Sunday, 22 February 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

N.B.: This post contains no spoilers but may not make much sense if you haven't watched the movie.

I watched Benjamin Button the other day, and greatly enjoyed it. Not in the way that I greatly enjoyed "The Return of the King", but more in the way one feels about an exhibition of particularly well painted watercolours by a gifted artist.

The movie begins with a hospital scene where Daisy Fuller (played by Cate Blanchett), an old lady, is talking to her grown-up daughter Caroline, and asks her to read a diary, written by the eponymous protagonist of the show, played by Brad Pitt. As the words from the diary come to life, the hospital scenes weave themselves in and out of the narrative.

There were some critics who felt that these scenes were jarring and unnecessary. I agree that they were jarring—the hospital is in New Orleans but seems completely removed from the gorgeous New Orleans you see in the rest of the movie—it just looks like any other hospital room. Hurricane Katrina is looming ever closer—you can hear the wind growing wilder and see the hospital staff getting more frantic each time you return to the hospital. The scenes here seem do not use the rich visual language found in the rest of the movie, and thus seems a lot more closer to the real world: the light is harsh white, the room looks modern and Hurricane Katrina is going to happen, as we know it did.

Without these scenes, the whole movie would have felt like a fairy tale, a beautifully crafted one, but a fairy tale nonetheless, and this would have made it difficult for the audience to accept and relate to it, or to think about the questions it poses. The use of the diary in the hospital room is actually a clever devise because it justifies the unrealistic atmosphere found in many of the other scenes: the beautiful light which never disappears, the perfectly clouded skies in the day and the star sprinkled ones at night, the faint glow of lights in Old New York, the calming low hum of insects and the happy chirping of birds. Juxtaposed against the hospital scenes, we view the rest of the movie as Daisy does when she lies dying—as memories: real but tinted with nostalgia.

Remember that a baby being born old and then growing younger is completely against human reason, so without the hospital scenes, we would mentally reject it as an entertaining but outlandish story, thus limiting our ability to connect to it. But I think David Fincher, the director, wants the audience to actively engage rather than simply observe. Daisy is remembering her past (or rather Benjamin's past) with its joy, confusion loss, and it is this past which has bought her here. I believe Mr. Fincher wants us to share the human emotions of the protagonists and let them resonate within us, allowing then a reflection on our own experiences and memories. I would not say these scenes were unnecessary; they ground the movie to reality and convince us of the authenticity of the story and its relevance. Unfortunately, the deathbed/diary method is now rather clich├ęd, perhaps there were more exciting methods Mr. Fincher could have used to achieve his intended results.

Another criticism against the movie is Brad Pitt's rather dull performance, and I think it is a valid one. He is passive in much of the film, but Mr. Fincher has said that this was deliberate—he is a character upon whom impressions are made. I think that this was a right move—the fact that he is aging backwards is already enough for the audience to handle mentally and visually, so we forgive the lack of dynamism on Benjamin's (and Mr. Pitt's) part. No doubt others will be less merciful.

In fact, as many have pointed out, the whole movie can feel a little slow-going at times. Sure, Benjamin does things, meets interesting people, goes places and falls in love, but there is no one Big Event, one big climax, one big resolution. The biggest external event would have been World War II, and there is a stunning scene here, but it doesn't last long and Benjamin quickly moves on: besides that one scene, the war has hardly affected him and it didn't change his personality at all.

The pacing is inconsistent as there are quick-moving scenes and there are scenes where nothing much happens—we're just looking at Mr. Pitt looking at people or things. But I think that this portrayal of Benjamin's life is the movie's hidden genius (intended or otherwise). In any life, even one remarkably lived backwards, there are times when things go by slowly just as there are times when things go by quickly, there are small things that actually impact us hugely, and Big Things which are supposed to but don't, and nothing much happens a lot of the time. Remember that this is a portrayal of a whole life, not just a part of it, so there is a sacrifice of depth for breath. As a movie this may not be very compelling to watch, but as a reflection of a life it is fairly credible, and to do so via such a beautiful (albeit imperfect) movie is a great achievement.

The only constant in Benjamin's life is Daisy—she is like an reappearing element in a large set of paintings. Without her, or rather, without his undying love for her, the movie would just be collection of soap opera episodes from the title character's life. And even with Daisy, the film can indeed feel too episodic, with one story after another held by the scenes in the hospital. After the movie I immediately thought of Forest Gump, and it turns out that the movies share the same screenwriter. Like Forest Gump, there isn't much a plot arch to speak of, whether this is a desirable or not is a highly subjective matter for another day.

In my view, Mr. Pitt is actually an inspired choice. While a lesser known actor may have brought more emotional depth or physical dynamism to the role, he could not have done what Mr. Pitt did, i.e. be Brad Pitt. Let me explain. A large part of the movie shows how Benjamin grows younger; we first see him as a child in a decayed body with a wrinkled old face. The only thing of Mr. Pitt we see are his eyes, otherwise, it is impossible to tell (or believe) it's him, and this is where the side effects and makeup are used brilliantly: you hardly notice them because they blend so well with the scenes. You simply accept that you have a frail, hunched up old man in front of you and are oblivious (at least during the movie) to the fact that it's probably a very clever side-effect which took some effort and technical virtuosity.

As the movie progresses, there comes a point when Benjamin looks like how Mr. Pitt looks today, and the result is really quite startling: I could hear myself thinking, "Oh my gosh, it's Brad Pitt! It's really him!". Later on, the effect is even more amazing, because Benjamin looks like Brad Pitt did when he was twenty-something: a very young, very blonde, very handsome and very wrinkle-free actor. It's like unwrapping an unfamiliar package only to be surprised by something you've already seen, and few actors besides Mr. Pitt have the star power and recognizable good looks to pull it off effortlessly.

Ms. Blanchett as Daisy Fuller is likewise brilliantly cast. She says in the movie, "Dancing is all about the line." And her line is perfect: her slender figure fits Daisy's profile as an accomplished dancer flawlessly. Either Ms. Blanchett can dance really well or they must have used a double for some of the scenes! Mr. Fincher exploits her good looks well throughout the movie—her graceful silhouette, poised demeanor, angular face and very, very straight hair enchant in every scene. (The fact that she hasn't been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars this year is a no doubt an outcry).

The movie tackles many themes and questions simultaneously: loss and death, how love works, letting go of others, how time is unexplainable and yet its effects are unavoidable, how we value youth and how fleeting it is, growing old, how we view old age, how we choose to live life, and how volatile but indispensable memory is. Note that these themes have been tackled by many other directors before, and while some might be touched by Benjamin Button, I expect many won't. The film also requires a lot of patience and perhaps a certain frame of mind to watch. No doubt some will find sitting through almost 3 hours of the movie frustrating when there is no real payback (eg: Sauron is defeated, Middle Earth is saved). Like I said, nothing really happens a lot of the time.

The movie has 13 Oscar nominations (rather than the 12 I stated in a previous post). I'm not sure if it's worth that much attention, but it is no doubt a good film, at least in my books. Let's see how many Oscars wins at the ceremony tomorrow!


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