With all the good will in the world, I sat through Jonathan Livingston Seagull with an open mind and struggled against my better judgment not to be cynical. Yet, I failed and the cynicism found me anyway.
Dear Reader, let me confess to you know that I have an open mind toward almost anything, but in this case I must confess that there will never be an open spot in my imagination for a story about an existential seagull. Thank God they are in limited supply.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull is based on the improbably popular book by Richard Bach first published in 1970. I have read the book twice in my life, first as a child, then later as an adult. The kid version of me simply rejected the concept of a seagull wanting to venture into the world and discover what it has to offer him. The adult version of me simply rejected the concept of a seagull wanting to venture into the world and discover what it has to offer him. I’m sorry, this is just not a story that I could wrap my mind around.
The movie stars no actors on the screen, just 99 minutes of nature photography, mostly of seagulls either flying or sitting or pilfering through garbage. It opens with about 10 or 15 seemingly endless minutes of water, sky, rocks, and Neil Diamond. The seagulls are characterized with human voices, provided by the likes of James Franciscus, Juliet Mills and Dorothy McGuire. The voices sound muffled and are mostly heard in a monotone. We don’t see the seagulls speaking the dialogue, we only hear it. That wouldn’t be so bad if their dialogue actually meant something. Most of it simply consists of inane nonsense like: “The only true law is that which sets us free.” Yeah . . . okay.
The story involves the title bird, a seagull that sees the world of his flock and wonders if life might contain something other than searching for food. His purpose, the movie insists, is to break his own flying speed record. He wants to travel where seagulls don’t go, and do things that seagulls don’t do. This doesn’t make him very popular among the seagull township who call him into a town meeting where (and I am not making this up) they pass judgment on him and cast him out for having the unmitigated gall to have the capacity for abstract thought.
Even if I had the capacity to get foothold on this nonsense, I have a fundamental problem with the fact that I just can’t get cuddly with a seagull. Seagulls are nasty, noisy, ungainly scavengers who poop everywhere and eat garbage. Opening scenes that show a flock of gulls on a trash pile pecking at the refuse doesn’t exactly further my endearment. Apparently they aren’t very nice to each other as evidenced by the fact that we get close-ups of the birds pecking at each other over a few scraps of food. Plus, the noise. Seagulls make, for me, one of the most unpleasant noises in nature. Oddly enough, I found the dialogue in this movie to be even less tolerable.
Even if I could accept the concept of hearing a seagull’s thoughts, I would imagine that what is in their heads might be more interesting than worrying about flying speed. Jonathan’s dialogue about his flying speed makes him sound like a test pilot, a boring one. The rest of the dialogue sounds like it came off of a funeral parlor calendar. Honestly, for those reasons and many more I am perplexed by this film even at the concept level. My mind wanders over the two or three dozen fundamental questions that this film raises and never answers. Yet, I don’t ponder on them too long. I have better things to do.