Daily Archives: August 25, 2010

In Defense of Benjamin Button

The first official review of David Fincher’s hotly anticipated The Social Network, a film about the founding of Facebook, has appeared online and it’s a doozy: Scott Foundas, respected critic and New York Film Festival selection committee member, has given it an unequivocal rave at the Film Comment website. He calls the film “splendid entertainment from a master storyteller” and compares it to The Great Gatsby both in terms of plot and as a kind of cultural bellwether. Unfortunately, he also uses the occasion to take a swipe at Fincher’s previous film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as mawkish and insincere.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the only David Fincher movie to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and the only one to be released in a deluxe edition on home video by the prestigious Criterion Collection. Its pioneering use of digital special effects is undeniable and, impressively, the service to which those effects are put is the form of a crowd pleasing melodrama (albeit one haunted by the specter of death); rare among Fincher’s films, Benjamin Button was a big commercial success on a global scale. And yet, as Foundas’ comments testify, from a certain critical perspective it has also always been an unfashionable movie to love. It has been the subject of articles dubious of its anointment as an “instant classic” at the hands of Criterion and it even made one journalist’s list of 10 films that Hollwyood never should have greenlit. But the biggest bone of contention for most critics has been the film’s similarities to Forrest Gump, with which it shares a screenwriter in the person of Eric Roth. So much critical ink has been spilled over the superficial similarities between Button and Gump in terms of story, with the harshest critics claiming that the two are essentially the same movie, that I won’t bother to rehash the comparisons here. Instead, I’d like to point out how the films are crucially different in the far more significant areas of ideology and aesthetics.

Forrest Gump is reactionary in that it martyrs a man for not questioning authority and always doing what he’s told. Forrest is a simpleton who puts all his faith in what God, Mama and Uncle Sam tell him, fights in Vietnam and is rewarded with wealth and fame. A parallel plot involving his girlfriend, Jenny, sees her do the opposite (she joins the counter-culture, protests the war and experiments with free love and drugs) and then punishes her with AIDS and death. There is a sense that the success of Forrest Gump, including an actual win for Best Picture, is the result of its function as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for viewers who would like to triumph over history without doing any hard work. On the other hand, Benjamin Button is the tragedy of a man who lives through history, making tough decisions and taking responsibility for his actions at every turn. Just think of the heartbreaking scene where Benjamin decides to leave Daisy so that she can raise their daughter without him.

In contrast to the high-key lighting and Disneyland-vision-of-the-South art direction employed by Robert Zemeckis in Forrest Gump, The dark, brooding beauty of Fincher’s digital mise-en-scene in Button perfectly complements the film’s melancholy obsession with the passing of time. This is most obvious in the astonishing sequence near the beginning where scratchy, old-movie-like footage of World War I is run backwards, an expressionist device corresponding to the desires of Elias Koteas’ clockmaker character. More importantly, where Forrest Gump always calls attention to itself in its use of digital special effects (“Hey look, it’s Tom Hanks interacting with real documentary footage of some famous historical figure!”), the use of CGI in Button is always subservient to the story, just as it was in Zodiac. (Whenever I point out to students that there are over 200 CGI shots in Zodiac, the most common reply is, “I didn’t notice any.” Exactly.) And although audiences are well aware that computer technology is what allows Brad Pitt in Button to age in reverse, I’ll bet you it’s the last thing on all but the most jaded minds of the viewers who are actually watching the movie.

Finally, where Forrest Gump offers naïve optimism, Benjamin Button is a profoundly moving, and, on occasion, a courageously “feel-bad,” study of aging and death. The concept of showing someone age in reverse is a completely novel way to constantly remind the audience of those themes in a way that could not have been done by showing the character age normally. After all when you see a senior citizen, you don’t automatically think of that person as having only X-amount of time left to live. But when you see Benjamin Button at the age of six, you certainly do.


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