Saturday, January 08, 2005

Big Fish (DVD)

(Dir Tim Burton, with a large cast including Ewan McGregor, Danny De Vito, Billy Crudup, Alison Lohman, Steve Buscemi and Albert Finney - based on a series of short stories by Daniel Wallace)

What a wonderful film. My friend Kate said I'd enjoy it, although I really can't remember any of the references she's been throwing to the movie since she saw it. As it started to unwind, I started to think of something I said at my father's funeral, about how hard it is for any child to know their parent as a person, and not just "mum" or "dad" - this movie is clearly playing with that idea, not helped by the fact that the son William (Crudup) is quite a literal fellow whereas Dad Edward Bloom (McGregor and Finney) is a spinner of stories about his life. So William is quite concerned to know who his father actually is, before his imminent death. I was reminded of About Schmidt, although there the perspective was from the father who was competely bored with his humourless unimaginative son - here, it is the other way round, with the son getting a bit pissed off with the father he can't pin down to any one truth. (In a strange parallel, Jack Nicholson, who played Scmidt in the very strange film adaption of Louis Begley's book was in comtemplation as playing Edward Bloom when Spielberg was thinking of making the movie.)

So, the movie is basically a telling of dad's great stories about his life, played out by McGregor, and then cutting back to the present. One thing that keeps Dad going is the knowledge of how he is going to die, as seen in the eyes of the old witch of his home town, so that otherwise life threatening experiences can be taken on because "that's not how I'm going to die". Dad's stories start with him being a sporting hero in multiple codes, a friend of the giant Karl
(played by an actuall 7' 8" tall man), visitor to and saviour of a mythical town called Spectra, svengali of a pair of conjoined twins... And then there's the love story - while visiting the circus, he sees the girl he decides he is going to marry, and does a deal with the ringmaster (De Vito) that in return for working, he'd be given a clue to the girl's identity every month. I seriously did not trust his clues as he gave them out ("she likes daffodils") but if the stories told by Edward are true, the clues worked out - he uses a huge field of daffodils to help him woo Sandra.

By the end of the movie, I doubt any watcher could really tell what was supposed to be real and what was story - except that it does seem true that Edward was not at William's birth, because he was in Wichita. As the doctor says, when faced with the boring truth and the great story Edward weaves about the birth, he prefers the story. The film operates in the whimsical land of fantasy and spectacle, and yet some of it has to be true: every single character Edward mentions actually exists, and most come to his funeral. One great thing that happens is that William seems to finally get clued in to the old man's way of being, and gets to tell his own invented story of how Dad dies (or is transformed into a big fish that gets away).


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