[14 May 2009]
No one wants to grow old. The sentiment reverberates through human history, echoed in the refrains of pop songs, lines of poetry and offices of plastic surgeons. Common sense tells us immortality can’t solve our problems, but what if one could grow young? David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (now available in a two-disc set from Criterion and in a single-disc release from Paramount) aims to answer that question.
The story centers on a character born with the body of old man and the mind and spirit of a newborn, who physically ages in reverse. The film’s premise is fable-worthy, with a central conceit that promises to bring together two of life’s desirables — youth and wisdom. The forces of innocence and experience, vitality and torpor promise to clash in a way that will reveal some profound human truth, coerced into disclosure by a simple bait and switch of nature. Of no less concern to a contemporary audience, the film also brings together two other desirables: the celebrity man-child Brad Pitt and the ageless Cate Blanchett.
Benjamin Button (Pitt), is born on Armistice Day in 1918, the end of the First World War, and spends his life watching his body grow ever more appealing as his mind develops like any other mortal. The conceit, impregnated by magic realism but born and raised by CGI movie-making magic, is brought to life through the framing device of a journal containing a series of flashbacks and containing two secrets. A grown daughter (Julia Ormond) reads to her dying mother (Blanchett) passages from the diary of the elderly woman’s true love; the journal revisits two lives of crossed paths and love lost while Hurricane Katrina raps on the woman’s hospital room window, like death calling for her admittance.
With a nearly three-hour running time, a chronology that spans almost a century of American history, and a plot that is anticlimactic at best and tedious at worst, Benjamin Button is a curious case indeed. The story has no narrative arc or great conflict; instead the story’s two secrets—that Button ages backwards and that he was this former ballet dancer’s lover—are revealed in the first minutes of the film. Left without a traditional plot structure, Benjamin Button rests on a series of episodic events, leading towards an inevitable fate.
This is not quite the traditional fare that makes up epic dramas. A strange cinematic creature, Fincher’s film is one of the most misunderstood movies in recent Hollywood history, and easily the oddest big-budget blockbuster of 2008.
Fincher is a director known for dystopian visions in which journals or diaries are more likely to contain the ravings of madmen than love stories on the order of, say, The Notebook. He has rested his cinematic career on sinister premises and dark matter. Seven, Fight Club, and even his most recent offering, Zodiac received popular acclaim for their fast-paced, plot twisting explorations into the minds of the mentally ill and clinically obsessed. The characters in these films face existential crises, which ultimately confound their struggle to rationalize the apparently manic behavior of others.
Lacking this same passion for nihilism and persistently morose ambiance as his previous work, Fincher’s Benjamin Button confounded critics, many of whom praised its technical artistry but found it soulless and self-important. It received mixed reviews at the box-office, resulting in what the industry calls a soft showing, and was shunned at the Academy Awards, receiving only three Oscars—all in non-major categories—after being nominated for 13.
But as the DVD release reveals (especially the two-disc version), Benjamin Button is a fascinating and covertly morbid work. In Fincher’s hands, a short work of fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald is transformed into an anti-heroic fable about the comfort one feel’s when one has a sense of purpose, the limits of the human body and mind, and the inevitability of death.
Glossing over the curious origins of his birth—Fincher has noted that Button is “a character without a backstory”—Benjamin Button begins by presenting the character’s youth and adolescence in a series of interlocking stories, all drawn from his diary. Abandoned by his biological father, a Louisiana button baron (a manic-looking Jason Flemyng), the decrepit-looking Benjamin (a strange incarnation of Pitt that is actually a CGI creation that is one part Gollum and one part ET), is dropped off appropriately enough at a retirement home, helmed by the kindly black woman Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, admirable in a film whose over-attention to make-up is only topped by its under-attention to racial and political consequences). Queenie raises the surprisingly adorable Methuselah as the “miracle child” he is, teaching him to walk, talk, and act like a young gentleman.
Soon Button is behaving like all adolescents, experiencing first-love with a middle-aged woman (Tilda Swinton, phoning it in), working on a tugboat (along with a scene-stealing Jared Harris), and ultimately fighting in World War II. All of this is of course occurring while Button’s true love, Daisy (now a less made-up Blanchett) is dancing with the Balanchine and occasionally rebuffing her creepy old uncle’s romantic advances.
Many critics struggled to find a love story among Button’s picaresque adventures, some waxing about the poignancy of its impossibility and pining for the magical moment when Daisy and Benjamin will “meet in the middle”, sharing the same age for a brief year as she grows older and he grows younger. But Fincher’s point seems to lie precisely in the lack of primary plot conflict.
For the first two hours of the 166-minute runtime, the entire project seems resigned to a death march. But as the film wears one down, its script constantly and ominously invoking voiceover narration about “life’s collisions” and fate and inevitability, Benjamin Button suddenly throws a bone to its hungry audience.
More than two hours in, the whole point of the mundane procedural application of moviemaking begins to make sense. Button’s curious predicament sounds almost too great to bear, and contains a conceit that appears limitless with possibility. But as it slowly becomes clear, his life charts the same course as any other, only in reverse.
Suddenly the subconscious delusion, that we had arrived at an answer to the challenge of mortality, is crushed. For all his magical gifts, Button’s experiences are just as limited, his mind just as susceptible to decline, and the hope of any human epiphany borne by such extraordinary circumstances, is gone.
Benjamin Button is very loosely based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald story by the same title which, according to the story’s author, was in turn based on a quote by Mark Twain. When collecting the story in Tales of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald wrote that his story “was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.”
But of course Fitzgerald read Twain wrong, a fact not lost on Fincher. The proper quote, from Life on the Mississippi reads: “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.”
For to a young Fitzgerald, the promise of the merging of knowledge and physique is tantamount to a fantasy fable. But when tested against the self-limiting effects of the human imagination, the result has a familiar end. Fincher’s film suggests that it doesn’t matter whether one ages forward or backward: one’s fate is destined to be marred by loneliness, abandonment and isolation.
By the time Button’s body reaches the age of 18, his mind begins to fail him. Fincher unflinchingly captures an increasingly youthful body carrying a mind slowly withering away: Button begins to lose his faculties, and as his body grows younger, his mind slips into dementia. Not only does the director refuse to sentimentalize or over-romanticize Button’s life and love, Fincher actively works against the tendency of Hollywood schlock to simplify or over-dramatize.
Benjamin Button is not a movie about a central conflict that is resolved. It’s about a life, and is itself like life. Fincher reports that instead of an ordinary man in extraordinary situations, his film documents “an extraordinary man in ordinary situations.” All people are born, and live, and then die; Button simply experiences mortality through the eyes of a man running in reverse.
And it is this pessimistic vision that clearly connects Benjamin Button with Fincher’s earlier and more outwardly dark material. Benjamin Button exposes the futile attempt of the human mind to come up with a finite number of collective experiences; people simply can’t imagine something fantastic enough to escape human existence.
Fitzgerald would also ultimately come to the same conclusion. Just five years after penning Benjamin Button, Fitzgerald wrote: “Gatsby believed in … the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning—So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Or, as the director himself puts it in one of the many revealing moments on Criterion’s “Supplements” to the film, “Everybody in this movie dies. So that was how I was able to stomach all the rest of it.”