Birders have always had a bum rap as binocular-wearing geeks. Jeffrey Kimball’s documentary, “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” aims to change all that. First broadcast on HBO and now released into theaters, it’s an affectionate movie about people who are delightedly obsessional about all manner of birds, specifically the more than 100 species that congregate at various times of the year in New York’s Central Park – about one quarter of the total bird species in the United States and Canada.
Kimball is himself a birder, which means he isn’t condescending to the dozen or so birders he interviews. And although this is his first feature film (he’s spent most of his career doing sound work in movies), he knows how to capture revelatory shots of birds in flight or in repose. The trick is patience. A lot of patience. Hours can be spent waiting for that one moment when a red-tailed hawk or a hermit thrush alights or takes to the sky.
Most of the people he interviews are defiantly upfront about their passion. Chris Cooper (not the actor) says that birding “turns every morning into a treasure hunt.” His friends understand that from the high migration dates of April 15 to Memorial Day, they “won’t see me nowhere.”
Jonathan Rosen says, “If you’re not out birding, you’re missing something, not just intellectually but almost in a bodily way. It’s just some deep human impulse really.”
Jonathan Franzen (yes, the author) talks about the first time he really noticed the birds in Central Park – it was as if “the trees were hanging with ornaments.” He’s very funny about the usefulness of birding as a way of avoiding writing, but it’s clear that the head-clearing that comes with it is vital. (Although not mentioned in the movie, Franzen’s New Yorker essay “My Bird Problem” is one of the best pieces ever written about how birding can change one’s life.)
Franzen is also very funny about the dweeb factor in birding.
Unlike the other people who are interviewed, he acknowledges the stereotype and even agrees with it. “You’ve got the binoculars up, and you’re demonstrating that you need something. That’s the essence of uncoolness.”
A legend among birders is the matriarchal Starr Sapphir, a former Shakespearean actress who has been guiding birder tours through Central Park for more than 30 years. (At $8 a pop, it looks like a real bargain.) Terminally ill with breast cancer, she still manages her seasonal schedule with no-nonsense exactitude.
She’s compiled more than 80 notebooks over the years, logging all the species she’s sighted. “The fun is in the counting,” she says.
The appeal of birding in Central Park is obvious: It’s a little piece of nature right in the city. As Franzen says, “It’s one of those rare times in an adult’s life where the world suddenly seems more magical, rather than less.”
Kimball doesn’t delve deeply enough into the lives of these birders, perhaps because he doesn’t want to upstage the birds, or maybe because he feels that everything nonbirdy about birders is for the birds.
He also is a tad too touchy-feely about the ornithological wondrousness of it all. One observer notes that birds can be ruthless in search of food, but this comment is a brief blip in the lovefest. Still, I’m glad Kimball doesn’t go in for a lot of tooth and claw close-ups. One of my pet peeves about nature documentaries is that we always end up watching some poor beast being stalked and gored.
In “Birders,” by contrast, nature is one big entrancing show; a world of tweets without “tweets.” Grade: B+ (Unrated.)