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The Curiosities of "Benjamin Button"

Daniel Kasman

I'm mad as hell, and I'll take it a little longer! One of the most basic, but most defining features of David Fincher's short filmography is the relegation of melodrama essentially to a one-note psychic, psychological, and thematic emphasis on frustration.  Frustration at one's inability to understand the facts the world presents (Se7en, Zodiac), frustration over the confines and limitations of space (Alien³, Panic Room), frustration over uncontrollable manipulation outside oneself (The Game, and all of the above), frustration over the limitations of oneself and society (Fight Club)—if Fincher can be seen as a master of evoking the manic exhaustion of frustration-adled protagonists, there was also a suspicion that the filmmaker could evoke little else from his bone-tired, wrung-out protagonists.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at first glance seems a chance for Fincher to break out of this dramatic rut—if one chooses to see it as such—by utilizing a melodramatic story conceit that confronts Brad Pitt with a seeming unending series of emotional crests, falls, and all around melodramatic challenges.  Yet somehow even with this most sappy of Fincher stories, inside his most conceptual scenario yet—from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of a man who ages backwards, born an old man and died a child—nearly all thematic concerns, all the emphasis on and oomph from the story's attempt at epiphanies about time passing and people aging, the only thing that is truly clear is Benjamin's frustration.  It is hard to see at first—Brad Pitt's performance is nothing if not stoically minimal and distanced, and removed even further through several reels worth of special effects—but for its nearly three-hour running time, all Benjamin Button really does is track the frustration of a man who is acutely aware of the passing of time.  It is understandable: everyone he meets seems to have some ready-made morsel of temporal wisdom to tell him about how things pass, how things come and go; in a way, Benjamin's final act decision to drop away from those he loves to travel the world is the decision of someone who finds the idea of time so confining (frustrating) that he pulls away from anything that could remind him of its passing.

Long live the matte! Once upon a time, special effects in Hollywood movies strove not for fidelity to reality or transparency in the film world, but simply were.  Oh, maybe that's not how the actual filmmakers and technicians were thinking, but when audiences in the 1940s saw a couple driving along in their car with a projection of the landscape awkwardly purring by in the background, few shouted out: "Fake!  Faaaake!"  Much more recently, with simultaneous leaps in technology, lowering costs of special effects, and Hollywood assumptions that audiences want—nay, need—to see more  elaborate and more expansive special effects, an era was ushered into American filmmaking of foregrounding the splendor of the effect.  On the grandest scale, think George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy—these are fantasies that want you to ooh and aah over their fantastic vision.

Benjamin Button, like Baz Luhrman's Australia, is using special effects for a different reason, one far closer to the older impulse of immersion and artifice.  This isn't artifice in the sense of Brecht, a filmmaker consciously foregrounding fakery for the audience, but rather filmmakers who are using special effects to create a world that has an element of whimsy—we know what we see is fake, but we let it pass anyway, we enjoy it, because we see the filmmakers going for mood, for grandeur, for the pictorial, for everything other than ramming down our throats just how amazingly realistic, how believable, how total their special effects world is.  The ubiquity of computer generated images in American movies may now be allowing artists to use them in totally standard ways—filling out backgrounds, creating settings, fleshing out a location, sketching the far reaches and edges of the screen—where the effects are in the service of the work of film and not a reason to exist in and of themselves.

Close the doors!  Shut the windows!  Lock the frame! A great number of our most talented American directors put little trust in open mise-en-scenes, film worlds that suggest life and possibilities outside the carefully delineated frames composed by their directors.  This is far from a bad thing—there is no such thing are right or wrong  mise-en-scene—and many a great director took the route of closed worlds, probably most famous among them Alfred Hitchcock.  Yet curiously enough we seem to have a whole generation of American directors who have opted for this style, which in the wrong hands or with the wrong project can close down a film from the greater world outside itself.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
is no different in direction than many of David Fincher's other films, yet it is leaden and dulled, more distanced than usual even for this distant director.  He sometimes quickly pans his camera or slowly dollies (or zooms) backwards, because if he didn't, Benjamin Button would have all the stillness of a sepulchural tableaux.  Glowing with a dulled warmth, each shot seems slowly carved from clay.  With Wes Anderson's movies stamped out of hard candy and Joel and Ethan Coen's out of plastic (can we keep going?  James Gray planed out of dark wood...) we are in an era of hushed mannerism, graphed, sketched, carved, tuned, toiled over, thought about, and very nearly executed all before the cameras even start rolling.

Connect this as you will to the recent trend in what I'm going to lazily call academicism in American film—chief practicers Steven Soderbergh and Todd Haynes, and maybe now David Fincher.  Their telling signs are all the marks of intelligence in pre-production, in conceptualization, in idea and princip;e effort, but completely missing the point in execution.  The resulting works—recently, I'm Not There., Che, and Benjamin Button—clearly made sense on paper, in storyboards, in pre-production discussion, but when the filmmakers put up all that thought on film (or on video) and you find works drained of vitality, true turmoil.

Never seen anything like it.  Speaking of true turmoil, witness Julia Ormond in Benjamin Button.  In a movie that thinks itself particularly strange, her character—the young woman framing the action, waiting in New Orleans on the eve of Katrina's strike at the deathbed of her grandmother who had a great affair with Button and who asks Julia to read his diary to her—is perhaps the most hackneyed, or at least the most ordinary.  Yet the acting, and Fincher's direction of her, is unlike anything else in the film.  It exists in a different world, with none of the pedantic quality most the other characters leave on the film; I honestly cannot identify what kind of dramatic convention Ormand is acting in, what kind of melodramatic world in which her somberness would feel comfortable or normal. (Perhaps acting in a forgotten guest spot in a equally unremembered episode of some late night television cop show?)

She has the gravity that suggests those anonymous cities of night so prevalent to Fincher's work and missing from this one, the cities of Se7en, Fight Club, and The Game.  A resident ghost of much sadness, a vague sadness, unrelated, really, to the impending death of her mother and the encroaching storm.  Julia Ormand is perhaps the one thing that escapes outside Benjamin Button's clay-like compositions and suggests a sense of something—a thin, ethereal quality to be sure, but for Fincher that is something—unconfined by the movie's story.

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