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The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button – myth, magical realism, time, age, love and loss

Daisy just wanted to dance

Daisy just wanted to dance

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

This simply is the best film of the Oscar year 2008/9. Don’t let negative reviews put you off. It always arouses my interest when a film receives diametrically opposing reviews. It proves that thought and critical faculties are alive and well. Was there ever a genuinely original work of art that received universal acclaim? Disagreement is the soul of criticism; and dissent the soul of thought.

I can see why many people don’t like this film. I have to argue, and justify my argument, that not liking a film has little to do with its artistic value. For example I hate many Scorcese films, especially Goodfellas, but cannot in honesty deny their artistic quality, their technical expertise.

This film is as curious as its title. Normally the challenge to a filmmaker transforming a literary work to the screen (here a 25 page short story by F Scott Fitzgerald) is distillation: how to express the detail of a word-picture story into a satisfying form as resonant visually to the viewer as the original was to the reader. Button is literary in structure and tone. Its development of the fundamental literary device of a person born old who grows younger over the years as the rest of humanity follows the more usual linear chronological path, is brilliantly achieved, imaginatively stunning and deeply moving in effect. But you have to be prepared to engage it emotionally. This is a movie enormously dependent upon what the viewer brings to it: in their understanding of life, love, death and to put it pompously, the necessities of the human condition. Life is terminal. Coming to terms with our most precious experiences – love, loss and passion against the necessity of the transience of all things is challenging, unsettling and just plain hard. But it’s real. It’s true.

Beauty, in Art and life is transient: more, it is precisely its fragility and its passing that touches us so deeply. Watch any old movies: see the eternally young Garbo, Astaire, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, the Hepburns – Audrey and Kate etc etc. Contrast Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Apocalypse Now. Brando – beautiful? Get outta here. But he was. Stanley Kowalski never got old – only Brando did. Film stars leave the spirit of their youth trapped in memory; suspended in time. The magic of the cinema is that the depth of feeling aroused by popular ‘shallow’ films is not itself shallow. Any more than our attachment to the popular songs that thread their way through our deepest moments and capture their feeling in a few simple words and musically shallow notes and bars.

Magical realism has been defined as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something “too strange to believe”. Popular cinema is in essence a ‘magically real’ medium. It offers us a respite from our mortality. It comforts us with the illusion of narrative – that our lives are a story that unfolds in the ways it is supposed to – that it has a meaning in itself not just the meaning we give it. Human beings have for millennia found the same solace before their mortality in religion. Personally I prefer the cinema – I know that’s not real. I have good friends who cannot lose themselves in a movie. They enjoy them – they don’t love them. Horses for courses – we’re all in the end trying not to catch the eye of the guy in the black cloak with the scythe. At least we cinema freaks can say “Hey Bengt – how goes it? Been expecting you.” (Seventh Seal). We know what Death looks like. This is the world The Curious Case of Benjamin Button inhabits. It touches, evokes, our deepest feelings; it doesn’t offer answers for there are none. It just presents the questions. Embraces sadness. Releases regret. To judge this film by reference to empirical truth is to profoundly misunderstand it. It must be understood by reference not to literal but to artistic truth. And it succeeds on this basis superbly.

Simone Weil: “Perhaps love is the effort to make permanent that which by its nature is transient.”

Benjamin Button is born to a clandestine relationship between eponymous button manufacturer Thomas and below stairs Caroline. When she dies giving birth to Benjamin, Thomas in his pain, snatches the new born child and leaves him on a doorstep. One feels this is as much to do with desperation at the loss of his love than the grotesque appearance of the child she died to bring in to the world. Benjamin, the baby is born looking like a wizened, wrinkled old man.

Benjamin is rescued from her doorstep by Queenie who works in a home for the elderly and is touched by this baby’s plight – of circumstance and nature. Benjamin therefore grows up in an environment of people who match the age he looks but not the age he is. After a few years when his reversed life processes have moved him away from an imminent death prognosis to a guarded recognition that most of his physical indicators are more and more positive, he first meets Daisy; blue-eyed, fiercely independent and intoxicated by the possibilities of life. Daisy wants to dance.

Daisy and Benjamin’s relationship starts on the level of instinctive empathy. They are close in emotional age, in elapsed years, but the disparity in their apparent ages allows them no emotional space. Benjamin and Daisy are on reversed life trajectories: she a callow 20-something, he a physical 50+ with a teenage child’s experience. He leaves the old people’s home and travels the world as a hand on a tugboat captained by Captain Mike (a chip off the old block performance by Richard Harris’ son Jared) sending Daisy postcards from every port. Captain Mike first introduces Benjamin to sex through a visit to a brothel where he astonishes and wears out his first sexual partner with an inexhaustible libido housed in a frail old body. A strangely repressed and terribly English nights-only affair in Murmansk with the wife (Tilda Swinton) of a British spy and Diplomat introduces him to the experience of loss of love when she abruptly leaves and ends their affair without explanation.

The tugboat and crew are drawn into the war after Pearl Harbour and both boat and captain are lost in an argument with a Japanese submarine. Benjamin goes home and meets Daisy again but he is unsettled by a blatant sexual advance she makes and rebuffs it. Some time later he seeks Daisy out in New York amidst the thrill and excitement of a being a professional dancer on the edge of stardom. This Daisy and this Benjamin are still too far apart for the power of their connection to have a place to be. Benjamin leaves and some time later hears that while in Paris dancing, Daisy has been in a road accident that will leave her unable to dance again. He visits but she turns him away.

Back at the old people’s home, after a few years Daisy returns. Here one feels that Benjamin and Daisy have each known sadness and loss and the struggle to overcome them. Their time is now, meeting in the middle of their opposite paths. They make love; cementing their instinctive bond. Benjamin’s dying father has sought rapprochement and forgiveness with Benjamin who inherits everything when Thomas dies. Selling the business, Benjamin and Daisy set up home together. For a few short months and years, they live, love and enjoy each other to the full on every level. Daisy becomes pregnant and has a baby girl Caroline. Caroline deepens further the powerful bond between Benjamin and Daisy. In just a few years Benjamin embraces the reality of his situation – as he grows younger and younger Daisy and Caroline grow older and older. They must grow apart. He resolves to leave so that Daisy can find a man who can father and look after Caroline. Benjamin’s destiny is to eventually end up younger than his own daughter and he refuses to countenance this outcome and leaves. The sense of time and age gradually distancing us from those we love is here beautifully illustrated. Fitzgerald’s brilliant device distils the sadness of this aspect of our lives to one couple, one generation. In life it emerges between successive generations – parents to children, parents to grandparents.

Now a dance teacher in her fifties, married for some years to a widower, Daisy is shocked when Benjamin returns, now not much more than a teenager. The struggle between their life-long instinctive bond, their brief history as lovers and parents, and their now bewildering disparity in age is poignant and affecting. They make love for the last time, this intimacy now carrying an air of sadness and longing for a future they never shared and a past they can never recover. But Benjamin meets his daughter and knows she is in good hands. As he must, he leaves again.

Benjamin Button is a mythical tale; in the sense that a myth is a way to think about human existence and why it is so difficult, so hard; a story whose moral ambiguity leaves it to the watcher to reach their own conclusions about the actions and choices open to the characters. A kind of moral thought experiment. This richly layered film resonates with the joys and sadnesses of life and love and the transience of both in which the depth of feeling they generate resides.

To Fitzgerald’s extraordinary literary device Fincher adds two from the grammar of cinema: Benjamin is narrator at key moments in the story, the traditional way that film expresses the voice of the author in a book. Additionally, and I am not sure whether this is the form of Fitzgerald’s tale we are introduced to Benjamin’s story at Daisy’s deathbed. Attended by Caroline (Julia Ormond) now a mature woman, Daisy has her daughter read from Benjamin’s life-long journal and of course Caroline in this way gradually learns of the story of the love and life of her mother and her real father. So again through flashbacks the narrative time-line is splintered and reversed again. And it works just perfectly. Brad Pitt has never been better and Cate Blanchett, sometimes a little brittle for my taste does well here as Daisy.

Modern critics, especially young ones seem to have problems with sentiment, often reducing all such affecting emotion to sentimentality to render it ‘safe’. If it touches you, Benjamin Button will make you cry, not with unhappiness or misery but simply in a shared recognition of the inevitability of loss and the vulnerability of life and love that both softens and deepens the ways in which we come to terms with these truths of our existence. That’s why this is for me, the best film of the last 12 months and as good as most Oscar winners of recent years. I hope it receives the recognition it deserves at this year’s Awards, certainly way ahead of the exploitative, queasy Slumdog Millionaire.

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