Present Tense

Benjamin Button and a passive hero's route toward happiness
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted May 8, 2009
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The following is the text for a video essay on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Click on the video in the right-hand column to view it in full.

David Fincher’s seventh feature, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man struggling to hold onto his love for a woman named Daisy while aging backwards from old age to infancy, is by any reckoning a film too huge to ignore. It has a heavyweight cast, including Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, and a massive $150 million budget that required the collaboration of two studios, Paramount and Warner Bros.; it was released at the end of 2008 at the height of awards season and eventually garnered 13 Academy Award nominations, including nods for Fincher’s direction and for Pitt’s performance in the title role.

Yet the film, just released on DVD through Paramount and the Criterion Collection, was not an unqualified popular or critical success, earning less than its budget at the box office and dividing reviewers. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called it “a one of a kind meditation on mortality, time’s inexorable passage and the fleeting sweetness of love.” The opposite end of the spectrum was represented by Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who wrote of the Se7en and Zodiac director: "Giving Fincher this project is like asking the great French humanist director Jean Renoir to do a slasher movie." Turan's sense that the film was too coldly perfect and too obsessed with mood, production design, and special effects technique—particularly the CGI that aged Pitt's character backward—was echoed by many detractors.

Another persistent gripe was that the title character wasn’t really much of a character—just a cipher, more acted upon than acting, which made his story undramatic and the film a crashing bore. San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle wrote, "To call Benjamin a passive protagonist is not enough. He's all but inert, and the movie defines him almost exclusively in terms of his aging process. He has no interests, no ambition, no position save that of an outsider, and no desire except for Daisy. He is an uninteresting person to whom something medically interesting has happened. For the screenwriter, this is the weakest possible choice.”

LaSalle's condemnation of the crux of Button—the essential helplessness not just of the afflicted hero, but every other character as well—is perhaps the key to understanding the wildly divergent critical reactions to the film's technique, story, and themes. It’s a worldview thing: either you share the film’s philosophy and appreciate the elementally simple way it expresses it, or you find the entire contraption obvious, precious, trite, and dull. The unabashed enthusiasm with which Button articulates its concerns all but eliminates any possibility of critical middle ground.

Benjamin is indeed more acted upon than acted; this is, of course, a deliberate choice made by Fincher and his story writers Robin Swicord and Eric Roth. The production’s defining participant might be Roth, the credited screenwriter. In the past decade and a half, he has carved out a distinctive niche penning scripts for big-budget Hollywood films about protagonists who don't so much transcend suffering as stoically endure it, who try and often fail to understand and conquer the forces arrayed against them and who sometimes seem to float along on history's currents, trying to be the best person they can under the circumstances.

Fourteen years before Button, Roth wrote the screenplay for another picaresque narrative about a simple man swept along on the tides of time: Forrest Gump, which was likewise criticized for its main character's passivity—and for what some critics perceived as a right-wing reactionary streak that mocked and vilified the liberal advances of mid-20th-century America and suggested that ignorance really was bliss. Yet Gump was a much bigger success than Button despite (or because of) its somewhat opaque point of view on its hero, which made it hard to tell if Forrest's mental disability was supposed to be taken at face value or metaphorically, as a sly jab at Americans' perpetual naivete and blind faith in their leaders. Whatever its intent, audiences embraced the film as a valentine to indestructible innocence and a paean to what Richard Nixon memorably called "the Silent Majority."

But the core of Gump’s appeal is its status as a kind of exaggerated personal history, one scrawled in crayon in the margins of an official text. Forrest repeatedly finds himself an extra on history's main stage, interacting with the leading men and ladies without really affecting the narrative. Thanks to the film's humor and pathos, this point of view seems not so much deterministic as pragmatic: whatever dramatic personal decisions we make regarding our own lives and those of our friends and families, in some larger sense we're all drifting in the wind like Forrest’s feather. Politics aside, that's a sense of life that anyone who's not rich or famous can appreciate.

By stripping away the political context that made Gump a pop culture hot potato, Button isolates and magnifies the story's emotional appeal: the sense that, no matter how strongly we believe in the notion that each person is the captain of his or her own ship, the unfortunate fact is that most of us are passengers on this voyage. When we wish to change course, it's difficult, often impossible to get the captain's attention, and even if we manage to do so, the vessel is so enormous, and so beholden to the wishes of everyone else on board, that altering its course even infinitesimally is often beyond the realm of possibility. Button is entirely about this sense of life: the realization that we’re quite small and powerless in the great scheme of things, and the most sensible response to this realization is to try to be as caring and decent as we can and appreciate the life we’ve got.

***

It seems odd to describe a $150 million Brad Pitt movie as unconventional, but in the context of commercial narrative cinema, the label fits. Show business is exactly that, and one of its imperatives has been to give viewers an escape from the world they know—a world in which it's damned hard just to get through the Department of Motor Vehicles line during lunch hour, let alone win the love of your ideal mate, show some two-bit thug what's what, or save your town, your nation, or the galaxy from evil.

If you've ever taken a screenwriting course, or read one of those formulaic and in many ways sinister how-to paperbacks sold at chain bookstores, you know that tales of passive protagonists trapped in circumstances beyond their control are considered not just uncommercial, but anathema to the very idea of good storytelling. Good storytelling, Robert McKee, Syd Field, and other screenwriting gurus assure us, is goal-directed: figure out who the hero is and what he wants, then show him growing and learning and getting tougher and more resourceful as he systematically overcomes obstacles standing between him and his objective.

None of the above should be construed as a condemnation of the usual modes of movie storytelling. They've been around for over a hundred years, they're descended from models hundreds, even thousands of years older, and they've inspired many satisfying and occasionally profound entertainments. But there are so many examples that it's easy to forget that there is another way of doing things—another kind of story, one that addresses the hard reality of everyday existence even as its imagery and situations reach toward the mythic, the symbolic, and the dreamlike.

Terrence Malick, the director of Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, is perhaps the foremost American exemplar of this kind of filmmaking. His movies find lovely and daring ways to puncture the narcissistic bubble that so often encloses our moviegoing consciousness. His characters have free will and exercise it for better or worse, but we're always aware of the gap between how they see themselves (as central) and how history and nature see them (as incidental, perhaps irrelevant). Even Malick's most dynamic and influential characters are ensemble players in life's rich pageant, often diminished at their most elated or sorrowful moments by the complexity of history and the merciless forward march of time.

In that sense, Malick is kin to Bernardo Bertolucci, whose The Last Emperor (1987) empathetically examined the life of the isolated and powerless royal Pu Yi; Andrei Konchalovsky, whose underrated 1991 drama The Inner Circle pictured Stalinist Russia from the point of view of Stalin's projectionist; Vittorio De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves turned a simple search for stolen property into a cry of rage at society's indifference to individual suffering, and Theo Angelopoulos, whose epic 2004 domestic drama The Weeping Meadow contrasted the suffering and resilience of one family against political turmoil and the fearsome damage inflicted by the natural world.

The grandaddy of little-man-on-the-fringes-of-history movies—and an enormous influence on Gump—is Woody Allen's 1983 mockumentary Zelig, about a nebbish chameleon who has no personality of his own, but somehow takes on the traits of others and is therefore comfortable anywhere. On first glance, Allen's film seems an absurdist lark, but in its heart, it's a serious and unnerving movie that asks, "Who are we, really?" It calls into question the idea that personalities are innate and that there is such a thing as individuality, suggesting instead that, to borrow Stephen King's description of writers, maybe human beings are like milk, taking on the flavor of whatever happens to be sitting next to them in the refrigerator.

Superficially dissimilar as they are, all of these predecessors to Button offer a corrective to Hollywood's goal-directed power fantasies, which put a lone hero or heroine at the center of the universe and invite the viewer to feel that their existence is central too. They share a sense that the world is a vast and indifferent place, that society generally can't be bothered to acknowledge individual desires, and that our place in the universe is ultimately a very small one.

One sees a similar perspective in the scripts that Eric Roth has written or collaborated on. They include Michael Mann's Ali (2001), which juxtaposes the champ's defiant individuality against vast social forces that shape his identity and restrict his choices; The Insider (1999), in which a whistleblower's decency is ignored, then suppressed, then punished; and Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005), in which the avengers of a terrorist massacre are used and abused by their mother country until they no longer know where or who the enemy is.

These very different films’ shared visual components include a tendency to let emotionally pivotal moments play out against the backdrop of rivers and oceans, the poets' go-to symbols of eternity; think of the final scene in Munich set on the Brooklyn waterfront, the twin towers rising up in the background, or the telephone pep talk in The Insider between whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, growing increasingly paranoid in his suburban home, and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, standing in the surf near his beachside home, urging Wigand toward righteousness as waves crash around him. Button takes this motif about as far as it can go, setting the bulk of the story in and near New Orleans, the Venice of the United States—a city perpetually battered by storms and floods, one whose existence is dependent on levees holding back the sea and that is therefore living, like its human inhabitants, on borrowed time. (The sense that time is running out is subtly indicated by Alexandre Desplat's score, which often employs time signatures and instrumentation that suggest the rhythm of interlocking mechanical gears or the ticking of clocks.)

LaSalle's description of the film’s hero, while certainly unflattering, is not inaccurate. Benjamin is less a person than a condition: a set of circumstances that instantly give him a perspective on life that other people spend decades gradually acquiring. To be young is to be ignorant of mortality, and ignorance is bliss. Benjamin was never ignorant, because he was born an ancient man, abandoned, then raised in a retirement home, which gave him an awareness of life's temporary nature and a determination to savor the moment he’s in.

Ghastly as Benjamin's condition seems, it's a hidden blessing, because it lets him be free of the curse of self-awareness, the continual looking forward and backward without appreciating life in the present tense. Because he never had any illusions about his ability to control the world, he's free to appreciate the joys that it does bring: the texture of sunlight at dawn and dusk, the thrill of a fast bike or a visit to a foreign land, the pleasure of company. To quote Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin knows that “you must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”

Benjamin's unique experience makes him a kind of spiritual materialist, seeking out feelings, sensations, experiences, because that's all he's got; that's all any of us have got. And when we're gone, nothing remains but the story of our lives and the stories we told other people when we were alive—a conviction sharply etched by the film’s subtly intricate structure, which nestles stories within stories within stories.

The movie’s framing device finds the elderly Daisy, dying on the eve of a hurricane’s impact on New Orleans, asking her daughter to read Benjamin’s diary (which he describes in the text as a “last will and testament”). Benjamin’s story then takes center stage—a picaresque tale in which the hero wanders, Candide-like, from cradle to grave (but with the usual physical progression reversed) meeting all sorts of fascinating people: an African pygmy who caricatures and exploits his cultural roots in order to live comfortably in America; a drunken ship’s captain whose father denied his ambition to paint, and who reclaimed his dream by having every inch of his body tattooed so that nobody could ever take his art away from him; the elderly man who was struck by lightning seven times.

All of the film’s characters, from supporting players through more central figures—Benjamin’s adoptive mother and father, the beautiful swimmer who breaks his heart, his beloved Daisy—are seen by Benjamin as equally worthy of knowledge and affection, equally valuable as human beings, simply by virtue of their aliveness. “Some people were born to sit by a river,” Benjamin says in his closing narration. “Some get struck by lightning. Some have an ear for music. Some are artists. Some swim. Some know buttons. Some know Shakespeare. Some are mothers. And some people dance.”

For a film described as passive, Button is quite pointed in mapping a route toward happiness and a proper way to live and to appreciate who we have while we have them. And as hardheaded as the film's attitude toward mortality is, it reassures us that as long as we remember, tell, and pass down stories, the people who meant something to us will survive the flood, and that retelling and replaying their stories will keep them forever alive. 

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Courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher
Photo Gallery: Present Tense

THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door