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Yet Another Big Year Review

I finally saw it.

The Big Year, I mean. I went to one of those “bistro theatres,” where waiters bring you beer as you watch the big screen. I was glad to have the ale to brace myself!

You see, after working on and off for ten years on a lecture on the representation of birders in American cinema and television, 1930-2005, I had a lot of trepidation about screening The Big Year. Our visual mass media have not usually treated birders as three-dimensional, sympathetic characters. Would birders be depicted in The Big Year as tragic misfits and murderers, as in the first half of the twentieth century? Or would we be comic figures—mannish spinsters and knock-kneed milquetoasts—as was typical of on-screen birders in the second half of the twentieth century?

Thankfully, The Big Year didn’t fall back on these old stereotypes. We were neither suspicious-looking characters lurking in bushes nor hapless outcasts unable to perform American gender roles properly. We occupied, for the first time in the American mainstream cinema, the leading roles. All of the leading roles. And these roles were played by interesting, talented actors, by most people’s reckoning—actors with fairly strong track records at the box office, albeit mostly in lighter roles.

Attu shotFor the record: I didn’t strongly dislike The Big Year. There were plenty of winces and laughs. The chat with the innkeeper in British Columbia about her Xantus’s Hummingbird was spot-on, and the bird’s hovering appearance over Steve Martin was a moment we all surely recognize, that “there it is!” when we see something new to us, despite downpours and other obstacles. Attuvians must have chuckled at the attempt to recreate their world, right down to the Quonset huts, radio dispatch system, rats, and bicycles, but also must have howled at the various easily avoided mistakes: why was Paul Sykes’s carving of the White-tailed Eagle in the outhouse door changed to another species—to say nothing of the sleight-of-hand involving a certain person’s pants being run up a flagpole?

Although numerous small inaccuracies (birds out of place, botched bird vocalizations, and such) were distractions, they are so much a part of what we expect from Hollywood that they didn’t destroy my ability to stay with the story. We have all heard enough movie Cactus Wrens singing in New York or Western Screech-Owls in Georgia to realize that Hollywood has little interest in biogeographic accuracy. It would have cost nothing more to make the film ring true, but the director would first need to care about accuracy.

That the movie has been a flop financially should not surprise us—the reviews were almost all unkind. Many reviews were not very informative about the film itself but spoke volumes about the reviewers and their views of birders. “Why does The Big Year’s trailer intentionally hide what the film is really about? Here’s why: Because bird-watching—or birding, as practitioners prefer to call it—makes for a stupefyingly boring movie,” wrote Rene Rodriguez of the Miami Herald. “It’s like making a movie out of the goings-on inside the International Society of Chicken Sexing,” wrote Bill Gibron of Tampa for AMC’s moviecritic.com.

Such reviewers blamed not the actors or director or the script—they routinely blamed birders themselves for the movie’s failure. I can’t think of any past panning of a film that finds fault with hobbyists in this way. Birder-bashing was all the rage, maybe as never before. Perhaps those who study the political climate and candidates in the United States will not be surprised by this.

James Verniere, writing in the Boston Herald, chided: “I learned that competitive birding is only for the leisure class or for young people sponsored by their rich, indulgent parents.” On rottentomatoes.com, Robert Levin compares the movie to “inhaling pound after pound of flavorless tofu.” He continues that the film “forgets the fundamental fact that for most of the general population the only thing more boring than birding itself is watching other people do it.” Joshua Tyler, of cinemablend.com, echoes: “Maybe it’s impossible to make anything really interesting on a subject that is itself so inherently uninteresting.”

Great Spotted WoodpeckerGranted, movie reviews are largely written by people who spend a lot of time indoors, and in cities, so perhaps we should take these assaults with a grain of salt. But the reviews do provide an index of something—namely, I would argue, the general American cultural antipathy for, and suspicion of, birders, an antipathy that Hollywood has promulgated (and capitalized on) for many decades, just as it has cashed in on other prejudices and stereotypes. As have many other subcultures on the silver screen, birders have been cast in supporting roles, as sideshow to the main narrative, as subplot. So even if Hollywood went easy on birders in The Big Year, at least some reviewers were happy to dismiss us as unworthy of representation in the first place.

But I don’t think reviewers sunk this film.  I think the screenplay and direction did.

Let’s back up: when we say “birding,” what do we really mean? When I think of birding, I don’t think of Big Years, those exceptional practices that very few birders attempt on any scale, much less on the continental scale. And I certainly would not trace the Big Year to Frank Chapman’s creation of the Christmas Bird Count, as this film maintains in its cartoon opening narrative. The film’s further claim that having a high Big Year list makes a birder “the best birder in the world” is nonsensical—even people who have seen more species than anyone else in a given year, including the people on whose Big Years the book The Big Year was based, would never claim that their achievement has anything to do with extraordinary birding expertise or acumen, though they might rightfully point out that a successful Big Year requires grit, good planning, exhaustive communication, careful husbanding of resources, and help of many sorts from many people along the way.

The film’s premise is that the “big year” is an annual North American competition followed by all birders, who crown the victor at the end of the year, much as an athlete would be venerated. That has never been the case. But many movie reviewers took the film’s take on birding at face value, as representing birders and birding in an accurate way; many wondered how Owen Wilson’s character (named Kenny Bostick) could go to such lengths to get his photo on the cover of a magazine. Unfortunately, as with Jaws, some viewers will associate the Hollywood product with the real thing. In this context, it may be a blessing for birding that so few people saw the film in theatres.

So what has Hollywood done to birding in order to present birders—for the first time in a feature-length film, remember—to the world?  I would argue that it has misrepresented what birding is. The skills involved in the identification of birds, the wonder in their appreciation, the joy in sharing our discoveries, are overshadowed through much of the film, relegated to feel-good moments in a film dominated by the struggle for numbers (in case you missed the numbers, they’re presented regularly on the screen, odometer-style). Birding widows are equated to golf widows in the movie’s script, casualties to the same old masculine drive to compete. And with the reduction of birding to competition, so there must be occasional unsportsmanlike conduct—notably the incident with the Blue-footed Booby, in which Bostick tricks others into missing the boat for the bird.

Certainly, birders have done things to other birders that are unpleasant; we are not exceptional in that regard. But the truth about birders is that almost all of us, including people working on Big Years, share information readily and generously. Our enjoyment is magnified when others partake of our knowledge and our bird observations. How many of us have seen a fellow birder do anything remotely close to what Bostick does? Even birding tour guides who work for competing companies frequently share information, for heaven’s sake!

Thankfully, Schadenfreude is a relatively rare thing in our tribe, and though British birding history may have a few instances of misdirection (see Mark Cocker’s book Birders), I don’t perceive that behavior as widespread among Old World birders, either, though the competitive element there may be more prominent. These are not just “listers” in The Big Year—these characters are sneaky, even saboteurs, constantly looking over their shoulders and thinking of ways to outflank the other. How many birders do you know who behave as these characters do? The book on which the screenplay was based doesn’t provide evidence of this kind of chicanery.

Scenes like this Blue-footed Booby shanghai, or Bostick’s signing autographs on the Texas coast for dazzled young birders, or Annie Auklet (I have to admit that I loved her) taking Bostick’s two rivals out on a private pelagic trip because she can’t stand Bostick, or Bostick trying to make his potential rival vomit all rang false because they were based on misconstructions or exaggerations of what I have experienced in 40 years of birding. Exaggeration is expected in cinema, but one hopes for some artistic benefit—humor, insight, catharsis, something. Instead, for the most part, the actors seem all uncomfortable with their supposed motivations. One gets the feeling that the director read the screenplay and maybe the book on which it was loosely based—and didn’t look into birding or birders much otherwise. There seems through much of the film to be an estrangement of actors from the material, and for this I think David Frankel, the director, bears the responsibility.

Owen WilsonWhen Bostick shows up on the Texas coast to witness bird “fallout” (which looks more like an invasion of flying monkeys), he pushes aside several British birders, one of whom exclaims, “Only the Americans could turn birding into a competition!” or similar. (Did the irony here cause you to fall out of your seat in the theatre?) However absurd, this was an early cue that Wilson’s character was on the wrong track, that his arrogance and brusque, inconsiderate behavior would be his downfall. In the end, his high number puts him on the cover of Birding magazine as the best birder in the country (thank heaven this is inconceivable), but the characters played by Jack Black and Steve Martin agree in a telephone conversation that they have won—they were bonded together, and more closely with their families and partners, through their Big Years.

The film’s quick, overdone, predictable heartwarming scenes—with marginal footage of courting Bald Eagles, a robotic Great Gray Owl, and a bedraggled Pink-footed Goose (in places where none of these birds occur)—rang truer because they managed to get birding’s core experiences right. They were about wonder, sharing, accomplishment, persistence, and learning. And those scenes dovetail with the film’s take-home message: the numerical result of the competition is not what matters. Family and friends matter. The birds themselves matter. The journey matters. Owen Wilson has no family in the end and looks wistfully on a young Chinese couple with child, while Jack Black has a beautiful new birder-girlfriend and Steve Martin a supportive, loving family as he finally enters retirement.

Does the film’s little closing moral mean that I liked its message about American birding? Not really. I think The Big Year took birding and tried to make it fit awkwardly into a set of very familiar Hollywood tropes—the Buddy film, the Road Trip, the Scavenger Hunt (add on others: son misunderstood by parents; wife abandoned by a compulsive husband). In the final scenes, the dual boy-gets-girl and husband-loves-wife-more-than-money ending is just as shopworn as the plot lines in the uninspired screenplay. In the end, can a nonbirder (or reviewer) be blamed for finding birding unappealing as it is depicted in the film? If you can’t afford the flight to the Aleutians, or the helicopter ride through the Ruby Mountains, or even the Annie Auklet boat trip, what else is there?

The screenplay is without an answer, and I think this is because the real answer runs counter to the logic of the Hollywood machine and perhaps also the logic of American mass culture generally. Birders know that birding has very little to do with the size of a bank account. With a simple binocular, or even none, birds can be watched for hours on end, with immense profit to mind and spirit. All the birding gear, all the travel, all the bragging rights about records are mere add-ons or distractions.

The reason we birders are misunderstood—and perhaps the reason Hollywood has still largely failed to portray us accurately—is that in its everyday, typical form, practiced by millions, birding involves no transaction of funds, no sex or peep show, no violence or great dramatic conflict. The chief elements that fuel American mass-cultural products are mostly absent in birding. Indeed, birding—as I see people doing it, all over the world—may be an antivenin to the sex/violence/capital nexus that seems to be at the heart of so much popular culture. To a culture enslaved to such a golden calf, how can it not seem ridiculous, even pathetic, for a person to shed a tear at the first Chestnut-sided Warbler of spring? What is profitable, hedonistic, transgressive, ironic, or cool in that, or for that matter in our many fascinations—habitats, identifications, distributions, behaviors, not to mention butterflies, dragonflies, reptiles, and more?  American pop culture urges consumption and physical pleasure; our lives are defined differently, by growing knowledge, study, connection, fascination.

In the 1990s, a quirky television series called Northern Exposure featured main characters who were birders, Holling Vincouer and Ruth-Anne Miller. Their birding adventures were incomprehensible to another character, Maurice Minnifield, a wealthy retired astronaut, who exclaimed, in a 1994 episode:

How two otherwise intelligent people can expend so much energy on a fundamentally meaningless activity is beyond me.

And:

It’s way beyond me how a grown man could pee his pants over a chickadee [Gray-headed] that’s common across half the Russian-speaking world. Look at yourself, Holling. You used to go out and kill things. Now you’re bivouacking with an old woman and a zoom lens.

Many reviewers of The Big Year sided with Minnifield, who was, as it happens, marginalized in this episode as someone who failed to see that birding involved some of the greatest joys of living in Alaska—camping and cooking out, photography, fireside chats, and the joy of seeing something in nature that you’ve never seen before, with a like-minded fellow traveler. So at least one writer for a popular television series did see what we see, whether “lister” or “birder,” namely the grand pageant and pilgrimage that birding takes us on, the adventure in all of it its components, friends, family, and all. Minnifield, whose preoccupations throughout the series were affluence and influence, called birding “fundamentally meaningless” because real birding involves neither. Even the most diehard lister knows that the number isn’t the point at all.

If the aim of the screenplay was to expose listing-for-its-own-sake as an empty practice, that point is taken. But the film provided only glimmers of what might make a person fall in love with birds and devote a life to them in the first place. The photographs and footage of birds employed in the film were startlingly poor, often grainy and washed out. The special effects were decidedly unspecial. With all the phenomenal photography of birds out there (think of Winged Migration—or even what your average 19-year-old birder now gets with a 7D Canon), is this the best Hollywood can do to show the world what fuels our passion? The moment with the golden-plover photograph could have been far more memorable had the bird been in breeding plumage; and in place of flying monkeys, maybe a few warblers on the Texas coast?

I’m hopeful that this isn’t the last major film in the United States to portray birding and birders. Do we need a sea change in what Americans value before they see us, and birds, clearly?

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Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley

Ned Brinkley has edited North American Birds, ABA's journal of ornithology, full time since 2001 and contributed over 120 articles to birding journals and magazines since 1982. He started birding at age six in southeastern Virginia, with the Great Dismal Swamp and the Gulf Stream being perennial favorite patches. In the subsequent 40 years, he has birded and led birding tours on five continents, taught European literature and film at the University of Virginia, opened a birding bed-and-breakfast inn on Virginia's Eastern Shore, participated in research projects on seabirds, and written a few books, including Virginia's Birdlife: An Annotated Checklist (with Steve Rottenborn), The National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, and a children's book on birds in the Reader's Digest Pathfinders series.
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