Woodpecker (Director: Alex Karpovsky): Hope, Emily Dickinson taught us, is the thing with feathers:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
— Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the subject of Johnny Neander’s quest is a bird: the legendary Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, last spotted in the 1940s. A rash of recent sightings near the town of Brinkley, Arkansas bring part-time house painter and amateur poet Johnny and his silent pal Wesley to town, where they will attempt to be the first people to obtain documentary proof of the woodpecker’s return. Making a comeback when you seem to be gone forever turns out to be a central theme of this unusual film. Shooting in a documentary-fiction hybrid, Karpovsky gradually moves from one to the other as we learn more about our central character. When the film begins, Johnny is just one among a number of birdwatchers and locals talking about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. We hear from local people, many of whom are delighted that the attention has brought tourists and business back to their dying town, but a few who resent the resulting protection of the bird’s habitat, denying them the right to hunt ducks there. Within a few weeks, however, it seems like most of the searchers have given up and gone home. Well, except for Johnny and Wes.
We soon learn that this is much more than a birdwatching expedition for Johnny. It becomes a quest for personal redemption, and as he trudges through the bayou with the hapless Wes in tow, we are treated to his incessant philosophical chattering and poetry readings. While they are indeed hilarious, as the days go by, we begin to sense the desperation and sadness in the men’s quest. Though Wes is strictly a sidekick, we learn that he’s there due to his own personal tragedy. Johnny just doesn’t want to be a loser anymore, and his discomfort with his own life makes him yearn for the freedom that birds seem to enjoy.
The clever thing is that the woodpecker can so easily stand in for almost any other elusive thing that humans search for. Karpovsky could easily have set the film in, say, Roswell, New Mexico and had his protagonist searching for aliens. But that would have been going for easy laughs at his character’s expense. Instead, the film offers many poignant moments that allow us to identify with Johnny. By the second half of the film, we’re almost in Waiting for Godot territory, where the absurdity is tightly wrapped up with the overwhelming longing for transcendence that many of us feel. In fact, it’s no surprise at all that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker’s nickname is “Lord God Bird.” The mixture of comedy and melancholy works better in my mind, in fact, than the hybrid of documentary and fiction, which begins to feel a bit unwieldy as soon as we’ve formed an emotional attachment to Johnny and Wes.
Perhaps fittingly, Johnny is played by an actor (Jon e. Hyrns) whom Karpovsky discovered in a documentary (Johnny Berlin) made about his career as a porter on a 1930s Pullman railway car. Hyrns, who co-wrote the script, is not surprisingly also a novelist, and his storytelling gifts serve the film well.
One of the script’s greatest achievements, in my mind, is in the pitch-perfect poetry that Johnny writes about birds. Of course, the poems are hilarious, but at the same time they possess a heartfelt honesty that, while not on a level with Emily Dickinson, manages to convey the pain that Johnny is so desperate to escape. The entire film is a successful blending of comedy and pathos that lets us celebrate hope, no matter how crazy.