Saturday, 10 December 2011

The Big Year: a birder's review

Ian and I went to see The Big Year this week. This was not because of the reviews, which have been uniformly limp, but simply because there may never be another Hollywood movie about birding and at some level we wanted to grab this moment. As we entered the multiplex in High Wycombe (no Oxford cinema deemed this film suitable for it's audiences) we had a quick bet on the total number of people watching The Big Year. I went for 17 - well, it was mid-week, mid-recession. Ian, ever the acute scientist went for 18, reasoning that any number above 17 would give him the bet. Sadly for the film's investors, I won: there were 10 of us watching the film. I can't speak for the others, but our party of two really enjoyed The Big Year. But I suspect that was because we are both birders.

The catalogue of "Birding List Lit" has grown in recent years, but two publications stand out from the crowd: Sean Dooley's "The Biggest Twitch", an account of the Australian Year list record and Mark Obmascik's "The Big Year". Obmascik's account is different in that he is not one of the participants in the record attempt and that he is a professional writer. Usually some birder decides to spend a year rushing about attempting a year list record and then writes up the account to justify and finance his/her efforts. I am sure Mark Obmascik has been handsomely paid for the adaptation of his book, but as The Big Year cost $41 million to make and has so far taken only $7 million, it will go down as a box office failure.
The film traces three very different characters as they decide, for very different reasons, to "do a Big Year", that is to see as many species of bird as possible in North America in a single calendar year. Their competition also reflects the issues that they face in their lives, particularly coming to terms with being single, being about to retire or being in a failing long term relationship. It is a reasonably faithful rendition of the book, but Hollywood likes to play with certain relationships, and thus Jack Black's character does get the girl in the end, unlike the reality, where the list obsessed birder fails to nail the date. He does see a lot of good birds though.

The Big Year is not mostly accurate in it's portrayal of both birds and birding. However, it is light years ahead of any other mass media portrayal I have seen. Most of the species named do exist and are not misspelt. There is a scene based on the Aleutian island of Attu, where the camera scans across the island and the names of birds seen appear, with arrows pointing to where they were seen. The issue of why a Laysan Albatross or a Smew would be sheltering in low shrubs is not discussed, but the point that these species were added to the list is made. There is even a scene where Steve Martin's character despairs at the usual media representation of birding, always falling back on the same tired lines. As a birder, this felt almost liberating!

The film critics have panned The Big Year, mainly on the grounds that there are few belly laughs, but surely this misses the point. As the film makes clear in the opening scenes,  "it is all about the birds". If one takes this as the basic premise and puts aside the jokes, character comedy and the Hollywoodification of the book, then the film works well. If you came out of the Big Year wondering what that was all about, then there is a simple answer: the list. It's all about listing and the price you may pay if there is nothing left in your life. Lee Evans, are you listening?

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