Tim Burton’s Big Fish is an homage to everything that we were, everything that we are, and everything that we will be. What really bakes your noodle is the reveal that it’s all happening, every moment, all at once.
Based on the novel by mythology enthusiast Daniel Wallace (watch for a cameo of Joseph Campbell’s TheHero with a Thousand Faces on Ed Bloom’s nightstand), Big Fish is a tale about everything big in our lives: the worlds of our childhood, the worlds of being in love, and the worlds of responsibility, maturity, death, and beyond.
The Red Shoes – 1948 – dir Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
In The Red Shoes (1948), director Michael Powell explores the apparent lack of balance in the life of a young dancer’s life. Drawing parallels between the story by Hans Christian Andersen of a girl consumed by the need to dance, Powell has Vicky (Moira Shearer) dance her way through a lush, intricate, dream-like twenty-minute ballet sequence where the dimensions of the stage stretch into infinity and the ocean itself, substituting for her audience, roars approval for her grace and beauty. It takes some effort to come back from this exhilarating dance sequence to the mundane world of show schedules and dance rehearsals, where most of the action in The Red Shoes takes place. And this is Michael Powell’s great achievement, the way in which he, working closely with choreographer Robert Helpmann, cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art director Arthur Lawson and production designer Hein Heckroth, infuses a film which deals with the realities of a ballet company with a strong, visibly palpable dose of fantasy.
Filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s version of the Fisher King legend posits a Manhattan where knights joust in Central Park, a thousand strangers waltz in Grand Central Station, and courtly love lives alongside dementia, decay and death. The ancient tale has been analyzed by scholars like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Jessie Weston and Robert Graves, and is a central aspect of the Arthurian legend. The wounded king is Jack (Jeff Bridges), a popular radio talk-show host whose brash, arrogant misanthropy leads indirectly to a mass shooting that claims a number of victims; his ensuing guilt and shattered reputation leave him unemployed and depressed, riddled with guilt and self-loathing. In a scene slyly reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack meets a sort of guardian angel in Perry (Robin Williams, in one of his most enjoyable and eminently watchable screen portrayals). Perry is a former professor of medieval studies, who was personally affected by the shooting and who ends up homeless and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When the two men cross paths several times, it seems inevitable they will both bring about the other’s rejuvenation, and the roles of wounded king and questing knight are often reversed and overlapped: which of these men is more wounded, and which one is most capable of selfless compassion? Continue reading →
In Five Easy Pieces (dir. Bob Rafaelson, 1970) Robert Eroica Dupea, played by a young-ish Jack Nicholson, has “dropped out” by dropping down a couple of levels in the class structure. Frustrated by the constraints of a serious classical music career, when we first meet him he is working on an oil rig, hanging out with his working class buddies at the bowling alley, and dating a diner waitress (Karen Black), in a thorough rejection of his upper class background and ideals. Continue reading →
The Sweet Hereafter – 1997 – dir. Atom Egoyan
(Filmmaker and author quotes from DVD commentary)
Adapted from a Russell Banks book and directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter is the sublime, aching story of a fatal school bus accident in rural Canada. Most of the town’s children are killed as a result, and city lawyer Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) travels to the town to fan the flames of confusion and anger into a potentially lucrative class action lawsuit. However, the town’s sorrow mirrors Mitchell’s own personal drama: the loss of his daughter to drugs and darker forces still. The themes of confinement are rife within this drama of parents, children, lovers, and courage.
“See, death is the only ending I know. A movie doesn’t end; it has a stopping place. That story, those people don’t die then: they live on and have terrible lives if it’s a happy ending, or if it’s a sad ending, they may survive it and recover and have happy lives. So death is the only ending and I deal with death as an ending. The people I have die are usually the wrong people, the ones you don’t expect to die. That’s the way it seems when people die.” (Robert Altman, 1992)
Altman’s quote, initially describing his resistance to narrative closure before digressing into the sort of modest wisdom that marked all of his interviews, sprung to mind on November 2oth. To anyone who takes American film seriously, the passing of Robert Altman was the sort of news that makes the world seem a little smaller and dimmer. Whether one thinks Altman the greatest American filmmaker since John Ford or a self-indulgent provocateur, the vitality and exuberance of each of his films is beyond dispute, to such an extent that the death of a frail, old man, who had just made the perfect swan song, Prairie Home Companion, came as something of a shock. The prodigious output of the indestructible Hollywood rebel had inexorably stopped, and a world without future Altman films is still hard – if not downright depressing – to imagine. To quantify what it is that we’ve lost, we can look to the works he left us, and his films of the 1970s – a decade of filmmaking that many identify with Altman – is the most obvious point of departure. Continue reading →