Jonathan Livingston Seagull

tn_jlseagullIn order to truly understand how OWL 300 is the talking bird movie for our times, one must also explore the quintessential talking bird movies of other eras. And the one that came to mind when I thought about that was the one from 1974, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. I don’t know if you guys remember this one, but it was a huge book at the time, but not a kids book like all movies are based on now. It was seen as this inspirational, philosophical type of deal.

mp_jlseagullOWL 300 could not have been made before, not only because the technology didn’t exist but because there hadn’t been the internet-launched “geek” takeover of Hollywood that made it possible for suits to consider spending a hundred million bucks on a fantasy about bird war. JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL is the same way, it could not be made at any time other than when it was, because the entire movie is footage of a seagull flying around, with half-whispered internal monologue questioning bird-society’s perception of the limitations of seagull flight. Also because all the music is by Neil Diamond.

There is a little bit of plot. Jonathan experiments with different types of dives, with flying higher than other seagulls and with flying at night. He talks to himself about how seagulls can’t fly faster than 62 mph (I wonder where he got that figure – do seagulls do studies of that stuff? And shouldn’t they come up with their own way of measuring speed?) but wouldn’t it be great if they could? The pompous seagull establishment is threatened by his quest for excellence and they kick him out. So he flies around by himself for a while until he meets other seagull outcasts and tries to learn flying/enlightenment from them. There’s a whole psychedelic part where he goes beyond death or something. It could almost be seagull EL TOPO. Except boring. And there’s not a bunch of seagull freaks that get shot at the end.

In the beginning there’s a hint of FOUNTAINHEAD style toughshitism. He has some awkward lines about “it doesn’t take away anyone’s freedom if I do that,” he talks disgustedly about “the flock” and how “there must be more to life” than doing seagull stuff, and the seagull elders make a bunch of perfectly reasonable points about how important a flock is to the safety and survival of a seagull, but they say it in the way a bad guy says something evil that you’re not supposed to like.

But it wasn’t the Ayn Rand people that loved this book, it was the self help people. This was a time when rock stars practiced transcendental meditation and yoga. Their minds were still clogged up with drugs and hippie ideals, so they were mentally and spiritually prepared for the talking seagull. They thought it was deep. The movie– maybe not as much. Wikipedia claims that Richard Bach, the author of the book, hated the movie so much he sued for negligence. Wikipedia seems to be full of claims of authors hating movies (same thing with Ayn Rand and THE FOUNTAINHEAD), but I can never find anything explaining what they hated about it.

I wonder if Batista has this one?
I wonder if Batista has this one?

Looking back on those days it just seems so corny and ridiculous that people were so into all that shit. But in a way I gotta admire it, because it’s hard to imagine a popular movement of people trying to expand their minds in 2010. Now self improvement is mostly superficial, it means making your ass smaller, tightening your abs, adding two inches to your dick. Let’s see Neil Diamond sing about that.

On a technical level the movie is pretty impressive. I don’t actually know how they did it. It’s lots of helicopter shots, but they follow this bird all over the fucking place, with nice smooth camera movement, as if they planned out with the bird where he would go. They even have close-ups while he’s flying, it’s crazy. I read that they used radio controlled puppets for some parts, but it looked like 99% real bird to me. And the photography is beautiful. Amazing shots of sun, clouds, vast ocean, sand, snow. I think of seagulls as somewhat urban, living in a port city where you see them around with the pigeons and crows. These ones you don’t ever see with humans, or in civilization. But you do see them picking at piles of garbage.

It’s kind of shitty to look at somebody doing something unusual like this and tell him he should’ve done something more normal, but honestly I would rather see a nature documentary if they really could follow one seagull and see what he does, where he goes. That would be more interesting, I think. This one is interesting that it exists, but not so fun to watch. About 80 minutes in it seemed to wrap up and there was a Neil Diamond song montage and then a sunset and I thought “Well, at least it’s short,” but it turned out there was another 15 minutes left.

I don’t know, I feel like J.L. Seagull is being kind of a snob, always complaining about what other seagulls eat and thinking he can improve them by teaching them his flying tricks. But you know what Jon, maybe other seagulls don’t give a shit about diving real fast, you ever thought of that? Why does that make them worse than you? But on the other hand I guess I can understand why he would feel so alienated. Seagulls can be some devious fuckers. One time recently I was eating a sandwich in Seattle center and got mobbed by about 50 of the bastards. They probly get fed by the tourists alot so they learned this trick, they form a circle around you and slowly tighten the circle. It’s the first time a seagull ever looked imposing. They’re bullies, when it comes down to it. But they’re all bark. I didn’t give in.

The only seagull I ever fed is a one-legged one I see on a fishing dock sometimes. I call him Ahab. But then recently I thought I saw him and I noticed a little bit of a stump where his missing leg was. I thought wait a minute, I never noticed a stump before. Is there more than one one-legged seagull that hangs out here? Then he put his leg down – motherfucker was faking it! I think maybe Ahab gets fed more by suckers like me who swear they respect him and don’t feel sorry for him, and the other ones are smart and devious enough to pick up on it and do an Ahab routine so they can get in on the action.

So maybe some of them could stand to fly through the stars and do some trippy negative film effects and get some enlightenment and shit. When he’s not talking shit Jonathan seems like a pretty nice bird. He goes around by himself and minds his own business.

Shit, I gotta confess, this movie kind of made me envious of seagulls. I’m not sympathetic to Jonathan’s whining. Sure, the bastard has to eat garbage, but at least he doesn’t have to work! He just flies around, explores. It’s a nice day, hey, I’ll fly over to that sand place. I wonder what happens if I fly over this direction a couple miles? He gets to explore. He can travel on land, in air, by sea. Do whatever the fuck he wants. I guess he has to expend effort to find food, but if he’s not uppity like Jonathan it’s not that hard. He doesn’t have to live on a schedule. He doesn’t have to wait for his day off to do what he wants. He’s free.

I don’t feel like this is a timeless story, I don’t think they’re gonna remake it with the electronical technology. It really is mostly just a bird flying around muttering to himself. Occasionally they do stage a scene with multiple characters, like when the elders sit up on some rocks looking down on Jonathan and banishing him. That part reminded me of the religious leaders in HAPPY FEET coming down on poor Mumbles for knowing how to tap dance. Fucking fascists.

Director Hall Bartlett started out doing documentaries, I guess that’s why he knew how to shoot this thing. And he had a couple accidental impacts on pop culture: his movie UNCHAINED spawned the classic song “Unchained Melody,” and his movie ZERO HOUR! was where they got the plot (and exclamation point) for AIRPLANE!

This entry was posted on Friday, October 1st, 2010 at 2:28 am and is filed under Fantasy/Swords, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”

  1. Yeah, Seagulls can be jerks, but to be honest, Swans are the real #1 ass birds. Fucking arrogant pricks, who attack you for no reason.

  2. Dont forget about goose, those can be really scary when running at you and flapping their wings. nasty beasts

  3. But they hardly attack you unprovoked, while Swans just seem to do it because they are rotten from the inside. “Oh look, I’m a swan, I’m so fucking pretty and that gives me the right to attack all these humans who are just standing there and don’t do anything.”

  4. you clearly dont know the goose i know, on the other hand i ve never been atacked by a swan :)

  5. after some youtube research i have to agree that both a pretty nasty:


  6. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 6:18 am

    I was minding my own business walking my little Wookie side kick Jack Russell when three swans reared up and rushed us like Velociraptors. Fucking nasty pricks.

  7. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 6:28 am

    Also, here in the UK its illegal to kill and eat a swan. Only the queen can eat swans. The greedy bitch. So any over seas Verners, go and beat the living shit out of a swan, take a bite out of its protected ass and let me know what it tastes like.

  8. Maybe wild geese are assholes. I only knew the ones that live at farms and they are mostly harmless.
    Swans on the other side…I mean, they even make this disturbing hissing noise! It’s a miracle that nobody ever made a horror movie about them! Back in the late 90’s we made a school trip to an amusement park. One of the attractions was some kind of cable boat ride, which was nothing else then boats which were slowly pulled by cables through a huge lake. A lake with swans! Suddenly two or three of them came really close to our boat and one of them tried to steal my buddy’s backpack! It was too heavy for him, so he couldn’t even get it out of the boat, but what the fuck does a swan want with a backpack!? When they attack you, you can still argue that you maybe accidently did a quick move and scared them or that you entered their territory, but if a backpack stealing swan is no proof that they are in fact just the bullies of the animal kingdom, I don’t know what it is.
    Fucking swans, man. I hate them.

  9. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 7:01 am

    Holy shit CJ! When we were attacked by swans, I was wearing a backpack! So swans must want backpacks! What do they need them for? Why do they need them? I need answers!

  10. I think the only way to find out is to give a swan a backpack. I’m just scared at what might happen then…

  11. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Whatever they want with our bags, it won’t be good.

  12. All this time I thought it was *owls* who were assholes (Via Onion, natch).

    I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull way back in the day, like 5th grade or something, and I don’t think I got much out of it. Mom recommended it, or I just pulled it off her shelf. She was a little freaked out after she realized I was able to recite passages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the bigass novel, which I had read when I was 7-8. Then I noticed my teachers were extra-curious when I told them I would be doing a book report on this 1970s Richard Bach short novel. It seemed harmless, even trite, at the time, but now thanks to Vern I understand why some people who remember 1974 and the release of the book & film would find it especially odd that a wee boy would do a report on it.

    That book report is somewhere, like maybe my mom’s attic. I’ll try to locate and scan a copy to see if it brought my boy mind into some New Age understanding and shit, maaaan.

  13. It’s funny how far inland so-called seagulls often live. I generally associate them with mall parking lots. In fact, I started writing a crime novel once that begins with a kidnapper waiting for a dropoff at dawn in a mall parking lot. One of the first lines is “A seagull who’d never seen the sea picked at the wrapper of a taco that had never seen Mexico. No one was where they were supposed to be anymore.”

    Not really sure what any of that meant but it sounded real deep at the time.

  14. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 8:37 am

    Mr Majestyk> Make the kidnapper a Swan, waiting for a ransom for a bag he stole from a Jack Russell owner. The evil bastards!

  15. That could work. I’ll call it SWAN TAKE.

  16. No one will ever capture the psychology of seagulls better then Pixar. MINEMINEMINEMINEMINE

  17. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Swan in 60 seconds.

  18. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Swan Baby Swan.

  19. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Swan Tough Bastard.

  20. I agree with the “geese suck” people. I got the stink-eye once from an old lady because I drop kicked one that was trying bite me at the local park. Hey, somebody has to show these uppity avians who’s the top of the food chain…

  21. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 1st, 2010 at 9:41 am

    I heard swans and geese have enough power in thier wings to break a mans arm. So be carefull next time you a drop kicking one in the future Greg. I bet if the nasty bastard broke your arm, that old bag wouldn’t stink eye a goose. Or a swan.

  22. swance upon a time in the west.

  23. Geese and swans are vicious bastards. It’s funny somebody mentioned Velociraptors, I swear that if birds really are evolved from dinosaurs, swans are what the raptors turned into.

    This movie used to be on local tv ALL THE TIME back in the 80s and early 90s. Along with BLUE WATER, WHITE DEATH, and THE NAKED PREY, and THE WHITE DAWN, and JEREMIAH JOHNSON. Some local programmer in Massachusetts must have really been into grainy late 60s / early 70s wildlife photography.

    On the topic of bird movies, what about the most obvious and famous, Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS?

  24. “SWWWAAANNNNN!!!” – Hot Fuzz

  25. Vern, I think we need a place where we can just talk about asshole birds. Hook that shit up, please!

  26. CJ & Ace, here in the US, Canadian geese are protected a la swans and these things have some big balls on them. They roam in packs, cross whatever street they want regardless of time of day, attack pedestrians, etc. I have seen a pack of 12+ birds shut down a major highway by landing in the express lanes during rush hour. I have seen three geese knock a college student to the ground and steal his sack lunch. I have had a goose fly into me at full speed because I inadvertently came within 20 feet of the nest it chose to build at the entrance of a 12-story office building.
    These stories are not embellished; I share them as a warning. Unlike Canadian humans, these geese are aggressive, rude motherfuckers.

    Thanks Vern, I loved this book when I was 9!

  27. Do geese eat worms like “normal” birds too? Because it might come from them. An ex-workmate was a passionate fisher and therefore collected all kinds of worms for fishing purposes. She told me how she put Canadian worms with local worms in one jar and over night, the Canadian worms killed all the others. So maybe the Canadian geese eat the worms and get their aggression. (Kinda like a Wendigo thing.)
    I got no excuse for swans though. I just think they are assholes because they were born that way.

  28. I think maybe J.L. Seagull is striving for excellence. But he’s just a dumb bird, so instead of doing something constructive and artistic, the only way he can express himself is through flying and whining. Reminds me of some people I’ve known, or Bronson.

    Or not. I haven’t seen this movie but I now feel like I must, if only to confirm that I am or am not Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Do an asshole check on myself.

  29. Ace Mac Ashbrook

    October 2nd, 2010 at 3:33 am

    They shut down a fucking highway! They hunt in packs? And they are protected? What the fuck? Evil bastards!

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>