And That’s How It Happens: Life, Death, and Big Fish

© Columbia Pictures

The truth is structured like a fiction.”
– Lacan

“I was thinking about death and all. About seeing how you’re gonna die. I mean, on one hand, if dying was all you thought about, it could kind of screw you up. But it could kind of help you, couldn’t it? Because you’d know that everything else you can survive.”
–Edward Bloom, Big Fish

My father didn’t tell me much about his life. But he did tell me, on more than one occasion, about the dream he had the night his own father died. I heard the story so many times that I can still picture every moment of it in my own mind, as if I’d lived it myself. He’s there on an empty street, and a tiny bird, under the lamplight, approaches my father, and speaks to him in his dad’s voice. It tells him he’s okay, now, tells him he loves him, and that he’ll see him again soon.

He and his father didn’t have a great relationship. And so he held onto that dream for the rest of his life as proof that, even in their strained relations, his father loved him deep down—so much that he sought him out in the afterlife.

The night my father died, I thought for sure he’d come to me the same way. I didn’t dream at all that night, and woke up the next morning feeling empty, and lonely, and wondering why he hadn’t tried to find me, too. I know he believed his dream had been real—he believed it so much that I did, too. So I couldn’t help but feel like I’d been lied to all those years.

*

We’ve been taught not to run away from our problems. Even as the world feels like it’s collapsing around us, we hear it again and again: Fight, resist, don’t give up. We need to be reminded that we can’t clear the most difficult hurdles just by closing in on ourselves.

But despite this need for resilience, there is a restorative power in escaping.

Escapism, by whatever means, often helps us when life is in the business of just being life. It transforms the mundane into something slightly more exciting. It lets us refocus our energy, stimulates our imaginations, reminds us that there is, or at least could be, something more.

And escapism is essential when life gets hard. It’s why we turn to film, and television, and books. It’s why these art forms thrived, rather than waned, during the Depression, during myriad wars, during the darkest times. We need to escape if we have any hope of healing.

*

That healing power is present in every frame of Big Fish, and not just because it’s designed to be a visual delight. Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s in many ways an emotional departure for director Tim Burton, who has the uncanny ability to polarize fans with his distinctive Gothic cinematic style. Burton made Big Fish while grieving his father’s death, and as a result, there’s an unusually quiet, introspective quality to the way the film is constructed.

Still, in so many ways, it is decidedly Burtonesque: loud, and lovely, and just a little bit sinister, with larger-than-life characters, the kind of people you don’t see every day. There is of course, Helena Bonham Carter as a witch, and also Steve Buscemi as the persnickety poet Norther Winslow, and Danny DeVito as Amos, the diminutive ringmaster of a struggling circus.

And at the center of Big Fish is Edward Bloom played, at varying times in his life, with either effusive optimism by Ewan McGregor or a blunt humor by Albert Finney. Spooked by the knowledge of his own mortality after a frightening encounter with a witch, Bloom chooses to live as large as he can and seek out his destiny before his time comes. The result is a life full of unbelievable adventures.

We see Edward’s life—as he sees it, anyway—in fits and spurts as the film progresses. As a child, he grows so fast that the doctors in his small town don’t know what to do with him. He eventually outgrows his small town, not in his physical size, but in mindset.

His life takes on a peculiar pattern. In some ways, it resembles that of anyone else’s—he goes to war, he falls in love, he settles down. But there are moments in his journey toward his uncertain destiny that are truly extraordinary. He finds Spectre, a secret village in the woods, one where his name has somehow been on the list of residents forever. He meets a giant. He robs a bank. He joins the circus.

For the most part, it’s all too incredible to be believed. And his son, William, who narrates Big Fish, tells us so early in the film with a bemused, almost resigned warning about his father’s tendency toward tall tales. “It doesn’t always make sense,” he says, “and most of it never happened.”

*

Whether Edward’s life happened the way he claims it did or it didn’t becomes a central point of conflict for the characters in Big Fish. Both he and his son have to confront the reality of their inability to connect with one another when William comes home to watch his father die of cancer. But despite this, neither the knowledge that Edward may be lying to us, nor the fact of his rapidly impending mortality, stop us from enjoying his version of events.

The film opens on him standing in the middle of a river, trying with all his might to reel in an enormous fish, using his wedding ring—of all things—as bait. When the fish swallows it whole, Edward casts aside his pole and wrestles the fish into submission with both hands. When it spits the ring back out, he lets it go—he feels an affinity for the aquatic creature, sees it almost as an extension of himself. He, too, after all, has always been a bit too big for his immediate surroundings.

There’s a palpable joy when he stumbles upon a band of circus performers and, soon after, meets the love of his life, Sandra. Time stops for Edward, then, as he stares at her, bright-eyed and ethereal, from across the circus floor. And as he starts to make his way toward her, pushing past the frozen performers and errant popcorn kernels floating in the air, it feels—for just a moment—like we’re bearing witness to something truly magical.

When he hires a plane to spell out “I love Sandra” in the sky, when he plants a field full of daffodils (her favorite flower) outside her bedroom window, the whimsical, stomach-flopping romance of it all nearly feels like too much. It’s falling in love, magnified to some radical power, but you can feel how much he loves her, so you can almost believe it’s all real.

Big Fish is full of bold colors and big moments, but there’s also a muted quality to its aesthetic. The flashback sequences in which we see the world through Edward’s imaginative gaze, are lovely and bright, but gauzy, hazy, and just a little bit dreary—like it’s just out of reach. There’s something a little bit off about Edward’s fantasy life; it’s as though we are meant to witness it, but not live in it.

The rest of the film, set in the present, is shot in drab colors—blacks and greys and off-color whites. Even William’s expatriate home, Paris, feels washed out and devoid of inspiration. The actors in these sequences don’t feel as though they fit into a fantasy movie. There’s Jessica Lange, vibrant and raw as ever, as the adult incarnation of Sandra; Marion Cotillard, sweet and quiet, as William’s patient wife Joséphine, and Billy Crudup as William, disgruntled, distant, the very opposite of his father in every way. They anchor Big Fish’s narrative in a quieter, starker reality.

This all serves a purpose, of course. William tells us, in the movie’s opening moments, “the truth is, I didn’t see anything of myself in my father, and I don’t think he saw anything of himself in me.” He is the only person in Edward’s life who’s never been completely enchanted with his grandiose stories. When we first meet him, he and his father haven’t even spoken in years. And, because of this rift, Big Fish isn’t just a film about Edward Bloom’s remarkable imagination. It’s a film about the way that William Bloom learns to love a father he will never understand.

*

Big Fish offers up escapism in its purest form, both for its characters, and for those of us who bear witness to their story. Edward Bloom probably didn’t grow faster than normal, or come upon a mysterious village that no one else knew about. He probably didn’t catch an uncatchable fish by baiting it with his wedding ring.

But he was able to escape the more run-of-the-mill elements of his existence—small town life, an average job—by concocting these tall tales. William, in turn, escapes the disappointment that came from being unable to relate to his father’s grandiose sense of self by running away to the other side of the world.

There’s a cathartic undercurrent in Big Fish, too, which offers up a form of escape. As Edward trundles on toward death, he seeks out comfort—both in retelling his favorite stories to William and to Josephine, and in returning to the things in his life that feel as familiar as his tales. He lays, fully clothed, in the bathtub, soaking himself underwater, trying to recapture the feeling of being that big fish, even as his body wastes away.

When Sandra finds him there, he tells her, as though what he’s doing is perfectly normal, that he’s simply trying to dry out.

She joins him, then, settles into the water, and into his embrace. As she clings to him, she starts to cry, and says, “I don’t think I’ll ever dry out.”

The full weight of his imminent demise looms over them both. And there is, really, nothing else to say. But it helps her heal, this moment, and helps them both prepare for what’s coming.

*

When Edward Bloom dies, in Big Fish’s penultimate sequence, he is lying prone in a hospital bed, hooked up to monitors that beep incessantly, and are in no way conducive to shuffling peacefully off this mortal coil.

There’s nothing grand about it. It is, in fact, depressingly real. Thanks to William, though, he can close his eyes and see himself, instead, going back to the water.

“Tell me how it happens,” he whispers to his son. “How I go.”

In the story William tells his father, he doesn’t die there at all. They break free from the oppressive tubes and machines, and enjoy one last adventure.

He carries him to the river, and before he takes a final swim, Edward gets a chance to say goodbye to all of the colorful characters he’s known in his life.

There’s Karl, and Norther, and Amos. There’s Sandra, waiting for him in the river. These friends flank the path, waving, and smiling. It’s fitting, that Edward spends his final moments imagining that they are better than they really are. And William is able to grant his father that final reprieve from reality. He understands, maybe not why his dad approached life the way he did, but that the way he lived his life brought him some invaluable sense of purpose and meaning.

And in telling his father this one last story, in living it vicariously with him, William is able to escape not only the animosity he long held toward his father, but the immediate pain of his loss. He imagines them, there, in the river—sees himself lowering Edward into the water and watching as he becomes a fish as he swims away.

“The story of my life,” Edward tells his son, and even if it isn’t, it feels like fact.

Big Fish is a hopeful film, but it’s a somber film, too. It’s a movie about the lies we tell ourselves to keep going and the anger we feel at being lied to. It’s a movie about how the stories we tell become the parts of our lives that transmit the most amount of meaning. It’s a movie about reconciliation. It’s a movie about dying.

*

My own father’s death came unexpectedly and quickly—but with enough time for us to realize it was, in fact, coming. Pancreatic cancer, stage four, and upon the diagnosis, we dropped everything to be with him.

We sat together in companionable silence in the living room. There were no big conversations about what life meant for him. I thought there would be car trips to the cancer center, evenings in front of the TV, eventually hospice, and so many more quiet afternoons.

Instead, he died very suddenly. A heart attack brought on by the way the cancer had weakened his whole body.

Our plans for how he’d fight, so meticulous and hopeful, were no longer necessary. There would be no chemo. There would be no hospitals. There would be no long goodbyes. It was merciful, and it was devastating.

I wasn’t there when it happened. The last thing I said to him was, “I love you. See you soon.”

I’ve spent hours thinking what I would have said instead if I knew they’d be the last words. All I’ve settled on, for sure, is “I love you,” but I did say that, and it somehow just doesn’t feel like enough.

Sometimes this line of thinking—what would I have done, what would I have said?—turns into a fantasy, not entirely unlike the story William tells Edward in his final moments. I see my father getting a chance to say goodbye to everyone he would have wanted to see. I see myself knowing exactly what to say when the time comes. Or, sometimes, I see the dream I wanted to have, a bird under a lamppost coming all the way from the other side to tell me I will be okay.

The days and months after he died flew by. But lately, every day seems endless. Some days, I feel immobilized. Other days, I am so full of anxiety that it feels like it’s bursting out of my pores. My mom has health problems, now, too, and her doctors don’t seem to want to, or know how to, help. My family needs me, my friends need me, my coworkers need me, and I don’t know what I need anymore. On top of all this, the world outside my own chaotic bubble feels like it’s collapsing.

I miss my dad.

One day, a few weeks ago, I sat in the car and I screamed at the top of my lungs, and I felt better, for maybe two seconds, and then I started to cry.

And then I thought, out of nowhere, “I don’t think I’ll ever dry out.”

Big Fish is that kind of movie. It isn’t perfect; it isn’t my favorite, not even close. But it is the one that comes to me, unbidden, when I need it the most. I can turn it on and get lost in Edward’s imaginative landscape, or find comfort in the familiarity of William and Sandra’s grief. It reminds me that I am not the only person who has been not just overwhelmed, but overtaken by how it can all be too much sometimes.

It gives me a way to escape reality, just for a minute, when I need to. And it reminds me of all the reasons I have to go back, when I am ready.