Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

A tale of two pelicans


These pelicans are notable for their spiky haircuts. Photo: Pelican Media
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It's a fine line between human and animal, threatening to break down at any instant, which is why homo sapiens has devised taxonomic categories to ensure those other people out there with hair, claws, eyes, and lungs like ours stay in their place. Every once in a while, that fine line disintegrates, and we behold our natures mirrored in the wild beast. In the poetry, say, of Keats or Baudelaire. In the films of Judy Irving, whose lyrical documentary Pelican Dreams opens Friday at the Balboa.

Irving, 68, who lives on Telegraph Hill married to the human protagonist of her 2005 hit The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, meets me in the hallowed recesses of legendary independent-film publicist Karen Larsen's stronghold in South Park. I'm always delighted to visit the vault, lined with DVD and VHS, where interviews are strictly monitored for time. As a starving journalist, I luxuriate in free lukewarm French-press coffee, and nibble on a raisin cookie I discover came from Safeway. No matter. The context and pretext transform the humble offering.

I hadn't seen the film before speaking with Irving, which is just as well, because the film is too beautiful for words. And I'll tell you why that is. Because Judy erases the line between human and beast. Sure, she's the one with the camera. That dreadful separation from wild nature is something no human can transcend. But Gigi, as she came to call the world-famous California Brown Pelican who stopped traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, was allowed to direct the picture.

A word about pelicans. They are the only bird with a totipalmate foot, i.e., all four of their toes are united by a web. They use these feet to walk, paddle and incubate their eggs by standing on them. They were once thought to feed their young with their own blood. In heraldry, a pelican "in her piety" appears over her nest with wings extended, wounding her breast, from which fall drops of blood. This fable made the pelican a symbol of charity. Nothing quite so outre occurs in Pelican Dreams, but the underlying theme is compassion.

Judy Irving is one of those hard-boiled Bay Areans capable of practicing her compassion in the midst of cruel realities. After tow-truck driver Joe Carver captures Gigi on the bridge by dropping a towel over her eyes, an event memorialized by one of many cellphones deployed during Gigi's standoff with traffic, Irving meets up with her at the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center. Wildlife rehabilitator Monte Merrick, another compassionate realist, diagnoses Gigi with dehydration, thinness – in a word, starvation.

Gigi, temporarily banded "Pink 193," is placed in an aviary with others of her kind, where she preens her feathers, eats anchovies from a plastic tub, and generally waits to be strong enough to be released back into the wild. That means, strong enough to fly well. "Living in the wild is being an athlete at the top of your form," says Merrick. While that's happening, Irving turns her camera on another pelican rescue operation in which Morro, Chorro, and Toro live in a couple's backyard. Morro, emerging as the most clearly rendered pelican character in the film, illuminates the people whose lives he touches.

I said Gigi directed the picture, in that she focused the filmmaker's attention on her species. Serendipity did the rest. This is the essence of Irving's m.o. "I film stories unfolding in real-time. I don't know what the outcome is going to be. It can be nerve-wracking. I let Reality dictate to me what and where I should film. And hope to God it's going to work out." Thank Goddess, it did.

Pelican Dreams is a wise, careful, graceful, loving yet levelheaded tribute to one of the greatest birds on the planet. We are extremely fortunate to live so near to them. You can watch their magnificent flights along the coast at Ocean Beach. We need reminders we merely share, we do not own planet Earth. We need to protect these ancient and fabulous creatures so they can continue to inspire and delight us.


Plays the Balboa Theater in SF, Rialto Cinema Elmwood in Berkeley. More info:


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