Friday, July 15, 2011

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

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

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Category: Sad movie about aging in reverse. As far as I know, this is not a real thing (even despite Karl Pilkington’s best efforts to figure it out). Which is good, because the idea of this is really, really weird. I’m thinking mainly of how awkward high school would be. It’s hard enough for most adolescent boys to talk to girls, but imagine if that acne was scattered among some wrinkles! While it’s true that some ladies prefer a more mature man, I feel like Benjamin Button wouldn’t have been asked to the Sadie Hawkins dance.

The film is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, although it’s been updated for the screen by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth. I’m picturing Benjamin Button reverse aging his way through history’s great moments. Here he is at ten, showing LBJ his liver spots. Or at sixty-five, running across the country looking like a small boy. One can only hope his childhood sweetheart won’t contract AIDS. 

Here’s a question that I alluded to earlier: does young Benjamin Button get all kinds of old-man diseases, and vice versa? In that case, high school Benjamin Button wouldn’t really be dealing with acne. Psoriasis, yes. He might even need a hip replacement at age 7. And then when he’s old, he’s getting the chicken pox and all that. Another question: does young Benjamin Button talk like an old man? Does he use phrases like “I reckon,” or tell stories that don’t go anywhere? And does old Benjamin Button use the hip young lingo of the time, or, even better, does he use the hip young lingo from when he was young, like “the cat’s pajamas” or other such? 

I don’t know if these questions are answered in the film. If they're not, I may be pretty disappointed.

My familiarity with this issue: As far as I know, I am aging in the correct order. Although I did suffer a spell of rickets in twenty-aught-three.

This is one of those movies where, even if you haven’t seen it, the gist of it is pretty much universally known and thus quite culturally pervasive. I know that Brad Pitt is aging backwards and Cate Blanchett is aging forwards, and they "meet in the middle," which I actually think is super romantic and sad. It’s a reference I use often. Once, when an inebriated FOTB lamented my soberness, I famously told her to stop drinking while I started, and thus we would meet in the middle like Benjamin Button. I don’t think it worked.

This is movie is personally very interesting to me: I really wanted to see it when it came out two and a half years ago, but never got around to it. It seems to me a very divisive movie: some of my friends loved it, some hated it (famous film minor and FOTB Micah Lubens called it a "turd pile"). Some have reacted with puzzlement to my classification of Benjamin Button as a sad movie, and I obviously don’t know for sure, as I haven’t yet seen it. But I think the idea of a love story between a man growing younger and a woman growing older is as tragic as all get-out, on par with the Greeks, even, and as appropriate for Taste My Sad as any of the various Holocaust or Nicholas Sparks movies. We’ll see if I’m right.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “On the day that Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, elderly Daisy Williams (neé Fuller) is on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. At her side is her adult daughter, Caroline. Daisy asks Caroline to read to her aloud the diary of Daisy's lifelong friend, Benjamin Button. Benjamin's diary recounts his entire extraordinary life, the primary unusual aspect of which was his aging backwards, being diagnosed with several aging diseases at birth and thus given little chance of survival, but who does survive and gets younger with time. Abandoned by his biological father, Thomas Button, after Benjamin's biological mother died in childbirth, Benjamin was raised by Queenie, a black woman and caregiver at a seniors home. Daisy's grandmother was a resident at that home, which is where she first met Benjamin. Although separated through the years, Daisy and Benjamin remain in contact throughout their lives…”

What I thought of the movie: Well I was right. So sad! It’s a long movie (two hours and forty-five minutes) and a fairly episodic one at that. There are times when it tends to meander or when we question the importance or plausibility (within the obviously implausible science fiction-y universe that the movie has established) of what’s going on. But for the most part I thought it was really well-made. And the last half hour or so is, as stated, heckas sad. It may not be "Greek tragedy teaching us great lessons about the frailty of the human condition" sad, but "two people in a pretty untenable situation" sad. Like the last part of Titanic but with less drowning.

I think the earlier comparison to Forrest Gump is fairly apt. Benjamin Button is obviously the center of the story, but much like Forrest Gump, he’s a bit of a cipher: he kind of wanders through recent history and has things happen to him either in spite of or because of his peculiarity. The first two hours of the movie are fairly uneven: the parts involving Benjamin’s adoptive mother, Queenie, and Benjamin’s travails aboard a tugboat before and during World War II are interesting. But the movie really gets going with the love story between Benjamin and Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and the understandable difficulties they have. We realize that Benjamin’s curse is not just his own, but is Daisy’s too, and we watch their domestic bliss knowing full well what’s going to happen.

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: I think the movie falls short of true greatness because of the premise that makes it so interesting in the first place. Truly great science fiction is instructive: it teaches us about our lives even as the stories bear no resemblance to them. (As FOTB Ted Lynch once said about Star Trek: The Next Generation, “It tackles social issues in an intergalactic setting.”) However, we are forced to appreciate this movie from a distance. When we see how upset Daisy is about growing old while her lover grows young, her complaint feels like, dare I say, a #whitegirlproblem compared to the problem that those of us who live in reality face. (The fact that she gets to make out with Brad Pitt in his twenties doesn't help her case. HELLO.) While her plight, and Benjamin’s, bears no resemblance to our own, there’s just not much we can learn from it. There’s really no other way for the story to shake out than how it does in the movie. It’s still really sad, as I said, and it’s not uninteresting, but in the end it’s not completely fulfilling.

As with any kind of weird sci-fi premise, of course, I spent much of the film thinking about what would happen if the scenario were occurring to me. I’m 25 years old now, and so if I were Benjamin Buttonized, I’d look like I was about 60. This is about when Benjamin is off on a tugboat, drinking every night, frequenting brothels and then helping out during World War II. All things I’d have difficulty doing at either 25 or 60. If I was young but looked old, I think I'd spend a lot of time drinking lemonade while on a hammock. Around 25/60 people would start to badger me about getting a job because I wasn’t as young/old as I used to be and it was about time that I started pulling my weight around here. At this point, I’d throw a tantrum more suited to a 12-year-old than either of my actual/fake ages. Then they’d say, “Act your age,” and I’d say, “Which one?” Yes, that whole paragraph was just a long buildup to that terrible joke. You’ve missed this blog, haven’t you.

How I felt after the movie ended: There are definitely some lingering emotions. They range from the renewed awareness of my own mortality and the mortality of all my loved ones, to, "If I had a baby that was that freakishly ugly, I'd probably abandon it too."

(SPOILER ALERT, and this one is for real because not everyone has seen this and people probably should, I guess.) The ending’s kind of a real bummer. The whole film is framed around old Cate Blanchett dying in a New Orleans hospital on the day Hurricane Katrina hits (this had the unintended effect of me yelling “GET OUTTA THERE” at the screen whenever the hurricane is alluded to), and reading Benjamin’s diary with her/their daughter. (Why she waited until her death/Katrina day to tell all this information to her daughter is left unanswered, of course.) And so of course she waits to die until right before the hurricane hits and right after we hear about how Benjamin died. And yet still with all of those machinations, plus the aforementioned fact that I knew early on exactly how it would go down, I was still pretty moved by the ending. David Fincher knows what he’s doing, I suppose.

It’s weird to say this, as I just finished watching it a couple of hours ago, but I’m wondering if my regard for the film will fade, to an extent, upon reflection. I thought it was really well-made and well-acted, but I suppose the issues I had with some of the plot points will combine with the film’s lack of universality to potentially detract from its resonance. Or maybe it’s just that the “aging backwards” space in my brain is permanently occupied by Karl Pilkington’s theory. He’s got a head like a fucking orange.

1 comment:

  1. Why don't you just write blog posts about great Pilkington radio spots?