When I was a teenager and into my early twenties, my friend Stan and I would get up to adventures. They were really wonderful, some of the best experiences of my lives. Some literally true things that occurred: being engaged in very friendly conversation by five large cops while tripping fiercely in the forest; chasing rabbits through a graveyard at 3 am in Stan’s old Sedan.
But the literal truth was almost never what came out of our mouths. When we told our stories to friends or strangers, at some point one of us would start inventing and the other would never point out the lies. Instead, we would bounce off each other, testing the limits of plausibility with exaggeration, lies of omission, and pure fiction. Looking back on it, I think that’s because the objective facts didn’t do enough to convey the subjective wonder of our chicanery, or to capture the joy we each took in our friendship. Tall tales were needed to help people understand what our friendship felt like, if not exactly what actually happened.
I thought about this the other day while I was watching lately faded auteur Tim Burton’s 2003 movie Big Fish. In the film, we are offered two stories about the same man, Ed Bloom. One of these stories is about Bloom’s eccentric and whimsical youth as captured by Ewan McGregor, this story is conveyed to us as told by Bloom to people in his life. The other story is told from a more objective perspective and centres on the relationship between Albert Finney’s elderly, dying Ed Bloom and his grown son Will Bloom, played by Billy Crudup. Their relationship is difficult – Will has not spoken to his father in three years after Ed embarrassed him by telling tall tales at his wedding.
Throughout the film, they argue about Edward Bloom’s penchant for embellishing the truth to the point of fiction, specifically magic realism. Will believes his father simply lies to get attention, that he is an emotional con man. Ed insists that telling stories is part of who he is and his son should accept it, saying “I’ve been nothin’ but myself since the day I was born, and if you can’t see that it’s your failin’, not mine.” In other words, he’s not pretending to be someone else by lying, rather telling stories that aren’t strictly true is part of who he, in actual fact, is and has always been.
Towards the end of the film, Will returns from a fact-finding expedition to find his father barely conscious and barely able to speak. Throughout the film, Ed Bloom has insisted he knows just how his death will go and now, being unable to tell stories himself, he asks his son to tell him the story of his own death. Will does so, and it’s a whopper. But it’s also very beautiful and very joyful. In his final moments, Will is able to bring his father joy and peace by telling him lies. It is a moment of reconciliation between the two men. There is also an internal reconciliation for Will himself, as what he has of his father’s storytelling nature in him is accepted and allowed to flourish.
The primary message seems to be this: a literal lie, told for the joy of telling it, can be a beautiful thing. Ed Bloom’s stories made the world a better place in a tangible way. They brought happiness and laughter to many and immortalised almost everyone he met, along with himself. In the story Will tells of his father’s death, Ed is surrounded by everyone he’s ever known. They’ve all come to be there with him, to show their love and respect. While it’s not literally true that they are there with Ed as he dies, they are there through the story. The love and respect they show him is real, too – many people love and respect Ed Bloom, because he made the world a more magical place for them; he brought them back to life.
From little white lies to tall tales, sometimes untruth is better than truth. It can make us happy, give us confidence, help us accept the world as it is, or imagine it as it could be. Lies can even reveal truths that the facts don’t capture, like with me and Stan’s tall tales. It’s easy to see why Tim Burton would be drawn to such a an idea, and be thankful he has lied to us so beautifully.
PS. I don’t know anyone called Stan.