Posted by: thealienist | June 20, 2011

Playing with “Big Fish”

Yesterday, I saw a movie that I had been wanting to see for a long time.  It is called “Big Fish.”  As I watched the movie, I was surprised with its wonderful presentation of the need for play in our lives and the need for a broader view of what is “true.”

During the course of the movie, a father and son meet for what will be the last time.  In many ways, they are the same.  They both tell stories.  The father tells his stories to family and to the people he meets.  The son is a writer.  Neither understands the other.  The father thinks his son’s stories leave out the interesting part.  The son thinks his father’s stories are lies.  As the movie progresses, the son begins to develop a new understanding of his father’s stories.  If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it.  I am not going to tell the father’s stories in this post.  You’ll just have to see them for yourself.  However, I would like to address an important aspect of this film from a mental health perspective — our need for play.

It is evident throughout the movie that Ed Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor as a young man and Albert Finney as the older man) has never lost his ability to play.  In all of his remembrances of his life, he is “larger than life.”  At times he is heroic, and at other times romantic or clever.  The version of himself that he presents to his family is scattered and inconsistent. For Ed, life doesn’t have to be consistent.  It is not made up of a series of objective facts.  For him, “living” is much more than simply “being alive.”  A psychoanalyst might say that when Ed met with his family, he met them in a transitional space.  Such a space is not confined to reality, though it has real components to it.  Still, it is not a realm of pure fantasy either.  The transitional space is an “in-between” world where play occurs.  The transitional space is populated by bits of reality and narrative that have been dressed-up in (and to some extent distorted by) symbols and ancient ideas.  People in the transitional space do not question the reality of their experience — it is true.  There is a truth in this kind of communication that cannot be expressed by the “facts.”  In the movie, Ed is giving his son something that his son is not yet ready to accept.

This bothers his son, Will (played by Billy Crudup), but doesn’t seem to bother the other characters in the movie.  Ed’s wife (played by Alison Lohman as the young Sandra Bloom and by Jessica Lange as the older) seems very comfortable in dealing with her husband and his way of sharing with her.  Even Will’s wife (played by Marion Cotillard) seems to have a greater ability to talk with Ed than Will does.  In fact, Will has forgotten how to play.  He has lost his transitional space.  In his writing and in his relationships, he is trapped in the real.  As he tries to communicate with his father, he cannot meet him in the transitional space.  He hears his father’s stories simply as an incoherent and incompatible set of facts.  His father invites him into play, and Will insists that everything has to be real.  The portrayal of the mutual frustration in their relationship is heartbreaking.

Will’s inability to play is given a sense of urgency by the fact that he is about to become a father and is about to lose a father as well.  Ed would seem to be a wonderful grandfather.  He would be able to play with his grandchild, tell him stories of his life, and listen to the child’s stories as well.  But what will Will do?  Will he crush his child’s ability to create and play like he does with his father? Or will he regain his ability to play and engage his child in a comfortable but challenging relationship?  As the movie comes to a close, we see that Ed has given Will (and his grandchild) a great gift — the gift of intimacy in play.

Some who see this movie may wonder what parts of it are “true.”  Seen from the perspective of play in the transitional space, all of it was true.  The life portrayed by Ed was more true than the simple facts it was created out of.  It was true in the sense that it more closely represented the life as it was lived than would a cold but accurate recitation of the same incidents.  If this doesn’t make sense to you, you need to find a friend, go out, and play.


  1. I’m not familiar with the movie, but I enjoyed your post, especially as I was recentlyr considering the merits of fiction vs. non-fiction; as you imply, I guess it’s important to distinguish art from propaganda and self-dramatization from (self-)deception.


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