| The Central Park Effect


Jeffrey Kimball

USA, 2012


Review by Victoria Large

Posted on 22 May 2012

Source Projected DVD

Categories The 2012 Independent Film Festival Boston

If one were to raise any objection to Jeffrey Kimball’s charming hour-long bird watching documentary The Central Park Effect, which will premiere on HBO later this year, it would probably be that it does pretty much what it says on the tin. That is, that the film rather expectedly offers us a great deal of wonderful footage of the many bird species that appear in New York’s Central Park throughout the year. It also provides us a peek into the obsessive world of urban birdwatchers, who carry hefty sets of binoculars or enormous cameras and maintain meticulous records of their finds.

But honestly, I greatly enjoyed Kimball’s beautiful close-ups of birds and the unguarded interviews that he conducts with the humans who love them. At one point in the film, a birdwatcher says that he could never get tired of seeing a common bird like a cardinal, and I have a similar feeling about The Central Park Effect itself. Why quibble with beauty, even if it isn’t entirely unexpected?

The film’s title refers to the fact that Central Park - an enormous manmade strip of green running through a very heavily urban area - attracts a vast array of migrating birds faced with few other available pit stops. Novelist Jonathan Franzen, one of the more high profile New Yorkers interviewed, describes the phenomenon as a rarity, something that makes daily life “more magical rather than less.” And indeed, Kimball gives us a good sense of that magic, perhaps never more so than in the scenes of avid birder Starr Saphir, who offers guided bird walks throughout the park. Saphir, who has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, affectingly describes the heightened feeling of seeing a sought-after species for what may be the last time. In such moments bird watching seems less a matter of obsessive cataloging and more an urgent quest to find beauty where and when one can.

Elsewhere, birders of all ages and disparate backgrounds describe the pleasures of hunting without bloodshed, or forging some small connection with nature even within the boundaries of Manhattan. The Central Park of this film is idyllic - a defamiliarized wonderland teeming with bright flying creatures - and the documentary has a reassuringly cyclical structure, beginning and ending in springtime. The overall experience is a joyful one, and while I suppose that there was something ironic about the screening that I attended - we’re talking about a bunch of urbanites crowding into a dark theater to watch other urbanites watch birds - The Central Park Effect makes for a delightful vicarious bird watching experience nonetheless. Indeed, viewers may find themselves looking up more often, or listening more attentively, next time they step outside.

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