Jason Bellamy: Ed, earlier this year we had a lengthy and spirited debate about Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Encapsulating that exchange is difficult, but to nutshell it as best I can: I argued that Kaufman’s film is “complex for complexity’s sake” and that Synecdoche, New York’s inner themes aren’t worth the effort of their labyrinthine design; you disagreed and argued that the structure was “encoded with elegant metaphors.” Throughout our exchange, at my blog and yours, I’m not sure that the word “gimmick” was ever used, but thematically that was the bonfire we danced around.
I bring all this up because David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, inspired by a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a 166-minute exercise about a man (Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button) who ages backward. He’s born, on the night after the end of World War I, the size of an infant with the physical maladies of an old man, and from there his body grows younger while his spirit and soul grow older and more experienced. Within the margins of this story are ankle-deep philosophical waxings about the aging process (body vs. mind), a fairly straightforward love story and a Forrest Gump-esque trip through American history. But I wonder: Is Benjamin Button anything more than a gimmick?
Ed Howard: Jason, while I’d still argue that Synecdoche, New York adds up to so much more than a gimmick (but that’s a debate for another day), Benjamin Button is harder for me to call. If I was going to be flippant about it, I’d say that, to paraphrase my earlier verdict on Kaufman’s film, the gimmicky structure of Benjamin Button is certainly encoded with metaphors, but in this case I’d call them anything but “elegant.” The film is stuffed with all sorts of metaphoric and thematic implications to justify the reverse aging process of the title character, not least of which is the rather ham-fisted way that the script (by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth) attempts to lend Benjamin’s story some contemporary relevance by making groan-inducing references to Hurricane Katrina and, more obliquely, to the Iraq War. The film’s framing narrative is obviously set in a very specific political climate, namely post-9/11 in George W. Bush’s America, but neither Fincher nor the script makes much effort to capitalize on or flesh out these reference points.
This is all the more frustrating because the film often does transcend its gimmicky nature and shallow scenario. The opening minutes are incredible. In a series of spare, bracing images, Fincher captures the uncomfortable tension of the deathbed, then introduces the old woman’s moving story about a blind clockmaker whose life’s work, a clock that runs backwards, has metaphorical implications for the film we’re about to see, and which also yields that startling and haunting image of the dead soldiers being reversed back into life. It’s a blunt, effective allegory, and perhaps the only point at which the film’s political aspirations yield any real substance. These opening minutes promise a film structured as a collage in which fables and prosaic reality exist side by side, commenting upon one another, and though I think this is what Fincher was going for by juxtaposing Benjamin’s fantastic story with the scenes set in modern New Orleans, the rest of the film just doesn’t have the weight and expressiveness that the opening suggests.
Lest I give too negative an impression of the film, though, I should say that in spite of all these reservations and limitations, I was enthralled for much of its length. There are many striking images, for one thing: Daisy’s seductive nighttime dance for Benjamin, illuminated by streetlights cutting through a pale blue fog; Benjamin showing his dying father one last rainbow-colored sunset by the waterfront; Daisy and Benjamin running through the gray early morning light to take a fog-shrouded tugboat ride. Fincher’s visual clarity gives real heft to moments that might have seemed merely sentimental otherwise. And Benjamin’s reverse aging, though undeniably gimmicky, also makes for a rather poignant treatment of mortality, which looms like the reaper over the entire film. If you ask me, Fincher has made a perversely conflicted work, which is at once visually stimulating and thought-provoking, but also nauseatingly sentimentalized and cliché.
JB: I’ll give you visually stimulating, but the only thought it provoked in me was: “What’s next?” In other words, “What does Benjamin do from here?” Most of the episodes seem so arbitrary, both as they arrive and after the fact. Daisy’s “seductive nighttime dance” is nice to look at, sure, but how does it serve the story? The attack on the submarine is chillingly executed, the bullets tracing through the limitless pitch black sky, but how does that event affect Benjamin’s development? The most captivating portion of the film, for me, is the hotel lobby romance between Benjamin and Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth Abbott. But as quickly and unexpectedly as that arrives, it’s forgotten. It gets referenced again toward the end of the movie, almost as a point of trivia, but it has no emotional aftermath.
And that’s my problem with the film: its lack of emotion. I know what you mean when you call it “nauseatingly sentimentalized,” and yet I can’t buy into that term, because Benjamin Button is so cold and distant. In nearly three hours, it fails to make a character out of Benjamin, which is striking because Forrest Gump manages to pull off that feat with its main character while also ticking off the mileposts of its gimmick with machine-like efficiency. Fincher’s film isn’t as tied to a historical backdrop, and yet I still couldn’t tell you who Benjamin is, or what drives him (beyond his love for Daisy, which is matter-of-fact), or what moves him, or what shapes him. He is as blank a main character as I’ve ever come across in the movies. Only he ages backward. That’s the difference.
Dramatically, after the novelty wears off, what’s interesting about that? I believe that Benjamin’s journey is supposed to dispel the logic of that Rod Stewart lyric: “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger.” It’s supposed to be a condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty, to illustrate that life happens underneath the skin. But does the film actually achieve this, or does it merely hint at these themes while chewing up time, leaving intelligent moviegoers to fill in its gaps? If you asked me to tell you what Benjamin Button is about, I’d say it’s about a man who ages backward. But that’s not a synopsis, that’s a full report. I see the passage of time here, but I don’t see any emotional evolution. Am I wrong? Did I miss something? Does Benjamin Button possess a heart to be broken?
EH: To some extent, I agree with you about Benjamin as a character: he’s a blank slate, though I don’t think this negates the film’s rich (and often overly ripe) emotionality. To me, Fincher seems to be reaching for (and occasionally grasping) something broader than anything about Benjamin or his story. The emotion is to be found on a more abstracted level than is generally the case with epic romance pictures like this. You can say it’s a fault of the film that Benjamin isn’t more of a living, breathing character, and I’d agree with you, but I still see some merit in what the film has to say on a more conceptual level. The broken heart, if there is one, belongs to humanity as a whole rather than to cipher-like Benjamin in particular.
Thematically, I didn’t really get what you did from the film: I can’t, offhand, think of anything here that amounts to a “condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty.” What I do see is a sustained rumination on the perpetual imminence of mortality, and the resultant urgency of being open to possibilities as they come. Death is continually present in the script, and this is largely the case because Benjamin’s reverse aging puts such a strong emphasis on the concept of the life cycle. The film’s implicit question is, if we all go through the same cycle—being born, growing up, living, dying—then what is the point of it all? What should we be doing with this indeterminate amount of time we have between birth and death? These are clearly not questions the film is prepared to answer, beyond a generalized insistence on such clichés as “living life to the fullest,” but their presence nevertheless adds some gravity to the proceedings.
There is also another emotional component to the film that I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone else pick up on yet. On some level, Benjamin Button is about the very public persona of Brad Pitt himself, who has aged from a twenty-something into a forty-something in the public eye, not only as a famous actor, but as a virtually universal sex symbol. Along with George Clooney, he is the closest thing we have today to an old-style “movie star” like Cary Grant or Clark Gable. The film acquires some of its resonance from the way it uses Pitt’s famous face, reversing his aging process before our eyes, reminding us of what he used to look like. The younger Benjamin in this movie, around the time he visits Daisy at her dance studio, looks uncannily like the Brad Pitt of Interview with the Vampire or Legends of the Fall. The CGI wizards behind these transformations doubtless modeled Benjamin’s younger self on Pitt’s previous movie roles, so that the film becomes a nostalgic journey into the past for those who have followed the actor’s career for some time. Far from being a condemnation of surface appearances, the film is something of an elegy for the loss of youth and beauty. Pitt’s now-vanished youth is used as a marker of the progression towards death, the distance that this actor has traveled over the years, and us along with him.
JB: The trouble I have with your elegy reading is that Pitt may have lost his youth, but he’s hardly lost his beauty. (If homeboy looked like Mickey Rourke, I might see it differently.) And that brings us back to my comment about the condemnation of America’s obsession with youthful beauty. What I meant there is that Benjamin Button frequently strikes the chord that Benjamin isn’t what he appears. First he’s younger than he looks. Then he’s older. His relationship with Daisy finds its high point when they meet in the middle, but then Benjamin goes on to look even younger. Getting back to that Rod Stewart line, many of us frequently look back on our youth with a woulda-coulda-shoulda mentality. If we had the wisdom of our 50s, we wouldn’t have wasted our youth being idle. If we had the emotional confidence of adulthood, we wouldn’t have spent our formative years breaking hearts and getting our own heart broken. And so on.
Well, Benjamin gets younger and more vital. And in a far-too-brief episode, we get a montage of him living out his bucket list, so to speak. He’s in India. He’s on a motorcycle. He’s backpacking. He’s seeing the world. He’s doing the kinds of things that most retirees would love to do, if only their bodies allowed. But, for better or worse, the film doesn’t tie Benjamin’s happiness to these events. It binds him to Daisy. And no matter how youthful Benjamin becomes in body, he ends up an old and lonely soul—not where he wants to be, not satisfied. To me, this is the message that we should give up our illusions that youth is tied to the exterior and realize that life is what our thoughts make it—a point underscored when the aged Elizabeth finally swims across the English Channel.