Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Just Saw the Lord God Bird!

Relax, don't get excited, and catch your breath. No, I’m not claiming to have seen a real-live Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but I did see one in a movie!

To assuage my strange obsession with this bird, I made the 167-mile round trip from the hills and hollers of Appalachia to the affluence of down-town Silver Spring, Maryland, last evening to see George Butler’s documentary film, The Lord God Bird (A Film in Progress), which was shown as part of the 15th annual DC Environmental Film Fest (EFF).

In stressing that this is “a film in progress” I think Butler is holding out hope that he will soon be able to end the documentary on a positive note (i.e., with a definitive photograph or video clip of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker from this century). He remarked that another 50 minutes will be added to film before it is released in the fall.

In its current rendition, the film ends with two text slides (and I paraphrase here):
Skepticism about the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker still persists

But so does faith . . .
First Impressions: I was very impressed with the quality of the film, but won’t go into detail so as to not spoil it for those who have not yet seen it. I thought John Dennis Jr. did an admirable job of defending his oft-maligned father; Gene Sparling comes across as honest, sincere, and very likeable; and Nancy Tanner is utterly charming, entertaining, and knowledgeable.

Characters Who Appear in the Film: Arkansas duck-hunting guide (whose name I forget), Lucas Behnke, Russell Chariff, John Dennis Jr., John Fitzpatrick, Tim Gallagher, Bobby Harrison, Jamie Hill, Martjan Lammertink, Gale Norton, Richard Prum, Scott Simon, Gene Sparling, Nancy Tanner, Dennis Widner. My apologies to anyone I might have forgotten (and I’m quite sure there are a few).

Characters Absent From the Film: Jon Andrew, Geoff Hill, Jerry Jackson, David Luneau, David Mennill, Tom Nelson, Van Remsen, Ron Rohrbaugh, Ken Rosenberg, Mary Scott, David Sibley.

Poignant Moment of the Film: Bobby Harrison becoming very emotional and almost crying in the middle of describing his first encounter with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker (in the company of Tim Gallagher).

Light-Hearted Moment of the Film: In describing her courtship with husband-to-be James Tanner, Nancy Tanner says, “I just chased Jim until he finally caught me.”

Skeptical Moment of the Film: In expressing her personal skepticism about John Dennis’s sighting in the Big Thicket of Texas in the 1960s (which James Tanner investigated without being able to obtain confirmatory evidence) Nancy Tanner remarks, “You can see what you want to see, you know what I mean?”

Crass Political Moment of the Film (and one I could have done without): A brief clip of Gale Norton, former Secretary of the Interior, making her remarks at the April 2005 “rediscovery” announcement.

Gratuitous Vulgar Moment of the Film: At one point, Fitzpatrick is show talking to team members who are off camera. He relates listening to tapes of putative double-knock calls from the White River in which an on-site investigator can be heard whispering in the background, “Where the f..k is that bird?” I don’t know if that scene was staged or real, but it was apparently inserted to illustrated the frustration experienced by the Cornell team. I viewed it as gratuitous and inappropriate vulgarity, considering that this film will be viewed by young children all across the country (in fact, there were a few in the audience last night), but it did draw a chuckle from the crowd.

Oops! Moment of the Evening: In introducing director George Butler, John Fitzpatrick remarked about how grateful he was that a filmmaker of his caliber had approached Cornell about making a movie on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In his introductory remarks, Butler pointedly contradicted Fitzpatrick. Saying that Fitzpatrick’s story “wasn’t quite the way it happened,” he countered that it was, in fact, Fitzpatrick and Cornell (and probably The Nature Conservancy) who had approached him about doing the documentary.

Jaw-Dropping Remark of the Evening #1: In a question-and-answer session after the movie, James Tate Jr., currently former (now retired) the Science Advisor to the Secretary of the Inerior and a former Assistant Director at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pointed out that the archival film footage of Cornell’s 1935 expedition to the Singer Tract that makes up a central part of the Lord God Bird documentary exists today only because it had, at one point in time, been rescued from the trash bin into which it had once been thrown at Cornell.

Jaw-Dropping Remark of the Evening #2: Responding to a question from the audience, George Butler hinted that there might be 25 nesting pairs of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers along the Choctawhatchee River in Florida.

Clueless Remark of the Evening: While standing in a crowd of peopled that gathered in the lobby of the theater waiting for an earlier movie to let out, I overheard a woman remark to her husband as the couple thumbed through a program for the EFF, “Oh, it IS a woodpecker.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank's very much for reporting on this, especially the events of the evening. The "Oops!" you describe will not be lost on those who recognize the many ways in which the adherents have sought to sell this story and entrench the claim in the modern psyche. It's an important part of the story, one of a media savvy ornitholigist (seeking a documentary), a natural human tendency to accept beliefs based on hope and faith, and how often those beliefs turn out to be incorrect. There is also an element all too prevalent in our culture today that is reflected in Dr. Fitzpatrick's steadfast refusal to admit even the possibility of error--avoid taking responsibilty to save face. The thousands of dollars spent on this movie, let alone the unjustified focus of time and energy drawn, have drawn aware precious conservation resources.

March 18, 2007 5:13 PM  
Blogger John B. said...

I meant to go see this film, but I forgot about it yesterday. Thanks for the overview. It sounds like an interesting film. Out of curiosity, did the filmmaker present an outline of the criticisms of the recent ivory-bill searches, or did they get left out?

March 18, 2007 7:44 PM  
Blogger Larry said...

Sounds like this was an interesting program.I don't know what to believe or not believe about The "Lord God Bird".I hope that they still do exist but for now I'm going to enjoy watching Pileated Woodpeckers because I know that Pileateds do exist. Might as well enjoy them hile I can.-thanks for the report.

March 18, 2007 7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review. Was there any mention of Tyler Hicks or Brian Rolek? I'm pretty sure Butler interviewed at least one of them when he visited the Choctawhatchee.

March 18, 2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

John: No. No mention of recent controversies surrounding the sightings and the Luneau video. Remember where the funding for the movie is coming: Cornell, The Nature Conservancy, and the National Geographic Society.

March 18, 2007 9:15 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Anonymous #2: No, there was mention of Tyler Hicks or Brian Rolek, but that's not to say that they (or Hill or Mennill) might not appear in the final version to be released in the fall.

March 18, 2007 9:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder whether Tom Nelson will appear in the final cut. On the movie website, I recall seeing a trailer that included an interview with him, and there was a still shot of him at the website as well.

March 18, 2007 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

50 IBWO? George Butler must have been paid a lot to believe in IBWO that much.

You know, Mr. Trapp, I'm beginning to hear a backlash. The general public now largely does not believe in the "rediscovery". A few people against conservation are beginning to catch onto this foolish. For the first time last week, I heard someone on the radio question whether we can believe anything environmentalists say about wildlife issues based on the Ivory Bill foolishness.

It's been a good laugh. But I hope we don't come to regret this fiasco.

March 19, 2007 12:46 AM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

I wonder whether Tom Nelson will appear in the final cut. I think the likelihood of Tom or any of the other skeptics appearing in the film depends a great deal on what happens with the searches this spring. Much was made of the fact that the next month will be the best time to document and IBWOs present, because it will be the height of their breeding season. The ending scences of this documentary are still very much in doubt, in more ways than one.

March 19, 2007 7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is confusion between The Lord God Bird and an entirely different film, Ghost Bird, produced and directed by Scott Crocker. Both Tom Nelson and David Luneau are shown in the online trailer for Ghost Bird:

Though it has not been updated in many months, the Ghost Bird page promises that this film will be "a feature length documentary about an extinct giant woodpecker, a small town In Arkansas hoping to reverse it misfortunes, and the relentless odyssey of the bird-watchers and scientists searching for the Holy Grail of birds, the elusive Ivory-Billed woodpecker." I am not aware of any schedule for screenings of this film yet.

About Lord God Bird, it is very common for final versions of films to be substantially different than what was shown in early film festival screenings.

March 19, 2007 5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the film also. I interpreted Butler's "Jaw-Dropping" comment completely differently.

As I recall he was asked whether he believes the birds still exist. His response was roughly that he believes Gallagher & Harrison are sincere and that they believed they saw an ivorybill. (But) he also looked into the eyes of someone in Florida who believes there are 25 breeding pairs there.

My interpretation of what he was saying re the Florida claim is that there are seemingly sincere people who are just whacked out in this respect. His comment bothered me, and my guess is that he leans toward being skeptical of the bird's existance.

March 19, 2007 8:59 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

I was at the film also. Thank you, anonymous. I appreciate you sharing your perspective on this comment. I now recall the "looked into the eyes" portion of his response, but apparently didn't afford it the same significance that you did. Thanks, again.

March 19, 2007 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am I missing something very crucial? Tom Nelson is a clever person in a cutting satirical way but why on earth is this individual given any clout or credence at all?

Since when does being an avid birder and being able to be computer savvy have anything to do with science regarding one of the most important species in North America?

Would I go to a a student who just has read and done some research on the human heart if I needed a cardiac operation? No, nor would I bother to ask Mr. Nelson his opinion on a bird such as the ivory-bill when this is not his profession and he is not in the field looking for the species.

I find it sad we give any time or respect at all to one who's only claim to fame is that he can be extremeley cunning in a negative way on the itnernet. That qualifies this man to have a spot on this or any other film?

Very very puzzled.

March 20, 2007 4:29 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Anonymous at 4:29 PM said, "Tom Nelson is a clever person in a cutting satirical way but why on earth is this individual given any clout or credence at all?"

I mentioned Tom only because he is an outspoken presence in the IBWO dialogue. I don't approve of all of Tom's tactics either, but he has become a de facto spokesperson for the skeptics.

In my humble opinion, Tom or any of the other "experts" (take your pick) who have expressed skepticism about the evidence presented to date are just as deserving of a spot in the movie as the Arkansas duck hunters, who express their opinions in no uncertain terms.

March 23, 2007 7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"About Lord God Bird, it is very common for final versions of films to be substantially different than what was shown in early film festival screenings."
I will be appearing in the movie and can assure you it is not finished yet.They will be coming back to Arkansas to film some more with me next month.I have seen the IBW for a lenghty amount of time and am a firm believer.
By the way I am an Arkansas duck hunter ,so dont judge all by words of a few.
Ross Everett

March 23, 2007 2:03 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

Ross Everett said, "I am an Arkansas duck hunter, so don't judge all by words of a few."

Don't get me wrong, Ross, I've been exposed to duck hunters all my life, and I thought the segment with the duck hunters was one of the more entertaining and down to earth moments of the entire movie.

March 23, 2007 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I had seen the preview,I am waiting on pins and needles to see the finished product.
I did not mean to sound angry ( if I came across that way)I just dont want everyone to chacterize hunters in general as loud mouth,and ingnorant from just a few examples.We are not all like that some are very intelligent and very caring conservationists.

March 23, 2007 3:11 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

I understand, Ross. Duck hunters are a varied lot, just like birders. Thanks for the comments.

March 23, 2007 3:33 PM  

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