Saturday, 5 November 2016

'Big Fish' - storytelling for the unquestioning

Tim Burton, 2003,USA

Isn’t storytelling magical?

In Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’, Will Bloom (Billy Cradup) has been fed nothing but tall tales from his father Ed (Ewan McGregor when younger; Albert Finney when Older) so much so that there is nothing else to him. With Ed apparently on his deathbed, Will makes one last attempt to find some truth. Based on Daniel Wallace’s novel (which I haven’t read and so could be different), John August’s screenplay and Burton’s vision makes this one of those annoying excursions into magic realism that feels no duty to anything grounded.

Hell, I’m a big fan of fiction myself and I waste a lot of time thinking about it, but I’m going to distrust a kind of unquestioning belief in it. When everything is infused with a kind of isn’t-storytelling-WOW!? I start to twitch at the protestations of wonderment. This is not like Life of Pi which is about choosing fiction as a copping mechanism and its relation to cognitive dissonance (clearer in the novel than the Ang Lee film, it’s true), but something more akin to Ray Bradbury banging on about how incredible stories are. Yeah it’s true, but we’re watching/reading one so if there is little there to articulate why there is usually a deficit of reality for comparison. You keep waiting for an insight but there isn’t one.

It’s often pretty. There’s Helena Bonham Carter’s unconvincing old lady make up. There are some pleasing carnivalesque diversions. It all seems to be in the manner of American Tall Tales whose sentimentality undoes the pleasure of the surreal trimmings because it’s emotional agenda is so mundane.

Big Fish’ is odd in that it seems based upon the premise that it’s okay if you’re a bad parent that never tells the truth as long as you’re telling tall tales. Telling stories excuse everything. And then the true story comes, but… But what to do when the truth proves just as fanciful as the stories (so he bought the whole town and then… oookay)? This leaves Ed’s motivation stranded, based on nothing but the fiction of itself. And then we learned he stalked a girl until she married him and this is considered romantic. Only in movies.

Big Fish’ never addresses these issues and in fact does not recognise that these might be concerns: it just ladles on more isn’t-storytelling-WOW!? In that way, the film itself exhibits a lack of self-awareness that leaves it fundamentally unconvincing in ethos and its characters lacking dimension. It looks nice and is competently acted but, as it is quite unmoored from any considerable reality, it sets adrift on moviedom and remains in the shallows.

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