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Big Fish

October 8, 2014

Big Fish (2003)
Director: Tim Burton
Actors: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup

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Synopsis: Expat American, William Bloom (Billy Crudup), returns to Alabama and the death-bed of his father, Edward (Albert Finney), to finally piece the fact from the fiction in Edward’s notorious yarns about his life as a younger man.

Review: There’s a covert tyranny in the sensibility and strived-for moral behind this Tim Burton film which evidently sees itself as a worthy ode to the redeeming value of storytelling and the shaman art in general. Interestingly, I perceived a meta-textual element at work in the watching of Big Fish, because its very tyranny places the viewer in the same challenged position as Billy Crudup’s sceptical son, William. Just as William harbours resentment against what he sees as the evasions and lack of sincerity in his father’s submission to the world of fiction, so Big Fish mirrors Edward in going all guns blazing to convince you of its profundity with a gooey assault of sentiment and whimsy.

As ever with Burton, he conjures a lovely visual world and his light gothic touch is easy to luxuriate in. In fact, the detail of the story is probably more interesting than its actual message. The spectral town of Spectre (geddit?) is a great creation, with its allegorical status as something that Edward almost stumbles/dreams/floats into, and with its lovely magical-realist touches of grass-laden avenues, shoes slung over a high awning at the town’s entrance, all residents walking barefoot, and the place having a general untouched, Edenic air. Sadly, and this is part of the problem with the film’s trajectory, Burton’s/Edward’s relentless storytelling skims the surface of these imaginings, and before the given episode can generate any pathos, emotion or thematic thrust, we’re jettisoned into another arbitrary adventure.

Perhaps my major reservation with the absolutism of Burton’s ‘worth of storytelling’ thesis is that Edward simply isn’t an especially moving, sympathetic or wisened individual. Beyond his fervent narcissism, all the characters around him resemble little more than ciphers. Sure, it’s funny and wacky that Edward conceives of an immediate love for Sandra at the fairground (though is it really just an opportunity for Burton to indulge a freeze-frame, popcorn suspended in mid-air visual conceit?), but why does Edward conceive of that affection beyond the storyteller’s need for it at that juncture, why would Sandra be interested in the slightly creepy and demonic behaviour of Edward, and how does that relationship evolve over time – in the ‘reality’ we never see –  to warrant the emotive ending? In a sense, by negating fantasy’s necessary relationship and juxtaposition to reality, by siding against and trying to conquer reality (and even death, in a sense) at the end, Big Fish is a film that ducks the more fertile area of its subject matter. The film actually has most prescience as a witty and perhaps unintentional commentary on the American Dream – as smalltown boy Edward goes out into the big wide world, and makes a life for himself through thrift, determination and excelling at that most American of things – mercantilism. (October 2014)

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