TALL TALES: TRUTH OR FANTASY?
By Dennis Greene
Back in 2003, two films were released which plucked at my heartstrings. Each, in fact, seemed to be playing the same tune.
Both films made me experience wonder, think about storytelling, and appreciate the uplifting power of nostalgia and fantasy.
Yesterday, while channel-surfing, I stumbled upon one of those films, Big Fish, which was directed by Tim Burton and featured Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, Helena Bonham Carter, Danny DeVito, Steve Buscemi, Miley Cyrus, Billy Crudup, and Robert Guillaume. A quite talented cast.
The story focuses on the irrepressible traveling salesman Ed Bloom (Finney) who has spent his lifetime telling unbelievable stories to his family. His son Will (Crudup) is initially dazzled by his father’s adventures, but as he grows up, he begins to doubt the truth of these oft- repeated tales and, over time, becomes estranged from his father. The audience experiences these past adventures through slightly surreal flashbacks featuring young Ed Bloom (McGregor). which present charming fairytale images. As Ed Bloom lies dying, Will returns, along with his pregnant wife, to try to reconnect with his father and discover the truth about his father’s life and love for his mother. Will wants to be able to pass the truth on to his own child. The movie ends with Ed Bloom’s death and some revelations about the truth, but it closes with an uplifting note which left me both satisfied and a little choked up. Big Fish received positive critical comment but is not very well known. One reviewer noted that “Big Fish is the enchanting story of a father and son, but it really is the story of stories themselves.”
As I watched Big Fish, I realized how much the film reminded me of Secondhand Lions, another high quality but often overlooked film from 2003. Lions also had a very talented cast including Robert Duval, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwiick, and Jennifer Stone.
The film centers on a fourteen-year-old boy who is sent by his irresponsible mother to live with his two very eccentric “uncles” on their run-down ranch in the middle of nowhere. The uncles are strangers to the boy, but as they become acquainted and then close, the uncles tell the boy extraordinary tales of their youthful escapades as soldiers of fortune. The stories seem right out of The Arabian Nights with sultans, harems, princesses, vast treasures, daring rescues, and desert escapes, but the boy also sees aspects of the two old men that suggest the tales could be true. He is also told about the unwavering lifetime love of one of the uncles for the princess he rescued. Again, the film involves the telling of fantastic stories, and the audience has to decide whether or not to believe that the stories are true. The movie also ends with death, revelation, an uplifting feeling, and a few tears. The review of Big Fish mentioned above is equally applicable to Lions. It is an enchanting story of two old men and a boy, but it really is another story about stories themselves.
I am a storyteller and am prone to retell and embellish my stories repeatedly. Those who spend time with a storyteller, like spouses, children, siblings, and long-time friends or coworkers sooner or later come to find these stories tedious. Roger Ebert, in his not entirely positive review of Big Fish, described Ed Bloom as a “tireless blowhard” who “repeats the same stories so relentlessly you expect the eyeballs of his listeners to roll up into their foreheads and be replaced by tic-tac-toe diagrams, like in the funnies.”
I have always had high regard for Mr. Ebert, so his comment hit home—but not about the movie. I think I have detected eyes rolling up as I have told my stories, but I have stubbornly ignored those hints. Because I don’t want to become a tireless blowhard (if I am not there already), I have decided to cease retelling any story to anyone who may have already heard it, with the possible exception of a few stories I feel are so good that they are worth hearing again. So now, I will have to create new stories, find new listeners, or just shut up.
If you want to escape the real world for a few hours, I highly recommend either of these feel-good films about storytelling and truth. I will not tell you this again.
Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer–and sixty as a pop culture geek and junkie. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.