Benjamin Button

I expect many things from big Hollywood blockbuster films with A-list actors. Cool special effects, wonderful charisma from the stars, hopefully a story that hangs together. What I don’t expect is true profundity. I don’t expect literature.

But last night I saw “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, and I was completely unprepared for its emotional and philosophical depths. The conceit, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is simple (I’m sure you’ve heard it by now ad nauseum): A man is born old, and goes through his life growing progressively younger. Along the way he meets his great love, a woman who ages through life normally.

One would think that this would be a great opportunity for some neat set pieces and some cool computer graphics effects, and one would be right. This film has all that. The computer graphics are even almost good enough – which is quite a trick, given that 2008 is still a little early, tech-wise, to try pulling this kind of thing off seamlessly.

But the film, as written by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, and directed by David Fincher, ends up not really being about any of that. It’s a truly heartbreaking meditation on mortality, the limits of love, and the inevitable space between human beings. Starting with the simple trick of a main character who goes through life the wrong way around, the film continually forces us to address very difficult questions about life that we have all become very good at ignoring.

I find now, a day after having seen it, that the more I think about this film, the more questions it raises in my mind. For one thing, it illuminates the great twin mysteries of childhood and old age. We generally deal with these mysteries through euphemisms – our culture routinely puts children and old people into reductive categories that fail to capture the enormous enigma of those states of being. The mind and personality of a child come from seemingly out of nowhere, as the child gradually grows, before our eyes, into a fully unique individual, unlike any other on the planet. And then at the end of one’s life this process is strangely reversed – the gifts of life gradually taken from us a little at a time, until the day when birth itself is bookended by its opposite.

We develop entire religions, as well as elaborate taboos and tricks of language, to avoid looking at the terrifying power of this process full in the face, and yet it is the central mystery of our lives – along with the elaborate dance in which adults find themselves between these two bookends, as our sexuality draws us together to participate in this connection with the infinite.

We are so used to seeing all this that we no longer see it – it all devolves into a set of symbols so ubiquitous that they have become reflexive icons – love songs and slow dances, baby clothes and wheelchairs, trappings of this strange arc that we simply take for granted.

But the genius of “Benjamin Button” is that it forces us to look at this process – really look at it – the way René Magritte forced us to look at everyday objects as though seeing them for the first time.

And once we are made to look in this direction, we begin to see things. For example, we see that from his early twenties until his early sixties a man is a member of a club – he is accepted into that great society known as adulthood. He can take a job, have sexual partners, take responsibility for children and find within himself a way to create meaning from his life. But the time before this and after this are out of bounds – they are the bookends. Society does not look at the boy or the old man as a member of this club. Privileges and freedoms that are taken for granted by the adult in his long prime are not granted to those who fall outside of this roughly forty year window.

Yes, technically a man in his seventies has all of the rights as a man in his forties or fifties, but there are subtle differences – and others that are not so subtle. In most cases he is not seen as relevant in the same way, not perceived as an agent within the world. Rather, he is gently shunted aside, somewhat the way society shunts aside its children, with the message “you are not one whose place it is to act upon the world, but one whose place it is to be taken care of.”

And like adult life itself, love too has its bookends. Mysteriously we fall in love, and just as mysteriously we may fall out of love. We have no idea how long we have, only that our love has experienced a birth and a gradual maturing, and that at some point it might become lost to us. In the day-to-day we tend to forget that each day of being alive and in love is a miracle, a miracle that we can hold in our grasp for only a measure of time, before it must be relinquished.

I have found all these thoughts and many more rolling around in my head since having seen this film. And isn’t that what good literature is for?

6 Responses to “Benjamin Button”

  1. troy says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, but, your review is compelling…

    I am brought to the thought that we start and end the same… Both the todler and the old man rely on someone who dutifully obliges when we command them to “put on cartoons and change my diaper”.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, the film touches on that point, not surprisingly. I’ll be curious to know what you think after you’ve had a chance to see it.

  3. sally says:

    The human condition has been dismissed by those in denial in every generation.

    I do think though, that 60 is a bit early these days for “bookend”ing…

  4. admin says:

    Well no, I wasn’t suggesting 60 exactly – somewhere in the 60s. One thing the film illuminates is the way that the gradual transition in perception of an individual by the world from “not adult” to “adult” between, say, 16 and 22 is roughly mirrored in the other direction, often starting somewhere in the 60s. Of course this perception is often wildly inaccurate: There are 14 year olds who are already emotionally and intellectually mature, and people in their 80s who are still at or near the top of their game.

  5. sally says:

    I would argue that perhaps when the original story was originally written, the 60’s were that place, but now I would think that its more that the 80’s are…

  6. admin says:

    Works for me. And as time goes on, I suspect it will work for me even more. 🙂

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