Last weekend, Stevi Costa and I sat down to rewatch Big Fish for probably the seventh or eighth time. While its numerous flaws have become far more clear over the last ten years, it does not take away the important role Burton’s tender fantasy means to us. (And the play she mentions seeing me in? Man of La Mancha.)
Big Fish played a pivotal role in my wedding. When this site’s esteemed editor and I were wed in 2007, the cool minister we hired off of Craigslist asked us to each write a story about our relationship that he’d read at the ceremony. Marcus wrote about asking me to marry him in the rain on the Santa Monica Pier before midnight Moulin Rouge, and I wrote about Big Fish. I’m a Burton fan (what former goth kid isn’t?), and from the minute I saw the trailer to Big Fish, I had instantly fallen in love with it. The trailer shows the scene of the first time Edward Bloom sees Sandra Templeton at the circus. “They say when you meet the love of your life, time stops, and that’s true,” Albert Finney intones in the voiceover as Ewan McGregor begins to wade through the sea of circus performers, frozen in time under the big top, as he makes his way toward Alison Lohman, brushing aside floating kernels of popcorn and literally jumping through hoops to get to her. This scene was utter magic to me because I knew that feeling implicitly. The first time I saw your esteemed editor act in a play, I felt this way when he came from backstage, still in costume, to talk to me after the show. It felt like time had stopped, and like there was no one else in the room but the two of us. If there had been popcorn to brush aside, I would have done it.
Our love story has in many ways been written in and through film, and so it’s only fitting that this very thing is what I observed in re-watching John August’s narrative structure for his 2003 collaboration with Tim Burton. If that popcorn-at-the-circus scene from the trailer wasn’t enough to make me fall in love with Big Fish, I was also hooked by the fact that this film, like so many others that end up in my Top 10 of All Time, are stories about storytelling. I love narratives about narrative (see: Quills, Almost Famous). And while, in 2003, I was simply enamored with the idea of storytelling itself and the way that Big Fish wants us to envision our own lives as stories over which we have authorial control, I now think that there’s some complexity to this surface-level reading that’s embedded in the composition of the film itself. What I mean to say here is that, much like my relationship with the editor of this site, Big Fish, too, is written through film. It’s a movie that cannibalizes scenes from other movies as a means to show us the grandeur of the American tall tale. I might even say that the film suggests that cinema itself is the latest generic reinvention of the tall tale.
In Big Fish, Billy Crudup’s William Bloom returns to his hometown in Alabama to spend time with his father Edward, who is on his deathbed. William and Edward have been estranged for some time, as William, a nonfiction journalist, has grown weary of his father’s inability to tell the truth. Edward has had a lifelong propensity for spinning a yarn, telling the truth but telling it “slant,” as Emily Dickenson might say. The problem with this isn’t simply William’s yearning for a sense of “the real” in his father’s narratives, but also Edward’s tendency to usurp important moments in William’s life with his effervescence and charm. Although he lives in Paris and is married to beautiful photojournalist Marion Cotillard, William feels overshadowed by his father’s largess, a guppy to his father’s big ol’ catfish. Edward’s imminent death serves as the catalyst for the ensuing episodic narration of his own life, but also tells us exactly how the story will end. We know, as William does, that Edward will die. What matters are the stories that get us to that point, and William hopes that he’ll finally get to know the real man behind the stories before Edward goes.
What then ensues are episodes from Edward’s life, told sometimes to William, sometimes to his wife Sandra, and sometimes to Cotillard’s Josephine. It’s within these episodic tales that the film seems its most Burtonesque because they turn toward a fascination with image rather than story itself. And here’s both the problem with the film’s obsession with story, and its resolution of that problem. These narratives aren’t so much stories as collections of images. What I mean by this is that they themselves contain very little plot, or rising and falling action. The only narrative that stands out to me as entirely self-contained is also the one with the most recognizable genre: the courtship of Sandra Templeton. The majority of the other stories seem attached to the explanation of a fantastic image from Edward’s life: the growing machine, the witch’s eye, the giant, the town of Spectre, the Siamese twins, the Hand-O-Matic. Although there is some attempt to loop the narratives together, to integrate them logically through collapsing the narrative roles of the witch, little Jenny from Spectre, and Helena Bohnam Carter’s older version of Jenny, Will instantly tells us that this makes no sense: Jenny can’t be the witch because she wouldn’t have been born then.
The narratives can’t be easily stitched together because they aren’t supposed to be. They’re actually discrete entities, not simply in their content, but in their presentation. Big Fish’s micronarratives are presented to us as scenes from mid-century genre films (and some as other Tim Burton films!): the growing machine is basically a lost scene from Edward Scissorhands, the witch in the woods is a lost scene from a 1950s horror film (possibly by Ed Wood?), the discovery of the Siamese twins in Korea is a war film, the Sandra Templeton arc is a Vaseline-lens romantic melodrama, the town of Spectre is a blend of Stepford and a Western, the introduction to the giant reads like an Errol Flynn adventure, and the bank robbery with Norther Winslow begins as Dog Day Afternoon and turns into Wall Street. I read these instances of stylistic and sceneographic mimicry as a way of demonstrating how much our own narratives are colored by the media we intake. Indeed, Edward imagines his birth as an early slapstick comedy, his slippery baby body rocketing down the hallway until caught by a nurse. We know and he knows that this isn’t the real story, but the cinematic metaphor seems the most apt way to describe it. Likewise, as the micronarratives progress in time, they take on the stylistics of films of that era – not simply in costuming and set design, but in qualities of the camerawork. This is most noticeable in the softening of the picture quality during the high 1950s segment in which Edward Bloom proposes to Sandra Templeton by lining the yard of her sorority house with every daffodil in the state of Alabama. Every close up of Alison Lohman’s face is bathed in a soft glow, as are close ups of Ewan McGregor as Edward Bloom (for which I am eternally grateful to Burton). In the 1950s, this romantic glow was achieved through the very cheap but effective trick of rubbing Vaseline on the lens. The later bank robbery scene takes on the character of films of the 1970s with a gritty wash and burned-out coloring, which once again becomes crisp but muted in the Wall Street scene in the 1980s. This suggests that when Edward looks back on his life from his deathbed, he sees his life as if it were a movie. His memory of every era is colored by the way cinema at the time would have looked, as are the types of stories we see in each era of Edward’s life. Big Fish isn’t just Edward Bloom’s history, but a genre history of American cinema. (It is possibly also Burton’s way of inserting his own work into this canon, in a way that’s somewhat sloppy and strange.)
Big Fish, then, isn’t exactly about storytelling in that it doesn’t tell stories in a way that readers, or even listeners to oral storytelling traditions, would recognize as a narrative. Instead, it seems to be about what I’ve described above: how cinema becomes a dominant mode of storytelling in the 20th century and beyond. It becomes our “tall tale.” This thought was useful to me in this re-viewing because I now find these disjointed narratives to be somewhat off-putting. I like that many of them are magical, and I do still adore the Edward and Sandra story because of the beauty of that time stopping at the circus scene, and the lovely, lovely, lovely shot of Ewan McGregor standing in his navy blue suit in that field of daffodils, but they stop and start so much that they’re hard to hold on to. It’s difficult to process the magic of the stories against the pedestrian sadness of the frame of Edward’s death, although this frame story does get one stellar beautiful image of its own: After finishing one of his stories, the aging Edward (played by Albert Finney) submerges himself in the bathtub because he was “dryin’ out.” His Sandra (whose older self is played by the absolutely radiant Jessica Lange) climbs into the bathtub with him, fully clothed and cradles herself to his chest. She weeps as she confesses, “I don’t think I’ll ever dry out.” Because although Edward would rather not think about his death by telling stories, Sandra knows that it’s coming, and when it does, her grief will be all consuming, like the water in which Edward has been soaking. This is the one image that sticks with me from the “real” story of the film, and I that I’ve held onto. This is the one place where the cinematic fantasy collapses with the “real,” and it does so to highlight the movie-like romance that Edward and Sandra share.
I do have some issues with this film now, though, which are perhaps because of its adherence to this collision of personal history, memory, and cinema, and this comes with the narrative territory it’s carved out. Earlier, I mentioned William’s critique of the Jenny narrative as nonsensical. She couldn’t be the little girl, the adult woman, and the witch all at once because it wasn’t logical. To this, Jenny replies, “It’s logical if you think like your father. To him, there’s only two women: your mother, and everyone else.” This seems to be the film’s logic regarding narration and agency for its female characters, as well. This is Edward’s story, and beyond that, Will’s story about his relationship to his father. As young Sandra, Alison Lohman is nothing but beautiful. (The range of her role in this film simply requires her to stand there and look pretty, and maybe cry a little bit.) As elder Sandra, the great Jessica Lange also has little to do but radiate love . . . while standing around looking pretty. (And can I just say: hot fucking damn does she look GORGEOUS in this film, and the one meaty line she gets she acts the FUCK out of. But still, like, this lady is a national treasure, and she feels under-utilized.) As Josephine, Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard is pregnant and French.
Jenny has something to do in the film – sort of – as we see her as a precocious young girl from Spectre enamored with Edward Bloom (who wouldn’t be?), as a witch, and as a spinster piano teacher. Two of these three are played by Burton’s paramour Helena Bonham Carter, so it seems that Edward’s opinion about women is also shared by the director. For him, there are two types of women: Helena Bonham Carter, and everyone else. HBC gets the most lines out of these four actresses, and the most semblance of character and yet . . . she’s actually the “everyone else” in the film. She’s not Edward’s great archetypical woman Sandra Templeton, merely someone who’d like to play that role and can’t. Perhaps it is because she isn’t the archetype, that she actually gets to be a character and, most notably, actually gets to tell one of Edward’s stories. Jenny’s presence is the most illogical thing in this instance because, by all accounts, this is a story she has no right to tell. It isn’t hers. And yet when Will heads to the swamp cabin she inhabits to find out if his father had really been having an affair with the spinster who lived there (since he did suspiciously own the deed to her house), it’s Jenny who gets to tell the tall tale about Edward Bloom purchasing the town of Spectre, and Jenny’s home along with it. Within this micronarrative, Jenny initially resists Edward’s offer. She is the one person who seems to be ironically unaffected by his immense charms, while simultaneously being in love with him. (For real, girl? Ewan McGregor smiles at you and you don’t just consent to whatever he asks?) Her initial resistance arrests Edward’s control over the narrative. The story of how Edward bought the town of Spectre is actually the story of how Jenny enabled him to do this. So what we read as a disruption of the narrative’s pattern is indeed just that. It’s an instance that doesn’t follow the film’s logic, but seems to follow the director’s logic. It’s a place where a weird feedback loop between Burton and Bloom takes place, and it feels like it doesn’t fit the spirit of the film to me. But I also shouldn’t complain about a female in this movie moving beyond archetype and actually getting a character and dialogue that matters. It’s just that even this doesn’t feel like something I can fully endorse because Jenny is so well-situated in Burton’s understanding of HBC as his own archetypical woman. The way women are positioned in this film seems just so strange to me now that I can’t fully embrace it. It is Edward’s story – and Will’s and Burton’s – but while it adheres to the genre play and to cinematic history, it just doesn’t feel fair to do this to the actresses who play these archetypical roles. I am glad that they all look beautiful in this film, but I wish they had more to do than just that. I wish they had their own stories. I wish they had tall tales about Edward Bloom.
William, of course, gets to take over the narrative when Edward dies. Edward asks his son to tell him how it ends, and William, for the first time, imagines his own tall tale about his father. He returns him to the river, where Edward becomes what he always was: “a really big fish.” And at the river, everyone from his stories are there: the twins, the giant, the marching band, the citizens of Spectre, Norther Winslow, the witch, and, of course, standing in the river in the most beautiful fit-and-flare dress is Jessica Lange’s Sandra, ready to welcome her husband back to the place he came from. As Will takes over the narrative, he realizes why stories are more important than the truth. Because life is a tall tale. Because death is the end of the story. At Edward’s funeral, Josephine immediately notices the real life versions of the characters from her father-in-law’s tales. There is a giant, just not as giant as Edward described. There are twins, but they aren’t conjoined. There is a circus ringmaster, now retired. All of these people are Edward’s truths, and each of them becomes more real in the telling and retelling of tales. As Will notes, “A man tells his stories so many times he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way he becomes immortal.” So when Will tells his father’s stories to his son, and his son excitedly shares these stories with his friends, we imagine, as Burton does, the big ol’ catfish that is Edward Bloom, swimming in the river still, never dryin’ out.
Free Floating Thoughts
This film is definitely pretty high on my Ewan McGregor list. He’s just so dreamy in it. He wears so many mid-century fashions. I can’t think of a man more charming to be young Edward Bloom.
Can Ewan McGregor always look up at me smiling in a field of daffodils?
When I worked at a video store, I often caught sight of the cover of Tom Jones starring Albert Finney and mistook it for a Ewan McGregor film. That’s how good the casting in this movie is: young Albert Finney looks EXACTLY like Ewan McGregor did in 2003.
Let it be known that a young Miley Cyrus is in this film, roaming about the town of Spectre with Rufus Wainwright’s dad.
I like any circus that employs a Daredevil Cat. That’s a pretty accurate depiction of my marriage: a cat, frozen in time, doing something stupid. (If not my marriage, at least my Instagram feed.)
It is really nice to see Jessica Lange play someone soft in this film after watching her TEAR IT UP as a poisonous hothouse flower/vicious nun/Head Witch In Charge on American Horror Story for the past three years. Lady’s not only got range, but also just keeps looking better. PROPS TO YOU, J. LANGE!
Thing I actually said the other day, speaking of J. Lange: “When I am old, I want to be as pretty as Jessica Lange, but dress like Frances Conroy.”
It’s also nice to see HBC be soft in this film, since mostly she just plays Helena Bonham Crazy. (Thanks to Ed Chang for that coinage!)
I am 100% certain that Edward’s motorcycle with sidecar was Ewan McGregor’s idea. Dude loves motorbikes. His Twitter feed is about 40% discussion of motorbikes.
You guys, I’ll never get tired of Ewan’s odd Southern accent. I don’t think my love for it will ever dry out.