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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Blind Clockmaker: David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”















In the first section of Thomas Mann's 1900 novel Buddenbrooks, the family patriarch Johann Buddenbrook, after having run the family's business to its greatest profitability through the late 18th and early 19th centuries, begins to utter a word, again and again, as his eyes drift elsewhere and he retreats into the mausoleum of his dying body: "Curious." Looking into the void, assessing all of one's loves, every original or stolen thought, and the vectors of causality that have led to chance meetings and the blossomings of intimate emotions, and not being burdened by either a sense of fear or a sense of accomplishment: instead, just "Curious."

Mann is too good of a writer to tell us specifically what is going through Johann's head when he says "Curious" to himself; the word is one of the many leitmotifs he embeds within his first great novel, another melody in a rich symphony detailing the decline of a family over the course of nearly 75 years. In the story's context of personages falling away to time and being swallowed by the wave of changes, we compare the final moment, when an elderly hunchbacked woman insists that there must be a heaven, to the opening, where six-year-old Antonie Buddenbrook reads from her catechism, and we too realize how "curious" it all is: the stream of life, existence's weight or lightness in view of a world becoming more technological (detailed in the ascent of the European Union in the 1830s), less personal and more global, traditions crumbling under the pressure of what is emerging. The ego blushes. A single life may be a library unto itself, but those lives snuff out all too easily as the wars, holocausts, and natural disasters of history have shown – books thrown into the fire, never read, not understood, loves unheard, words unrecited, songs unsung. Life experienced in its temporal vastness and limitations (why does time pass so slowly when we are young? Why does it seem to accelerate as we age?) is coupled with the lives we share in geographical space – and—

--And what? Have we experienced our eternal moments? The melancholy "Curious," one of the first words uttered by a dying woman in David Fincher's film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, reminds me of time’ pressures, inducing us to experience ourselves fully, as well as to participate in the sorrow of other people. So, we ask ourselves, what happens when Time and Space are compressed, and instead of trudging slowly through the pages in a library, reading a life or a memory, we compulsively click on Google? The long rope of History, the great line (forming a circle from beginning to end, like a clock) is replaced by instant Recall – or maybe Instant Deletion – of incidents. Memory, neurochemically related to oxytocin, the Love hormone, is integral to our ability to be human, to empathize, to be awed by the simplicity of existence (as opposed to being merely "amused").

Memory is also, I believe, the most important theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, with his characters, be it Amory, Gatsby, or Dick Diver, self destructively forging their present circumstances to fit a memory, an image once glimpsed in the past, then having that pristine longing crumble to dust. They are burdened by memory because they hold it so dear, turning their backs on the future, spellbound by the beauty of that which is drifting away. Mann once wrote, "Love has ravaged me, but beauty has kept me spellbound," and the same applies to Fitzgerald. These are artists of longing, caught between the urban present and the pastoral idyllic perfection of a time far away. And though Fate would tell Fitzgerald that he can never have his "Daisy" (the heroine of Gatsby), he would remain set against the prudence of passive acceptance. Fitzgerald associates with another Mann quote, from Joseph and His Brothers: "Do not assume the human being's deepest concern is for peace, tranquility, the preservation of the carefully erected structure of his life from shattering and collapse. Too much evidence goes to show that he is headed straight toward ecstasy and ruin – and thanks nobody who holds him back." And then from Gatsby, one of the most famous lines in literature, its ending: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

David Fincher uses this image in the prologue to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: the blind clockmaker (Elias Koteas) who has constructed a transit station clock that runs backwards, paddling on the vast ocean, longing for his son who perished in the Great War. The clock is a great circle overlooking the hyperreal transit station (trains being an archetypal symbol for the stream of life), each moment visibly connected to the one preceding it. The clock is a tribute to memory and the longing to immortalize it against the gravity of Time. The story of the clockmaker is told by the dying woman, haunted by life's "curiosity," in a New Orleans hospital, circa 2004 as Hurricane Katrina begins to stir towards the shore.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film about memory. Individuals are buried beneath time, crushed by spatial causality, and questing for dreams while severing ties to the past’s burdens. Their accomplishments wind up eradicating all memory. In the hands of another director, it would be kitschy Forrest Gump magical realism, manipulative, didactically pleading us to "enjoy life while we can." But David Fincher (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, and his greatest work, Zodiac) gives us no answers, only speculation, awe, and the puzzling sense that Beings experience on the precipice of Death: "Curious...."

The first sound and image of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is Daisy, held to life by technology, the beeping of life support signaling the existence of a human heart-beat, as the frail creature, this open-mouthed gasping woman, clings to (or perhaps is clung by) the machines that keep her in life. She is a prisoner to her biology, something that we all are, though we try to use whatever medical and technological advances to make us less dependent on our given veins and tissues. She has a mouth full of cotton and is allowed all the medication she needs - meaning that she would probably be already dead were these tools of science not surrounding her.

With her is a younger woman, the daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond), looking out the window at the approaching storm cloaked in grey. "What are you looking at, Caroline?" the old woman asks. Caroline's looking at nothing. She is just optically absorbing matter, the line of her focus directed at the fury of nature rather than the prison-like confines of the hospital, a crossroads of death. The moment becomes sentimental as Caroline turns to her mother, and tells her that she's had friends that never had the chance to say goodbye to their mother or father, and she won't take this moment for granted. Yet the way David Fincher directs the scene is more clinical than kitschy. It is not a statement meant to help pathos, but rather suggests a futility. Though there's always regret for not saying something or doing the right thing at a given moment, the outcome is unchanging. This goodbye is the first gesture in the motion picture, and we still have nearly three hours to go. Should have Daisy died immediately after the "goodbye" it might be different. But the suffering continues.

The old woman relates a story from 1918, about a man named Mr. Gateau, or Mr. Cake the blind clockmaker. The story doesn't begin with an incident, but with a specific sense on a larger canvas – a single detail in the New Orleans of 1918, filmed in such a way to make the image look like a celluloid antique. Film, Fincher is saying, is our collective memory of the 20th century. Cinema is the stage platform able to capture a sense of consciousness more than any other art.

Mr. Cake’s story was told to Daisy by her father, so we do not have a first-hand account of the fairy-tale that follows. He seems a mysterious man, this Mr. Cake, who with great sorrow must see his son off to The Great War, their goodbyes spoken in the train station where constantly moving vessels ceaselessly transport so many lives to predetermined destination. In the meantime, Mr. Cake tirelessly builds his clock for the train station, until a letter arrives and with the news of his son’s death. He picks up the corpse at the same train station. The boy is buried, and one day the parents will join him in the same plot of land.

The clock is unveiled at the train station during a gala attended by former president Teddy Roosevelt, with more than a dozen aiming photographers visible. But the clock runs backwards, as does Fincher’s images, capturing the son's death on a battlefield. Mr. Cake explains the gesture of the clock’s backwardness, "So that perhaps we can go back in time and our boys can come home. Home to farm, work, have children, live full lives." The loss of life during The Great War is something, however, that has been felt by thousands of Americans, and former president Theodore Roosevelt takes his hat off, bowing his head in reverence. Mr. Cake's backwards clock doesn't offend as much as it communally involves the onlookers, most especially the political figurehead. As for Mr. Cake, Daisy explains, he disappeared. "Some say he went to sea," she says, and Fincher beautifully frames the ocean with Mr. Cake rowing away into the distance, into the past, the image that eerily mirrors the final line in The Great Gatsby.

This strange prologue may seem unnecessary fat on an already large story (one of the many criticisms directed against Benjamin Button has to do with its length). But it provides a kind of preparatory backdrop for the whole meaning to the fairytale of Benjamin, who may be the fully-lived reincarnation of Mr. Cake's son, born the night The Great War ends in 1918, scheduled to die in the spring of 2003, the time when an even more absurd war began. His story is told on the eve of Katrina, 2004, where lives and historically-rich spaces will be swallowed by a great flood.

"The blind clockmaker" denotes a very popular phrase coined by the biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins from his book, The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins got the title from William Paley, an early 19th century biologist who stated that the complexity of the natural world was evidence of God's existence – or Intelligent Design. Dawkins' approach, however, is an atheistic one that sees the processes of evolution, with embryos constantly coming into contact with different environmental niches, as having its own design. The natural world itself is infinitely complex and it is only a testament to its magisterial wonder that we have eyeballs. There is a natural consonance in evolution, that has taken us from point A to B, be it as lovers, as human beings during one life, as a species, as a planet, or as a cosmos. This is the “curious” factor in living that makes one stand back with a sense of numbing awe. Arthur Schopenhauer, another atheist philosopher, noted in The Foundation of Morality how a life, when looked back upon in old age, has the same kind of semblance in terms of recurring motifs, symbols, and orderly structure possessed by a novel. The writer of the novel is the Blind Watchmaker of nature. The magical realism of Benjamin Button makes several references to God, but I don't believe that Fincher would have us believe that there is a God in this world. The film is a fairytale with mythological motifs, but (much like another mixed-reviewed fairytale of futility, Steven Spielberg's AI) it is a myth born out of an age where science has made the gods unnecessary. In the muddle of evolution’s changes, there are emotions and identities trying to be forged, but they will not endure Time. To help us cope, we have God, we have the belief in Fate (Edgar Cayce's "Kismet" is brought up later on in the picture), and we have Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories (as told by Daisy's grandmother to both Daisy and Benjamin), which have been a great topic of discussion for Dawkins’ colleague and fellow atheist, Daniel Dennett. In evolution, nothing is fixed or static, though as human beings we try to make things so. The peril that loving Beings are put through will become one of the larger topics over the next 150 minutes.

Benjamin Button has been criticized, even by some of its admirers, for bad taste because of the inclusion of Katrina as a frame for the story. It immediately puts Fincher and Roth on the stand for being pretentious. It also may take us out of the fairytale. But it is the bookend to The Great War that begins Benjamin's life, a catastrophic loss of life that in many ways was probably unnecessary, and like The Great War, which we can dramatize in our paradigm of "Good Taste," it was real. Katrina says much more of our culture than we would wish it to. Our arts do not exist in a historical vacuum, and that Fincher and Roth were able to find a modern historical incident that is representative of our age, and that also perfectly ties in with the mythological archetype of the Great Flood, is a brilliant device for "Magical Realism," where the myth dances with the fact. I do not think Fincher wants us to get lost in the fairy tale. Rather, this is a picture that is addressing the collapse of a culture’s sense of connectedness. We might compare Teddy Roosevelt’s reverence with the actions of our own political leaders during Katrina, which was one of alleged apathy. The same apathy applies to those living in the comfortable confines of their distant geographical bubbles, far from New Orleans and its rich culture. Fincher and cinematographer Claudio Miranda emphasize how New Orleans in the 20th century is a place filled with amazing architecture and spaces. That we know these spaces, never photographed so well, will disappear, makes the passage of time more haunting. That we should resist the use of Katrina in a contemporary film about the transitory nature of life says something about us. Cinema is consciousness, so why should we delete our memories? Delete ourselves? The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no feel-good fairy-tale, but a deeply pessimistic and ambivalent picture. It is framed as something idyllic, like Forrest Gump, but it is about a man, and a culture, headed on a road to Nothing. If anything, it recalls the last lines of Fincher's Se7en, the Hemmingway quote: "'The world is a good place, and is worth protecting.' I agree with the second part." It also anticipates Fincher’s subsequent picture, The Social Network, where human beings have become fully ensconced within their technology.

*

"I tried to read it 100 times," Daisy says of an old diary, written by somebody else. She wants Caroline to read it to her. When the daughter flips it open the first thing she sees is an old wedding photograph. She instinctively flips it over, an action that seems conspicuous, though Fincher chooses not to explain it. We cannot see who is in the photograph, and we cannot know why Caroline would, possibly with revulsion, seem to turn it around, so that the shiny image is replaced with the white. It's the first photo we've seen in this film, and photographs will be an important motif: the decorations of houses detailing the passage of time, while photography is a means by which human beings try to fulfill their longing to stop the erosion of years.

The diary ends in 1985, nineteen years before the present action; in addition to photographs and other scattered papers contained within, there are marked deletions and pages torn out. This is important, because what we will see in the film is all documented in the diary, and the deletions are not innocent. The author of the diary, Benjamin (Brad Pitt), took pains to make a good impression of himself, and we should remember that our narrator is an unreliable one. The written reminiscence is the Mind's habit of housecleaning, such as motion pictures do with reality, and such as our memory does with history.

Reading, writing, and photography relate to the will to capture moments, whether from the labor of our active pens, or the light of space captured by a blinking shutter and lens. In Benjamin Button, these arts translate into the desire to hold onto the past and to communicate sacred information to another person. The author, like any artist, wants his audience to "suffer with" him, an idea that associates Benjamin Button to Zodiac, The Social Network, and Se7en.

Benjamin is born on the night The Great War ends, "a good night to be born," he says. Underneath the fireworks, the camera follows Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) racing through the streets towards his house, eager to see his newborn baby and wife. Racing up the stairs and into the house, we cannot fail but notice the prevalence of photographs, delicately framed as decoration. Instantly, we understand that this house of Roger Button is rich with history, and that there is a story for every link, every marriage, and every relationship, leading to those moments when a camera steals light.

But the birthing bed is bloody, and his wife (who looks Creole, much like the wife of Mr. Cake, the blind clockmaker) is dying. She pleads with her husband that the baby has a "place." Thomas approaches the crib and gasps on seeing the unnamed child. He instinctively grabs it and runs out of the house.

Fincher and Miranda quickly track alongside Thomas running through the city to the shore, where he is obviously contemplating infanticide. The opening decoration, where lineage is celebrated, is now broken with Thomas' willful rejection of his bloodline; the baby will be deleted as a mistake. A police officer spots Thomas and pursues him through the alleys of the city; Thomas hushes the baby and tenderly leaves it on the steps of an old-folks home, placing $18 in the baby's blanket, and then creeps back into the shadows. The African-American woman that runs the elderly estate, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), discovers the child along with her lover, Dizzy Weathers. Barren and compassionate (we can never be entirely certain of one's motives here), she takes in the child, even though Weathers believes the baby might be demonic.

The audience is finally privy to the child's appearance: with wrinkled skin, cataracts, and liver spots, it is an old man in miniature. "He looks just like my ex-husband," one of the elderly residents notes. Queenie, who is told by a doctor to expect the baby to die soon, names the child Benjamin, just as a clock chimes. "The Lord has done something here," she says, countering the doctor's remark that "His body's failing him before his life's begun."

Queenie will be the face of benevolent religion and faith in a divine plan through the picture. "You never know what's coming for you," a mantra in the film first uttered by her, which is to say that we cannot construct our own destiny. History comes to us ineluctably. To explain life's miracles, we require "Just So Stories," and so when Queenie brings Benjamin, wheelchair bound and looking like an elderly dwarf, aged five or six, to be healed by a preacher so that he may walk, the explanation must be the divine miracle, and not that Benjamin is aging in reverse and would inevitably learn to walk anyway. During the same event, Queenie has the preacher's hands laid on her to heal her infertility (which appears to not have worked). Then the preacher dies suddenly of cardiac arrest. "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," Benjamin notes in his diary. For everything in the complexity of life, there must be a meaning for our feeble species, there must be a purpose. Fincher, to his credit, does not judge these characters for their beliefs and superstitions. They simply exist in his frame, either suffering or succeeding. Soon we will meet an interesting character that brings brief comic relief at a few moments in the film, an old resident of Queenie's home who stares blankly into space and tells Benjamin, "You know I've been struck by lightning seven times?" and then states the specifics of how he came to be struck. What is written into this character's temporal destiny that he should have this odd happening occur to him so many times? He is innocent in each instance ("One time I was just walking my dog"; "One time I was just going outside to get my mail", etc). Fincher films each lightning strike in old-fashioned black and white, as if it were a Thomas Edison experimental short, again linking our memory and consciousness to the available forms of popular communication.

Thanksgiving 1930 is the day that changes Benjamin's life (there's a thing for exact dates in the picture, an element alluding to the importance of memory), when he first meets Daisy (Elle Fanning), who is perhaps seven, the beautiful blue-eyed, red-haired granddaughter of one of Queenie's residents, an elegant old woman who reads Kipling's Just So Story about how Old Man Kangaroo came to be the way he is from Father Time. At the dinner, Daisy says that turkeys aren't birds because they cannot fly. A pygmy friend of Mr. Weathers mentions that he loves birds that can't fly because they taste so good. Birds become an important idea in the film, particularly birds that can fly, as we will see in Captain Clark's fascination with the figure-8 (a symbol for infinity) created by the wings of a humming-bird. The film also may trouble and annoy us at this point: Daisy's voice is obviously Cate Blanchett's voice dubbed onto Elle Fanning's face. Why would Fincher do something that feels so clumsy? It is linked to the film's romanticism of memory. We are seeing the picture from Benjamin's written words and filtered through Caroline and/or Daisy's cerebral cortex. Individuals retain a certain kind of immutable static essence in our memory, because we evolved that way (human beings don't deal well with change, or at least change that they can see). Thus Daisy must be presented not as she was, but as she was constructed by the collective memory of the motion picture.

*

I mentioned earlier how photographs are an important part of Benjamin Button, and not simply sumptuous decor geared towards winning an Art Direction Oscar (which it should, nonetheless). The role of photographs in the film is part of the theme. This is a story of eighty years of regression; the walls of photographs will eventually be replaced by generic and store-bought art, until finally there is nothing. Photographs communicate lineage, and lineage is another important issue in a film where there is so much severance. Benjamin's story begins with severances: Benjamin's birth kills his mother, after which his father abandons him to Queenie’s doorstep. Queenie is infertile and raises this adopted son as her own, regardless of his skin color (she says it's her sister's child, "the worst part about it bein' it was born white!") and Benjamin's strange condition. As Benjamin grows older, Queenie finally is blessed with the ability to have her own children, which seems to dismay Benjamin. As Caroline reads from the old diary to dying Daisy, she notes that there are pages ripped out, around this period of the birth of his siblings. Consequently they are scarcely mentioned, a deletion that we should not take for granted. In fact, nothing at all is said about Queenie's biological children, and any attitude Benjamin seems to have towards them is spiteful (Benjamin has a streak of silent jealousy). When he is finally "senile" in his old age/early childhood at the end, bearing the semblance of an eight-year-old, he identifies them as "fucking liars."

As Benjamin ages/regresses, Fincher shows his father keeping an eye on him. Thomas is haunted by his actions, and after a chance meeting with Benjamin in a brothel (a realm of simulated linking, far from biological procreation of which it is a simulation - also indicating that the father and the son have some similarities, including the abandonment of children), the two bond, though Thomas is unable to bring himself to reveal his identity. We learn that his business is buttons. "There isn't a button that Button's Buttons can't make," Thomas remarks, though his main competition and threat is B.F. Goodrich and his "infernal zippers" (the threat of new and faster technologies are linked to the devil). The individual is linked, in Benjamin Button, with the body, which is a prison for Identity, inescapable (Benjamin's own attitudes act in conjunction with his changing body growing more youthful). Buttons are what fasten the clothes that present that body to other Beings, just as photographs are a kind of representative sign for what somebody wishes to project about themselves. After WWII, Thomas, who is dying, decides to come clean. Thomas shows Benjamin photographs of his dead mother and how their story came to fruition. Thomas is tormented by his sins, and by his memories both vile and beautiful, his one desire being to see the dawn come over the shore once more, just as he experienced while courting Benjamin's biological mother, Thomas is obsessed with specific dates (April 25, 1918), and cannot cut himself free from history; that thing that he seeks to evade is also his home, his experience with the Infinite, the figure-8. Benjamin will forgive his father, and Thomas will be buried next to his mother, though Benjamin insists to Queenie, "You're my mother," which is a gracious sentiment, but also indicative of how much easier it is for Benjamin to cut himself off when compared to Thomas. It is an ambivalent statement, tender and yet something that bespeaks the era, post WWII, post New Deal, with the emergence of the great Middle Class where life will become increasingly generic, as we will see with the decor changing in Queenie's house, gradually looking cheaper, the real faces replaced by painted plants; nature is a false nature. Geography is becoming cheapened, lineage is hazy, and with that, new values materialize

***

Benjamin is offered work by Capt. Mike Clark (which sounds like "Clock" when characters pronounce it), a drunk tug boat captain who is adamant about his life's passion to be an artist. His canvas, appropriate in the context of this film where the body is so important, is his own flesh. A tattoo artist, Captain Mike rebelled against his own family by embracing his artistic side. The years of his life are well worn on his flesh, so that when he meets his fate, in a collision with bullets (marvelously created by Fincher and his visual effects team) during a late night shootout with a German U-boat, his shredded body is like a devastated masterpiece. Clark says, "Tell my family that I was thinking about them." Whatever consolation an afterlife or heaven holds is inconsequential in the face of an actual existence, which crushes the Self and its memories, and which the ego is resistant towards. Another theme in Schopenhauer deals with how we should not fear death, being that what happens after death is just as it was before we were born (something seemingly pertinent in this picture, with the main character born in death and heading to die in birth, nothingness on both ends). But human beings are naturally selfish, even though they must surrender themselves to the "Infinite" (the hummingbird’s figure-8). "You could swear, curse the Fates, but when it comes to the End, you have to let go," the captain says while dying.

Between birth and death, there are the beings we meet in between. In Russia, Benjamin has a poignant relationship with the wife of a British spy, Lizzie Abbott (Tilda Swinton). The two speak while stationed in Russia, night after night, sharing experiences (or rather Benjamin mainly listens, and Lizzie speaks; Benjamin is a very passive character, almost Chauncey Gardner-like). The two fall in love, which addresses the problems of causality. She admits that she's made many mistakes in her life, and while she tells him that if she could go back in time she would undo all of her mistakes, it is precisely whatever mistakes she has done that have brought these two together, at this moment. The affair ends suddenly when the war begins, and Benjamin is left with a handwritten note: "It was nice to have met you." And that is all. This curious infinity of life, with other selves incessantly coming into contact with us, and how fortunate we are to have tasted an experience with another person (which is an experience you cannot forge; it can only happen) is one of the main feelings Benjamin Button attempts to communicate. As James Joyce notes, we are all in all in all of us, coming into contact with all sorts of "Others," but always meeting only ourselves.

***

Benjamin Button is not really much of an “adaptation” of the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story, published in 1921 and featured as one of the Six Tales From the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s conceptual premise of a man aging in reverse serves as a springboard for a glossy chronicle wherein Fincher and Eric Roth explore a cycle of entropy, more appropriately suited for one of Fitzgerald’s novels. The original story is very slight, very sardonic, and very entertaining, its theme seeming to deal with how the elderly are very much like children. The differences between story and film are vast: for one, in Fitzgerald's story Benjamin can speak the moment he's born; the mother lives; Benjamin marries, but loses attraction to his wife after she turns 35; He has a son and not a daughter, and grows young/old with his child. The melancholy element of the story happens only at the end, with the eradication of Benjamin's memory, his consciousness drifting away as he enters elderly infancy. The story covers another period in history, beginning in 1860 rather than 1918.

A.O. Scott noted that Fincher’s Benjamin Button, with its philosophical quandaries, resembles Borges more than Fitzgerald's story. This is only partially true. I think it's all too apparent that the film, more than anything, is Fitzgeraldian. The key theme in Fitzgerald is Time and its relationship to Memory. The agent by which this theme is carried in his work is through his love stories, and the love stories of Fitzgerald are really one love story, forever repeating itself in both his life and his work, Tristanian in nature. The name of Fitzgerald's first noteworthy protagonist was Amory (Amore!), in This Side of Paradise, for whom love is ultimately not enough (he is rejected because of his social circumstances; his lover tells him, "The things for which I love you are precisely the things which make you a failure!"). The most famed of his protagonists, Gatsby, was a modest Midwesterner who turns his back on his family, home, and name, becomes a bootlegger so that he may construct an entirely new identity based on his wealth, and thereby win the love of the woman who would not marry him because of his inherited social status, Daisy. These struggles mirror his own life with Zelda Sayre, whom he would marry, but never be at peace with (due to her mental illness and his alcoholism, meshed with the moral bankruptcy – which Fitzgerald acknowledged – of the social life to which they had willfully clung). Fitzgerald's protagonists live for "amore" love, dwarfing family ties. And if they cannot have it, they will either hurl themselves into hell while chasing it, or they will drift into the fog, just as nihilistically. In both cases, there is no compromise. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44, probably brought on by endless drinking, but also probably owing just as much to a heart that has dealt with a lot of duress.

In Benjamin Button this love is present. There are absurd gestures of love, such as uttering a "good-night" to the beloved who cannot hear it, but which one utters nonetheless; or a diary written which probably never will be read; a photograph taken which will never be appreciated by anyone else; a postcard sent, tucked away and skimmed over with the eyes, but nothing more. The characters in the film, much like the characters in Fitzgerald's literature, long to be absorbed by and connected to their objects of desire, but ultimately they are alone, their enigmas being carried with them to the grave (much like Benjamin's piano teacher, who is the first person to also teach him how to miss somebody).

Benjamin's love for Daisy has the quality of a fairytale from the first meeting, where they share secrets lit by candlelight under the table, and in the differences within their personalities which indicate that one is the completion of the other. He is cerebral, passive, introverted; she is outspoken, communicative, active. For her, when he leaves in 1936 to go to sea, he vows to send postcards, bridging the emotion through any geographical barrier. But he stops writing when he meets someone else, indicating that writing itself is representative of his love for Daisy. Daisy, meanwhile, has moved to New York, and has become a dancer of note, working with great choreographers and embracing a rococo lifestyle.

When the two meet again, in Queenie's house now full of generic clocks and painted nature (replacing the old clocks and more lush photographs), they appear completely different but are very much the same in the sense that neither is saying much. Though Daisy cannot stop talking about New York, there is no substance to her words. There is no substance to Time itself here. As the two go to eat in a restaurant, Fincher cuts the moments together through a series of dissolves with Daisy's words disappearing into themselves, Benjamin narrating, "As she told me about this new world, I didn't hear a word of what she was saying." Indeed, as Daisy talks about New York or the latest fashion, be it related to clothes or literature, she does not seem like a genuine person. Rather, she seems to be spouting chic ideas spoon-fed to whatever participant in a hipster elite. She speaks about being naked, but Daisy is wearing more clothes now than ever before. She offers herself to Benjamin (who now looks like he's 60), but he turns her down, perhaps because she seems so different and pretentious. Daisy has become much like Daisy in Gatsby, a woman held captive by her own advantages and freedom, paved by economic freedoms and the temporary beauty that Time and Luck give. Benjamin, however, is just as selfish as Fitzgerald’s great male protagonists.

When Benjamin surprises Daisy in New York by turning up unexpected, she is worse. Daisy is polite to him, but offers no real conversation. He is an unwanted dweller from her past, with no place in her life populated by interesting people. In spite of this disparity between Benjamin and Daisy, the two still bid each other goodnight, though separated by hundreds of miles of geography, or, as given in Daisy's last words before she dies ("Goodnight, Benjamin"), mortality.

The two are brought together – and torn apart just as quickly – by the destruction of Daisy's body. Fincher puts together an excellent sequence detailing the myriad of vectors that come together by real space and real time dictating how Fate – or causality rather – writes itself into our lives. The story begins with a woman in Paris on her way to go shopping, forgetting her coat, and going back inside her apartment to pick it up; she gets a ride from a cab driver who stopped earlier to get a cup of coffee; the woman had to pick up a new piece of clothing which she purchases later than expected, because the saleswoman at the clothing store is breaking up with her boyfriend, etc. The end result is the cab crashing into Daisy as she leaves the theatre after a rehearsal, her leg getting crushed in five places. Her body is her livelihood as a dancer. And now her purpose for living, which has enabled her for so long to dance through life with "interesting people," is stolen from her. Benjamin comes to see her, but is once more rejected. The Daisy here is as vain and narcissistic as she's always been, but now wounded and not wanting her scarred body to be seen. The image of her is to be compared to the Daisy we have seen dying in the hospital. In 1950, she is injured, but still beautiful; in 2004, she is a breathing corpse, held together by technology, more machine than human.

It is Daisy's narcissism that calls the love story into question. The next section of the picture is one of complete erotic fulfillment for Benjamin. As Benjamin, now looking like Brad Pitt circa 2008, is "perfect," she on the other hand has lost her reason for living. Would she have come back to Benjamin in New Orleans if she still had her talent for dancing? And doesn't Benjamin hold her attachment to dancing in contempt? He rejects making love to her in 1946 after she dances on a fountain; her life in dancing has given her more "interesting" lovers that have torn her apart from any intimacy with him. Later on, as she regrets her body's demise, he tells her that she had taken a career path that would have ended quickly anyway, so she would have always ended up here with him. Critics and audiences have taken for granted the ambiguities here, and Benjamin Button is hardly a manipulative love story, moving as it is. In the terrain of David Fincher, much as the terrain of F. Scott Fitzgerald, love is definitely beautiful, but it is also very selfish and destructive, driven by a hungry ego (this is one reason one must be suspicious of a Baz Luhrman adaptation of The Great Gatsby). The love story between these two is one of the better ones I have ever seen in a movie, precisely because of its imperfections and ironic delusions, and erotic fulfillment is Faustian in nature: it is the soul's longing and yet may also require a great piece of the soul be sacrificed. Benjamin and Daisy come together, and it is pristine but also fragile. There is a reluctance to speak "for fear of ruining it," he tells her when they stand face to face in the bedroom where they will finally make love. He undresses her (it is significant that he unzips her dress, signaling new clothing and a New Self, a severance from Benjamin's "Button"-esque roots) and the two come together. She asks him about his aging, and he admits that he's afraid that some things don't last. Death is unavoidable.

With Benjamin and Daisy becoming lovers, his adoptive mother Queenie dies, and he sells his father's house. The buyer admires the photographs on the wall, detailing the Button history. "They come with the house," Benjamin says. This is a significant moment, because the house, which Daisy says she loves, carries Benjamin's link to history, just as it is our link to the Old New Orleans and to the beginning of the film. Photographs are individual (versus mass-produced) links to the past, to cherished moments, to the mystery of our private identities, and so have an aura. With Benjamin's wish fulfilled, the price he pays for happiness with Daisy is his sense of history. He falls into the 1950s and 1960s much like the American middle class in that period, existing in something of a hermetical vacuum, residing in a generic duplex with Daisy. There are no traditions or authentic pictures, but only generic decorations. The one picture that thrives here is a television set. He is happy with the bourgeois life he has created (or rather, which circumstances and history have given to him; the money came from his father's company, from which he has disengaged himself willfully). When Daisy regrets the past and what happened to her leg, he tries to console her. "Even if nothing ever happened, you'd still be here." This is not wisdom on the part of Benjamin, and Fincher has fooled both admirers of his picture and those that accuse it of being generically manipulative. Benjamin wants to hold time still, demonstrated as he stands in front of a mirror with Daisy, elongating the moment, but no photograph of him exists. "As we are now" will always pass away, and the nihilism that comes after disillusionment is itself a kind of "letting go." Like his father, Benjamin Button will walk out on his family. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is detailing the eradication of identity and the death of culture.

***

In a New York Times editorial, David Brooks discusses memory and how memory's capabilities seem to work in direct proportion to the technology one uses to log information. One's memory seems to work better for those who don't log in all the time and use the gadgetry of convenience at their fingertips, whereas the affluent individuals processing information in electronic banks have the slightest short-term recall. "The Sophie's Choice of the 21st century," writes Brooks, "may be My Memory or My Blackberry." The digital age, this reactionary viewpoint fears, may feature a civilization trapped in the forever present moment, with no sense of time, tradition, lineage, or consequences. Without regret, there is no reflection, no character, no identity, and no morality.

Are these a Luddite’s claims? David Fincher is not a technophobe, having embraced the best in digital filmmaking to make his pictures. But he’s also a keen observer of how information technology works and evolves, if we look at his survey of history, beginning with Zodiac, continuing with Benjamin Button, and ending with The Social Network. Communication between human beings has always been cloudy, just as the longing to communicate and to be heard has always been powerful. But the "way of the future," the last lines of Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, has placed us into a flux of non-stop acceleration and technological dependence, which is only further taking us out of any spiritual depth whatsoever. Some neuroscientists believe we are losing our ability to empathize, or simply to think beyond the concrete. Why do we need to read an entire book? The peripheral information absorbed while reading a newspaper becomes disjointed as we are more accustomed to clicking on web hyperlinks, giving us even more information, though we only skim the surface of a particular topic.

The crossroads for Daisy in Benjamin Button, where she is more machine than human in her hospital bed, has to do with her request to have Benjamin's story read to her. She's tried to read it before, and we can assume that perhaps she's been distracted. It is ultimately the imminent reality of death that drives the human being towards authentic living, and usually it comes too late.

The most troubling moment in the film has to do with Benjamin's departure from his family. Is it altruistic? Or selfish? Because of Benjamin's youthful body, perhaps he simply wants to be free from any relationships that keep him tied someplace. Fincher gives us images of Benjamin travelling across the world, living a rough but rewarding life of self-reliance. But he is alone, and he wishes he could go back to see his daughter grow up, though he only keeps on marching into the future and nothingness He writes his daughter post-cards, hoping that he will be heard, but the fact that Caroline has never read these bits of information feels significant, and ties into the idea of lost dreams carried along the tide of time. As Caroline, Julia Ormond herself seems, with the lines forming around her mouth, a walking station of regret, being that in 1994, with Legends of the Fall – Brad Pitt's first box-office drawing starring role – she was going to be the next big leading lady, something that never came to be. Benjamin tells Caroline that it is never too late or too early to be who you want to be—

But how are we to take this? We could take it as genuine wisdom spoken by a magical realist motion picture, or is there something more to it? Remember, we are seeing a film through Benjamin's perspective. In seeing parallel events, we should rather relate Benjamin's actions to his father: he has selfishly abandoned his child (leaving behind money, so that the offspring will be taken care of) while starting over (Thomas Button's starting-over led him to brothels). The child in both instances is described as being "lost." Gradually, Benjamin loses his memory. He is found, an angry twelve-year-old with acne, unable to communicate, lost in the echo of a song he can play on the piano, but cannot remember learning. His stagnation mirrors a certain social stagnation, of a time losing its memory and further isolating itself (Benjamin doesn't like to be touched). Daisy takes on the role of caring for the baby Benjamin, holding him in her arms as he looks at her one last time, then closing his eyes to die.

Does he remember her with this last look, as she does? We would love to believe 'yes,' as Daisy does, but again Fincher is questioning our sentiments. Just as Benjamin's memories are edited, so are Daisy's. That is the nature of art, of memory, to make it a sculpted chaos, with the psychological need for semblance and harmony in a curious, nonsensical world.

With Benjamin's demise is the electronic age's dominance. The gears of the complex clocks are replaced with batteries, the crowning bookend of the film being Mr. Cake's clock coming down and being replaced by a digital clock in 2002. We notice to the left of the clock is an advertisement: Citizen Soldiers. The world is becoming more militarized, where things are mechanical to the extent that the ordinary citizens are soldiers, in contrast to the sorrow of war when the analog clock took shape in 1918. Benjamin dies in the spring of 2003, when the Iraq war, an apocalyptic quagmire, begins.

Analog time – the hand clock – where time is visibly circular with every moment in view, every number related to the one preceding and following it, has vanished, and what follows is the constant present, with no reflection, memory, or regret. The diary, information of a Life stating that I Am, I Was, and I Loved, cannot endure. It must not, which is why it is important that the story be told. The deepest regret is that the words go unnoticed. It's not enough to say that the theme of Benjamin Button amounts to facile humanism. The film, like Fitzgerald, is obsessed with changes, with Time, with Erosion and Entropy, and with the longing for the Eternal Moment to be forever frozen and beautiful, lost within itself and unburdened by the ghosts of the past or anxieties of the future. Memory breaks this gilded moment, but memory is also the Holy Grail in Fitzgerald. Losing memory is death, as Benjamin loses it, and Fincher emphasizing the infernal sirens of Hurricane Katrina relates to our digital age losing its own memory. Fincher and Miranda's use of HD digital cinematography, but being reverent to cinema's past (the scratched celluloid), also carries this anxiety where the cinema itself is at risk of losing its sense of lineage and memory in a CGI world.

"Goodnight, Benjamin" are Daisy's last words, a delusional prayer to nothing, an absurd statement that is defiant and beautiful. It prompts the appearance of the hummingbird, the symbol for Infinity. There is a great and terrible awe in those hurricane sirens at this point, as the flood swallows the clockmaker's tribute to memory, showing how vast and fragile the pillars of the Self are.


3 comments:

  1. This was an amazing read. Thank you.

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