Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

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

It's easy to get swept away by one's curiosity of the unique condition of Benjamin Button (played by Brad Pitt who is apt for what essentially is an iconic role, giving the character the same visual presence he contributed to Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) as the infamous criminal) and that condition's repercussion to his life, particularly to his romance with Daisy (Cate Blanchett, who infuses the picture with incandescent humanity), his childhood friend. At first, David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems to be traversing the road most travelled, concerning itself primarily with the afflicted protagonist and his fated lover to the point of melodramatic tedium (like similarly themed films like Ron Howard's treacly A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Robert Zemeckis overpraised Forrest Gump (1994)). Fortunately, Fincher uses the intriguing premise just enough to reel us into his fascinatingly detailed world, which in my opinion, is far more curiouser and far more intriguing than Benjamin Button's fantastic aging process.

As soon as we're hypnotized by the painful complexities of Benjamin Button's bizarre life and romance, Fincher posits his weighty observations on the inevitability of time's passing and the quiet majesty of singular moments in the larger expanse of time. A moment can change a lifetime. This is something Fincher belabors when he narrates the little actions, mostly insignificant moments in a parcel of time that is shared by everyone in the universe, that led to Daisy's horrific accident. Daisy's accident would then lead to her humbling, and finally into Benjamin's arms, and then into a lifetime painfully shared in waiting and anticipating.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button covers the entirety of Benjamin's lifetime. It is a lifetime that is spent on waiting. Benjamin, along with the multitude of people he meets, are mere passive components of history. They enter and exit moments in history for the sole reason of time's eventual passing, inactively anticipating until history catches up with them: as with Benjamin's sojourn in Russia where years of tugboating are interrupted by the arrival of the Second World War, and months of quiet floating in sea are ended by an encounter with an enemy submarine.

On aspects of their lives that are much more personal and intimate, there really isn't much difference in the way moments punctuate what essentially are static lives. We watch Benjamin Button as he patiently waits
to grow young, for Daisy to love him, for death. We observe the people affected by Benjamin like Daisy biding her time, who grows from curious little girl to sexual creature to regretful mother; or Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the bored wife of a British spy, whose nightly vigils inside a Russian hotel transform into passionate nightcaps with Benjamin; or Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), Benjamin's reluctant father, as he watches from afar as Benjamin grows from aged baby to a handsome man.

Life is nothing more than that interval in time separated by birth and death, a commonality that is shared by all of humanity. Fincher visualizes the end of life's interval with such poetic tenderness: Benjamin and Thomas facing the sunrise as the latter passes away, or Daisy nursing a dying Benjamin, nestled comfortably on her arms. When Fincher only suggests death, the effect is equally tremendous: as with all the deaths in the nursing home, or the death of Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), Benjamin's surrogate mother, or Daisy in a New Orleans hospital as the rest of the city is anticipating Katrina's historic landfall.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button overt interest with mortality merely reinforces Fincher's curiosity with time: the way it staggers (the feeling one gets sitting through Zodiac (1997), with its fruitless decades of investigation on the identity of the Zodiac killer), the way it is stubborn and unmindful of human emotions (the little story in the beginning of the film about the clockmaker who pleads for time to move in reverse, to save those who became its hapless victims), the way it never stops, not even for moments of perfection: when Daisy and Benjamin, aging in reverse, meet up in the middle, make love, and cherish that momentary bliss. Yet it has to end, as with everything. They will succumb to dementia, to the pangs of aging, and finally, to death. Similarly, the world will have to face both triumphs and disasters as part of history's unpredictable course. All humanity needs to do is wait for time to pass.


Babeco said...

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Hello my name is Francisco Calvelo and I directed the short film "Vampire Prison" (Santiago de sangre) produced by Perro Verde Films (Zombie Western, Going Nuts, the Missing Lynx) and starring Eloy Azorín (All about my mother). I would like to invite you to see it.


jayclops said...

I argued strongly with a writer-friend of mine who thought the movie was excruciatingly painfully long that that was entirely the point. I said that it's not about the aging of Benjamin Button per se, but his aging backwards pitted against the passage of time and unfolding of history, ehehe. Though I liked Slumdog more than BB, I still think that Fincher deserves the accolades which Boyle has been getting so far. And looks like he's headed to Oscars as well. What you think, Oggs? You've seen the two films.

Oggs Cruz said...

Hi Jay, I completely agree with you. As it is the film is a love story with a rather fantastical twist, but in Fincher's hands, its an examination of the connections between time, life, and history. This is definitely more important than Slumdog Millionaire (but among the 5 nominees, I believe it's Milk that deserves to be called Best Picture most).

James said...

Most people are familiar with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button because of the recent film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but I recently discovered it was first a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.