The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
I have some problems with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
With this film, we re-enter Hollywood cinema’s ever-faltering attempt to bring the difficult genre of magic realism to the screen. (Not the least aspect of this difficulty is the contrived, factitious, marketing-driven nature of the label itself.)
David Fincher takes us back to the grotesque spectacle of The Hotel New Hampshire (1984) and The World According to Garp (1982); although he is a more intriguing and surer director with this material than either Tony Richardson or George Roy Hill, his film demonstrates the same traps. There are many moments when a viewer might imagine that what Fincher really wanted to film was the most globally popular of all the magic realist novels, Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
But Benjamin Button is magic realism without politics, without society – and without history, paradoxically for a film so fixated on the empty category of Time. In this, it also recalls Tim Burton’s weakest moment, Big Fish (2003).
One of the films that Benjamin Button most resembles, for me, is an Australian-American-British production perhaps little-seen around the world since its initial release, Gillian Armstrong’s Oscar and Lucinda (1997) – based (too reverently) on a novel by Australia’s resident magic realist, Peter Carey. Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) and Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), like Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett again!), are soul-mates, sublime lovers pitting themselves against the forces of earth-bound Destiny – a little in the way that Gary Cooper and Ann Harding did in a movie classic beloved of the Surrealists, Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson (1935). Hence the force, in this new film, of the Jean Vigo-like mystical connection across vast distances, in the mutual greeting: “Goodnight, Daisy”/“Goodnight, Benjamin”.
Yet both Armstrong’s and Fincher’s films – in a soppy, sappy Hollywood tradition we know all too well – are about not a single, precise, strong theme, but a weak mélange or succession of themes gathered under the rubric of Life Itself: joy, pain, obsession, love, death (“natural death”), War (“unnatural death”), family, disaster (Katrina strikes – and another Ben Button will be born!) … All wrapped within a convenient movie lie: “You can live life to the fullest, you can be whoever you want to be!”
Which is easy to say if you are Brad Pitt “growing young”, with your 20s still ahead of you! It’s what Denis Wood once called the cult of possibilism (“anything is possible, if you wish it”) in Spielbergian cinema – and let’s not forget too quickly that Benjamin Button is a Frank Marshall-Kathleen Kennedy production. Meanwhile, money is the central, material thing this movie is almost never about, certainly not about the real, everyday problems of how to earn it: thank heavens for the inheritance of that button factory, which makes room for so much of Benjamin’s wandering – and also his happiness.
Someone should write a book one day about cinema’s very peculiar, and often very perverse, relationship to the depiction of ageing. Maybe Jerry Lewis – who still looked like a kid in his mid 40s – stoked this particular obsession in magic realist films (that’s why Emir Kusturica cast him in Arizona Dream, 1993): the matrix is offered by Tashlin’s Rock-a-bye Baby (1958), where Jerry is cast between a “childhood sweetheart” who looks like his mother, and an adolescent girl with whom he will eventually mate.
Benjamin Button, even though its plot is single-mindedly about ageing, is dishonest and evasive in this regard: it spends half the film with old-Ben-with-a-young-mind, but cannot bear to show us, for more than a single scene, young-Ben-with-senile-dementia (now that would have been an interesting movie!). And why – despite the evident symmetry of soul-mate destinies – must Daisy look tired and wrinkly when she has barely hit 50, and later die as a weathered crone? On that level, the film is the same old, male-fantasy song: guys tap the fountain of youth while women get worried about “losing their looks”. Because she sure loses them here.
Like Wayne Wang’s film of The Joy Luck Club (1993), Benjamin Button has problems with its system of “novelistic” narration, hesitating in bad faith between monophonic and polyphonic options. This is what I mean: for the most part, it’s a first-person flashback, from the words of Benjamin’s diary. But to fill in moments he didn’t experience – moments of Daisy’s life or reactions – we need to make a quick transit to her on the deathbed, or her photo collection. The hopeful sleight-of-hand hinge between these various levels is the stash of postcards sent from Benjamin to Daisy: that’s a bit more like the polyphony the film fitfully strives for.
The chief victim of all this to-ing-and-fro-ing is Caroline (Julia Ormond): an odd cipher of a character, she gets one moment of emotion (“This is how you tell me who my father is?”) amid the thankless reams of sitting, reading, posing, pouting …
When did films start spelling out for us, in ponderous voice-over words, how poetic they are being? Perhaps the dire American Beauty (1999) began this bad trend: “Oh, that paper bag in the wind, how touching it is!” There are images and sounds in Benjamin Button that take us back to Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America (1984): the Brooklyn Bridge, and a young girl dancing ballet. But Leone never needed anyone to tell us in our ears things like: “Oh, that girl was so beautiful!” or – a key motif in Fincher’s film – “A hotel is a lovely thing to listen to in the dead of night”.
It is from the angle of this debilitated poeticism that we must approach Benjamin Button’s claim to be being the Next Big Thing: a film made, at every level, with extensive digital effects. In fact, the movie is less “digital cinema” per se than an encyclopedic run-through of the history of special effects: everything from prosthetic make-up and body doubles (for a dancing adult Daisy) to the kind of disconcerting ventriloquism Clint Eastwood dabbled with in Space Cowboys (2000): adult voices in child bodies.
But to what end? That super-significant hummingbird, out at sea or at dying Daisy’s windshield, looks and feels phony, whether it is digital magic, Disney animation or a toy on a bit of wire. Give me David Lynch’s obviously fake, ironic robin on the fence in Blue Velvet (1986) any day.
© Adrian Martin January 2009