The Big Year and birder affirmation
This past weekend I, like so many other birders but not a lot of anyone else, went to see Steve Martin, Jack Black, and Owen Wilson run around with binoculars on a movie screen in The Big Year. I thought it was alright. Worries that birders would be mocked seemed largely to be unfounded, and the treatment our hobby received by the Hollywood machine was gentle and favorable. There were moments of forehead-slapping and eye-rolling, largely to do with ornithological inaccuracies the likes of which we all knew were coming. There was a lingering sense that something was just slightly off with the portrayal of birders by the three stars and the rest of the cast – the extras standing around like statues with binoculars attached to their faces, the frantic ticking and running, the weird bird vocalization quizzes, the short camera lenses – but nothing that stood out as embarrassing or unfair. By and large, birders were portrayed as normal people with a hobby or vocation that we undertake passionately, but earnestly and good-naturedly. A very fair assessment from where I stand.
There were scenes I really liked. Jack Black/Brad Harris’s touching monologue to his doubting father on what the American Golden-Plover means to him was a particular high point. Steve Martin/Stu Pressler’s realization that heavy duty birding, and the travel that it requires, is hard to deal with when love of family calls, resonated with me, and the sarcastic “Yay!” from his wife when he shared with her his excitement at finding Pine Grosbeak is a response I have seen far, far too many times to recount. The on-screen ticker that accompanied their chase was a really cool expository device, and I, for one, enjoyed the Attu scene where bird names were scrawled across the tundra denoting the point of discovery, even if my credulity was strained both by the species considered notable and the spots on the landscape where they were marked.
No, if I have a complaint about the movie, it remarkably has nothing to do with its portrayal of birding. It was that, outside of its look at the birder sub-culture, it was just so pedestrian. Too beholden to well-trod comedy cliches. Too clear that some of the principals weren’t buying their roles. Steve Martin certainly slipped into the beleaguered CEO who just can’t retire like a hand into an Italian leather glove (the man oozes class), but I could never quite get the appropriate sincerity from Jack Black and Owen Wilson, both actors I have really enjoyed and really not enjoyed in various roles they’ve taken on. Here, I got the impression they were smirking at me the whole time, playing big-time birders ironically instead of enthusiastically. The movie was fair, don’t get me wrong, but I couldn’t help feeling as though it could have been better in the hands of a more clever screen-writer or a more daring director.
I want to be clear that I liked it and I’d encourage birders to see it because, for its faults, it’s great fun to see birding on the movie screen. But I think it was missed opportunity. What that means for birding, I don’t know.
To get an idea on that last point, I’ve been reading a lot of responses to the movie on bird blogs and listservs. One of the most thought provoking wasn’t a massive blog post (like this will ultimately turn out to be), but a tweet by Rick Wright, blogger at Birding New Jersey and tour guide leader for WINGS. He wrote briefly, but insightfully:
I had no idea so many birders felt so much in need of affirmation, even redemption, or that so many would think a movie could do it for them
Like most of what Rick writes, even in 140 characters or less, I agree with it a lot, but also disagree a tad. I’m not sure that it’s affirmation of birding that people are expressly looking for, but there’s certainly that sense, a justifiable one I’d say, that any potential attacks on this movie are attacks on birding itself. And, to be sure, some lazy reviewers quickly made that connection, stating outright that the movie’s lack of box office success has more to do with the inherent tediousness of birding rather than the actuality of a weak script and misplaced expectations. So we rally to defend this movie as if we’re defending birding itself, which is a tremendously unfair position to put us in.
I’ve noticed that birders’ responses to the movie seem to come from two places. First, there are those who are content with people coming to birding in the way that they always have, by building a personal relationship with nature that sustains them and plugging into the birding community afterwards. Second, there are those who want to use The Big Year as a recruiting tool – the most commercially viable one yet – and plug people into the birding community immediately.
The first are generally more critical of the movie, and the second are perhaps more willing to overlook its shortcomings.
There are no values attached to either of these positions, by the way. Both are completely valid, and I’d wager that if you’re like me you identify less with either of these dichotomies and recognize yourself more or less on a continuum line between them. Perhaps even swinging wildly back and forth depending on the situation. They’re two sides of the same coin, after all. Because all of us are incredibly enthusiastic about birds and bird study that we cannot help but to want as many people as possible to join in, not only from the perspective of a greater voice for issues of importance to us, but because it’s just so much fun to explore the world with birds as your muse and you want as many people as possible to be able to share that. We love birding, and so we want desperately to love things about birding too. It’s less affirmation, as much as justification. And not so much to ourselves, but to friends and family and a general public that stubbornly refuses to get it.
And hell, they may never, as the movie looks like an epic bomb from the studio’s perspective. That’s not really the fault of The Big Year though. There are far worse movies currently playing and I think the poor economy and terrible marketing by Fox play a far more significant role. Still, I don’t know if I can see a situation in which the movie continues in theaters past this weekend. That’s too bad, but don’t for a minute think that that’s illustrative of the public’s opinion about birding, or worse, something we birders are up against in an attempt to legitimize our passions. We have no room for self-hating birders here. Bird unapologetically. And share your experiences with whoever you want. Movies come and go, after all, but we’ll keep on birding regardless.