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Pale Male in THE LEGEND OF PALE MALE (Photo: Balcony Releasing)

Directed by Frederic Lilien
Produced by
Lilien & Janet Hess
Written by Hess
Released by Balcony Releasing
USA. 85 min. Not Rated

This innocuous and beautifully photographed documentary appeals to the nascent bird watcher in all of us. The movie follows Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk that nested on the façade of a Fifth Avenue co-op in the 1990s. The film attests to the urban fascination with anything wild. Certainly the shots of the hawk’s flight capture a graceful, fierce freedom that we poor earthbound sops can only admire.

The movie also centers on the relationship between director/co-producer Frederic Lilien and the bird. A bit of an aimless wanderer, Lilien begins filming Pale Male with the intention of becoming a nature documentarian. Little does he realize that the object of his lens will become a subject of fascination, then love, and, finally, social protest. With shaky camera works and grainy footage, the film captures the eagerness of the rookie filmmaker as well as the development of Pale Male as a celebrity in the public eye. At first, the footage only catches glimpses of him in trees and mid flight, but then later in close ups and long pans. The hawk, with complete disregard for humans and their trappings, finds a mate, nests, and hatches eggs. However, when the co-op building that provides Pale Male his home decides the nest is a detriment to the building, they remove it. Cue the earnest protests and the Audubon Society.

As Pale Male’s fan club grows, theres no doubt that Pale Male has an impact on people’s lives. One woman, confined to a wheel chair due to a neurological disorder, finds in his flight the independence her body will never have. A socially awkward camera technician discovers a budding photographic talent with Pale Male as his subject, and the initially bemused head of the New York chapter of the Audubon Society grows into a leader of animal rights, leading the crusade to restore Pale Male’s nest. (Mary Tyler Moore grabs some camera time supporting the bird.)

The passion and fervor the hawk evokes is uniquely human, and uniquely New York. Only humans would gather to fight over a bird’s right to nest. And only New Yorkers would dress up in a red bird costume to do it. But one has the sneaking suspicion, watching Pale Male fly high over Manhattan, that he would never care for all this human fervor. Why would he? After all, he has the open sky. Lisa Bernier
November 24, 2010



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