29 January 2004

The Sledgehammer of Fantastic Reality

Tim Burton has made some wonderful films, particularly his early work (Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands hold special places in my heart), and despite the execrable Planet of the Apes remake, I've generally thought of him as one of the great makers of SF films.

And then I saw Big Fish, which is currently in theatres. The first half is charming, though lacking in any sort of tension, but the second half -- and, in particular, the last twenty minutes or so -- is one messy ball of ghastly, saccharine goo. It's worse than Spielberg at his most manipulative and meretricious, and demonstrates utter contempt for the intelligence and imagination of the audience.

Burton and his screenwriter (John August), perhaps with the assistance of the original novel (I haven't read it), have bungled a perfectly respectable premise by smashing it beneath a sledgehammer of reality and trite moral proclamations. The central idea of a father who tells so many tall tales that his family ultimately feels like they don't know him is a fine concept to work from, and one which leads to a couple of marvelous scenes (as well as others which are too long or too undeveloped), but in the second half of the movie the story makes the mistake of answering every question it has raised. By the time the credits finally roll, every plot point has been neatly tied up, the predictable reconciliation of father and son has occurred, and the tall tales have proved to be closer to truth than previously expected. It's all so sweet that a gallon of espresso couldn't wash the aftertaste away.

What Burton has done is destroy all ambiguity in his story and remove the audience's participation in the construction of the imagined reality -- and it is exactly that participation which differentiates art that respects its audience from art that condescends to it. It's a totalitarian aesthetic at heart, an aesthetic which seeks one response from an audience, producing work which says, "Feel this!" at predicted moments rather than opening opportunities for individual response. Big Fish even goes so far as to offer a tidy little moral of a voiceover at the very end, just in case someone who fell asleep hadn't realized what It Was All About (which any sentient creature ought to have been able to do within, at the most, half an hour).

If you want to compare Big Fish to a film with some similar themes, but which respects and challenges its audience, making it, despite imperfections, a work of art rather than claptrap, watch Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Gilliam is one of the great directors of fantasy -- I've written before about his masterpiece, Brazil -- because he uses fantasy for multiple purposes: for the fun of it, first of all, but also to investigate the entire concept of why we as human beings need fantasy and imagination; and then he allows enough ambiguity and complexity into his fantasies to allow viewers to construct their own imaginings of his imaginings, which is the great joy of experiencing fantastic works. Gilliam said somewhere that he likes to include in every film he makes at least one element which simply can't be explained, and that desire is exactly what makes his work so vastly superior to even Burton's best movies. Gilliam is a filmmaker of generosity, one who fills every frame with more than can be seen at once, making his visions and creations ones which reward repeated viewings. The first time I saw Baron Munchausen I liked it but didn't feel like I "got" it, so I watched it again and liked it more, then again and again, until by now it gives me tremendous pleasure, because each viewing is a different experience.

The thought of ever having to sit through Big Fish again, on the other hand, is nauseating.

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