Saturday, September 28, 2013

Big Fish: defending the liar-poet

At one point in the 2003 film Big Fish, Will Bloom says to his larger-than-life storyteller father, Ed,“You’re like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny combined – just as charming, and just as fake.”  Will seems to have been taking notes from the critics of poetry and fiction through the ages, and his hangup with verisimilitude would likely have earned him a verbose ink-wasting toy from Sir Phillip Sidney[1], who said “these… be they which most properly do imitage… to teach and delight, and to imitate borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be, but range, only reined with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be.”

This film, as it centers on Ed Bloom and his self-fashioned Homeric epic of a life story, addresses head-on the perceived binary of "true versus interesting."  Certainly Ed’s son Will sees it as a binary, and because his father dwells so much in the realm of interesting, Will perceives a lack of truth.  To what extent this binary itself is true or useful then comes into question.  As viewers we are allowed to experience a large portion of Ed’s poetic, inflated narrative, and determine for ourselves its value.

The argument of Renaissance theorists, in defense of poetry that was both written in common vernaculars and about non-religious subject matter, was that narratives don’t have to be true, or explicitly religious to have moral value for the reader.  Giacopo Mazzoni[2] (defending Dante) said that “Perfect poetry is a game…it puts delight first in order to provide a later benefit.” Mazzoni proposed that there is value simply in being transported by “delight” and transcending actual sensory or historical experience.  Perhaps Ed’s stories were providing something valuable regardless of verisimilitude. 

But Will, understandably, has trouble finding his footing in this entire story, with no way of contextualizing what portions are based in lived experience.  He appears to have dismissed the stories as a whole, and because those stories are so much of whom his father is, he is left without a relationship with his father.  This plays out into an actual estrangement after Will’s indictment, “I’m a footnote in that story Dad – the context for your great adventure.  Which never happened, incidentally.  You were selling novelty products in Wichita the day I was born.”

Because Will can neither reconcile his father’s fishing story with historical facts, nor find metaphoric value in it, he reduces it to a covert lie.  He appears to have systematically broken down all of his father’s stories in the same way, and to have bitterly concluded that all of it is a lie that is “covering up” the person that his father really is, rendering him unknowable.  He seems unable to fathom Sidney's 3rd category of poets: those who tell stories as they "should" be.  Ed certainly has mastered how a story "should" go in order to maximize delight. 

As the film proceeds to conclude, this series of assumptions by Will (summed up by the line, “Dad, I have no idea who you are because you have never told me a single fact.”) is both erroneous and ironic.  Not only is there a fair amount of historic fact in Ed’s stories, but the stories themselves actually are an embodiment of the spirit and essence of the man telling them.  They are also a gift and a heritage that can outlast his mortality.
Similar to Renaissance theorists, the film is left wrestling with issues of the nature of imitation, the problem of defining reality or nature, and contending (against Will’s assumptions) that embellished, engaging stories [poetry] can serve moral ends. John Dryden[3] adamantly defended the role of imagination in creating story (poetry.)  He defended the value of the ability of art to express vividly and creatively, rather than to necessarily represent reality mimetically.

Ed’s stories are consistent with the format of mythical hero-epics that have been defended against critics claiming that poetry is guilty of lying.  William Doty, PhD[4] noted, “There are any number of happenings or circumstances or actions here that typically appear in mythological hero stories: the frequent absence of the father; Edward … exhibits unusually fast physical growth; he is a careful student of wisdom he follows a call to leave home –an odyssey-like wandering… He saves others from danger, [he] domesticates a giant man, [and] like Herakles, Edward performs assigned labors. [He] fights for the hand of his beloved Sandra.  He breathes underwater, and is finally transformed into a large fish in the river.  [The novel’s author, Daniel Wallace] states in an interview that “Edward bloom is mythologized while he is still alive.””

But is the value in Ed’s self-mythologizing storytelling didactic?  Especially from Will’s perspective, when it is impossible to know how much of each story is fabricated it is easy to see how he would conclude that the stories held no didactic or moral value.  However Renaissance theorists also purported that there is an imaginative function that poetry can serve: that producing delight and engaging the audience’s appetite for elements of story is a virtue in itself, and that it can make story more effective in teaching further principles of morality.  Ed’s stories clearly do this very well.  If knowledge can be factual or also be about luminescence and character, then there is a type of knowledge to be attained through Ed’s stories.  You get to know Ed, even if you don’t necessarily get to know what actually happened to Ed, or how it actually looked.  This is what Ed seems to mean with his response to Will’s accusations when he says, “I’ve been nothin’ but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that it’s your failin’, not mine.”

Doty described this “other” type of knowledge, with it’s root in delight, in describing the novel from which the film was created, “The last sentence of the book is “No one believes a word (p. 180), and yet we have believed the story, in that manner that fiction can be truer than reality, fantasy more important than arithmetic, and a myth as big as a universe.”

Ed’s stories were “truer than reality” because they revealed his personality better than any unembellished account ever could.  His stories were not intended to be informative, but rather enlightening.  His gift for storytelling was consistently inviting his audience to fully invest in his tale, and ultimately to get involved in the creation of the text.  This was definitively illustrated by a change in the screenplay[5].  Originally Will’s constructed version of his father’s death was to be told at the funeral, but the script was changed to have Will telling that story to Ed himself, as he was dying, and among the other ways it resolved their relationship, it allowed Will to “gain a new insight into the man who raised him, as well as the importance of storytelling in all our lives.”

There is an interesting deviation from Sir Philip Sidney’s original argument that poets make no truth claims and that because, “the poet nothing affirms, [he] therefore never lieth.”  Ed Bloom is, in fact, making truth claims.  He even says, “I’ve told you a thousand facts, Will.  That’s what I do.  I tell stories.”  To which Will replies, “You tell lies, Dad.”   Yet the film never portrays Ed as a liar.  Film Journalist John Kenneth Muir[6] said “Instead, as his funeral reveals, he is just a serial exaggerator: one with a foot in fact, and another in colorful fiction.  By Ed’s reckoning, Will tells stories with “all the facts, none of the flavor,” and that’s just not his way.”   In the end we love Ed Bloom the way Dryden loves Shakespeare.

This seems like something of a loose interpretation of Sidney’s meaning.  While Sidney enthusiastically defended that value of a well-told story, he also based that defense on the story never claiming to be a historic fact.  But, despite that incongruence, Muir goes on to say, “Big Fish is filled with incredible whimsy and magic.  And yet, at the same time, the film seems to truly capture something essential about our mortality, and the mortality of those we love.  We can view tall tales as merely, “amusing lies” from someone we love, or as the seeds of immortality itself, a renewable source of energy that we can share with our children and our grandchildren.  [Because] as it turns out, Ed’s strange stories become important to Will… Ed wanted Will to listen to his stories for a reason, and not merely to entertain him.  Someday, the boy would need to know the details so he could take ownership of Ed’s story and continue it for the next generation.”

The story become immortal, and tremendously valuable to Will. He appears to have become converted, and not in need of Sir Sidney's ink after all. 

[1] Sir Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy
[2] Giacopo Mazzoni, Introduction and Summary – On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante
[3] John Dryden, An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
[4] Myths and Tales in Big Fish by William Doty, Ph. D.,
[5] Breaking Down Big Fish, by John August (screenwriter)

1 comment:

  1. I had a few moments to really sit down and peruse your blog and I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed reading this post. I've talked this particular film to death, or so I thought, so it was fun to hear your viewpoints as well. Thanks for letting me be a silent lurker and a vocal cheerleader!!