Friday, January 2, 2009

Running Out the Clock

Probably it's best to talk now about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, before it wins this year's Best Picture and the inevitable backlash begins. By far the worst of Pauline Kael's influences on film criticism has been the notion that critics have a moral imperative to inform their readers that a particular movie isn't as good as they think it is -- indeed, that a critic can somehow divine a movie's nefarious agenda, and we should heed the warning Before It's Too Late. I've been guilty of this to a degree from time to time myself (Juno, The Sixth Sense, Indiana Jones and the Middle Finger to the Fans). But I've never felt as conflicted as Keith Uhlich when he confessed that he "distrusted" The Wrestler until a colleague assuaged his suspicions by explaining that Aronofsky was actually following the contrived tropes of professional wrestling in creating an old-fashioned feel-good tale. (An interpretation that I'd bet would bewilder the filmmaker.) Do we really need contorted justifications to enjoy a relatively conventional movie? I don't completely trust Benjamin Button, but that's largely irrelevant to whether or not I liked it.

I mention this because some who otherwise would be bodyslamming Benjamin Button as vigorously as they did Forrest Gump are instead bestowing laurels due to their film-geek appreciation for director David Fincher. "(W)hereas Roth's prior, Robert Zemeckis-helmed Oscar darling was as mushy as a box of chocolates melted by the midday sun," Nick Schager posits, "Fincher's is a far more reserved portrait of everlasting love, a work whose aspirations for grandeur are, more often than not, mitigated by a controlled aesthetic and emotional rigor that situates the film in a comfortable...." More big words, you get the idea. But the comparison is interesting because I had the opposite reaction. For me, Forrest Gump still holds up -- backlash bedamned -- as a canny poker-faced satire of a turbulent era in American history (Quentin Tarantino, whose Pulp Fiction lost out at the Oscars that year, reportedly told Zemeckis he thought Gump was misunderstood); whereas only a day after I saw it, the virtues of Benjamin Button are beginning to fade.

While fans of the film would like to concoct the impression that its qualities are due entirely to Fincher, the screenplay by the fashionably reviled Eric Roth has its pluses too. (It's based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.) In Gump (as well as his fine script for Michael Mann's The Insider), Roth's theme was the impact that ordinary individuals have on events bigger than themselves; in Button, he's fascinated by the ravages of time on human beings. This is established by the latter film's prologue, set in 1918 New Orleans, where a blind clockmaker devastated by the death of his son in the First World War builds a giant train-station clock that runs backwards with the hope that it could change the direction of time. (There's a haunting image of charging soldiers back-stepping in slow-motion.) The clockmaker's objective is unsuccessful, but his creation does unwittingly affect the titular character, who is born an old man and ages into a youth over the course of the film.

Roth has an uncommon knack for magical realism (more so than Fincher, who seems uneasy at times with the material), and he has a gift for uproarious running gags, such as a man who keeps getting struck by lightning. It's his talent for summing up a character or situation in two or three lines that gets him into trouble. The depiction of Benjamin's adoptive mother, an African-American named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), isn't quite as cringeworthy as Forrest Gump's crashing a "Black Panther Party," but it's uncomfortably close to the kind of "Magic Negro" stereotype that Spike Lee rightly rails against. There's no discomfiting social context to the situation, lest we think the Jim Crow South was anything less than blacks and whites living in harmony in the polyglot culture of Benjamin's home. It's a soothing yet troubling atmosphere that gets the movie off to a rocky start.

Benjamin, of course, is played by Brad Pitt; and if he's not as expressive or resourceful an actor as Tom Hanks (I'm still haunted by the latter's reaction in Gump to the news that he's the father of Jenny's son), he does a fine job underplaying the character as a normal person caught in an extraordinary situation. Being natural is a thespian achievement that's never given enough credit. Accolades usually go to actors like Cate Blanchett, who is more adept at mannered, larger-than-life icons like the Virgin Queen or Bob Dylan than "normal" people, which is how Daisy -- her character in Button -- first appears to be. Blanchett isn't as down-to-earth as Robin Wright Penn, who gave the unsung great performance in Forrest Gump; but it helps that Daisy is something of a mannered artist herself. A dancer whose ambitions are undercut by her wayward demeanor, Daisy is an unattainable female archetype who becomes more real and vulnerable as the film goes along. Pitt and Blanchett don't exactly have chemistry (I never saw Babel, so I can't form an opinion based on that), but when Benjamin and Daisy finally consummate their love in their forties, their personalities mesh in unexpected ways.

Yet an even better partner for our passively handsome leading man comes from another tall pale British actress with a flair for idiosyncrasy. I don't recall Tilda Swinton interacting with Pitt in the Coens' Burn After Reading, but she gooses him to life in Benjamin Button as the lonely wife of an English spy whom Benjamin meets in Soviet Russia. Benjamin, who has become a member of a journeying tugboat crew -- and at this point reversing into comfortable middle-age -- holes up in a hotel where Swinton's Elizabeth is staying. As the two begin a tentative affair during their regular evening encounters in the hotel lobby, the movie ceases being bloated Oscar Bait and blossoms into a classic short story.

This lovely interval is the strongest break with the Gump template to which Fincher and Roth otherwise cling a little too closely. Both tales are told via flashbacks by a central character and climax with a "surprise" paternal revelation; both have colorful supporting characters -- Lieutenant Dan in the former film, Captain Mike (Jared Harris, son of the late, volatile Richard) in this one -- who mentor the protagonist; both are filled with platitudes about living life to the fullest that are equal parts trite and moving. The key difference is Gump was anchored by an unreliable narrator: we knew the tragic circumstances behind the events that Forrest participated in; and it was his guilelessness that made everything that happened to him touching and funny. Benjamin, in contrast, is uncomplicated simply because that's how he chooses to be. If he has any opinions, flaws or unruly passions, we're not privy to them.

Benjamin Button has some indelible passages, and credit should be paid to Fincher's as-always impeccable visual schema. I didn't come away with any clear indication of how he feels about the material (Zodiac and Seven seem closer to his actual worldview). Yet before the civic duty of our cultural Neighborhood Watch prompts dire warnings of the toxins this dangerous film is releasing to an unsuspecting public enjoying a night out at the movies, I think we can all trust this: the only agenda that most motion pictures have is to make money or win awards. Both, if they're channeling the Zeitgeist, of which Fincher's film seems poised to do regardless of its shortcomings. The worst I can say about Benjamin Button is that it's a little bogus, a tad bland. That's disappointing, but not a crime.


Jason Bellamy said...

Craig, this is excellent. I'm saving my thoughts on "Benjamin Button" for a debate with Ed that we're getting around to starting, but I think we see eye-to-eye on quite a bit here. What I find most interesting is that you not only noted the comparisons to "Forrest Gump" (I doubt we'll be alone there), but thought of those within the context of the current backlash against the Oscar winner. I did, too. Now, I was never a fan of "Gump." Still, I find it curious that people have dismissed that movie and yet are ready to fall for the same spell (and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way) from "Benjamin Button."

Makes me think: What would we think of "Raging Bull" or "Pulp Fiction" or "Insert Slighted Edgy Movie Here" if the thing had actually won the Oscar? I enjoy the Oscars for what they are. I think it's sad that they've become some sort of black mark on the seriousness or worth of a film. And I'm getting tired of the backlash cycle that (like political campaigns) seems to happen earlier and earlier each time around.

And I cringe at the notion that the emotional connectivity of a film trails in importance to its style or technique. If style isn't felt, it's worthless. Trust your gut, I say.

Craig said...

It's amazing how many reviews have gone out of their way to praise Fincher and trash Roth, when their collaboration looked pretty simpatico to me. I detected no subverting of the source material, the way Kubrick often did: instead, as Fernando Croce put it, it's as if David Fincher "decided to turn himself into Frank Darabont." That gave me a good laugh, as well as, "It's always a wreck when a misanthrope tries to squeeze out sentiment." Yet the audience seemed enchanted, so there's something there, however near the bottom of the toothpaste tube.

Like I mentioned in the piece, Roth's genius is also his failing. He's great at naming a character Grimm, and having that character's personality be amusingly reflective of his name, yet that's all there is to the person. It then gets jarring when he establishes a one-joke character and then asks us to mourn his demise. It only works when the actor invests the character with something more substantial, like Mykelti Williamson did as Bubba in Gump.

I'm curious myself as to what attracted Fincher to this story, and inspired him to commit himself to it so completely. It's a mess, yet I have to give props to the Tilda Swinton sequence, a perfectly harmonious blend of acting, writing, staging and directing. I seem to recall hearing something about a chapter in the original Forrest Gump novel where the main character has an affair -- makes me wonder if Roth took that idea and put it in this film instead? In any case, it's the most beautiful passage in the movie. Seriously, you could edit everything before and after those 15-20 minutes and have a wonderful short film.