Yet another film is rejected from my future MA and so I find myself coming to my blog to get all of this film theory mumbo-jumbo out of my head. I decided to not bore you with the academic details and instead condense, compress and summarise my notes for you all to enjoy.
I watched Big Fish (2003) for the first time today, not only did I think it was a brilliant piece of cinema, it was also a film theorisers delight. Directed by Tim Burton, BF follows Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) as he tries to figure out the fact from the fiction in his father, Edward Bloom’s (Albert Finney) tall tales. Edward’s continual lies about how Will was born to how he met his mother (Jessica Lange), has caused a rift between father and son. As Will and Edward tell the story of Edward’s life, we are privy to the imaginings and fantasies of each tale as it unfolds. Each one has a distinct moral or life lesson – and as mentioned in the film is obviously a nod to bible fables.
The film opens with Edward repeatedly telling the story of Will being born. During the birth, Edward was out catching the biggest and most legendary catfish in the whole of Alabama. He eventually caught it with his wedding ring, once caught, he realised that the fish was so big because it was pregnant. The moral of the story is that if you want to catch an uncatchable woman you have to give her a piece of gold. As the montage goes on, we are confronted with a grown up Will listening and growing ever frustrated as his dad is telling this story at his engagement party. Will is desperate for the true account and what really happened, because he is unable to live his life in a delirious fantasy, unlike his father. The two argue and they don’t speak for three years, until Edward falls ill.
Without further ado, here are a few life lessons by Edward Bloom. They are some of the best lessons a film can teach you, so sit down with a nice sobering cup of tea and evaluate your life…
- Don’t be scared to grow
As the story of Edwards life unfolds we are shown a flashback of a young Will in bed with chickenpox, to ease the boredom of being stuck in bed, Edward tells him about the time he was stuck in bed for three years. Edward recalls how he was bedridden when his body started to outgrow him and draws parallel to a goldfish growing to fit its habitat. The message to his son here is simple, if you lead a small life you will be a small person – if you live like a goldfish and grow with your surroundings, you’ll grow to be a very big person. Once his body had stopped growing he achieved in every way he could, first at school and then at sports, he won the respect of the town and filled his early life full of positivity and achievements. A giant called Karl comes to town and starts eating all the livestock and the townsfolk want to kill him, Edward volunteers to go and talk to the giant. He tells the giant that he is also too big for a small town and decides that they should leave together and go to the big city where they can be big together. This story is also trying to set Will up for the future and what he is to expect. Being a big person in a small town is only good if you are prepared to outgrow it, rather than stay in it. The story of his father literally outgrowing his body and the town is a metaphor for coming of age, flying the nest and being a big fish in a little pond.
So whether you’re growing up, growing old, growing as a person or outgrowing your hometown – don’t be afraid of it. Oh, and there will always be someone bigger than you. Always. Oh, and some Carl’s spell their name with a K – you get used to it.
- Don’t be scared of life
He recalls meeting a witch (Helena Bonham-Carter) who shows him how he will die. The other children are scared to see their own death but Edward rationalizes that if he knows when, he can enjoy the now. This is tested in many other tales when Edward remembers that he will not die from the hardships and that he will continue living, so there is nothing to worry about. Again, this is a metaphorical tale told to his young son to remind him that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and the only way to truly live life to its fullest, or rather its biggest fish, is: to not fear the unknown but march on to meet it. As Edward is leaving, the witch says to him that the biggest fish in the pond is so big because, it never got caught.
Death is a natural part of life; it isn’t something to be scared of. Life is scarier, but once you overcome fear itself which is arguably death, you can overcome the fear of living – go fish!
- Take your own path
When Edward leaves with Karl they come to a crossroads. One is a newly paved road that everyone has started to use more frequently, and the other is the old path that is now rumoured to be haunted and everyone is scared of. Karl decides to take the new path and Edward agrees to meet him on the other side, and they both set off on a very symbolic journey. Edward comes up against some pretty tricky snags on the old path, and even has to walk through a wall of spiders on a dark road, that is winding and unclear. He justifies that the harder something is, the more worthwhile it is. The dark path leads Edward into a Burton-esque suburb; he essentially comes out of the rough and into the smooth. The townsfolk are all there to greet him, but explain that he is early. Edward reveals that he took a shortcut that nearly killed him, and they reply that: ‘Life will do that. The long way is the easier but longer.’
Whatever path someone else takes is their problem, you have to deal with the one you are on and see it through to the end. The first path you take in life will seem hard – but it’s what you make of it that counts.
- Never settle
When Edward comes out of the tunnel he is in another picturesque small town, Spectre. Everything here is perfect and everyone is content, he meets their poet laureate (Steve Buscemi) who is so contented he hasn’t done a thing with his life but eat pie. The people live like normal hobbits, scampering around barefoot and leading simple lives. As Edward is sitting down, a young girl called Jenny takes his shoes and flings them onto a telephone wire with hundreds of others. This is a metaphor for becoming content and settling down too quickly before you have travelled and explored,. As Mildred says to him: “Jenny thinks you are quite a catch” it makes the goldfish comparison come back into play. Remember what the witch told him? Edward knows he will not grow as a person if he settles now, as he isn’t a big enough fish just yet.
Edward decides that he has to leave following a pretty traumatic scene where Steve Buscemi runs circles around him manically smiling and jumping.
When you’re young it is easy to get wrapped up in settling down somewhere nice and wanting life to be over before it has even begun. Don’t let some little girl (or a little boy for that matter) throw your shoes away and trap you in a suburb – get out there and see the world.
- Your first proper job will be really bad
Edward ships Karl off to the circus, and meets the love of his life. He didn’t get a chance to talk to her, but the ringmaster claims to know her well. Edward insists he will work at the circus without pay if every month he gets to hear something about the love of his life – and somehow that works for him.
When you have a dream you work for free to get it, doing some really shitty work for a measly short term reward but to reach a giant long term goal. This is life kid, suck it up and wash that fat man in a barrel at the circus.
- Forgive the past
The film doesn’t explicitly deal with Edward and Jenny having an affair, as it’s wrapped up in a neat metaphorical package of not saying but suggesting. So, basically, they had an affair and Jenny was acting as a kept woman. The subtle nod to hanging his hat or him coming and going was enough for me. Jenny admits to Will that she loved his father and that he never loved her back, that she was living in a fairytale and that his wife was always his reality. However, and that is just a really big word for but….BUT. Jenny tells Will this tale with the same extravagance and wonder of his father’s lies, so Will and we are satisfied that they did have an affair, but she isn’t about to tarnish his name on his deathbed. He fixed her wrecked home…
The past is the past, don’t dig it up unless you absolutely have to, and even then you can’t dwell on what you cannot change. Forgive, forget and move on – and don’t say bad things about someone when they are dying.
- Everyone is immortal
Will tells the final tale when Edward is on his deathbed. He tells his father the story of how he will die, and Edward becomes more than a person, he becomes an enigma. At the funeral everyone is gathered around in groups, telling stories and smiling. The funeral is a celebration of life and death, and Edward as a character is a metaphor for life and death. He let go of the pregnant fish rather than killing it, and allowed hundreds more of these big fish to roam free in the world. One big story is made up of lots of different little stories and the same story can feel different from another point of view, thus giving it new life.
As Will so poignantly points out: “Have you ever heard a joke so many times you’ve forgotten why it’s funny? And then you hear it again and suddenly it’s new. You remember why you loved it in the first place.”
Make sure the people around you will have some bloody good stories to remember you by, even if they are tall-tales. At the end of it all what does it matter? Once you’re dead that’s it for you – but the stories and celebration of your life will remain with those still alive. Nobody dies as long as you remember them.
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