A 1966 VILLAGE VOICE listing describes Stephen Poleskie’s The Bird Film as “allegorical slapstick.” That’s half right. While the comical chaos of the film certainly is slapstick, it’s hard to find much in the way of allegory, and this is to the film’s credit.
The Bird Film opens with an American flag, then a figure in binoculars and a funny hat (the “birdwatcher”) rises into the shot. The political viewer, aware that this film was made in a famously turbulent era, might be tempted to begin reading allegorically at this point, but would find that reading stunted, probably less than a minute later when the birdwatcher is attacked by an actor in a bear mask, who is in turn attacked by the Indian, who wears a box on his head that is painted in the “exotic” colors you might expect one of any number of cartoon Indians to wear. Instead of allegory, The Bird Film gives us something much more valuable: a short work made by young artists who are clearly enjoying experimentation with the form
The Bird Film is an 18 minute chase scene. Troublesome narrative components such as plot and character are left out, though to say that the chase simply serves to move the film forward wouldn’t be true. There is a certain order being followed here. After all, the film begins with a birdwatcher, who chases after the bird (played by Warhol superstar Deborah Lee). A bear chases the birdwatcher. An Indian chases the bear. As it turns out, the birdwatcher, the bear, and the Indian, all end up chasing the bird.
Scenes range from an imaginary environment constructed in a Manhattan loft to a creek, where the bird lady performs interpretive dance in the water, to a pretty pasture that was the farm of Elaine de Kooning (the film’s associate producer).
Deborah Lee plays the bird with the aloof grace of a dancer performing for no one but herself. She pauses from time to time to pose and reflect. As a director, Poleskie indulges himself by letting Lee poetically extend her arms, bend her legs, and arch her back, imbuing the short with a dream-like quality to break up the slapstick of the chase.
Watching The Bird Film once through, you enjoy it for its levity, strangeness, and photographic beauty. A second time through, you begin to notice things you didn’t notice the first time around. A man in a wheelbarrow reads a Daily News with the headline, “Gangs Raid 2 Subway Trains.” The next time we see him, about 20 seconds later, he is reading a New York Post with the headline, “Break In Miss.” Go ahead and watch it a third time. Your enjoyment is likely to increase with each viewing, but if you want to find out what it all means, you may want to take your business elsewhere. The Bird Film is a celebration more than it is a statement.
My favorite scene in The Bird Film occurs at about the 13 minute mark. After dodging the birdwatcher, the bear, and the Indian, the bird pauses on a rock to pose before a spring. The soundtrack at this point turns from hectic chase scene instrumentation to ethereal vocals. Deborah Lee turns to the camera, smiles, and lifts her arms in a gesture that says “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?” In the same way the newspaper headlines hint at a world somewhere on the outside, Lee’s gesture, a shot that would have been edited out of a more “serious” film, speaks to the youthful chaos and joy that beats at this work’s center.
Stephen Poleskie, director and writer of The Bird Film (1966), is an Ithaca based artist, writer, and photographer. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery in London. His writing has appeared in journals such as American Writing and Essays & Fictions, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Poleskie wrote and directed The Bird Film. The Bird Film will be showing this Friday, May 6, at Arcades Project. The film will be looped continually throughout the night.
David Nelson Pollock is a founder of Arcades Project and a co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.