Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ****

So here's the deal. Roger Ebert writes critiques with biases, so I can too. His main beef seems to be that any movie that depicts misogyny in any form is lower than low. He famously hated David Lynch's "Blue Velvet" for this, for example. At the same time, it is obvious that Isabella Rosselini took the leading lady role in that film on her own initiative. People do not tend to star in movies at gunpoint. So if Lynch was indeed unnecessarily cruel to Rosselini's character (Keep in mind, her character, and not her), it is because his script called for it and she rose to the occasion.

My bias with "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?" I thought the storyline was gimmicky from the get-go, prior to even seeing it. "A guy who ages backwards?" I thought. "Puh-lease." This meant, of course, that I delayed seeing this film because I didn't want to see it. My girlfriend Becki, on the other hand, is a huge F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, and since the film is based on one of his short stories (Note: How did a short story turn into such a long film?) I knew I would be seeing it regardless. Plus, DJG liked it a lot.

That being said, here is my reaction to the film: I didn't like it. But it's not because it's not made well. It is. It is a good film, and I would be hard-pressed to say otherwise. But my biases went deeper and deeper as the film went on. I used to love tragic love stories, and anymore I am tired of them. I am tired of them precisely because I have had too many of them myself, and I cannot help but believe that Cupid need not be stupid. This film did not delve into the stupid Cupid realm of romantic love, but did romanticize tragedy in my book, and I just cannot do that anymore on a personal level. It's like when I was a kid and I ate too many sausage patties at a prayer breakfast I attended with my Dad, and I got sick and developed a taste aversion to them as a result. I could not eat sausage for 10 years after that. I think I have a taste aversion to tragedy when it comes to romantic love. I just cannot suffer it anymore.

Benjamin Button and his soul-mate Daisy "meet in the middle" because she starts off as a girl, and he as an old man who is aging backwards. I realize this is creative stuff, and it is fun and endearing at times as well. I just didn't like it personally. When he and Daisy have a child together he leaves them because he doesn't want his daughter to be his playmate as he becomes progressively younger. He doesn't want to confuse her with this. At the same time, is this really something a child could not handle? I mean, if Daisy can understand the idea of a child in an old man's body, why could her offspring not fathom something similarly strange? Benjamin leaves Daisy and his daughter to protect them from this sort of confusion, and I hated this. Love is messy, and to me this felt like love behind glass -- like that accursed rose in "Beauty and the Beast" and that is under a glass case. It is removed and ultimately unattainable. I just do not see life this way anymore, and seeing the film was like getting a whiff of a worldview gone by, and one that I still have an aversion to. Romanticizing tragedy is not something I can handle anymore. I handled it far too long on a personal level as it is. But that is okay.

As films go, it recalled two that struck me in very divergent ways: "Meet Joe Black," another Pitt starring-vehicle, "Forrest Gump," and "Bicentennial Man." In "Meet Joe Black" and this film, Pitt plays a man who is essentially an observer whose main role appears to be to experience new things in life, to marvel at its wonders, to bear witness to the glory of the beauty of the mundane. There is something truly cinematic about this -- about filming a person's inner experience in some way, and making that the plot. It's very existential, and I like this. But I also think it is a flaw as well, as people are more than observers. They are participants as well, and although Benjamin Button participated in his life in many ways I didn't get the sense of any inner turmoil, of any struggle, of any of the mess that seems to be part and parcel of being human. To me he felt like a man who was watching life happen at a movie theater on the screen in front of him, and somehow his life managed to be a pretty interesting story, so good for him. There is nothing wrong with this, but I just could not identify with that, despite the fact that I often feel like a man who watches life unfold on a movie screen. It's a bit of a paradox, isn't it?

DJG informs me that the same screenwriter who wrote "Forrest Gump" wrote this as well, and it shows. Benjamin Button, like Forrest Gump, is an utterly unique individual who provides the viewer with his own unique insight into life, the world, etc. This works well, but ultimately his life boils down to a series of notable events that, when strewn together, form a chain of pearls on a narrative necklace of sorts. His life is extraordinary, and great care is given to chronicling these events. I talked with Becki about this and, specifically, how we do not experience life this way in first person because we live in what C.S. Lewis called "The waiting room of the world." We have all the lag and drag and ho-hum we need and then some. We do experience life as a series of entertaining fireworks, and perhaps this is why I have a problem with Button's status as an observer who seems content to experience his life in this manner. At the same time, when the Italian neorealist filmmakers decided it would be interesting to film real life, I ended up thinking "I'll take the fireworks instead. Why watch life unfold as it really does when you could do the same without paying the price of admission to a film?"

The "Bicentennial Man" reference came to mind because it is a movie that begs you to "hug the sadness," so to speak. Robin Williams played an emotional android who watched loved ones come and go, and eventually asked for a chip to be implanted that would allow him to die. "Love the squishy sad sadness of the sad, sad, sad story you are watching," it seemed to say. "I don't want to hug your sad sadness," I wanted to say. And I didn't. Same with this film. Its emotional tone and timbre were just not to my liking.

It really is a good film despite the fact that I disliked it so much. It features beautiful cinematography and solid acting. Cate Blanchett, as always, is perfect. And it has much to say about the nature of loss in life and the way we perceive the stream of people who populate our lives and gradually leave them over time. It is worthwhile and necessary for us to learn how to cope with loss, and Benjamin Button learned to cope with it at an early (late?) age when he was an old man/baby and he lived among the elderly in a turn-of-the-century nursing home/townhouse of sorts. He is able to offer unique insight into the nature of loss, and perhaps for this reason he is justified in leaving Daisy and his child because leaving them now is better than leaving them later, at least in his mind. I just couldn't buy it or invest in it emotionally.

Am I glad I saw it? You bet I am! I enjoy going to the movies when I can, and it is rare that I can. So Becki and I went and enjoyed ourselves, and I simply walked away with this trail of brain-crumbs behind me as I left the theater. It wasn't a bad experience. It was just an experience, and it made me aware of how I have changed over the years. I am glad Becki enjoyed it, and I appreciate David Fincher as a director. I just could not empathize with the story in a positive way.

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