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A way of living, a way of seeing: 'The Central Park Effect'

Brad Buchholz

Jonathan Franzen is a writer with Pulitzer-caliber powers of observation. He lives in New York, walks in New York's Central Park all the time. Yet Franzen admits he never saw the great park clearly ... finely ... truly ... for seven years. Until someone directed his attention to birds.

"I thought it was a place of pigeons and sparrows," says Franzen. Then he was encouraged to really look, and came to realize more than 200 bird species lived in Central Park. "It was like the trees were hung with ornaments. It was amazing, seeing this familiar urban park filled with birds like that — and gawdy birds. Bright yellows. Greens. Reds. Blues. Blacks. Whites. It was one of those rare times in an adult's life where the world suddenly seems more magical, rather than less."

Franzen shares these observations in "The Central Park Effect," an ethereal hour-long documentary about birds — and the exotic species of people who love them — which premieres 8 p.m. Monday on HBO. First-time filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball debuted the film four months ago at South by Southwest.

"The Central Park Effect" is aviary in subject and in style. A story-bird lights on a branch. It lingers for a time. We admire its colors, savor its moment of company. Then it flies away, leading our eye to new branches, new stories, new colors, new climates, new ideas.

Birds, 120 different species of birds, are the stars of the film. We meet prothonotary warblers and veerys and buffleheads (and yeah, grackles, too) in a four-season ramble through Central Park. We hear their songs, too. Yet it is the voices of their human admirers — scientists, nature lovers, photographers, a young girl, an instrument-maker, a septuagenarian with cancer, and this fella named Jonathan Franzen — that bring the film to life.

"There's a wonderful word that E.O. Wilson, the great biologist uses: biophilia," says one birdwatcher, trying to explain his enthusiasm for birdwatching in Central Park. "We have this innate love of the natural world. (But) love is almost the wrong word. We grew up inside of it, so we need it around us to feel more like ourselves. Birding is just the great mediating activity between what's urban and what's wild, what's earth and what's sky. And I love having both, simultaneously."

In turns, "The Central Park Effect" is about survival, about adaptability, about wonder. It's about our longing for nature and the imperiled state of that nature. Most of all, it is a film about ways of seeing — and where an investment in seeing can take us.

Look. There. That flash of color. An ornament on a tree. "That sudden beauty, where there wasn't a moment before. ..."

Contact Brad Buchholz at 912-2967

'The Central Park Effect'