Big Fish

Big Fish

Tim Burton Trims the Tree of Meaning

A father and son struggle to reunify word and reality, signifier and signified.

Matthew Kirby

I saw it on New Year’s Day with a head full of mucus and a gullet full of Dayquil; wrapped in a jacket and scarf and nestled among friends in a far, dark corner of the dilapidated Cobble Hill theater in Brooklyn. After several false starts in which the projector derailed, emitting a barrage of deafening static, that old gold light began leaking out of the screen and all was well again.

We all knew what the movie was going to be like, partly because it was Tim Burton and partly because of those ubiquitous posters: a silhouetted figure saunters, hands in pockets, through the words “Big Fish” fashioned folkishly beneath the branches of a ragged old tree drawn in slightly muted, Burton curlicue style. We knew it was going to be a rambler, an odyssey, a faux-folk-art yarn in a reinvented world. And of course we were not disappointed when it turned to be the yarn . . . the meta-yarn if you will: a tall tale about the necessity of fiction if there is to be any truth in the world.

Agriculture is the root of all metaphor

At this point I was all too ready to believe in the necessity of fiction. A harrowing semester consisting primarily of moldy, eighteenth-century critics had drawn to a close and I had only just sunk my teeth into the first non-required reading since summer: the plump, juicy new Lethem novel. A world opened up—small, intricate, personal, alive. A world I had forgotten existed: free of polemics and laden with nuance, where meaning and morality were assumed and grappled with rather than proven and abandoned. Such is the world of the story.

It is at the gateway to this fictional, though not quite fictitious, world that Big Fish positions itself. Elder and younger Blooms occupy oppositional realms: Edward (Ewan MacGregor/Albert Finney) is a born storyteller and his son Will (Billy Crudup) is a fact-obsessed writer trying to figure out the circumstances of his own birth and his father’s life before it’s over. (Burton’s character Edward is not the first rambling Bloom to weave an incomprehensible tale for those who came after him. Before Edward Bloom came James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, protagonist of the infamously unreadable Ulysses. A distant relative, perhaps?)

Into the Woods
One of Saussure's
arboreal stepdaughters?

The underlying meaning of the conflict between father and son is hinted at in those ubiquitous movie posters: Burton’s word-tree is a not-entirely unfamiliar image. Certainly arboreal fonts have graced the covers of many children’s books and have been doodled in the corners of countless adolescent math notes. Additionally, the word-tree appeared on the promotional poster for the Broadway play Into the Woods, which, like Big Fish, uses the image to apply the fairytale aesthetic to grownup subject matter. The language of the symbol is strikingly similar: human figures stand before a text made of ominous vegetation. However, perhaps the most pivotal (dare we say root?) use of the tree image in relation to the written word comes from the Swiss scholar and grandfather of modern literary theory, Ferdinand de Saussure.

Saussure's Diagrams
This is not a tree

Saussure juxtaposed a drawing of a tree with the Latin word “arbor” in order to illustrate the lack of any a priori connection between the word and the thing, thereby challenging previous notions that language grows out of naming and that words necessarily flow from what they signify. You say “arbor,” I say “tree.” Each word is more beholden to its own system, the Latin or English language, than it is to any notion of tree-ness.

Following—perhaps nipping—at the heels of Saussure came the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who went beyond skepticism regarding an inherent connection between signifier and signified to denial of the existence of the signified itself. Saussure’s tree image, after all, was only an image and not the actual meaning of the word “arbor,” which refers, in fact, to an abstract composite of the world’s big plants. Look up “tree” in a dictionary and you’ll only be directed to more words, never arriving at or even drawing nearer to meaning. A word does not represent a thing; it is a stand-in for a thing that is missing. Language is therefore always the language of loss or lack.

According to Lacan, the crucial moment of learning to speak this language of loss comes when an infant, still reeling from the separation of her own identity from that of her mother, first learns to associate herself with a reflection in the mirror. With the repeated encouragement of a parent, the child learns to believe, or at least work with, the preposterous fiction that the image is actually the child: “look, it’s you wiggling your little toesies over there!” Fiction then, not awareness of reality, is at the core of our very concept of self. The ego is a misrepresentation.

Grand unifying theory

In this context, Burton’s tree/word/gateway image is a symbol that heralds a reunification of language. Words and things are going to be together in this movie. But how?

Will fundamentally rejects fiction. Fiction and lies, as he asserts at several points throughout the film, are indistinguishable to him. His impossible quest is to return to the moment of his birth and reclaim his identity without its fictional underpinnings—without that damned fish story his father has been telling and retelling at every major event of his life.

Will’s father, on the other hand, does not or cannot distinguish his life from fiction. When Will accuses him of concealing his real existence behind a bunch of phony stories, an astonished Edward maintains that those stories are his real life—not that they are about his life, but that they are his life. This distinction is lost on Will, who demands an accurate record with points firmly fixed in reality, not a shifting, Lacanian chain of symbols in which each link is defined only in that it is not the next link. This chain is most clearly represented when Will finally meets his father’s supposed mistress and learns that Jenny and the witch in his father’s stories are actually the same person. The shoe-thieving little girl from the middle of the story grew up to be Edward’s other woman and then grew old to be the isolated, one-eyed crone at the beginning of the story. Will’s frustration mounts because this is chronologically impossible—an endless, playful loop in which he cannot ultimately pin down the objective correlatives in what he believes to be his father’s complex allegory for “real life.”

Tellingly, Will tries to express his frustration with his father by making a metaphor. He brings up the subject of icebergs, at which point Edward launches into another tall tale, this time having to do with icebergs. Will has to state explicitly that he is making a metaphor to get his dad to shut up. He then carefully labels the two parts of the metaphor. Bullshit stories = tip of iceberg, above water. Edward Bloom’s real life = bottom of iceberg, presumably larger, underwater.

Yet for Edward Bloom, stories are not metaphorical. They are self-referential and truth is grounded in the order of language itself—in his case, the narrative flourish of the yarn, rather than in any inviolable fact. This is illustrated by the moment when the young Edward Bloom is attacked by ill-intentioned trees—symbols, via Saussure’s diagram, of that lack for which language can only be a stand-in. But rather than succumb to this lack, Bloom locates truth in language as a force in and of itself. He uses the particulars of the fiction—that he foreknows the occasion of his own death—to fend off the particulars of the world—that he is about to be mangled by killer trees. The trees cannot kill him because it isn’t in the story: “this isn’t how I go.” Therefore the order of language is supreme over what that language purportedly represents.

The metaphorical key

On the subject of fathers, the film once more dovetails with Lacan’s theory, particularly of human development as it pertains to Freud’s Oedipal complex. For Lacan, a developing child’s fear of castration by the father (fill mom’s lack with your phallus and I’ll make you lack a phallus) is not literal. The “father” is inherent in the structure of language and in the symbolic order. In order to express this lack, this motherless-ness, my son, you will need to use language, and language has rules; symbols have order. This you must learn from me. The phallus, according to Lacan, is not a literal object, but the fixed point around which all language revolves—the key to all metaphor. The son initially thinks the father has it, but in truth it is beyond possession. Hence, as Will constantly pesters his father to reveal the fixed point in his network of stories, Edward only looks back blankly. He doesn’t have it either, just a method—if Will would listen—of being close to it.

Thus Big Fish, or at least its conclusion, is the story of Will’s learning to talk this father-talk, of his learning the Symbolic Order, the rules for spinning a yarn. Edward Bloom asserts repeatedly and suggestively to Will’s pregnant wife that only a real storyteller can entertain, can playfully withhold that vital information until the yarn’s end, while anyone can dole out facts. Will the writer, it is implied, is in the latter camp. Burton highlights the suggestiveness of this keep-it-up-all-night philosophy by having Will’s wife sit fondly on the edge of the old man’s bed as a frustrated Crudup peers clandestinely through the bedroom door.

Ultimately, Will learns the symbolic order of storytelling by completing the story of his father’s death in his father’s trademarked a-chronological loop: If Edward caught the big fish, how could he have become the big fish? On the other hand, he must be the same big fish because he spits out the ring. On the other hand, the ring was already spit out earlier in the story. . . . The chain of symbols shifts ceaselessly.

But what, then, of Burton’s symbol? What happened to the promise of the word and tree and gateway made one? This unity seems to be what he is getting at during the dénouement, as slightly less fantastic versions of the characters in Bloom’s stories celebrate the man at his funeral. Signifier and signified reach some sort of merry compromise in death, leaving the world slightly enchanted but still respectable enough to go about the business of life. The man lives on in his stories; et cetera, et cetera.

This notion was not entirely satisfying to me as I sniveled my way out of the theater, gone sappy under the weight of the movie’s heartstring-tugging hands, nor is it entirely satisfying now. After all, my parents told me the same sorts of stories: about gnomes living under the floorboards and the burls on trees unraveling to slink along the ground at night. Even if our understanding of the world is already cobbled together out of misconceptions, what is the hard value of these parental fictions that differ from lies only in context? I don’t know. I am content merely to make two wagers. One: like Will Bloom, I cannot know until I myself am on the cusp of fatherhood. Two: until then, listening to such stories is an act of mercy and should be undertaken, accordingly, with great joy.

Matthew Kirby lives in Brooklyn. His favorite movies are Baxter (1989), Hana-bi (1997) and Jesus’ Son (1999).
posted by editor ::: January 12, 2004 ::: philms :::