by J. Sugarman
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
dir. David Fincher
David Fincher may be the first true auteur of computer-generated imagery. In 2007’s murder mystery, Zodiac, he used his digital paintbrush to reconstruct the cityscape of 1970’s San Francisco. The shots—a collection of blue and yellow-hued street scenes that would make Edward Hopper proud—are as haunting as they are seamless. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button chronicles the adventures of a New Orleans man who ages in reverse. It represents a departure from the crime stories Fincher has traditionally gravitated towards as well as an ambitious exploration of the possibilities of CGI technology.
Brad Pitt’s Button is immaculately illustrated, from the tufts of hair that halo his gnarled skull as a “youth” to his porcelain skin and soft features as an “old” man. There’s something oddly mesmerizing about watching the world’s most handsome movie star reduced to a sexless gnome, hobbling about on crutches like an oversized crab.
If Zodiac tapped into its viewers’ voyeuristic lust for violence then Button is Fincher’s answer to our culture’s fascination with youth and beauty. However you may feel about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the film deserves to be celebrated for its author’s mastery of what has heretofore been a technology exclusively reserved for blockbuster kitsch.
Once you peel off its glossy wrapping, you’re left with a film that walks a very fine line between poetry and mawkishness. The screenwriter, Eric Roth, has collaborated on gritty, realist dramas as Munich and The Insider. Sadly, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button feels like a companion piece to Roth’s fantasy, Forrest Gump. Button, like Gump, is a cipher and a passive observer of the world around him.
Both characters are “born under unusual circumstances”; develop childhood romances that will last the rest of their lives; fight valiantly in American wars; travel the world; and spout aphorisms like: “you never know what’s coming for you” (Gump famously postulated that “life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”). But the similarities do not end with the story’s protagonist.
The films feature rambunctious sea captains that impart valuable life lessons as well as surrogate, black family members who, by the laws of Hollywood schmaltz, are as angelic as they are ignorant. Just as Gump slapped its viewers with the emotional baggage of the AIDS epidemic, Roth makes the poor choice of punctuating Button’s tale with Hurricane Katrina, as though 5 short years have transformed its destruction into some kind of romantic conceit.
For someone who detests Forrest Gump and all of its emotional manipulations, this would seem like an insurmountable list of grievances. And yet I found myself buoyed through much of the film. Tilda Swinton makes a brief but memorable appearance as a Button’s reluctant mistress, Elizabeth Abbott. Married to an English spy and stationed in a Murmansk hotel, Abbott is the kind of tortured, English heroine one might find in a Graham Greene novel. Swinton, blinking and stammering her way through much of their courtship, is thoroughly moving and believable.
Indeed, the film’s final act is nothing short of devastating. In Button’s finest scene, Benjamin, who has aged in reverse to the point where he looks like an 18 year-old boy, meets with his lover, Daisy (Cate Blanchett), for one final tryst. Fincher focuses his camera on Blanchett as she wordlessly puts back on her clothes. Unlike Pitt, her body has been digitally aged to look older and looser. Her flesh bulging slightly against the straps of her brassiere, she is impossibly vulnerable. This Daisy has begun to wilt. Who knew computer-generated effects could be so affecting?
J. Sugarman is a contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York.
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“Lete” – Akira Kosemura (mp3)
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We need more allowance.
Lately you’ve centered me.
Used to be the answer.