For the Birds Radio Program: Movie Review: K-PAX

Original Air Date: Nov. 27, 2001

Any time a movie shows up with a Blue Jay in it, Laura’s going to like it. How serendipitous that this one showed up in theaters during National Blue Jay Awareness Month!

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Last night I went to the movies to see K-PAX, not even realizing ahead of time what perfect timing Hollywood had in releasing this movie just in time for National Blue Jay Awareness Month. Of course the producers never heard of National Blue Jay Awareness Month, which is my own personal invention, but that made the timing even more serendipitous. The movie was wistful and lovely, and one of the most moving scenes was about the joy and hope a whole group of characters got from seeing a Blue Jay in their hospital garden. The movie also highlighted a little line drawing of a bird that a character drew, illustrating her yearning for wings to carry her out of her sad life.

What is it about birds that makes them such resonant symbols for us? I don’t think it’s a single quality, but their ability to fly is clearly part of it. When we’re stuck in a bad moment in our lives, sometimes we yearn to escape, to fly up and up, vanishing into the sky. Sometimes we just wish we could get from here to there as quickly and effortlessly as a bird could. We picture angels with bird wings because we imagine them negotiating between earth and heaven as birds do.

But birds resonate for more than just flight. We admire their faithfulness and steadfastness in raising their babies, and we thrill at their lovely plumage and ethereal music. We are ever reassured and soothed by the rhythms in their seasonal movements and activities. And from eagles to hummingbirds, penguins to robins, ducks to grimy old city pigeons, birds lead their lives with an innocence and purity of heart that we humans can only aspire to. No wonder children’s movies, such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, have sweet, innocent characters consorting with woodland birds.

Of course, there is a darker mystery about birds, too. Some of them have eerily reptilian eyes, and their beaks are strange and inhuman. So some of our dark, ominous superstitions are also related to birds. For some people, the sound or sight of an owl seems to foretell a death. And the evil witches in those same Disney movies are ever accompanied by ravens or crows.

Blue Jays are closely related to ravens and crows, and despite their noise and their habit of raiding robin nests, most people regard them with far less fear than they do ravens and owls. One superstition of the Southeast was that on Fridays, Blue Jays had to fly down to hell bringing sticks to the Devil, and telling him all the news from earth. Then, when they returned on Saturday, they were in a state of shock and dismay, overpowered by memories of the sights and sounds of hell, and couldn’t utter a peep all day long. In other words, their reactions to hell were much like our own human reactions would be.

Jays are intelligent and quirky, leading Mark Twain to write that a jay “is just as much a human as you be.” Somehow human, yet with those beautiful feathers and that magical ability to take off and fly up into the clouds, carrying our hopes and dreams aloft. Small wonder that the writers ofK-PAX chose a jay as their symbol of hope. I wish they’d have used footage of a real Blue Jay–there must be an animal trainer somewhere with one. The movie used a computer graphics Blue Jay, but at least they got the species and its vocalizations right. K-PAX is worth seeing even without the Blue Jay, and during National Blue Jay Awareness Month, seeing a movie featuring this splendid bird in a such an overall splendid way is simply the right thing to do.