Columns

2002.06.19 The blue jay never sleeps

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

I feel like I’ve been asleep at the couch all my life. Or asleep at the Rex or even asleep at the lovely Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor. The spacious Michigan seems like a very nice place to sleep, but the movie is always too good to miss.

How could I so carelessly watch movie after movie after movie and never pay close attention to the sound of the birds? Birds are often present in soundtracks and I notice their appearance, but I don’t think too much about how a particular species fits in.

When I talk about movie after movie after movie, I’m talking about recent history. College provided a fertile movie-watching time, and then it ended.

I read a lot when I lived in Saginaw, there was no movie theatre where I lived in Maine, and it was back to the wonderful library when I was in Portland, Ore.

By the time I returned to Morenci, people were starting to buy VCRs, but I never owned a television until a couple of years ago. Now I’m a thoroughly modern man with a DVD player, and between the local rental store and a rental service via the mail, I’m in movie heaven. I can get all the unusual films that can only be seen in Ann Arbor, the foreign films that seldom show anywhere, and I can make up for some of what I missed over the last two decades.

And starting now, I’m going to pay a lot more attention to the birds.

A NATURE writer from Connecticut by the name of Robert Winkler has awakened me from my slumber. He’s puzzled how Hollywood can place so much attention on all the little details of a movie and then do something stupid like having a blue jay sing at night.

The movie-makers will hire a slew of technical advisors—ranging from scientists to lawyers to soldiers—in an effort to make everything plausible, but then they’ll remain, as Winkler puts it, tone deaf to the songs of birds.

That blue jay episode, he says, is in a scene from “Eyes Wide Shut.” Tom Cruise is walking up to the Long Island mansion at night when a blue jay calls three times. It must be an insomniac.

An eastern screech owl helps set the scene in the opening of “E.T.” Owls can have an eerie sound to their voice and it adds a touch of mystery to the movie. To an ornithologist, it adds a lot of mystery, because that species of bird has no business hanging out in the suburbs of California.

Winkler says the biggest geographic gaffe might go to the latest adaptation of “Lord of the Flies.” The boys are marooned on a deserted island in the South Pacific and a red-tailed hawk cries over and over. It’s often used to portray isolation and vulnerability, Winkler says, which would be all right in this part of the world, but that hawk is lost by thousands of miles.

Winkler thought about the caged cardinal that Ichabod Crane releases in “Sleepy Hollow.” That’s New York state of 1799. Later in the film, Christina Ricci identifies a cardinal song in the wild.

Cardinals were kept as caged pets in the past, but they didn’t live in New York as they do now. It’s only in the past 60 years that they’ve migrated into this area. By the way, says Winkler, Washington Irving’s story that inspired the movie never mentions the cardinal.

Winkler also gets a kick out of scenes where the sound editor creates a hot spot that would attract bird watchers from across the country. The sound track will feature species after species without a repeat. Winkler once watched a scene that contained several species of owls, a chuck-will’s widow, a whippoorwill and the often present, frequently out of place, common loon.

Each species performed on cue without intruding on another’s song. Nature at its most harmonious.

Just the opposite is often true. A film might show a lovely summer morning, the lush forests and green hillsides, and a complete absence of birds. An environmentalist’s nightmare.

I’m going to start listening to movies much more carefully now, but I think I’ll start off with something easy. How about “The Birds”?

    – June 19, 2002 

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