Arts & Events

Film Review: The Legend of Pale Male

By Gar Smith
Wednesday December 08, 2010 - 10:18:00 AM

San Francisco has the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and now the Big Apple has its own Big-screen Birdtacular — about the red-tailed hawks of Central Park West. The film’s titular predator is Pale Male (so-dubbed owing to his atypically light-colored plumage) and his story is told by Belgian-émigré-turned-NY shopkeeper-turned-filmmaker Frederic Lilien, who narrates the film with cornball sentimentality (“This is the story of a bird and a young man seeking their destiny in the greatest city on Earth.”) 

Fortunately, the film rises far above its thin storyline — thanks to first-time filmmaker Lilien’s ability to capture a visual banquet of wrenchingly beautiful images — the result of a unique film odyssey that took 20 years and left Lilien with a long list of filmmaking awards. (At every screening, the hawk’s stunning aerial maneuvers have left audience members screaming with amazement.) 

As the first redtail to return to Central Park in 100 years, Pale Male quickly won a following among ground-level Manhattanites. After dazzling New Yorkers with pigeon-snatching aerobatics that would leave the Blue Angels green with envy, Pale Male builds a nest on the 12th-floor ledge of a posh Manhattan high-rise between Madison and Park Avenue — near the digs occupied by Woody Allen. 

As luck would have it, the location — at 927 Fifth Avenue — happens to face the Central Park Boat Pond, a convenient gathering place for neighborhood residents. Quicker than you can say “hawk–on-a-high-rise,” the benches lining the pond become a local — and eventually an international — Mecca for birdwatchers, kids and tourists from around the world who flock see “the most famous hawk in the world.” The Pond also becomes a special place where rich and poor gather as equals to share the wonder that comes from experiencing the raw beauty of nature. The expressions on the faces of the spectators will send your heart soaring. 

“But Pale Male had bigger ideas that would take us all by surprise,” Lilien proclaims portentously. So what’s the big surprise? Just the arrival of a female hawk. The lure of watching a wild hawk plucking pigeons from the sky and snatching squirrels from a limb is now compounded by the voyeuristic kick of watching hawks mate. (You could easily get the idea that the birds have more active sex lives than these binocular-wielding New Yorkers.) The hawks’ favorite mating spot? The terrace of Woody Allen’s penthouse. 

The Pond becomes an urban Eden populated with photographers, painters and kids who are more interested in hawks than Gameboy and Pokémon. 

The first year sees the arrival of three fluffy, white-feathered chicks. Over the next nine years, three of Pale Male’s mates will die (one from eating a poisoned rat, one from a collision with a car, one from unknown causes). But the idyll ends abruptly in 2001 when the building’s board of directors votes to remove the hawks’ nest. It was all gone in half an hour, leaving the hawks and their human followers equally confused and devastated, feeling homeless and lost. 

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one grieving resident says, “when everything else is wrong in the world, we could still look forward to this.” Adds another: “If it wasn’t for [the hawks], I would have left New York.” 

The Board of Directors reportedly acted after some of the building’s wealthy residents objected to the growing throngs of strangers on the ground training binoculars, cameras and telescopes at their windows. But if these residents (reportedly including an investment banker, an Enron executive and a well-known TV news anchor) wanted privacy, they made the wrong move. 

Spontaneously, people from all over Manhattan converged on the Pond, brandishing protest signs and demanding that the nest be restored. The local Audubon chapter started getting calls from around the world from people demanding: “Bring back the nests!” One of the building’s residents, Mary Tyler Moore, came down and joined the protests — at one point even providing bail for a jailed protester. 

After six days of protests, the directors buckled and agreed to install an improved metal bed for the nest. But, though the hawks returned, their eggs failed to hatch. “No one knows what went wrong,” Lilien narrates. “The only thing we know is that something beautiful had been broken.” 

Fortunately, there is more to the story. Although Pale Male never sees another egg hatched or another fledging make its first fitful flight, the ending is wonderfully upbeat. Of all the images that stay with you, the one that lingers longest may well be the faces of people on the ground looking up as a redtail hawk soars overhead. 

They are cheering and smiling back at the sky, pointing fingers and waving arms rapturously as though saluting a superhero. And maybe this is the real message of the film: Who needs Spiderman when you’ve got hawks? 

Viewer Advisory: Predatory abuse of pigeons and squirrels; hawk-on-hawk sex. 

The Legend of Pale Male opens at the Shattuck Theater on December 10