Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Big Fish

Just got back from watching Big Fish. The only review I recall reading when it came out last year was Dave Winer’s one-word review (“wonderful”). (I also remember reading Dave’s subsequent longer comments.)

Turns out the reviews by the pros were less enthusiastic.

I loved the film. Didn’t just like it, loved it. Towards the end, I watched as a son tried to reconcile conclusions about his Dad he’d drawn long ago with seemingly incontrovertible evidence that what he believed to be true was not. (Or maybe it was — but it’s his uncertainty that’s so poignant.) I thought about my relationship with my father (a very good one, thankfully) and my relationship with my two sons (still early, but so far so good!) and how dynamic the relationships are, and how important they are to me.

There are a few memories of time with my Dad that are frozen for me — I can recall every detail about them. There’s the time he showed me how he could write three pages about the sun rising in response to my complaints that I couldn’t write three pages about the Civil War. (Cut me some slack, I was in seventh grade. Three pages seemed like a lot at the time.) I was awed by the skill I didn’t know he had — and not just by the ease with which he did it, but the enjoyment he took in doing it. That’s the day I decided I liked writing.

Or the time in high school when I discovered that I’d get my driver’s license a whole week after I was eligible. I was pissed. (For those reading this in the UK, that’s pissed as in angry, not pissed as in drunk.) That night over dinner, he defused my anger with one question: “Five years from now, will it matter that you got your license a week late?” He was right, of course. (That I’ve since used that same rationale to explain my relaxed approach towards life has caused him no end of grief…)

I remember the weekend he spent with me while I was studying in France. It was the first time he and I interacted not as father and son but as friends. I’m fortunate that I realized at the time just how significant it was — I enjoyed the weekend all the more, and twelve years later, can still tell you what we had to drink for lunch before heading off to the caves for a wine tasting.

And I remember when he held my son for the first time: his first grandson, and the sixth generation in our family in which the first born was male and named Richard. I remember the pride I felt for bringing a new man into the world, the joy I felt at being able to share it with my Dad, and the connection I felt to the generations before us who had played out this exact scene so many times before.

Last December, I took my son to see Brother Bear. The movie was OK — not great, but enjoyable. My then-3 year-old loved it, more because it was a chance to go to the movies with Dad than anything else. He still talks about it. “Dad, remember when we went to see Brother Bear?” he’ll ask. “I liked the scene where the bears fell into the mud.” Or he’ll ask about the popcorn we ate. Or the big seats we got to sit in. The other day, as I worked in the basement, he hung out on the newly-installed carpet for over an hour, playing with the same twelve Legos. He didn’t say much, just occasionally looked up to show me what he’d built. He finished as I took a break. We laid down in the empty room and gave each other a hug, then stared at the as-yet-unfinished ceiling. It was a perfect, simple moment. I’ll cherish it for a long, long time. (Update: the ceiling grid is in. Lights are installed, ceiling panels go in tomorrow!)

Most of all, after seeing Big Fish, I’m thankful that I have a pretty good idea of who my Dad is. Perhaps what hit me so hard in the movie was when Billy Crudup’s character (the son) tells his Dad, “I’m about to bring a son into this world, and it would kill me to think he’d grow up not knowing who I was.”

Stories about us are what will keep us around long after we leave. On my last day of sophomore history in high school, Winslow Smith told us that all men search for immortality. Teaching, he said, is the closest a man can come to immortality — because long after the teachers go, with any luck their students will still talk about them. I’ve never forgotten that lesson from Winslow.

That, in a nutshell, is what Big Fish is all about. It’s not the story that matters. It’s what the story says about us — why we tell it, how we tell it — that matters. Some people listen to the stories themselves; hopefully more will hear the storyteller. With any luck, those that love us will keep the stories (and the storyteller) alive.


  1. The collaboration of Tim Burton's direction and Danny Elfman's music was very effective in The Nightmare before Christmas. I haven't seen Big Fish yet. I want someone to say "If you liked [insert movie here], you'll like Big Fish.

  2. Big Fish

    My personal thoughts on Big Fish -- I thought it was great too.

  3. I saw it on HBO this past weekend (March 5 or 6, 2005). You're right. Great movie.