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The Big Year: Time To Dance!

2011-10-15 TBY Liz Mark Jeff
Liz and me flanking Mark Obmascik, author of the book, The Big Year, outside the theater showing the film. Man, I can really hear that robin well through Steve/Stu’s binoculars!

Well, we did it. Liz and I went to see The Big Year movie twice in one day. First, in a nearly-empty theater in Colorado Springs at 12:01 AM Friday. Then, not quite 20 hours later, in a packed house in downtown Denver. Moreover, the house was packed with the author of The Big Year book, Mark Obmascik, and several dozen of his family and friends. That’s a hugely stacked deck, of course. All those folks were naturally pulling for Mark and his book that just got made into a movie.

Obmascik family sign
But the crowd also included folks in off the street, at least a couple of whom I heard remarking on the way out that they had no idea that the film involved birding in any way when they came in, but their take was overwhelmingly positive.

I should also note that relatively few of the audience appeared to be birders, and there was little obvious reaction to the intentional birding jokes and accidental birding-related missteps that birders would catch. These people were watching it as just a movie. A story, that included the plot element of birding, about which they knew little. And they liked it. No, they loved it. They were diverse in age, too. Lots of younger folks.

And while you might easily expect that those two viewings would feel pretty different, I was more than a little surprised by just how different the two experiences actually were for me.

To put it as plainly and directly as I can, I liked the movie both times. A lot. But the second time, I could actually feel myself falling in love with it.

This does not mean that I think it’s the next Citizen Kane. It isn’t. But I think it could easily be our Sideways*, even if many of us (and many not-yet-birders) would consider Sideways to be the better of the two filmsSome supposedly objective assessment of quality—that’s beside the point.

The point is ownership. The Big Year, with all its warts and bumps and imperfections (as well as its considerable charms), is ours, in some important, essential way, if only we allow it be.

Can you imagine a parent telling a child that he or she could be part of the family only if the child could grow to a certain height or run a certain speed or achieve a certain critics’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes? Well, sadly, maybe part of that you can imagine. But isn’t that the worst kind of parenting, toxic to both the potential rejector and the potential rejectee?

I’m not confused, by the way, about who owns and profits from ticket sales and licensing of the film. That ain’t birders. Again, not my point.

My point is, we can use this movie and the energy it brings (positive or negative, doesn’t really matter) to do something. For us. To create change. To move forward. To become stronger. To dance.

Here’s a 3-minute video that’s really worth your time, if you haven’t already seen it. It’s about how movements start and spread. And about how leaders tend to be overvalued compared to their followers, especially the initial followers.

Are you starting to see what I’m getting at here? So the band and the promoter are the ones getting paid at the concert. The people that built the movement actually paid for their tickets to get in. They could have all just sat there and said, “Hey, I paid for this concert! And you know what, I’m not sure how much I really like this band. And that PA system, it’s pretty crappy. And this concert tour has only been averaging a 39% critics’ rating on this one web site I’ve been watching.”

But they didn’t do that. They danced. And I’ll guarantee you that every one of those people that got up on their feet had a better time than they would have had if they had all remained seated.

So, as I see it, we have to stop obsessing, those of us who are, and start dancing. Keep dancing, really. And start waving in those folks who have seen, will see, or just hear about The Big Year. Doesn’t matter how many join us. If we dance, we’ll have fun, even if nobody new joins in (and believe me, at least some will). If we sit on the sidelines and fret about how we’re being perceived, we’ll just be miserable.

The birding movement isn’t new, of course. It’s just that it needs to bust a few new moves if it’s going to maintain and increase its energy.

And if you’ve seen the film, admit it, didn’t your heart swell and quicken just a little during those closing credits, with Brian Small’s bird photos pumping by to the rhythms of Guster’s, “This Could All Be Yours?” Those credits, which surely constitute the world’s most exhaustive and fast-paced, not to mention danceable, photo ID quiz, aren’t online anywhere I can find. But here’s Gusters’ video:

This is one of those songs that’s all about the beat, but there are some lyrics in there that really resonate for me:

“You come as Elvis Presley every Halloween

And dream of sing-a-longs the whole wide world will sing

Into the great unknown, Horatio

Desire and ambition fuel this heart

So take a breath and step into the light

Everything will be all right


This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours someday

This could all be yours, all yours, someday”


Well, I’m here to tell you, it is ours. Right now. And I am dancing, even if I’m not sure of all the steps all the time. (Don’t worry, I will keep my shirt on. Promise.)

One more thing. Kenn Kaufman commented on my last blog post about it not being the birding or the portrayal of birders that might put younger people off this movie, but the life situations that have little resonance to them. I agree. Then Kenn said something that I’d like to underline by repeating it here:

“It’s worth noting that those negative [birder] stereotypes were established literally decades ago, with the likes of Miss Jane Hathaway on the ancient Beverly Hillbillies show, and they’ve been perpetuated ever since by lazy people in the media who just stupidly copy each other instead of looking at real life. The most useful thing the movie can do is to start breaking down that old stereotype. Any of the three main characters in the film would make for a public image preferable to the old one. If journalists and TV screenwriters can start to think that birders just MIGHT be like the edgy Owen Wilson character, the admirable Steve Martin character, or the intensely likeable Jack Black character, then that old stereotype might start to fade away and be replaced with a more human face.”

Amen, Brother Kenn!

So I’m not worried about whether this movie tanks at the box office or not. That, quite literally, is somebody else’s business. I was a passionate, committed, friendly birder who just loves birds, birding and other birders long before this movie came out and I’ll be one until I die. Possibly after, depending on, well, you know.

What I want right now is for others to join our tribe, to dance our dances, sing our songs, and to teach us theirs. And I want all of us to have one hell of a good time doing it.

And I now know what my Halloween costume this year is going to be. Sure, I’m closer to Jack Black/Brad Harris physically. And in temperment, I see a smidgen of myself in Steve Martin/Stu Preissler. And even though I’ve never done a Big Year, I’m a lousy list keeper, and my, “fashion sense,” runs to dark blues and blacks, my choice is clear. This year, I’m going as Bostick. And I hope to have plenty of Annie Auklets out there pulling knives on me.



Good birding, everyone! Now c’mon, let’s dance!

*Sideways was “about” people who are into wine the way some birders are into birds. And I swear, that movie is single-handedly responsible for the price of Pinot Noir, and widespread appreciation of wine, nearly doubling.

**Not the toolbelt-wearing, contractor Bostick shown above. The, “candy corn-colored ass,” Bostick that dominates so much the movie. Liz is already pricing paisley fedoras.

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Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is the president of the American Birding Association. There's very little about birds, birding, and birders that he doesn't find fascinating, though he's especially interested in birding culture and the many ways we all communicate our passion for birds, including this Blog.
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