Tell me, which alternative fosters a better understanding of your life experience: the bare bones truth, or an embellished, "flavored" version of the truth that contextualizes you life as a great story, one with heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a beginning...and inevitable end?
In real life, we're each of us but a little fish (only 1 out of 7 billion...) swimming about in a global sea.
But in our imaginations -- and in our private family circles -- we're all big fish: colorful personalities who loom large in the stories of our sons and daughters, and our Moms and Dads. In our private worlds, we're important, nay the most important figures.
Sometimes we even do so at the expense of those we love, who risk becoming mere "context" in another person's epic poem.
The big fish swims alone, after all...
Regardless, I do know that this film hits me on a very personal, very intimate level every time I see it. I had an important person in my life until about a year ago (2010) who was, like the movie's Ed Bloom, a masterful and ridiculous storyteller.
He was a man who had (so he claimed...) met and conversed with Colin Powell and Albert Einstein, and who was biologically related both to General Robert E. Lee and Katie Couric. He absolutely never met a fish story he didn't like. The man could put you on with the straightest of straight faces, and in some moments, could even devise for you what your life story should be.
This larger-than-life figure spoke in the most idiosyncratic and singular manner I've ever known, replete with lots of extremely colorful metaphors, and he passed away following the sudden onset of a terminal illness.
And yet -- in large part because of his incomparable manner of expressing himself and telling his stories -- he remains an everyday voice in my head. Today, he's an indelible fixture there, and sometimes, almost against my will, I still hear his unique voice, and his flamboyant way of communicating. His vocabulary alone -- his bizarre lexicon -- seems often to be on the tip of my tongue.
I don't always know why.
So, in one sense, I knew this man and his unique mode of expression deeply for over twenty years, and yet in another very basic sense, I didn't know the real man at all.
At least not until I understood the seemingly impossible: that the stories, jokes, and tall tales were the real man. They were part and parcel of his individual and mental gestalt, and you couldn't separate him from those tall tales.
And yet I can't honestly deny that Big Fish hits me in a close place. It seems so true to my own personal experience that I suppose I have a hard time separating Will Bloom's story from my own experience. What I can declare with conviction is that Big Fish is the most heartfelt and touching of Burton's works. erhaps not the best (a title I reserve for Ed Wood or perhaps Edward Scissorhands), but certainly the most emotional.
And Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, insightfully noted that Burton had finally hooked the one that got away, in the process deepening his "visionary talent."
I agree with both those conclusions. If I had to select one Tim Burton film for people who generally don't like Tim Burton films, it would be Big Fish.
Big Fish is the story of Ed and Will Bloom, estranged father and son. Ever since he was a little boy, Will has heard his father tell crazy stories about witches, giants, werewolves, Siamese twins, and mysterious ghost towns.
At first, Will believed the stories were wondrous and magical, but over the years he began to wish that his father would drop the fairy tales and just start relating to him as a real person.
In some senses, Big Fish is very much about a blowhard, as Roger Ebert suggested in his review of the film. It's uncharitable, but true. Ed may have led a big life, but he also has a big mouth.
In fact, Ed Bloom (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) has so transformed his life into a series of weird and wonderful stories that his grown son, Will (Billy Crudup) isn't sure he even knows his father. That's a terrible thing.
And yet the movie ultimately sides with old Ed. He isn't viewed with harshness by Burton. Instead -- in the passing of the generations -- the movie reminds us that each storyteller will have his day.
Ed has had his day, and now Will's day looms. At the movie's end, it is Will who tells the "end" of Ed's story, and who recounts for his son a lifetime of adventures. It's important too, that Ed is never portrayed as a liar. Instead, as his funeral reveals, he is just a serial exaggerator: one with a foot in fact, and another in colorful fiction. By Ed's reckoning, Will tells stories with "all the facts, none of the flavor," and that's just not his way.
Some reviewers have been hard on Big Fish, noting that it never really considers the son's point of view or feelings.
There may be some truth to this perspective, but in the final analysis, Big Fish does right by both characters.
We follow Ed from birth to childhood illness, from his first love to, ultimately, his death. In Ed's life story, we readily detect his spring and summer (his youth), and even his autumn and winter (his old age and demise).
Notably, Burton makes certain that the natural landscape echoes each one of these spans. As a young man, for instance, Ed sees Spectre as a beautiful, idyllic town, well-painted and carpeted in lush green grass. As a middle-aged man, however, Ed returns to the town and finds it paved over, browning, and in a state of decay. You can't go home again.
Similarly, when Ed courts the love of his life, their romantic love is expressed in the vibrant yellow of endless daffodils. As death approaches, such blooming (and remember his name is Ed Bloom...) has ended, and all the trees are stark and naked, bereft of leaves. Winter has come for Ed at last.
Will certainly represents an important chapter in Ed's life, but in a sense, his "part" of the story only really becomes important in the closing chapters. Ed can't write his final sentences himself. That's why he needs his boy. Ironically, it is to contextualize his life, not vice-versa as Will initially feared.
And really, that's always the job of those left to carry on after losing a parent: to put the actions and span of the dead into some kind of meaningful order.
As it turns out, Ed's strange stories become important to Will. They represent the old man's legacy and gift, a colorful way of looking at the world and remembering Dad. Ed wanted Will to listen to his stories for a reason, and not merely to entertain him. Someday, the boy would need to know the details so he could take ownership of Ed's story and continue it for the next generation. Again, this is as much about Will as it is about Ed.
In life, we are all part of this cycle. We all heirs to a story, caretakers of that story, and then givers of the story -- after we've had it and protected it for a lifetime. Big Fish gets at this idea in a more beautiful and imaginative fashion than just about any movie I've seen. The imagery is enormously affecting, particularly as the strong, healthy Will picks up his infirm, dying father and lifts him into the air -- as if carrying him like a baby -- for one last adventure, one final tall tale.
There's something so innocent and beautiful about this image. The boy who was once held by his father's strong arms now lifts up his sick dad -- negating the realities of gravity -- and cares for him as he was once cared for. This image gets me every time: the son becomes the father; the father the son. The roles reverse, and time marches on.