Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Big Year: The Second Viewing

(Transcript of today's For the Birds program)

This week Russ and I went to see The Big Year for the second time, after I re-read the book. We both still thoroughly enjoyed the movie, partly because of and partly despite the differences between the movie and the real story of the 1998 Big Year that the movie was based on.

I’ve never met any of the three real birders who tried to break the all-time record of birds seen in a single calendar year, though I once did a phone interview with Greg Miller, the birder played in the movie by Jack Black. Greg told me about his using police radar to clock a Peregrine Falcon in downtown Cleveland going over 240 miles per hour. Greg served as the bird consultant during filming The Big Year. Based on accounts by birders who know them personally and from the book, Greg Miller’s father was actually a birder himself who supported Greg’s Big Year from the start, unlike Brian Dennehy’s character in the movie. In the movie there was a beautiful scene with Jack Black and Brian Dennehy looking at a Great Gray Owl. This actually happened in real life much the way the movie portrayed, except the bird was actually a Long-eared Owl. The one distressing thing about that scene was that they used an animatronic owl, especially because it would have been very easy to get high definition video of a real Great Gray Owl. One thing that Duluth audiences picked up is that in the movie, Owen Wilson searches for a Snowy Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog, when serious birders would just about always search in the Duluth Harbor for the Snowy. That real life character’s nemesis bird was a Great Gray Owl, which he never saw that year.

The boggy area around Meadowlands known as the Sax-Zim Bog is mentioned a couple of times in the movie, and Owen Wilson’s character spends Christmas Eve in Duluth, having dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Although the scene wasn’t filmed in Duluth, the man the character is based on really did spend that Christmas Eve in Duluth, eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the only place he could find open that night.

In the movie, Angelica Huston plays Annie Auklet, who leads tours in Monterey Bay to help birders get oceanic birds. Her character is based on a pelagic trip leader whose name is Debi Shearwater. I know Debi—she’s a wonderful woman who really did have a feud with the man the Owen Wilson character is based on. She really did change her name to Shearwater because of her love for the birds, and except for her being a blonde, Angelica Huston seems to channel her in every way. Although the man Owen Wilson’s character is based on is actually a year older than the man Steve Martin’s character is based on, the movie did an excellent job of casting, in finding actors who bring out a lot of the characters of and dynamics between the real men that year.

The real Big Year took place in 1998, and many experts think Sandy Komito’s record 745 birds will never be broken. The El Nino that year brought amazing species to Attu, the farthest Aleutian Island, which is increasingly difficult to reach. And since 9/11, increased airline security has meant that people just can’t hop a jet whenever a rare bird turns up somewhere.

Although just about every birder I’ve talked to or seen online discussing the movie gave The Big Year a thumbs up, the movie hasn’t done very well nationally. Critics are giving it only a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, and even audiences give it only a 55%. People at Zinema2, Duluth’s wonderful downtown theater, told me that although the film took in only $700 per theater nationally this past weekend, it brought in $2200 at Zinema, so they’re keeping it at least another week. On opening night, the theater was filled—that included a lot of people from Duluth Audubon and Hawk Ridge. At this Monday night’s showing there were still 20 people in the theater—pretty respectable for a weeknight. So oddly enough, Duluth may end up not just the place to go to see rare birds, but also to see movies about going to Duluth to see rare birds.