For the Birds


A bird in the hand…

(2018) Documentary (Dogwoof) Kathy Murphy, Gary Murphy, Sheila Hyslop, William Brenner, Paul DerOhannesan, Jenny Brown. Directed by Richard Miron

 

There are some who say that there is a very fine line between love and obsession. Still others assert that in love there is always a degree of obsession. However, I think everyone agrees that too much obsession, no matter how great the love, is a very bad thing.

Kathy Murphy lives on a lovely property in upstate New York in a small town called Wawarsing. While the mobile home she lives in is spartan, she and her husband Gary seem pretty content with their lives. She finds an abandoned duckling on her property one day and decides to raise it. She becomes enchanted with the waterfowl; soon more ducklings follow. Then chicks. And geese. Even a couple of turkeys.  Before anyone knows it there are over 150 birds living in close quarters in the shed and having the run of the house.

Kathy goes from being perceived as a kind-hearted animal lover to a slightly eccentric bird enthusiast to a full-blown crazy lady. The birds have completely taken over her life; she spends all her time feeding them, caring for them and hanging out with them. The house becomes fetid with the smell of bird droppings and the noise is so bad that Gary, who works nights, must turn on his stereo full blast to drown out the birds calls so he can sleep. The situation begins to affect his health.

Neighbors begin to notice the mess and the unsanitary living conditions for the birds and call the local SPCA. The Woodstock Wildlife Refuge is notified and workers like Sheila Hyslop, a charming Scottish lady and committed volunteer for the Refuge who is visibly affected by the situation in the Murphy homestead, try to convince Kathy to part with some of her feathered children.

Yes, Kathy actually considers the birds as her babies, which is ironic because she has an adult human daughter who has a child of her own; Kathy has essentially cut them out of her life. In fact, she’s cut everyone other than Gary and the birds from her life and even Gary who clearly loves his wife in order to put up with this for years is getting fed up. Eventually the SPCA animal police are called in and they seize almost all of her birds. A legal battle ensues and although local tax lawyer William Brenner represents her, it must feel to Kathy as if everyone has deserted her – including Gary.

Miron is actually a volunteer at the Woodstock Refuge himself which is where he first encountered the story. Considering Kathy’s contentious relationship with the Refuge, it must have taken some pretty extensive sweet-talking to get her to allow the kind of access she gives the camera crew. Kathy herself makes a fascinating figure; she clearly has at least some form of mental illness. The repetitive phrases she uses, the fast-paced staccato vocal cadences and the rapid head movements certainly give that impression.

You would think Miron would take a very negative view of Kathy and at times, she does come off negatively but Miron is also surprisingly sympathetic as you realize that Kathy is not a monster; she’s also not the sort who endangers her birds because of a mental deficiency. What she does have is a hoarder’s mentality which eventually puts her in an untenable situation where she can’t possibly give the birds adequate care but she refuses to recognize that until it’s too late.

Lest you think this is a downer of a movie, it isn’t. Kathy does find a kind of redemption at the end although it doesn’t come until she hits rock bottom, which often is what it takes for people to make changes in their lives and their attitudes. What prompts Kathy to make those changes is never truly explained. All I can say in the five years that are covered in her life, Kathy ages in a pretty stark manner and I’m talking American President stark. She’s not youthful at the start of the film but you can still see vestiges of her youth; by the time the final credits roll she has clearly aged into the role of an old woman. Love can do that to you.

While this is definitely interesting viewing, it isn’t essential. Miron does a surprisingly good job of telling Kathy’s story, thanks in no small part to the editing work he did in coordination with Jeffrey Star which is where the story really takes off. We often overlook how important film editing is to the finished product but this is certainly an example of how crucial it can be and how it can make or break a movie. Fortunately in this case, it’s make.

REASONS TO SEE: A sobering portrayal of obsession and its effects on relationships.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film doesn’t explain very well how Kathy turned her life around.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity as well as a sometimes-disturbing depiction of mental illness and animal neglect.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed over a five-year period.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grey Gardens
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Extracurricular Activities

Eating Animals


Dinner is served.

(2017) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Natalie Portman (narrator), Frank Reese, Larry Baldwin, Rick Dove, Craig Watts, Amelia Watts, Bruce Friedrich, Paul Willis, Bill Niman, Chris Leonard, Jim Keen, Connie Keen, Leah Garces, Lindsay Wolf, Temple Grandin, Gene Baur, Neal Barnard, Bob Martin, Pete Fisher, Tian Yi, Ethan Brown, Josh Tetrick, Eva Song. Directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn

 

When dinner is on the table, we rarely pause to consider how it got there. Most of the food we Americans consume – something to the tune of 98-99% of it – came from a factory farm. That is to say, from a large corporate-owned farming facility that mass produces vegetables, fruit and yes animals for consumption.

Those companies who are often the same ones who pack their packaged food with salt, sugar and/or fat use hormones to stimulate growth and genetically engineer their animals so that the preferred parts of their body grow ridiculously large, like turkeys and chickens with breasts so large that they can barely walk,

The animals in these factory farms live miserable, brief lives. They are literally born to die, although in this case they are born to be eaten. Our chicken, our beef, our pork – they rarely come from those bucolic farms that we see in our Hollywood visions of the heartland. They usually come from hellholes where animal waste is collected in ponds and seep into the groundwater that we eventually drink, but not before it kills all the fish in the local streams.

We get plenty of views of those bucolic farms – as it turns out, there are a few holding on in the face of nearly impossible odds – and we talk to some of the farmers who are holding on to time-honored traditions that may be less efficient but produce happier animals and let’s face it, better meat. That flies in the face of the factory farms who are about mass-producing product at a much lower cost than the small farmers can.

There are also plenty of views of horrific conditions in factory farms; pigs in cages barely able to stand, cows unable to walk due to growth hormones being moved by forklifts and turkey carcasses on an assembly line for your Thanksgiving meal. These are unsettling images that are enough to convert a carnivore into an instant vegetarian.

Which is to say exactly what the filmmakers are after. They are subtle about it early on, chatting up the small farmers raising heritage turkeys and free range chickens. Oh, this is about alternative sources of meat thinks I early on. However as the movie spirals to a conclusion, the true intentions of the filmmakers make themselves known as the virtues of eschewing animal products are extolled. Maybe I’m a little funny that way but I don’t like to be preached to and I get a sense of that near the end. True vegetarians and vegans likewise will find the factory farm footage disturbing.

So in the end the movie seems aimed at those who are on the fence and need just the right motivation to be tipped over the edge. I’ve read a couple of film critics who are vegetarians excoriate the filmmakers for being too subtle with their message and being less militant than they should be. This is why liberals can’t win elections; there is almost a self-righteous superiority. The fact of the matter is that we are not better than the other side. There is nothing wrong with eating meat no matter what militant vegans tell you; it is part of our natural instinct to eat meat. We are omnivores and if we weren’t meant to eat animal flesh, we wouldn’t.

For those who are fans of the documentary Temple Grandin, the lady herself makes an appearance raging at “ag-gag laws,” laws that prevent a real discussion of factory farm methods and

Still, the message is a worthwhile one if you’re willing to listen and have a thick enough skin that you can take the condescension at face value. At least the intentions are good – keeping in mind that if as a culture we ate less meat we would be doing the planet a solid. While they do a good job making a case against factory farming and also against the USDA, a government agency that was founded to protect consumers but it seems as if they are more interested in protecting big corporate interests these days, this might not be the movie for you if you’re looking for a good reason for switching to the green team. For one thing, I think the filmmakers assume you already have one.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is just gorgeous. The filmmakers make their case against factory farming very effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the filmmakers finally start preaching for vegetarianism which I surmised was the point all along.
FAMILY VALUES: The film has some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film got a standing ovation at the Telluride Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Our House