Friday, December 26, 2008
"I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now"-- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
'Ars longa, vita brevis', is the Latin saying-- Art is long, life short, but it is not always true. In 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (PG-13), the 'ars' is rather 'longa', 167 minutes to be exact, which in some ways is a surprise since it is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, but it is worth every moment of it. This movie involves an all star cast (Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton amongst others), and a tale of epic proportions, reiminiscent in some ways of Forrest Gump in terms of its full life sweep and its decidedly southern setting (filmed and set in New Orleans, for the most part, Brad's recently adopted home town). The movie tells a story whose arc goes from 1918 until 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. Such is the curious life of Benjamin Button who is born old (though in the form of a new born) on the outside and gets progressively younger as the movie goes along, but on the inside he is aging normally, and finishes as an infant with dementia.
But a life is not summed up simply by adding up its number of years, and the tale of Benjamin Button is so much more than just the ticking of time's clock, even the clock in the New Orleans train station which was deliberately set up to run backwards. It is the tale of someone who was born different and remains different throughout his entire remarkable life. It is also a tale of pilgrim's regress and yet also his progress. What this film shows ever so clearly, is that aging or its reverse is not the real villain in life. Turning back the clock doesn't change human nature, and if one could do that, as this movie so admirably shows it would create more problems than it solves-- for one thing it would make it ever so difficult to have properly developing relationships and life long friends, much less finding a mate. There is a terrible aloneness to being Benjamin Button, even from birth when he certainly was not 'cute as a button'. Finding the fountain of youth, is after all not the same as finding the tree of everlasting life.
I have to tell you that Brad Pitt should certainly win an Oscar, and Cate Blanchett is marvelous as well. This is a very watchable movie, even if you are only watching them. But the movie is so much more than a star turn. And like in any good movie the cameo appearances and minor characters are interesting in and of themselves. The photography is grand, the sweep of the story is grand, there is tragedy and triumph.
Unlike the trite Forrest Gump message 'life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get (until you sample it)' the message here is that life is rich, varied, unpredictable, and indeed co-entailed, by which I mean so many events hinge on the previous happening of so many other little events. At one juncture this is called kismet or fate in the movie, at another, just bad timing, but the picture becomes clear that one is not master of one's own fate in any case.
All our lives are intertwined and so many things can intervene and irrevocably change the course of a life. Benjamin Button is not just along for the ride, he has some say, and control in what happens to him, but only some. But imagine a life where you do not learn who your father is until just before he dies, and then your own child has the same sort of experience through reading your diary, only this time it is the daughter who learns this news too late to make a big difference. If this is like a box of chocolates there are too many pits in the cherries in there.
One of the most beautiful aspects of this story is Benjamin Button's actual mother (not the birth mother but the one on whose doorstep he was left), a black woman who raised him with love, and faith, and all that makes for good parenting, and the development of their relationship across time. Here is a relationship that is strong and solid as a rock. When Thomas Button finally reveals who he is to Benjamin, and shows him the picture of his birth mother who died in childbirth, Benjamin simply walks out the door saying "I'm going home". Parenting is much more than biology, and home is much more than a house owned by one's ne'er-do-well father.
There is so much more I would like to tell you about this movie, but the most important thing is--- GO SEE IT. You will be enriched by it.