Saturday, February 28, 2004

Some Comments on Big Fish

Last night, my Significant Other and I finally scrapped together some pennies and went to see Big Fish, a film we have both wanted to see for some time now. I liked Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but I wouldn't describe myself as a devoted fan, much less a student, of Tim Burton's work (or that of anyone else, really, since only recently have I really begun to learn about film and the work of certain directors (current favorites are the ones you've heard of: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Welles, the Coen brothers, Gilliam, Aronofsky, Nolan (those last two barely count, since each has only two films that I'm aware of, though their work is distinctive), Reggio's Qatsi trilogy).
Anyway. Back in my grad school days, I developed a scholarly interest in narratology, and to this day I enjoy a good metafiction (I spend a good bit of time reading and posting at a site devoted to one of the best metafictions of the recent past, House of Leaves. It's worth a visit if you've read the novel and if you learn to ignore the rather tedious flame wars that occasionally erupt there.
Anyway again. I liked Big Fish very much because it too is an examination of story-making, of the relationship between what is "true" and what is "truth." I know some of Burton fans and reviewers of this film are a bit dismayed by what they see as its sentimentality; they want Burton to remain some sort of Hollywood outsider, and they see this as a kind of plea for acceptance. But. Storytelling finally is not about isolating oneself from others but establishing connections with others. That way lies sentimentality of a sort, certainly. But you know, filmmakers are storytellers at heart: they seek to reveal truths by means of the fictions they create. And as the old Edward Bloom says, in so many words, the truth his son seeks is not in fact and records (recall that when he comes across the deed to the house of the woman who lives in Specter, he imagines an affair as a way of explaining it) but in the very tales the son had dismissed as lies. Filmmaking, at its best, and especially when it is making films about the making of stories, is a pretty sentimental business. For me, one of the very best moments in The Two Towers is when Sam makes his impassioned speech to Frodo about the power of storytelling to remind us that there's something good left in this world that's worth living and dying for. Yes indeed. Filmmakers who deny that have no business making films--or they're going to make bad films.
An observation about two close-ups, one of Albert Finney's character, and a very similar one of Helena Bonham Carter's (your indulgence, please: I'd prefer to use the characters' names, but I didn't catch everyone's names): in each instance, they are shot in 3/4 profile, their faces illuminated and against a near-black background. The close-up of Finney comes first; as I watched it, I was struck by how much his face--in particular the workings of his mouth--resembled that of a fish taken out of the water (given the ending, that resemblance seems intended); then, when the son goes to interview Bonham Carter's character, there's a scene where she's filmed the same way. I wish now that I could recall what each is saying during those moments, but the fact of those scenes' similarities, combined with the way Bonham Carter's character appears in various guises throughout (can you say "archetype"?), suggests that there's a powerful connection between the two. Both are the embodiment of the stories they tell or that are told about them. No affair, but certainly love. As they both say, though in rather different contexts, when he first arrived, he was too early; when he returned, he was too late. Each is the other's "one that got away." Sentiment, yes: many (most?) of us have at least one person in our pasts that, but for the timing, might have been a lover, or more than a lover, in place of our present Significant Other. But cheap sentiment? No. It's evoked, but we're not clobbered with it. I'm not sure everyone would read those little moments as I do. But for me, the visual deepens what the words only hint as they bob along on the surface, as it were.
One last thing: I found quite beautiful the idea that we complete the stories our elders begin. But there's not just beauty in that; there's also an enormous responsibility in that notion, especially if the story is a "good" one--by which I mean a noble or virtuous one. Before writing this entry, I read a few reviews available online, and one reviewer went on at some length about how, to his mind, Burton wants to make grand, heroic statements about Edward's success(es) when, by any objective measure, his life is small, not at all grand. But that's just the problem: How does one measure a life's success objectively? Though Bloom's life is not epoch-making, he has found love. He has a son who comes to love him and who will transfer that love to his own son. Bloom altruistically saves a community, asking for no reward. He's not Gandhi, not Jesus. But his life succeeds on its own terms and, truth be told, it succeeds as well as or better than most of us can hope to succeed. That isn't fatalism or despair; that is, to coin an idea borrowed from Wallace Stevens, the idea of "enough."
So, yeah: I liked this film.

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