DDT ( in 2009 they were re­moved from the en­dan­gered species list), and the new threats they face from cli­mate change and in­dus­trial fish­ing. She cap­tures spec­tac­u­lar shots of pel­i­cans div­ing for fish, a fas­ci­nat­ing tech­nique in which they plunge from a height into the wa­ter, stream­lin­ing their large bod­ies into the shape of an ar­row for an en­try that would be the envy of an Olympic diver.

We also visit the home of a wildlife-preser­va­tion­ist cou­ple that has taken in a trio of wounded pel­i­cans and are try­ing to nurse them back to health for re­lease. Bill and Dani Nicholson do not seem to share Monte’s scru­ples about nam­ing the birds, and they in­tro­duce us to Morro, the one of their pel­i­can charges who never re­gains the abil­ity to fly. Hap­pily, when it be­comes clear that he will never be able to re­turn to the wild, they are able to get him re­clas­si­fied as a “teach­ing pel­i­can,” us­ing him for ed­u­ca­tional talks and demon­stra­tions about the birds, and thus spare him the ex­e­cu­tioner’s block.

Be­cause Morro has achieved pet sta­tus, we spend plenty of time with him, watch­ing as he be­comes fas­ci­nated with his re­flec­tion in a mir­ror, or plays with a stick, or wan­ders into the Ni­chol­sons’ house to ex­plore the hu­man habi­tat. But we do keep check­ing back in with Gigi as we learn more about the life and times of pel­i­cans, and we follow the sus­pense over whether she will make the grade. There are a lot of re­hab­bing pel­i­cans in the fa­cil­ity — pel­i­cans, we learn, thrive on the com­pan­ion­ship of their fel­low pel­i­cans — but Gigi, with her name and her his­tory and her pink an­klet, is the one we’re root­ing for.

Pel­i­can Dreams is a sweet and in­for­ma­tive doc­u­men­tary about the bird im­mor­tal­ized in Dixon Lanier Mer­ritt’s clas­sic lim­er­ick (quoted in the film) that be­gins, “A won­der­ful bird is the pel­i­can/His bill will hold more than his be­l­i­can.”

De­spite oc­ca­sional spec­u­la­tive an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing (“When [in courtship] a pel­i­can swings its head around 360 de­grees, it means, ‘I like you. I don’t want to leave. But I will if you want me to’ ”), Irv­ing, for the most part, keeps things nicely ob­jec­tive, and we come away with a greatly en­hanced un­der­stand­ing of pel­i­cans. The doc­u­men­tary would have fit nicely as an hour on the Na­ture Chan­nel. But as a fea­ture film, even at a mod­est 80 min­utes, it feels stretched a bit thin, as though its bill is try­ing to hold more than its belly can.

— Jonathan Richards

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