Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003) is an excellent study in the manipulation of space and time in three ways: through cinema, memory, and psychology. The entire film is really an exploration of this, and not of a old man who tells “fish stories”, lies, or embellishes facts. Rather, it is an exploration of how perception (psychology) and memory are fluid and change over time. A key scene in the memory side of this is when the young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGreggor) first sets eyes on his future wife after a circus performance as time literally stops (freezes) in the film yet the space is still being manipulated as we see Edward move toward her and swat stray popcorn away from his face. The end of this scene sees time speed up briefly while space stays more or less stationary. The scene of the even younger Edward’s legs growing very rapidly and his chest expanding in the middle of a church service where his buttons pop off is an example of time being exaggerated while space remains the same. In essence, that scene to me, was a psychological flattening of time and plot to advance time forward (through distortion of the elder Ed Bloom’s (Albert Finney) memory) in a way that is very Tim Burton.
This gets into the idea of realism versus antirealism in the film. Big Fish rides right down the middle with these two ideas. The way these two ideas are presented is very much in the service of psychology (perception) and memory. There are definitely many examples of the muddling of realism and antirealism. The first that really jumped out at me was the giant man Carl who reportedly (according to the people of Ashton) ate a whole cornfield, sheep, and pets (likely an exaggeration of recall with that memory). These reports are certainly not real yet Carl shows up at Edward (senior’s) funeral, so we know he was a real man. Another scene that muddles the lines was when Jennifer (Helena Bonham Carter) was talking to Will Bloom (Billy Crudup) about his father. They first talk about her being “the witch” that very young Ed encountered in his childhood, an old hag. Indeed, Helena Bonham Carter did play the witch with the “magical” (anti-real) glass eye that would foretell one’s death upon looking into it. Will rightly points out the anti-real idea of Jennifer also being the witch: making her old when Edward was young, yet she is young when talking to Edward’s son. That bit of the conversation very much reminded me of a favorite director of mine who rides very hard and fast down the razor of real and anti-real: Mr. David Lynch. That part of their conversation was very much a surreal, anti-real Lynchian twist. The conversation continues into the story of Edward buying the bankrupt town of Spectre, Alabama and revitalizes it (realist) and rebuilds Jennifer’s decaying southern colonial which is literally crooked (anti-real). The crookedness of the house and door very much reminded me of German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) with the deliberately emotive crooked sets. In the process of revitalizing the decaying home (a very southern gothic theme by the way) Ed has Carl push on the house to straighten it (anti-real). We see after the revitalization Jennifer expressing her love for Ed, which he does not reciprocate. He then drives away in his candy apple red ’66 Dodge Charger and encounters a deluge of rain, a monsoon really. We then see him in the car at the bottom of the river when a nude woman (symbolic of the uncatchable fish) swims by his window and puts her hand on it. Ed on the other side of the glass reciprocates. This is an anti-real exposition of Ed’s perception (psychology) in longing subconsciously for Jennifer but standing by his love and commitment to his wife.
Tim Burton uses disruptive editing and continuity to give the film verisimilitude. We are led through the plot from Will Bloom’s perspective (to get at the bare truth of his dad’s life) and also through Ed’s recall and distortion of memory. His many stories disrupt the continuity but give us (in my view) the proper way to view this film. Disruption of the plot through the editing process gives us the psychological exposition of a man of total ambition that is Big Fish.