The Magic of Storytelling

A note on Big Fish

By: Masood Sabet

Since time immemorial all the way to glamourous cinematic productions of our time, storytellers have long been grappling with the notion of love. Love has manifested itself in myriad forms and interpretations. Sometimes it was construed as mere naivete, and sometimes it elevated simple deeds into acts of selflessness and sacrifice. Mortal earthlings and divine entities have both been subjects of love stories. The transcending touch of love has proved to grant immortality even to the paltriest beings. Tim Burton’s contemplations about love have borne a long list of memorable productions, such as Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish. Apart from love, what Burton puts in the centre of his narrative in Big Fish are two main themes: the magic of storytelling and the reconciliation between a father in his deathbed and his estranged son.

A foreboding long-distance phone call from home, giving the dreadful news of a dying father. The son, accompanied by a pregnant wife, flies home to reconcile with the father before it’s too late. The father, Edward Bloom, has a reputation to be an avid storyteller and is quite popular by anyone who’s been in contact with him. He tends to overdramatize ordinary events and seizes every opportunity to retell his stories. The son, kept for too long under the ever-present shadow of a charismatic father, goes a long way, literally, to build a life of his own, and not on good terms.

What triggers the plot in Big Fish is the tension between the son and the father. And who among us hasn’t heard stories of the kind?! For it is as old as the tale of Adam and Cain. Mythical kings like Oedipus had their tussle with it and Freud has extensively written about it. Bloom Junior has developed an aggression towards his father since his teenage years. And he bears it to the point of explosion at his own wedding night. This aggression has mainly stemmed from the intrinsic rivalry in a father and son relationship. Freud even attributes it to so-called castration anxiety, which could even lead to murderous fantasies towards the rival father. Burton specifically accented this aspect by making the son a writer, who deals with stories for a living. Will takes advantage of the situation and digs a bit into his father’s anecdotes and stories. As a kid, due to his father’s being away for times, teenage Will would dream of his father having another family and stoke this fantasy so as to soothe his sense of inferiority by telling himself that his father wasn’t that honest or loving that people thought he was and more importantly, he didn’t love Will’s mother as much as the little kid did. The fantasy is still haunting him as an adult, so he ventures to find out the truth, and that’s the moment of his concession and subsequently, his redemption. In the end, he finishes his father’s story. The apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree after all.

Edward Bloom is a door-to-door salesman from a small town in Alabama, a southern state in America. He falls in love when he is only eighteen and gets married shortly after. He even goes to a war, which has proven to bring nothing but insufferable atrocities. But Edward manages to glorify even the darkest days of his life by means of drama. He creates fantasies to survive his existential emptiness and to keep his love for his wife fresh. He keeps telling his stories to the point that be comes to believe in them himself, like a zealous man of faith. He is the type who believe in faith as a practical tool. The truth is unknowable anyway, so why not invent one that works best for you?! “Dying could kind of help you because you’d know that everything else you can survive.” he says. And this faith in his stories is what his son, as he says, never understood. “You’re like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, just as charming and just as fake.” Will says to his father, and with this, he chooses to blatantly ignore the power of inter-subjective truth and its functionality in our everyday life on this lost blue marble wandering in an eternal void.

Big Fish tells its story beautifully and successfully resonates with the audience’s emotions towards the subject. The plot unfolds in a rhythmic fashion that swings between the present and colourful fantastic flashbacks. We are intelligent enough to know that life could never be as beautiful as what dramas suggest, but if only it could!