Friday, January 30, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has many problems, and the description "Too straightforward" probably lies at the heart of the most pesky and prominent of those shortcomings. Without any seeming qualms with its own existence, David Fincher and Eric Roth's Benjamin Button (as opposed to F. Scott Fitzgerald's satirical short story) is a 3-hour chronicle of an unblemished everyman's life - albeit one who ages backwards - and it is as interminably story-driven and non-scandalous as it sounds. Nope, no Benjamin on "I Was a Teenage Pedophile!" specials on Maury Povich.

For one, the film is set in the first half of the twentieth century. Second, the film's idea of the American everyman is not a shallow, opportunistic yokel but the opposite - the virtuous man, graced with the dignity of humility, courage, and kindness... and, as conceived by Roth, seems to have little else to him but. Then what is there for the film to really engage an audience, made up of discerning viewers likely unwilling to accept a cipher for a screen surrogate?

The film has a wrench to throw in, using Fitzgerald's novel premise and making this everyman tale a fantastical fairy tale. Unfortunately, this fairy tale aspect constitutes a lot of what is inherently arbitrary and pointless about this film, which takes an absurd, ribbing, monkeyshine of a short story and makes it into the most earnest life-metaphor fable you can possibly imagine. What exactly does a story about a man who ages backwards have to tell us about anything, especially when the main character is, from the very get-go, automatically given such a passive predilection to the "blessing and a curse" condition he suffers and bears? In other words, why does he perceive himself as anything more than a freak of nature, a medical curiosity, maybe a victim of a curse? What exactly about his condition has freed him from the normal tendencies of a developing ego, making him seemingly insusceptible to pathological insecurity and cruelness, or narcissism and delusion? It wouldn't take too much to connect his happy lack of narcissistic or destructive impulses with his beginning his life enfeebled and thus thoroughly humbled... but, unfortunately, a study of formative psychological development hardly seems to be of concern to the film. Instead, it sweeps through much of the struggles and crises of ego formation so attributable to maturation with a cutesy voice-over passage where we see young Benjamin flexing in front of a bathroom mirror while his voice-over winks and goes, "Oh, puberty... well, you know."

So does Benjamin's condition have anything to do at all with the fact that he becomes such a gleamingly upright, perfectly bland, perfectly wholesome and virtuous young man? What about him being physically old during his developmental years saved him from becoming the troublesome teen - a thoughtless rabelrouser, a brooding sociopath, a wannabe rock star? We do not get thoughts on this from the film. The nitty-gritty of psychology and biology is far from a concern to this over-sized fable.

We are just supposed to accept the character of Benjamin Button - the perfectly-normal, good-hearted, squeaky clean male human, with a condition that doesn't make him weird, that doesn't make him psychologically aberrant... all it does is teach him exclusive life lessons and give him access to an in-many-ways privileging process of maturation: youth, for Benjamin, now no longer wasted on the young.

Is this at all realistic? The answer clearly being no, the question to follow is: how much does this film's parabolic fable have to impart on us, as relatable to our own, imperfect lives? (For instance, few get the privilege of losing their virginity free of the pressures and expectations that are had by virile youth.) Many critics argue very little. All the film seems to do is answer the following, much more confusing question: What do piano playing old women, Armistice periods, cruel war, blacks in New Orleans, sexual blossoming, hotel love affairs, and the dilemmas of backwards-aging fathers have in common? Answer: Either, again, very little, or some vague amalgam of too much for the proverbial plate, even a big-budget, 3-hour one. This amalgam Roth creates is of broad, doting ruminations on time and mortality, themes told to us with much more efficiency in the likes of Groundhog's Day. And my last rhetorical question, I promise, that I must pose to this movie: what the hell do buttons have to do with anything?

The film is schematically determined to arbitrarily document a man's entire life, from run-ins with button moguls to motorcycling across the world, all without the desire to betray Benjamin's character function as a total blank slate - not a real personality, per say, but merely a living metonymy for the emotional edification garnered from the everyman's ever-ticking temporal experience. It's a kitschy metaphor film to its very bones, and it is often criticisms of its platitudinous innocuousness that is leveled at the film by haranguers. But if there is any reason I think mostly positively about this dull block of cinematic wood, so logistically conceived upon ideas of bewilderingly uninteresting impracticality, it would be from an ambiguous, perceived-but-likely-not-entirely-there tone of philosophical subversion, ironically conceived upon the opposite of guileless impracticality: notions of earthy practicality, at their most self-involved and self-gratifying. The critics may be saying Benjamin and his great loves don't deserve a movie, but the film's promotion of sensual fulfillment works to validate all its rapturous excess: Ben was a beautiful man with a beautiful (if barely interesting) life, and just as he lived it, he deserves to re-live it, as does he deserve the most romantic and sumptuous and sizable biopic Hollywood can give him. Take part in the rapturous joy of his wholesome romance with life and the common-man affirmation it provides... or don't, and you're missing out.

The film presents an overriding conviction towards the "Take advantage of every moment" platitudes it gives out, to the extent that a major motif of the film seems to be a championing of a sort of selfishness and self-centered revivification that's found in the pride and joy of the bodily; the bodily resplendent, the bodily sensual; the youthful, the radiant, the life-affirming in the purely sensory of pleasures. The film, in retrospect, can be read as emphatically anti-intellectual - nary is a "thinker" to be seen, only "feelers" and "livers." Every moment of affirmation in the film has to do with a sort of reverie separate from any social or intellectual perception. Every character is a "common" person, totally invested in seizing the moment with activities of only physically exhilarating of sorts. Mr. Button finds happiness in a sunset, the Tugboat Captain in - not the tatts themselves - but showing off his tatts. The film's two artists - Daisy and the tugboat Captain - are not artists intellectually and creatively, but artists of the bodily sort. The film often illustrates the somewhat selfish nature of living our common life to its fullest. Mr. Button, knowing his life is in its December years, plunges into a relationship with Benjamin knowing full well the volatility of such a situation. Daisy makes her daughter read her Benjamin's diary even though the daughter is clearly uncomfortable with and soon downright upsetted by it, just so she could get the satisfaction of re-living her saucy youth. This idea of the film promoting "selfishness" - under the idea that who you take from is willingly sacrificing for you, in a generosity borne from understanding - to achieve life's true fulfillment is prominent in the film. Benjamin as well as Daisy's daughter are not exactly receiving much of anything but emotional hurt from their parents, but they dutifully perform acts for them out of obligation, for they are young while their father and mother, respectively, are nearing the end of the life which Time has allotted to them. The film is very much about the give-and-take one must perform with understanding underneath the regime of Time, in order to make one's life most fulfilling. When Benjamin and Daisy's daughter themselves are old, they will hope their own beloved will perform the give-and-take that Benjamin performed with Daisy when she neglected him in New York, or vice versa when Benjamin spurned Daisy's advances in New Orleans.

The film rewards Daisy and Benjamin's decisions to reject the other in their respective early meetings. It gives their rejections of each other justifications of a cosmic and spiritual value and validity. It is in both their knowing sense of their self - their knowing where they are (both emotionally and physically) in their life (determined by the aging process) - that allows them to stall and finally, in their third meeting, to fulfill the full gratification of Time's occasional glorious gift of happy serendipity: in this case, their "meeting in the middle" and the perfection of its momentousness, as that which Time and the processes of aging allows the two lovers. And the aforementioned rejections are of the wholesome sort, of that "spiritual validity" mentioned. Clearly not involved are various particular - and particularly "non-everyman" - problems of neurotic horniness or repressed sexuality. They are both sexual beings by the time they first meet as adults, so the sparks that fly between them are true sparks and not some sort of arrested psychology. Thus, their rejections and the rejectee's eventual moving-on from the rejection appear in the film as a sign of a cosmic wisdom privileging their meant-to-be love connection - a give-and-take between the two that results in their ultimate finding each other at the best mutual time for both. Their wisdom entails an awareness of Time, maturation, and what those factors will and will not allow us of physical and emotional pleasures (but not intellectual [nor unorthodox, queer, alternative, etc.] natch): essentially what this film is all about.

This angle will be shown to take on more problematic implications in this film's regard for history. The film deigns finding happiness and fulfillment is inextricable from a self-involvement and selfishness which is justified through love and understanding. This, in regards to Benjamin and Daisy finding fulfillment in their love, also includes taking from history by completely detaching oneself from it. They give back to history only the fact of their insignificance in it. The 60s are glazed over with a love montage, Benjamin and Daisy at the height of their happiness, seen making love and building a home with complete fulfillment - but at the expense of the turmoil and unrest that occurs in the world around them, which they (and we) should really be seeing.

So with this sort of hedonistic sensibility in the film, it seems as fallout we get the sort of wispy nothingness with which the film presents history. Despite the prominence of a mixed race environment in New Orleans in the first half of the film, the Civil Rights movement is no where to be seen. The film does promotes the role of the common man as fellow "sufferers" of the social world, but never gives any evidence or consideration to the everyman as activist / participant. We see Benjamin travel the world, we watch him witness and partake in the modest life of poorer nations - but he never becomes a hippie. Same with Daisy, who milks to the last drop the abilities of her body as a dancer, all the while picnicking with Benjamin by Cape Canaveral but probably not wondering about the Cuban Missile Crisis looming in the near future. They are both presented as perfectly contented (and perfectly justified to be contented) happy sensualists. The film presents no need to worry about "other stuff," as Daisy and Benjamin are (and, Fincher and Roth hope the audience thinks, we are) "everypeople" and not responsible to it.

This is a possible justification I can come up with for the film's fairy tale rollick through the 20th century. This, though, is probably what, if anything, would make the film's use of Katrina problematic. The film implies this No Country for Old Men-like contrast between "back then" (that which is romanticized and narrated by Brad Pitt in nonchalant diary recollection) and "now" (sickness, chaos, taking down the clock, that which takes place in a New Orleans hospital)... but if "back then" managed to "manage itself" while Ben and Daisy frolicked about, what can the film be kind of implying with its intimation of death and disease in the near future - the sort of violent death and disease which the characters in the flashback part of the film seem so immune to? Everyone dies of natural causes "back then," it seems. Even in the submarine scene, the crew's death is but the men's humble, elegiac submersion into the mysteries of the sea and the elegiac depths of war. Where is violent death in Benjamin's time? Further, where is corruption and McCarthyism? Vietnam? If the film is such a detailing of this man's life, why not Benjamin reading about Watergate in a newspaper? With the Katrina framing device, we are hinted at a city's ordeal of physical and societal decay, as well as the negligence of government organization. Is the film telling us virtuous and kind, humble and giving everymen and everywomen that we deserve the pursuit of our happiness, excusing us of any engagement in the social and political? With the possible exception of justified war, as in Benjamin's excursion to a life at sea? The ending is so effective because Daisy serves as stand-in for the last "peaceful death" before the film implies modernity will shake things up a bit, with an unseen dollop of human ugliness and institutional malignancy we have not seen an inkling of in the three-hours prior.

Ideological confusions aside, the Katrina framing device is effective. I felt its use was - superficially - very respectful, unsensationalized, and elegiac. What ultimately makes this very sentimental film work is the fact that Fincher is a deft and idiosyncratic director, and if a director is deft and idiosyncratic (as opposed to arbitrary and sentimental, which would have killed this film), I think it usually will always shine through in their films, even with such mediocre material to work with as Button.

One last capper-rant (of a literally rantish nature): I've read a number of reviews calling the adoptive mother character a "mammy"-type character, which I find a bit off-base and rather wrong-headed. I thought the mother character was presented with intelligence and particularized agency (such as in her keeping the baby and the companionship of her lover, despite his displeasure), and no more one-dimensional than every single character in the whole film. It seems like reviewers making backhand comments about the film's characterization of this one character is not appealing against stereotypes, but instead reducing every black female character with some particular set of characteristics to some perceived stereotype to begin with. It in fact reveals a hang-up on the part of the criticizer, the hang-up being a sort of egregiously narrow, limited, maybe non-existent consideration of the sheer range and individuation which is, naturally, possible and so should be allowed to black female characters?

'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' - 7/10