Thursday, December 9, 2010

Come Fly With Me

Birds of prey have long held a fascination for man. In ancient Egypt, the falcon-headed god Horus was often depicted as the son of Isis and Osiris.

In the following promotional video for Abu Dhabi's new Sheikh Zayed National Museum, one senses how Sheik Zayed's passion for falconry is reflected in the soaring steel cooling towers that have been designed to resemble a falcon's tail feathers.

Plenty of nature films have tried to capture an animal's hold on man's imagination. From Lassie Come Home to Rin Tin Tin, from Born Free to Duma, from Flipper to Free Willy, the loyal friendship between a human and an animal has continued to fascinate audiences.

But in a new documentary, The Legend of Pale Male, the story is purely about the worship and adoration of the red-tailed hawk that captured the imagination of New Yorkers for the past 15+ years. Belgian Frederic Lilien first noticed the hawk in Central Park back in 1993 while he was visiting New York and trying to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. What began as a hobby (watching and trying to capture the hawk on film) turned into a long-term project that developed a city-wide following.

Pale Male rests atop a tree stump.

The hawk became a source of controversy when the board of the co-op building in which actress Mary Tyler Moore lives became fed up with all the media attention focused on their building and voted to destroy the hawk's nest. In his director's statement, Lilien writes:
"More than an extraordinary piece of New York history, The Legend of Pale Male documents the mysterious power possessed by a single red-tailed hawk to open the eyes and hearts of die-hard city dwellers to the wonders of nature. For many New Yorkers, a simple encounter with something as wild and beautiful as Pale Male is nothing short of miraculous. It’s an encounter with hope, with a renewed sense of possibility. Something important happens in that moment. The people he touches come back again and again to stand before the nest of this magnificent creature and be in his presence.
Pale Male caught in mid flight

The project is an 18-year journey into how nature can transform the soul of a city. The filmmaker marvels at how effortlessly Pale Male delivers his message. He is the triumph of nature where we thought it couldn’t win. He is the chance to experience what you cannot teach. He inspires and, over the years, an entire community comes together around him. But that is not all there is to the story for his presence, while powerful, is also fragile. In one shockingly selfish act, a handful of people try to take it away from all those who treasure it. The co-op board of his chosen building destroys his nest, shattering the annual ritual of the nesting season for all his followers. Ultimately, what has been lost cannot be reclaimed -- but that, too, is part of Pale Male’s message. For we never fully know what we’ve lost until it’s gone. But this loss comes with a lesson that’s even more profound. With or without us, nature will prevail. The Legend of Pale Male is a testimony to the spirit of the greatest city in the world, a touching New York love story that is both fairy and fable but all completely true."
There is much to marvel at in this documentary, particularly the superb photography and a powerful musical score composed by Lenny Williams. Bird lovers and nature enthusiasts will be thrilled by much of the film as long as it concentrates on the birds. They are magnificent to watch as they fly around an urban environment where red-tailed hawks had not been sighted for nearly a century.

Pale Male and a mate rest on a statue.

While much of The Legend of Pale Male focuses on the hawk, his mates, and his offspring, a great deal of it also focuses on the humans who become obsessed with Pale Male (who remains blissfully unaware of their attention). The hawk pursues its natural need to hunt for food while oblivious to his man-made celebrity. Although dedicated bird watchers are no different from the aircraft spotters who watch planes take off and land at airports, their camaraderie ranges from quiet, intimate friendships to noisy and belligerent protests, from friends sharing photographic equipment and a common passion for birdwatching to those who have gone out of the way to attach their own self importance to a bird's daily life.

In an odd way, The Legend of Pale Male is a great study in the behavior of a society that has grown drunk on celebrity gossip. As much a documentary about a wild bird living in an urban environment as it is about unrequited love, Lilien's film takes a gentle look at society's obsession with anthropomorphism as it captures the many ways in which people project their own emotions and insecurities onto a male "that is just not that into them." Here's the trailer:

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Folks like to say that "time flies when you're having fun." But time flies even faster when the wrong person has a gun. First seen at the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival and now in general release, Night Catches Us revisits an extremely unpleasant period during the Civil Rights movement. In order to understand the film, some background material (from the film's website) is extremely helpful:
"Considered to be one of the most significant social, political and cultural movements in U.S. history, the Black Panther Party (a political organization grounded in Black Nationalism and advocating for social change for African-Americans) was established in 1966 but was all but disbanded by the early 1970s. Today, many continue to wonder how such a strong political organization could have experienced such a rapid demise. While debate lingers today about what factors led to that demise, many former Panthers and others contend that it was solely the result of a government conspiracy.
From the mid-1950s throughout the 1960s accusations abounded about a covert FBI program bent on disrupting political organizations in the United States. The disruptions ranged from the trivial (reprints of articles forwarded to college administrators) to the degrading (coloring books distributed by the FBI in the name of the Black Panther Party, advocating children to celebrate violence). Later, graver assertions arose: the FBI was feeding information to police departments which -- knowingly and unknowingly -- carried out assassination plots at its behest.
To many, these stories appeared circumspect and baseless, and the controversy went unnoticed. But the disturbances -- aimed primarily at Black political organizations, most notably the Black Panther Party -- continued and affected liberal and conservative organizations alike, from the Communist Party to the Ku Klux Klan. Only when activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 was the truth confirmed about a secret program run by the FBI called COINTELPRO. Among the documents later discovered was a memo by the notoriously overzealous FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, which said, 'the purpose of the counterintelligence action is to disrupt the Black Panther Party and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.'

The documents were damning and COINTELPRO was abandoned the same year. An investigation launched in 1976 by a subcommittee of the United States Senate (known as the Church Committee), concluded that, 'the techniques used by the FBI would be intolerable in a democratic society, even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that…' Later, the committee deemed many of COINTELPRO’s actions to be illegal.
Today, opinions vary widely about how significantly the actions of COINTELPRO were in the demise of the Black Panther Party. Many blame COINTELPRO solely for creating distress and fomenting irreparable damage between community members and police. Others attribute the demise of the Panthers more to the strife within its ranks. The fact remains that the assassination of Black Panther Party members like Bobby Hutton and Fred Hampton live on as examples of this tragic chapter in American history. Many believe today that as many as twenty Black Panther Party members were assassinated as part of the program, for which the FBI claims no part. The fact that Hoover and the FBI kept COINTELPRO hidden for so long only serves to foster plausibility in the conspiracy. Night Catches Us endeavors to portray characters drawn into the violence and betrayal of this time and living in its aftermath."
Night Catches Us focuses on the tense reunion between Marcus (a former Black Panther) and Patricia Dixon (the woman he left behind). Marcus had been forced to flee Philadelphia after being labeled as the snitch responsible for the murder of Patricia's husband. When he returns to town for his father's funeral, he quickly discovers that his legacy (even if it is a false one) has not been forgotten by "the brothers." Written and directed with great sensitivity by Tanya Hamilton, this is a deeply moving indie film with a superb cast.

Kerry Washington as Patricia Dixon

Recently, someone on Huffington Post bemoaned the lack of male African American actors who are allowed to give sensitive, complex, and layered performances. I suggested that he watch Anthony Mackie in Night Catches Us. After a second viewing, I'm convinced that Mackie (who also boasts incredible eyelashes) is an actor of surprising strength and depth.

Anthony Mackie as Marcus

The fact that Mackie is playing against the exquisitely beautiful and frighteningly gifted Kerry Washington is reason enough to see this film. But two supporting performances -- one by Jamara Griffin as Patricia's inquisitive daughter and the other by Amari Cheatom as her slow-witted, rebellious cousin Jimmy -- almost steal the movie from its stars.

Washington plays a young widow who has become an attorney. Well known throughout the neighborhood (she even has pull with the remaining Panthers), Patricia has been dating another attorney who is severely threatened by the sudden presence of Marcus. Patricia is also constantly being called upon to get her hot-headed, slow-witted cousin Jimmy out of trouble.

Amari Cheatom as Jimmy Dixon

Marcus must also contend with the repressed anger of his brother Bostic (Tariq Trotter), who has already found a buyer for their father's house, local bully DoRight Miller (Jamie Hector ), and police detective David Gordon (Wendell Pierce). After Jimmy buys a gun and murders a policeman, the situation gets much worse.

Iris (Jamara Griffin) and Marcus (Anthony Mackie)

In addition to some beautifully restrained performances, Night Catches Us includes powerful archival footage from Black Panther events during the early years of the Civil Rights struggle. It would be easy (and unwise) to overlook this indie gem. It's well worth your time. Here's the trailer:

1 comment:

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