Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Films of the Decade: THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (dir. David Fincher, 2008)

In lieu of a traditional Best of the Decade list, I've decided instead to do a series on notable films from the last ten years. These might be the Best of the Best, these might be noble efforts. They might, in your eyes, be total failures. They're certainly my favorites, and they are, I hope, films very much worth discussing, and that qualification is much more valuable than simply being really damn good.

Note: I swear to God the next entry in this series will not be a David Fincher movie. Although I did like Panic Room quite a bit...


When I first saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in December of ’08, I was underwhelmed. Granted, the film that I was thinking about most prior to this was Zodiac, director David Fincher’s previous film, so almost anything would pale in comparison, but I did have major issues with the screenplay in terms of its dialogue and overexpository voiceover that often just said what we could see for ourselves.

And I still have those problems with the film. But somehow, they haven't mattered as much lately. And whereas I generally agreed with the film’s detractors that Benjamin (Brad Pitt) was perhaps too passive, that hasn't bothered me a bit since seeing it a second time. I've found him instead an active man when he needs to be—say, when making a trip to sea, when deciding when it was time to leave home, when it was time to return, when it was time to chase Daisy (Cate Blanchett), and when it was time to back off. Those who found Benjamin too passive also apparently missed an enormous choice he makes after his daughter is born that (if we've been watching closely) fundamentally changes the way we see him. There’s a line in the film about life being defined by opportunities, even the ones we don’t take, and like a lot of us, Benjamin doesn’t take every opportunity he’s presented with, and doesn’t make an opportunity every time he could. If you strongly believe cinema should be populated with only goal-oriented characters, well, you and I just don’t see the possibilities of cinema the same way.

I've also gained a new admiration for Pitt’s performance, which I definitely found lacking the first time through, but upon this last viewing, I noticed the subtleties in his wonderful performance—how his eyes flickered and moistened when he saw Daisy with another man, his quiet reaction to hearing she’s pregnant; the wonder with which he sees new sights and feels new emotions. It’s as subtle a performance as you’re likely to see in a lead character in a mainstream film, but the film is better for it.

Everything I loved about the film originally have only magnified the more it's sat with me. I love the way Fincher, in this film and Zodiac, has presented the passing of time, and its effect on his characters. As I wrote in my piece on that film, time is a tangible presence, and the ways the film's characters flow with it or battle against it runs so close to my own views on mortality and the neccessity of making every moment count (for a character so often criticized for his passivity, Benjamin Button lives a life worth envying). That Fincher accomplishes this without much in the way of a long take is astounding - compare this with Bright Star earlier this year (there are many examples of this, but this was the first that popped into my head), and you'll find two movies that take place over a great many years, but Campion's story seems to take place over a couple of weeks (whereas she's trying to communicate years) and Fincher's seems to genuinely last a lifetime. That may seem like a minor achievement, but it's only after seeing it done wrong so many times that you realize the accomplishment in being done right.

It's been especially interesting reconsidering this film in the wake of Avatar, which has been praised to the ends of the Earth, mostly for its visuals, even when its champions recognize that it's narratively hollow and stocked with one-dimensional characters, two of the complaints lodged against Benjamin Button that seemed to stick far more (and Fincher never got the credit for his tremendous visual and technical accomplishment with this film, probably because creating a little old man isn't as forcefully impressive as a ton of 10-foot-tall blue people). If science fiction should be considered as often for awards as any other genre, it should also be held to the same standards - pretty pictures are not enough.

Visually, the film has always stunned me, and when I wrote my first review of the film I dreamed of a cut that simply excised the dialogue. But I maintain that Fincher's film is not just a display of pretty pictures, and no amount of overwritten dialogue can take away from the way Fincher portrays space, and characters inhabiting it. Close-ups are rare in the film, as the world around the characters, Benjamin especially, is as important to how they experience it. No one lives in a vacuum. The lighting, beyond being just pretty, highlights moments of tranquility, exuberance, sorrow, and regret. Fincher's compositions are impeccable, proper and thought out and thematically resonant in a way that not only Avatar isn't, but much of cinema of any era is not.

It’d be impossible to take away the feeling I got from seeing Benjamin out at sea, Daisy seducing him in the moonlight, or kissing him when he's grown to be a little boy. Or Benjamin working as a parking attendant (which, it should be noted, was second-unit work, but for some reason that image will never leave my head). These, and many others, are images to last a lifetime.

[for those who saw the film at all, I highly recommend this piece by Matt Zoller Seitz, which solidified my newfound appreciation of the film a few days after revisiting it]


Jason Bellamy said...

I really enjoyed reading this, because I've been thinking in recent weeks that I'm ready to give Benjamin Button its inevitable second chance. I really like Fincher films -- and Pitt, Blanchett and Swinton, for that matter -- and so all the pieces suggest that I should love this film, but I was underwhelmed and then some when I saw it in the theater. My appreciation of Fincher's compositions in some scenes was tempered by what I thought were especially muddy visuals in others. And while there are some scenes that still stand out in my mind and make me excited to revisit the film, when I think about some of the things I didn't like -- most of the tugboat sequence, the performance of Taraji P Henson that so many loved, the fact that I don't think Benjamin's view of the world is as unique or special as people have suggested and the movie tries to pretend -- I wonder if I can come around on this one.

What's interesting to me is that some people who love this film compare it to The New World (Seitz, Hokahey, others ...), and yet those films seem miles apart for me. Go figure.

Richard Bellamy said...

"As I wrote in my piece on that film, time is a tangible presence, and the ways the film's characters flow with it or battle against it runs so close to my own views on mortality and the neccessity of making every moment count (for a character so often criticized for his passivity, Benjamin Button lives a life worth envying)."

This is very well said - and it articulates one of the aspects of this film that I find deeply moving. I was touched by this film the first time I saw it at the movies and then I went back and saw it two more times. Just last month, on an epic movie kick, I watched it again on DVD and - as always - I found it deeply moving.

Benjamin may be passive or seem passive at times, but he faces serious aspects of life. He faces war and death and loss and loneliness (the travel montage is especially touching).

I'm glad you pointed out the masterful visuals. I am wild about them and the making-of extras on the DVD are simply inspiring. The cinematography is awesome. The shot of Swinton's character in the elevator. The shot of the two of them eating caviar. All the shots when he goes sailing with Daisy.

I enjoyed Pitts performance from first viewing but watching the DVD extra about all the motion capture acting he did and the voiceovers for his character at all ages. Wow! Simply the modulations of his voice to suit the CGI Benjamin constitue masterful acting talent.

Thanks for this well-written post about a movie I love.

Scott Nye said...

Oh man, those extras on the Criterion disc...I really came around to an emotional response when I saw it a second time, but my appreciation for the craft of the film skyrocketed after seeing the entire behind-the-scenes doc. It's just staggering, and especially deepened my appreciation for Pitt's accomplishment.

And I really, really had to restrain myself from just listing the film's great shots in the review. I can gush over those all day.

Jason - I also think the comparisons to The New World are a bit of a stretch, much as I love that film (best of the decade for me, and more on it in the near future). I get that both feature characters who don't carve their own path so much as drift with it, but The New World is much less forceful in making that a point. Anyway, the storytelling couldn't be more different.

I don't think it's so much that Benjamin's view is unique or special, just a) refreshing in relation to the majority of stories (it does seem unique in the arena of modern American cinema), and b) damn compelling, in the most pleasant of ways.

As visuals go, my appreciation for that aspect was improved tenfold by seeing it on Blu-Ray. I realize that's not an option for everyone, but digital-to-film transfers always lose something (and typically get muddy, especially with so much use of black), whereas the Blu-Ray just unleashes the movie as it was intended. It's one of the main reasons I made the leap to Blu-Ray.