Out, out, brief candle
David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) is a beautifully stated film, easily one of the loveliest I've seen last year. The near-three hour running time didn't bother me; felt I could have sat through a hundred twenty minutes more, easy.
It wasn't meant to be experienced that way, apparently. Based on a slight short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, scriptwriter Eric Roth must have wanted to do a prequel to his Oscar-winning project Forrest Gump (1994), complete with Gump figure (Brad Pitt as the eponymous character), love interest (Cate Blanchett, gorgeous no matter what age she's playing), a panoramic view of the twentieth century (both World Wars, the moon shot), and a quotable bit of dialogue that Roth must have hoped would hit big among viewers, the way "life is a box of chocolates" did in Gump (a distortion, by the way--in Winston Groom's novel Gump says "bein' an idiot is no box of chocolates," a more honest statement than anything said in the movie).
Out of Button and his ability to sail through most of the 20th century unscathed Roth has fashioned the most passive protagonist imaginable--Ben waits for his adopted mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson) to save him from falling down a stairway, waits for a Captain Mike (Jared Harris) to take him to a brothel and initiate him into the mysteries of sex, waits years for Daisy (Cate Blanchett) to finally come around on her love for him. When something awful finally happens, when say Captain Mike's boat encounters a German sub in the open seas, Ben conveniently drops behind the boat's wheelhouse while the U-boat's anti-aircraft gun shoots the vessel full of lead. Hank's Gump at least suggested something alert and astringent (the only such figure in an otherwise sticky movie) with his erect, ugly-duckling posture--a wide-eyed wariness that knows the world hates the unintelligent, knows it has to be ready for anything, at any time.
Worst of all is Roth's bon-bon of a philosophy. "Nothing lasts, and what a shame that is." The shame is that they gave Roth this project--Gump was about the stickiest, most softheaded film of the '90s (it arguably encapsulates the cockeyed optimism of the Reagan '80s); if Roth completely had his way Button would have been the Gump of the new millennium.
Thank Fincher then, for taking the script and fashioning something darker and altogether more fascinating. In the previous year's Zodiac Fincher gave us the decade-and-a-half-long hunt for the Zodiac killer, complete with a brief sketch of the people investigating and being investigated (roughly a dozen characters), plus a startlingly comprehensive (if not definitive) summary of all the dates and events and facts involved; more impressively he gives us a distilled feel of the process needed to finally reduce the number of suspects down to a single man, leading to a confrontation between protagonist and murderer in a hardware store.
That climactic confrontation was almost a side issue for me, and in fact Fincher shoots it with almost zero fuss or emphasis--I’m guessing it's a side issue for him, too. What ultimately mattered (and I suspect was what he was aiming for all along) was the overwhelming sense of time passing, the weight and mass and heft of weeks accumulating into months accumulating into years accumulating into decades. It was Zodiac's great unspoken, unforgettable theme, and it delivered considerable emotional force--all those years passing before the protagonist finally (if not conclusively) arrived at the truth.
Zodiac focused on a single task (the uncovering of a criminal), and felt more like a focused, intimate portrait, despite the outsized scale; Benjamin Button widens the canvas, taking in an entire life as it plays out against the background of a century. This is the true subject of Button: not Roth's wimpy "nothing lasts" (an insulting truism), but that time passes, slowly, magnificently, irrevocably over us all. Dialogue in Zodiac was an adornment, a distracting chatter that masked the preternatural calm lying beneath the film's surface; dialogue is as unimportant in this picture--this is a hundred and sixty-five minute feast for illiterate senses (imagery and music and sound engineering, not to mention the moments of silence).
Fincher's seductive style (not a big fan of Se7en (1995) or Fight Club (1999) or Panic Room (2002), but he did develop a dark, velvety texture from each of these earlier films that he now wields authoritatively) is the true star of this film, Brad Pitt merely an effectively used mannequin (or as Alfred Hitchcock liked to put it, cattle) that personifies the film's main character. If I've never been a fan of early Fincher, I'm even less of Hollywood star Pitt: he was ludicrous in Interview with a Vampire (1994) (despite Neil Jordan's gorgeous visuals), hilarious in Legends of the Fall (same year), petulant in Troy (2004), unthreatening in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)--you get the picture. He's most effective in comedy, when asked to make fun of his pretty-boy looks (the Coen brothers' recent Burn After Reading comes to mind). Here the prettiness is hidden under prosthetic makeup aging him thirty years, and the results are becoming; he acquires a reticence, a becoming modesty that runs counter to the self-absorbed quality of his showier parts. When he smiles as a seventy year old there's a preternatural brightness to the smile, an inconsistency that makes you want to look twice; Pitt seems to enjoy himself immensely playing Button (he's gloomier when he takes off the makeup and plays his boringly handsome self), and we in turn enjoy his pleasure in the role.
Fincher elaborates on time's passage though various chronometers in the picture (mantelpiece, wrist, digital, even a giant station clock); marks its progress by the changing seasons, fashions, cityscapes (from New Orleans to Russia to Paris to New York); announces its advance through the roar of a motorcycle, the chug of a tugboat, the fateful glide of a car through narrow streets (on its way to crush a dancer's leg); demonstrates its bloom through nighttime encounters between two lovers; even in one bravura passage defies that relentlessness with a shot of soldiers leaping out of shell craters, their shrapnel wounds miraculously closing, their legs pumping back towards the trenches from where they came.
Best of all the effects Fincher creates is Benjamin's face, how (like the soldiers' backward run) the camera gazes in rapt attention as creases vanish and the hair thickens into brown tufts; in a parody of aging Benjamin lets go of memory, intelligence, and bladder control on his backward dash towards the tomb (interesting how Fitzgerald and Fincher equate the extremities of life with each other--both require the wearing of diapers and rinsing of bottoms; both involve endless helpings of helplessness and humiliation). It's as if Fincher had installed this elaborate time-motion sculpture of a human countenance deteriorating, then set it in reverse--by focusing on that, and not on the sentimental history-lesson of a script, Fincher manages to suggest by some small measure the poignant majesty of time.
First published in Businessworld, 1.9.09