• The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Man Who Watched the Hours Go By

    By Kent Jones

    1320_242

    There are few careers in big-time modern American moviemaking like David Fincher’s. Where almost everyone else in the last two decades has felt obliged to define him- or herself right out of the gate, Fincher has evolved from movie to movie. If you were to go back and look at Se7en or The Game in light of the director’s recent work, you would see the same refinement of light and space, the same level of emotional engagement with his actors, the same narrative precision, even the same aura of melancholy. One might have reckoned that the director of Fight Club and Panic Room would become one of the key artists of the digital age. (Indeed, from the beginning it was obvious that Fincher’s creativity and audacity were matched by his technical know-how.) I don’t think any of us, however, would have guessed that Fincher, with Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, would achieve a vision of time so heartbreakingly acute as to rival those of John Ford and Orson Welles.

    Every second of Benjamin Button, every shot and every cut, every gesture and every facial expression, every turn in its narrative and every visual effect, is devoted to the contemplation of time’s passing. Of course, that is the theme of Eric Roth’s screenplay, an epic embellishment of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wisp of a story about a man who is born old and grows young, displaced from Baltimore to New Orleans and shifted ahead fifty years in time. And it is easy to imagine the film directed by someone else, anyone else apart from Fincher, and made into a poignant love story about two people who “meet in the middle,” set against the backdrop of the American century. I’ve read many descriptions of this phantom movie, Roth’s script as directed by Ron Howard or Nora Ephron. They are very far from the mysterious and troubling film Fincher has actually made.

    The narrative is a flashback invoked through readings from Benjamin’s diary by a young woman to her mother, Benjamin’s great love, Daisy, as she lies on her deathbed in a New Orleans hospital. The action officially “takes place” on August 29, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina is making landfall. There is also a second framing device, the fabulous story (recounted by Daisy) of a blind clock maker who fulfills a commission to the city in 1918 with a magnificent timepiece that will loom over the railroad station, ticking forever backward—his sad hope is that the clock will magically conjure his beloved son, shot down on a European battlefield, back to life. Benjamin’s own story begins at the end of the Great War, and encompasses a journey that takes him and us from a home for the aged, managed by his adoptive African American mother, across the seas to Murmansk (where he has an exquisite romantic encounter with the wife of a British spy, played with a wonderful bittersweet longing by Tilda Swinton) and the Pacific naval battlegrounds of World War II, and then to New York and Paris in the fifties and the Far East in the eighties. Along the way, we are afforded visions of a sunset on Lake Pontchartrain, a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral, Carousel on Broadway, and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show.

    The picaresque/kaleidoscopic strategy of the script might be familiar to viewers of Forrest Gump, also written by Roth. But Benjamin Button finally moves in a very different direction. Fincher never allows us anything more, or less, than glimpses, distilled into visions. That NASA liftoff stays on-screen just long enough to register before the director cuts away to another incremental but palpable step forward in time, and it is ephemeral (a brilliant streak of white light traced across a bright blue sky) more than iconic. It is also evocative of earlier streaks of light, sent by artillery fire in World War II and machine-gun fire in World War I, both flashing just as quickly—yet harrowingly—before our eyes. And Benjamin’s.

    The character of Benjamin Button, as embodied by Peter Badalamenti, Robert Towers, Tom Everett, a host of makeup and visual effects and animation specialists, and above all by Brad Pitt, is a remarkable creation. He is the withdrawn man who politely refrains from engagement until absolutely necessary, partly inspired by the director’s memories of his own father. He is the delicately hesitant man with the relaxed drawl who feels different to his core, who has made up his mind to sit and watch. He is the man who notes the passing of years, minutes, seconds of his own life with bewilderment, wonder, and sadness. Fincher has quietly built up to this character over the years, with Morgan Freeman’s ruminative detective in Se7en, Michael Douglas’s recessive tycoon in The Game, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards’s quietly contemplative cops in Zodiac. With Pitt, he achieves a character who not only breaks every dramatic rule in the screenwriting playbook but amounts to a potent and moving archetype.

    Benjamin Button as filmed is quite a distance from Fitzgerald’s arch conception, closer to Hawthorne’s Wakefield and closer still to Borges’s Fuñes, the man cursed with a perfect memory, but he is even more moving. His curious case is imparted to us not in thick slabs of sentiment but in small, exquisite fragments, delicately attuned to matters of mood, atmosphere, and behavior, over almost as quickly as they’ve begun—the feeling of walking into the morning air or through the stillness of twilight, of being alone at night in your own home or in a hotel far away, of having lived twenty years and then fifty.

    Just as in Zodiac, there is an extremely precise sense of what it’s like to be alive in a certain place, during a certain time, from moment to moment. It’s not just the curtains and the clothing and the music and the cars that are right, but the gestures, the sounds, the blending of the public and the private, the way that every sign of this or that zeitgeist (fifties bohemianism, sixties modernity) is filtered through personal experience.

    Fincher is a director who knows his craft inside and out. He is also an artist who knows what to use it for, which is why amazement over the seamless technical feat of creating Benjamin out of so many different sources and disciplines tends to disappear early on. In film after film made in the digital era, technical wizardry is the tail that wags the dog. For Fincher, it is just another expressive tool. The re-creation of Broadway in the fifties registers just as quickly and vividly as the devastated expression of an aging Daisy (Cate Blanchett) when confronted with the presence of Benjamin grown thirteen years younger. The jubilation of New Orleans on Armistice Day is just as fleeting as Benjamin at his physical peak soaring across the countryside on his motorcycle. And the film’s beautifully measured pace, set like Pitt’s performance to New Orleans time, never stops to linger over this or that technical achievement. Fincher stays true to the character and the story and the movie, and to his own bracingly frank understanding of the reality of time, from first moment to last.

    Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. A film he directed and wrote with Martin Scorsese about Elia Kazan is forthcoming.

36 comments

  • By Tana McDonald
    August 04, 2010
    04:00 AM

    Benjamin Button is one of the greatest movies ever made and Kent Jones has briefly touched on the reasons for it. When I read all the raves over Chris Nolan's Inception or Cameron's Avatar, I am dumbfounded that Benjamin Button can be so egregiously overlooked. And, thank you, Jones for demolishing the Forrest Gump comparison; BB is nothing like Forest Gump. Brad Pitt showed his acting chops in this film and broke my heart in nearly every scene. Like the father who died listening to his favorite program on the wireless, BB knew something--he knew how the last note in his life would be played and accepted it. His leaving Daisy and Caroline exposed his view on the folly of faith and hope when it comes to expecting a different result in life. After all, he lived the last part of his life first; he knew what the end would look like and that it would come for him. Taraj Henson who played Queenie, like Pitt, was cheated out of awards for her performance as Benjamin's loving mother. That he comes home from sailing with Daisy to a quiet house echoes his earlier observations about the death's power to cast silence in its presence. As an African American, I was touched by Roth and Fincher's presentation of black people during Benjamin's life. While black people were indeed servants, they were shown as individuals with unique characteristics--as is true with people in general. Benjamin inherited Queenie's view of life and death, both accepting the inevitability of death and savoring the moments of life because of it. I will admit that my favorite part of this film occurs largely in the first half before Benjamin and Daisy finally unite. The magic of this film is strongest there. I didn't particularly care for Cate Blanchett as Daisy, warming to her only in the last scenes when she moves in to take care of Benjamin the child. Watching this movie was like being absorbed in a book you hated to come to an end. As years pass, I think this film will stand out clearly as one of the greatest films ever made.
    Reply
  • By MA
    December 15, 2010
    04:17 PM

    Many other of Fincher's films would probably be unanimously welcome. This inane crowd-pleaser is an affront to any criterion devotee. How disappointing.
    Reply
  • By Miguel
    December 15, 2010
    08:15 PM

    What's "thoughtful" about the essay, Jeff? It's a series of platitudes and unfundamented statements of opinion. But even if it weren't, one could write a beautiful essay making a case for any kind of bad film. Button is simply a commercial banality, no matter what kind of accolades it gets.
    Reply
  • By Noel Vera
    December 16, 2010
    01:36 AM

    Mr. Jones: Amazing how you articulated (much better, of course) what I was trying to get at with my little blog post:
    Reply
  • By Miguel
    December 16, 2010
    06:35 PM

    Absolutely right, Jeff. "Unfounded" is the word. Unfounded statements of opinion abound in KJ's otherwise ordinary essay.
    Reply
  • By Oscar
    December 16, 2010
    10:38 PM

    Jeff, the people you bullied didn't ever bother to get back to you. They were only trying to shed a light, and they had a point. They weren't rude.
    Reply
  • By Jack McC
    December 17, 2010
    01:04 AM

    Forrest Gump wasn't brilliant, but was better in every respect.
    Reply
  • By Tom S
    December 17, 2010
    05:15 PM

    Well, they also share an author, and the comparison is pretty unavoidable- since Button does essentially nothing of value with its conceit, it winds up feeling very much like the execrable Gump, pointlessly meandering in service of moments that try to be moving and wind up feeling empty and a love story that seems to have no basis in character or human motivations. I love Fincher and this movie has a spectacular cast, but neither can redeem the pointless and driveling nature of the story being told.
    Reply
  • By David Grillo
    January 18, 2011
    05:20 PM

    Thank god criterion picks the films not the people who write on there blogs as far as the film its all about felling and it made me feel it all from tears shed to the tune of the joy and sadness in life cause like in the film it's never to late to start living. Also all the people you meet and leave behind you along the way and for a film to show me the pure beauty of it through a looking glass through benjamin button the film is a masterpiece of course everyone is entitled to there opinion and mine is this is Fincher's best
    Reply
  • By Alex
    February 15, 2011
    10:19 PM

    Wow. This thread is almost as entertaining as the film, and unlike most here, I thought the film was pretty, entertaining, and pretty entertaining.
    Reply
  • By Rick
    March 09, 2011
    07:15 AM

    This thread is utterly ridiculous. Benjamin Button "not worthy" of Criterion? An "affront to Criterion devotees"? Rubbish. If that's what you really think, then you are a poor excuse for a "Criterion devotee". I'm not saying you have to like the film. That's entirely a matter of opinion. But promoting such pretentious close-mindedness is, in my opinion, a genuine affront to both Criterion devotees and to the incredibly diverse Criterion library. Over the years, Criterion has tackled critical favourites such as 8 1/2 and Rules of the Game, alongside neglected foreign gems like Jigoku, unlikely contemporary American films like Last Days of Disco, a Beastie Boys music video collection, cult television like Fishing With John, and a fabulous collection of Painleve's avant-garde nature shorts. It's this diversity that makes Criterion such an appealing company. Not only do they hold themselves to high standards in regards to both restoration and supplementary materials, but they also aren't afraid to make wild, interesting and unconventional curatorial choices alongside the perennial classics. I am very thankful for that. I can only imagine that if any of you naysayers were to curate the collection, we would be left with a bland, one-sided circlejerk.
    Reply
  • By MA
    March 09, 2011
    02:59 PM

    That doesn't make a lot of sense, Rick. No one is being against diversity or popular favourites. We are only expressing frustration and surprise because we find the film mediocre. Or is that so secondary and irrelevant?
    Reply
  • By Rick
    March 09, 2011
    05:15 PM

    Neither. Your opinion of the film wasn't at all up for discussion. I don't care one iota that you find the film mediocre. Why should I? That's entirely your opinion. You did, however, specifically say that it's release was an "affront to Criterion devotees." That I take issue with. It's ignorant, arrogant and more than a little pretentious. Seemingly the only reason it is an "affront to Criterion devotees" is because you, personally, do not like the film. If you don't like it, then don't buy it. The release clearly wasn't for you. There are a number of people, Criterion devotees in their own right, who appreciate the film and this release was for them. Don't ever decry a distribution company for providing a wide selection.
    Reply
  • By Criterion Devotee
    March 10, 2011
    07:09 PM

    Criterion's goal is, self-admittedly, "gathering the greatest films from around the world". It's not "to gather the widest array of hopefully good films". Sorry. The goal is, by its nature, elitist. Some of us don't expect Button when promised the greatest... If we devotess feel disappointed, we speak out. And I'm sure the curators pay attention to threads like this one.
    Reply
  • By Rick
    March 12, 2011
    01:38 AM

    With all due respect CD, I never said Criterion should induct a number of "hopefully good" films for the sake of a wide selection. A great number of Criterion fans, myself included, believe Benjamin Button to be a great film. Criterion's goal is to provide a "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." Not the "greatest". Presumably because the "greatest" doesn't exist. If we are being honest with ourselves, even the inclusion of Pierrot Le Fou and L'Avventura in the collection amounts to little more than opinion. It may be near-unanimous opinion, but it's opinion all the same. I'm sure that there are people here, Criterion devotees in their own right, who believe Pierrot Le Fou to be a bad film. Criterion has always just been a label for cinephiles. In the days of laserdisc, they released Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Boyz N The Hood. Both would probably be considered anomalies nowadays. Although one wonders how anything could really be an anomaly in a collection that includes Armageddon alongside Tokyo Story and The Atomic Submarine. I just don't understand what it means to be "worthy" of Criterion. The fact that they released the film in the first place is evidence enough that the film was worthy of the company's staff. The reason why they chose it is articulated above in Kent Jones' fantastic essay. One day Criterion will release a film that you, and a great many other people, love despite a cool reception upon its release, and you will most likely be thankful that they released such an "underrated classic" or "hidden gem". I am very glad they released Last Days of Disco for one. Nobody could say the reception was anything but mixed at the time of its release and it was on its way to being forgotten, but there are a number of us who really appreciate Criterion releasing the film. And its release has prompted a lot of people to re-evaluate the film's merits.
    Reply
  • By Reader
    December 31, 2011
    05:40 AM

    Benjamin Button encompasses of the grand journey of life, and demonstrates all relatable aspects of it with it’s unusual, and compelling premise , It tells the life story of a man who’s ageing process is reverse. This makes every major life event seem all the most enriched, and by doing that allows the audience to connect, and understand the protagonist, and his feelings. We remember events from our own lives, and draw similarities. We also gain an understanding of Benjamin’s outlook on life, and hopefully try to apply it to our own. It’s reminds us to cherish those that we love, and that when they’re gone to value the memories that we shared together. It illustrates how life is capable of being extremely beautiful. It is a poetic tale of love, loss and, the overall splendor of life. I personally feel that the flaws in logic work to the films benefit. I believe that it emphasize the films passion. It reminds us that the things that make us feel good don’t always makes logical sense. That sometimes we can’t describe something with logic for it to have the same emotional effect on us. Simply put, the film is not fueled by logic, but only by emotion, magic, and philosophy, and as I said before this works to the film’s benefit . It is backed by Fitcher’s masterful direction, and a spectacular cast of performers. It is a masterpiece of art, that has shown me that a person’s view of beauty can’t always be logically explained.
    Reply
  • By Rosie
    July 24, 2012
    07:22 PM

    I don't think this is the best movie that David Fincher ever made. And it has its flaws. But I cannot deny that it is still a pretty good film. And I was surprised to realize how much the spectre of death hovered over it.
    Reply
  • By Davyd
    July 25, 2012
    01:38 PM

    I liked Benjamin Button, even if Zodiac and The Social Network make it look relatively weak by comparison with those high standards. But I can't understand the denial some people are in over its Forrest Gumpiness. Given the amount of people who have come to that conclusion without knowing beforehand of the common author and of the prevalence of that opinion, I would say the similarity (not identity, compare and contrast) is as close to being a fact as can be in such a sphere. People, artists retread familiar ground; it's as true of 21st century screenwriters as it was of baroque composers. It wasn't the end of the world or a career then, and it isn't now.
    Reply
  • By Patrick
    September 21, 2012
    11:28 AM

    It's a failure, pretty to look at granted, but it's pompous, bloated and pretentious, I'm genuinely surprised to see it in the Criterion catalogue.
    Reply
  • By M_Mayer
    May 21, 2013
    06:59 PM

    "Benjamin Button" is one of the least gratuitous movies I've ever seen, it's so well-constructed. I felt as if the whole movie was 'ephemeral', not just the Cape Canaveral scene.
    Reply

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