By Don Simpson | December 9, 2009
Director: Alex Karpovsky
Writer(s): Alex Karpovsky, Jon e. Hyrns
Starring: Jon e. Hyrns, Wesley Yang
The Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) –- the most famous being the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker –- ranks among the largest woodpeckers in the world and the largest in the United States. Shiny blue-black with white markings on its neck, back and trailing edges of its wings, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker when perched with the wings folded presents a large triangular patch of white on the lower back. Among North American woodpeckers, the ivory-bill is unique in having a bill whose flat tip is shaped much like a beveled wood chisel. The ivory-billed is sometimes referred to as the Lord God Bird (Sufjan Stevens wrote a song about the ivory-billed titled “The Lord God Bird”), because the sight of one is as awe-inspiring as seeing God. Unfortunately, sightings of the ivory-billed are few and far between. The ivory-billed was listed as an endangered species on March 11, 1967; it is also listed as critically endangered and possibly extinct by both the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the American Birding Association.
The common Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) is oft mistaken for the ivory-billed – though the Pileated is smaller, darker-billed, and brownish-black (or smoky) in color. Its back is normally black, and Pileateds typically have no white on the trailing edges of their wings (but some do). In 2004, there were reports from Arkansas of at least one male ivory-billed (in 2006, similar reports were received from northwest Florida), yet no definitive confirmation was ever produced. In 2006, a $10,000 reward was offered for information leading to the discovery of an ivory-billed nest, roost or feeding site.
For the economically-struggling region of eastern Arkansas, the speculative return of the ivory-billed created considerable economic exploitation – primarily in and around the city of Brinkley, Arkansas – despite the lack of confirmed proof of the bird’s existence. Brinkley is the largest city near the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge (where in February 2004 the ivory-billed was purportedly rediscovered).
A billboard on eastbound Interstate 40 proclaims Brinkley as “The Home of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker” (Arkansas has made license plates featuring a graphic of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker). Brinkley features: a motel named “The Ivory-Billed Inn”; a gift shop devoted exclusively to ivory-billed paraphernalia – “The Ivory-Billed Nest”; a local barbershop which offers an “ivory-billed” haircut (a variation of the Mohawk complete with red tinting); a restaurant which offers an “ivory-billed burger” and an “ivory-billed salad” on its menu. In February 2006, the Brinkley convention center hosted a conference commemorating the second anniversary of the ivory-billed woodpecker’s rediscovery.
The concept of Alex Karpovsky’s pseudo-documentary Woodpecker is based on fact –- Woodpecker was filmed on location in Brinkley, Arkansas and features many of its inhabitants -– yet the actual plot and two lead characters were preconceived and cast by Karpovsky. Jon E. Hyrns plays Johnny Neander, an eccentric amateur poet, philosopher, house painter and drifter whose life’s mission has recently turned to providing indisputable proof of the ivory-billed’s existence. Johnny arrives in Brinkley from the Pacific Northwest with his most recent house-painting client, Wesley (Wesley Yang). Wesley was recently dumped -– he sulks in quiet depression, barely flinching while Johnny relentlessly verbally berates him for his naivety in bird watching technique and etiquette. Wes is just along for the ride, having no interest in bird watching whatsoever -– as far as we know, he’s playing Johnny’s sidekick merely as a means to escape the memory of his ex.
The dynamic duo of Johnny and Wesley dutifully trudge through the Arkansas swampland, seemingly on a daily basis. As the film progresses, their escapades become more and more fruitless, fueling an already rancorous relationship. The strange personalities of Johnny and Wesley are an ideal camouflage -– though maybe not for bird-watching (as one would suspect that Johnny’s constant badgering of Wesley would scare off all wildlife within a 15 mile radius) -– allowing them to blend in perfectly with the quirkiness of the local townsfolk.
I went into Woodpecker fully expecting it to be a documentary, and Karpovsky’s charade was convincing enough to make me never think otherwise. Sure there were many instances that felt staged and contrived (it is extremely rare that a documentary does not have those moments), but Karpovsky remained faithful enough to the documentary tradition to keep the wool over my eyes. For that, I must grant Karpovsky much kudos. Jon E. Hyrns also deserves much credit for the effectiveness of Woodpecker. Hyrns plays Johnny totally realistically –- keeping Johnny’s zaniness on a taut enough leash, never allowing it dissolve into a La-La-land caricature. To top it off, Johnny’s ego is portrayed by Hyrns to be inflated and ridiculous enough to convince the audience that he would want a documentary crew to film his every move. It seems appropriate that Karpovsky’s follow-up to Woodpecker (now available on DVD) is titled Trust Us, This Is All Made Up (a documentary featuring the improv comedians TJ Jagodowksi and David Pasquesi which premiered at SXSW 2009 but has not yet received a theatrical or DVD release). Karpovsky also directed and starred in 2005’s The Hole Story and more recently provided very memorable acting performances in Beeswax and Harmony and Me.
It is also worth noting that the anti has been upped on the ivory-billed since the filming of Woodpecker -– in December 2008, the Cornell lab of ornithology announced a reward of $50,000 to whoever can successfully lead a project biologist to a living Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I sense a sequel is in our midst…