A Symptom of the Second Enlightenment

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“I think people are wrong when they say they don’t want the dramatic illusion broken. There’s something about silent film that’s just a little bit closer to the fairy tale, to the bedtime story, than the talkie is. And I’m just more comfortable thinking of everything as more or less fairy tale and then working my way toward a more accurate assessment of a book, a movie, or story someone’s telling me. That’s just my way in. And then once I get my bearings, I might change my mind about exactly what the story really is. I always like seeing the teller. So when I’m telling I don’t mind being seen, or even revealing all my paraphernalia.”
-Guy Maddin in conversation with Michael Ondaatje, May 9th, 2009’s Globe and Mail


Big Fish is a movie with two endings. The first, sudden and revelatory, pulls together the strands of an otherwise tepid and even slightly annoying movie and wraps them into one beautiful, and transcendental, package. Normally I have no qualms about providing “spoilers”, but such is the redemptive power of the first ending that I will not spoil it for you. The second ending, tacked on by Burton, ruins everything accomplished by the first. The former’s transcendental heights are captured and held in irons, and the effect is similar to spotting a particularly beautiful star in a telescope, zooming in, and discovering it is only a moth.

Everything wonderful in Big Fish is whimsical: it is a movie of tall tales, of the power of fiction and metaphors in everyday life. Burton completely misunderstands, which is surprising because the man is whimsical himself. Above Guy Maddin describes the pleasing gulf between allegorical fiction and reality. In Big Fish, Burton takes this gulf and eradicates it. He believes that by doing so he has asserted the reality of the “fictions” to an even higher degree than before.

“It really happened?” we ask.

“Yes! It really happened!” says he.

And yet because it “really happened” Burton is now charged with making it believable. The witch becomes an old spinster, the giant just a tall man. The fictions become dull and lacklustre, and we no longer really care if they happened or not. Why bother? They are possible. So many things are. Burton becomes an unwitting pawn of the “Second Enlightenment”, even as he tries to fight it. Once again, reason triumphs. It destroys everything… the beauty of science, as in all things, is in the imagination– the dinosaurs, electrons on atoms, the beginning of the world– and if we had full transcripts it would not be beautiful at all.

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