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Curious Things about Benjamin Button

First of all, and most obviously, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is all about disability from start to finish.  Benjamin (Brad Pitt) begins his life as a child with exceptionally special needs, and ends his life as a child with Alzheimer’s.  As Daisy (Cate Blanchett) says at one point, “we all end up in diapers.” But some of the disabilities in the film have nothing to do with age: Monsieur Gateau, who builds the backwards-running clock, is blind; the pygmy Ngunda Oti tells Benjamin of his role as a “savage” in the freak show; and, most curiously, disability shadows Benjamin’s father Tom and his love Daisy.  Tom acknowledges Benjamin as his son only after he suffers some kind of illness that messes with his foot, and Daisy becomes Benjamin’s lover only after a car crushes her leg and ends her career as a dancer.

There’s something very Forrest Gumpy about all this, from Captain Mike as a version of Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan (though Captain Mike does not lose his legs in WW2 as Dan did in Vietnam; he is just plain killed, and the double amputee we see briefly in the restaurant scene with Tom and Benjamin serves as the visual representation of disabled vets) right down to the bit where Our Hero suddenly and unexpectedly becomes a wealthy man.  And, of course, the structural device is the same in both films: Benjamin does for the twentieth century what Forrest did for the postwar period, namely, provide a narrative vehicle for the unfolding of history as seen through the wanderings of an innocent (an innocent-with-a-disability, another simple son of the South).  Moreover, Benjamin, like Forrest, does not get his girl until later in life.  Jenny had some rough times, playing guitar nude in a strip club, doing drugs, straying into that nasty unshaven antiwar movement, trying to commit suicide because “Free Bird” is playing on the soundtrack, and eventually getting AIDS; Daisy by contrast has a much happier and classier fate, working with George Balanchine and Agnes DeMille, hanging out with attractive men who can really dance, living the cosmopolitan life in Paris, and learning how to name-drop Edgar Cayce.  And when Our Hero learns that his girl is pregnant, Benjamin, like Forrest, worries that the child will inherit his disability.  Daisy asks, in response, “would you tell a blind man he can’t have children?”

OK, the Forrest/ Benjamin thing is not really very curious, since Eric Roth wrote both screenplays.  But still.  One wonders whether, after the rave reviews for Benjamin Button have cooled down a bit, this film will suffer the same critical fate as did Forrest Gump, going from multiple-Oscar-winner to middlebrow-mawkish thing.  Don’t get me wrong—I found some virtues in Forrest Gump and was genuinely moved by moments in Benjamin Button, particularly where destitute young Benjamin (that is, old Benjamin) loses his memory and has to be watched over by Daisy and the careworkers at what used to be called the old folks’ home.  I’m just curious as to when the spell will wear off.  Not before Oscar time, I bet.

And just as Forrest Gump was the boomer narrative, Benjamin Button is like the backwards Greatest Generation: he is born at the end of World War I, serves in World War II, and dies in spring 2003, right around the invasion of Iraq.  Curiously, there is no mention of Vietnam, even though the 1960s are crucial to the narrative.  (Similarly, among all the postwar icons mentioned in Forrest Gump, Martin Luther King is notable in his absence.) In 1941, Benjamin is 23, but looks 62; in 1968, when his child is born, he is 50 but appears to be a youthful 35.  (In Fitzgerald’s short story, by contrast, Benjamin is born in 1860 and goes off to fight in the Spanish-American War in 1898.) Also curiously, Benjamin and Daisy are together from 1962 to 1969, or basically for the span of the Beatles’ recording career; the Beatles themselves appear on Ed Sullivan, singing “Twist and Shout” as Benjamin and Daisy are frolicking on the mattress-on-the-floor in their duplex, a mattress on which they appear to spend the better part of the decade.  And with good reason.  Anyway, this suggests that 1962-69 really were the good old days, when Benjamin goes from 41 to 34 and Daisy from 38 to 46, and that at the end of the decade, when the Beatles broke up, as well as the Supremes and Simon and Garfunkel and Benjamin and Daisy, we did too. 

Oh yeah, there are some interesting things going on with race.  One is that it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue, even in New Orleans, from the black female caretakers in 1918 to the black female nurses in the hospital that awaits Katrina’s landfall.  Speaking of Katrina, what is it doing here?  None of us—Janet, Jamie, Nick, Rachel, me—had an answer to that one.  (Nick asked, “was Katrina there just so the flooding waters could restart the old clock at the very end?” I said, “well, it’s a reminder of impending death,” to which he replied, “you’d think ‘old woman on deathbed’ would be sufficient for that.”) In fact, we didn’t like the frame narrative very much.  Too Fried Green Tomatoesy, we thought. Hmmm, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s Fried Green Tomatoes.  And Daisy’s estrangement from her daughter Caroline wasn’t really explained—or necessary.  But Janet, who knows her Balanchine (being a former dancer as well as a former cardiac care nurse, you know), gives the Official Stamp of Approval to Cate Blanchett’s dancing, and adds that she’s “tired of seeing Cate Blanchett get all the meaty roles for women.” Apparently that’s been happening, and it should stop.

Also, if Morgan Freeman had put in a cameo, and if baby Benjamin, near his death, had said “my mind is going” before singing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do” very very slowly and then staring enigmatically into the camera, the film could have worked in allusions to Driving Miss Daisy and 2001 as well.  But that seems a lot to ask.

Posted by on 01/02 at 01:40 PM
  1. Any way you slice it, Forrest Gump was still <s>tripe</s> baloney.  Thanks for the warning.

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  03:03 PM
  2. I watched and enjoyed Benjamin Button, while I was never even tempted to see Forrest Gump.  Partly, of course, because of the whole Arrow of Time thing.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2008/12/24/have-a-thermodynamically-consistent-christmas/

    But I also think the gimmick of BB is more dark and interesting than that of FG.  Roger Ebert makes a big deal of the fact that Benjamin ages forward psychologically, it’s only his body that ages backwards, so what’s the big deal?  Of course it’s a very big deal, because 1) people treat him very differently, and 2) he knows that what his future holds will look very different from that of others.  Not trivial things!

    It’s a thought experiment, and for me it stirred up some interesting ideas, so I give it thumbs up.  (Although it admittedly could have been much dark and more provocative.) The Katrina thing was consistent with a theme of storms and bad weather throughout the film.  I would suggest that they serve as a metaphor for our inability to master the vagaries the universe chooses to throw at us, but what do I look like, a critic?

    Captcha:  “times.” Is there some intelligent agent in charge of these?

    Posted by Sean Carroll  on  01/02  at  03:37 PM
  3. The Katrina thing was consistent with a theme of storms and bad weather throughout the film.

    Overheard yesterday: “I haven’t seen so much pathetic fallacy since the second Pirates of the Caribbean.” I think I know what movie they were talking about.

    Captcha: “industry,” as in, “I’m in the wrong one if I like food.”

    Posted by SEK  on  01/02  at  05:10 PM
  4. Ahhhhhh!  Do the words “historical relativism” come back to anyone else (re: your post just before the holidays about your recent book review!)?  Or is it more of a fatalism...the frame narrative of the old woman in the hospital bed just before Katrina reminding us that all things are fixed by some higher power?  Golden lads and girls all must… And isn’t that the ultimate end of most so-called “thought experiments”?  To show some quantum variance, some emergent element, that we cannot explain in our everyday deterministic worlds...and to make that empirical mode of thinking handmaiden again?  (wow, do I sound like a conspiracy theorist or what?!?) I mean the frame narrative is even a FLOOD story!!!  I enjoyed the movie, the tugboat captain especially (I’m an artist!) made me laugh, but I agree that its an all-too-familiar story.

    Posted by Derek T.  on  01/02  at  05:48 PM
  5. The best horrible things about Forrest Gump was Gump’s being a war hero without ever firing a bullet and protesting the war without saying anything. Don’t take this (too) personally but, really, the boomers can leave now. Any time.

    I’m not conversant with the lit or theory or what-have-you but the notion of moral redemption through cognitive malfunction is just disgusting. The nadir of this for me was “Regarding Henry” when Harrison Ford (or “Patches” as I like to call him for the jackets he favored in flicks of this period) played a horrible, horrible man who achieved sainthood (and better lovemaking technique) via lobotomy performed by hollowpoint. (And of course, he was buying smokes at the time. Why they just didn’t call his character Snidely McEvilpants I don’t know.)

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  06:08 PM
  6. Don’t take this (too) personally but, really, the boomers can leave now. Any time.

    Was this directed at your humble blogger, born in 1961?  I mean, I know some people put Teh Boom at 1946-64 but really, I know nothing of these Boomer lives. 

    And Sean, while we’re talking about these physics-and-narrative thought experiments, have you read The Golden Compass?  I just finished it a few days ago—I’m reading it to Jamie as our post-Potter bedtime ritual and decided to skip ahead on my own to see what happens.  Um, it’s a lot better than the film. . . .

    Posted by Michael Bérubé  on  01/02  at  07:08 PM
  7. I have read The Golden Compass, and yeah—much better than the film.  But I don’t have anything insightful to say about the sciencey underpinnings; I thought the storytelling was more compelling that the grand ideas.  (Which peter out even more in the later installments.)

    Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck is another great young-adults book along similar lines.

    Posted by Sean Carroll  on  01/02  at  07:47 PM
  8. Having been born in 1946, I can speak to boomer lives.  Spent most of it under Republican regimes. Was in grade school when the words “under God” were added to the pledge.  The nuns were on the verge of orgasm. What a sight that was to my prepubescent eyes.  The Beetles invaded when I was in high school.  Then there was that whole Veet Namm thang.  Nixon.  Reagan.  Bushes I and II.  And through it all, Rummy and Cheenie, “like a thin wire of grief.”

    JDC
    It’s been a wonderful life, despite it all, and I am nowhere ready to leave it yet, Pup.

    Captch: rest.  As in Peace?  JDC help me!

    Posted by jazzbumpa  on  01/02  at  08:49 PM
  9. I liked Forrest Gump. No deep analytical reason. Just thought it was well executed, well written and well acted.

    captcha “used” as in perhaps I was ....

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  08:54 PM
  10. I don’t think I could bear to let BB pass over my eyeballs. Except that it might help temporarily to distract from the pain of what’s going on in Gaza right now.
    A movie I’ve seen recently that I did like was “Slumdog Millionaire.”
    Capcha “why.” Why indeed.

    Posted by Hattie  on  01/02  at  09:41 PM
  11. Golden Compass is also a very good story...also does not deserve its hype (even the novel).  For all of Pullman’s “public atheism” and the fundies up in arms calling the movie (do they even know it was a book first?!?) the anti-Narnia, the novel works very hard to inflate dark matter into something obscurely spiritual.  For my taste, Stephen Baxter’s novel Coalescent does a much better job of avoiding that sort of pseudo-spirituality, of which even the popular media and science writers are guilty.  Of course, one probably wouldn’t call it a thought-experiment, but why?  I don’t know, but perhaps that’s why I like it better?!?

    Posted by Derek T.  on  01/02  at  10:14 PM
  12. TCCBB is David Fincher doing Ron Howard. Fincher can supply the thrill of being shot at in the dark at sea but I don’t think he knows the hilarious fun of endless bed-a-thons with a new lover the way I do. He really needs to loosen up.

    This fellow also finds plenty of Gump DNA in Benny Button.

    Posted by David J Swift  on  01/02  at  11:03 PM
  13. In the interests of historical accuracy, I will simply cut and paste a comment I posted at Unfogged this afternoon, but before I had seen this post (honest, cross my heart).

    Speaking of “holiday” movies, if anyone is contemplating seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I’d recommend reading the short story instead (available here online). A nice enough little fable by Fitzgerald overworked into The Notebook morphing into Forrest Gump rams the Titanic with a derivative hint of Edward Scissorhands and a malodorous whiff of Bicentennial Man thrown in. Not to forget a gratuitous Katrina plot element! What could go wrong? Caveat: My eldest son (with whom I usually agree on such matters) thinks my rejection of the movie is just me being an embittered and cantankerous contrarian asshole so take my opinion with a grain of salt. (In turn, I think that he is simply unwilling to rethink David Fincher.)

    Villains! Dissemble no more! I admit the deed!—tear up the planks!—here, here!—it is the beating of his hideous heart MB’s web access logs!

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  11:06 PM
  14. by the way...speaking of current movies…

    don’t waste any time/money on “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

    really bad

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  11:17 PM
  15. BB was our Christmas film, traditionally and always seen after the meal...like Cold Mountain, like Dreamgirls, like...well...last year, Walk Hard! I loved the film, but agree with the Gannett reviewer that the middle was “gooey.” I immediately read (well, after my wife did), the F. Scott story. ROTFL, especially the doctor’s indignation. Oh, yes, nothing really like the film. Just great writing tho.

    Posted by  on  01/02  at  11:21 PM
  16. and if baby Benjamin, near his death, had said “my mind is going” before singing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do” very very slowly and then staring enigmatically into the camera, the film could have worked in allusions to Driving Miss Daisy and 2001 as well.  But that seems a lot to ask.

    Wait, you mean they cut that part out of Fitzgerald’s story?  I’ll save my movie money, thanks.

    Roger Ebert makes a big deal of the fact that Benjamin ages forward psychologically, it’s only his body that ages backwards, so what’s the big deal?

    It means it’s The Once and Future Gump, that’s the big deal.

    don’t waste any time/money on “The Day the Earth Stood Still”

    Nonsense.  Michael Rennie was awesome.

    just me being an embittered and cantankerous contrarian asshole

    Hey, has anyone ever seen JP Stormcrow and mds in the same room together?

    I would suggest that they serve as a metaphor for our inability to master the vagaries the universe chooses to throw at us, but what do I look like, a critic?

    More like a cosmic censor.

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  12:05 AM
  17. haven’t seen it yet; mrs. skippy (who lurvs slumdog millionaire so much she saw it twice) refuses to see it.  i think i’ll wait for netflix.

    tho i must say (a) i like fincher’s work and (b) any time hollywood goes beyond 1980’s movies for reference points to make a film it’s good.  the fact the cc of bb is based on a literary work gives it a few points up in my book.

    and is it me, or are the xmas movies this year really really boring and depressing?  even the box office biggie, marley & me, has the dog dying at the end.

    we’ve seen revolutionary road (2 hours of yelling), rachel getting married (2 hours of bad home movies & yelling), frost/nixon (good), the wrestler (2 hours of depressing life wasting), & the changling (good).  none of them laff riots.

    am currently watching milk as we speak, but as mrs. skippy said (since we both lived in sf in the late 70’s) we don’t need to watch it, we’ve lived it.

    don’t take this (too) personally but, really, the boomers can leave now. any time.

    there is nothing quite as satisfying as the knowledge that the most guaranteed instance of karma coming back in exact kind is that which eventually happens to those who wish an older generation to disappear.

    Posted by skippy  on  01/03  at  12:29 AM
  18. BB was our Christmas film

    Same here. And I was among those pushing for it.(Thankfully not alone; I singlehandedly bullied everyone into Prêt-à-Porter many years ago (from IMDb I see it was 1994, gad), and was not allowed an opinion for a long time after that.)

    I was also somewhat taken with Gump when I first saw it (and it is one of the rare films that improved on the book it was based on). I probably would have had more tolerance for BB if it had pioneered the “genre”.

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  01:20 AM
  19. … and if baby Benjamin, near his death, had said “my mind is going” before singing “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do” very very slowly and then staring enigmatically into the camera,

    Miscegenist!

    Something less demeaning, please. Given his uniqueness as a baby with life experience, how about an extended series of psychedelic and puzzling scenes during which Benjamin gets reborn as some manner of wise and powerful child? (Who says machines can’t have original and creative ideas?)

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  02:29 AM
  20. @5

    This is my big complaint with both BB and FG.  Things happen to people, but no one actually does anything.  And, as a nod to our host, disability is only used as an excuse for the protagonist to do nothing but still have an interesting life.  None of the events of either movie would have happened but for their respective disabilities.  And Jenny/BB’s father/Captain Dan and the rest did not bother with the disabled main character until they were disabled themselves.  No normal characters ever interact positively with the disabled character.

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  02:39 AM
  21. Odd snarky question: So with FG, Viacom gives us the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Forest Gump Chocolates, what are they going to give us now????

    Captcha is “europe,” as in how will CCBB play in countries outside the US???

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  07:23 AM
  22. So with FG, Viacom gives us the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and Forest Gump Chocolates, what are they going to give us now????

    BB-branded Oil of Olay.

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  11:05 AM
  23. Saw BB with my daughter the other day. It was rather looong and sloooooow for the tween-girl demographic but I thought it was pretty well done. Yeah, Gump; yeah, Titanic; yeah, Fried Green. *shrug* Big Hollywood, whadaya expect by now?

    As for the commercial tie-ins, there was a very obvious product placement of Jello in there. “Jello: It never gets old”? You saw it here first.

    Posted by  on  01/03  at  12:35 PM
  24. mds beat me to it (dang! and it’s my own blog!  that’s what I get for staying up late with Nick and Rachel and watching episodes 2 and 3 of Twin Peaks on DVD), but alongside the BB Oil of Olay, surely they can come up with Daisy’s Dance Studios.  Oh, and BB-related Pampers and Depends.

    OK, that’s a bit arch.  Really, we collectively gave the film a B+ or so.  Despite the annoying structural similarities to FG.  I mean, it is darker and more serious than FG, way less cloying, and really kinda disturbing in places.  In a good way. 

    And hey, David @ 12:  thanks for those links—I mean, to Madeinhead and your own blog as well.  I completely forgot to add the bit about the hummingbird:

    The entire story dwells repeatedly on the theme of life’s uncertainty and, in contrast, on the notion of fate or coincidence.  The film’s symbol for these themes is a small object seen hovering improbably in the air.

    And F @ 20, I don’t think it’s quite true that “no normal characters ever interact positively with the disabled character” in either film; BB’s caretakers and FG’s mother do, and in fact BB’s father does interact with him before becoming disabled (he just doesn’t reveal that he’s BB’s father).  But I agree with the larger point, that both films require the love interest to become disabled . . . and none of that is in Fitzgerald’s story (nor does BB’s father abandon him as a “monster").

    Posted by Michael  on  01/03  at  01:35 PM
  25. Just a quick shout-out for a potential read-aloud for the skeptics among us: Terry Pratchett’s Nation. It’s his first novel “labelled” for young adults, but I think it’s terrific for everyone: it has the humanism and questioning stance of Pullman with jokes!

    Posted by  on  01/04  at  12:54 AM
  26. The only lesson I got from Gump is that if go with the flow (or wherever the wind takes you, in this case) you’ll see and do amazing things. If you don’t, you’ll get the AIDS.

    And speaking of various Daisy’s, I think you’ve forgotten the most important Daisy of all!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Gatsby

    Posted by  on  01/04  at  01:17 AM
  27. @Elfarran - Um, no. Johnny and the Dead and its sequels, the Broceliande books, Maurice and His Amazing Educated Rodents, the Tiffany Aching novels… That said, though, Nation is excellent.

    Posted by The Ridger  on  01/04  at  04:58 PM
  28. Thanks for the correction, The Ridger. . . Nation is my first TP novel, so I think I was going with one of the reviews I read on the new one.  I will definitely be reading more, and I’ll start with the titles you mention!

    Posted by  on  01/04  at  07:34 PM
  29. Hated “Forrest Gump” with every fiber of my being. It was a neocon translation of the 1960s with a holy idiot at the center. What made it interesting is that instead of having an active hero at the center, its protagonist was somebody who bobbed along on history’s tides which is the way a lot of people look at their lives. That’s not my viewpoint nor is it that of our blogger host, but it’s certainly a valid one.

    I loved David J. Swift’s characterization, “TCCBB is David Fincher doing Ron Howard,” though I’d say it’s Fincher doing Zemeckis a la “Forrest Gump” and he does a much better job. Brad Pitt was weirdly, perfectly cast while Cate Blanchett (though fabulous no matter what) was completely miscast as both a ballet dancer (wrong body type) and a Southerner.

    It was an extraordinarily beautiful film, visually, and that makes up for a lot, and the theme of death, time, and endless love are about as basic as they get. I’d also give it a generous B+.

    Posted by sfmike  on  01/05  at  02:43 AM
  30. A couple of people have knocked FG, and although the points about passivity are well taken I want to add a word of defense.

    Even though Forrest was clueless and confused as he ran with Jenny through the field to escape her abusive father or galloped across the football field and through the back of the end zone...he did have some of the simple things mastered. Bravery (saving fellow soldiers), loyalty, and generosity (check to Bubba’s parents).

    For me, the lesson from the movie was that the complexities and horrors of the world are partially caused by people forgetting to live out their most basic values.

    Run, Forrest! (end schmaltz) smile

    Posted by Dan  on  01/05  at  05:26 PM
  31. I think the message of FG is that we become what others perceive us to be. It is very similar to “Being There” in that regard.

    e.

    captcha “less” as in less is more

    Posted by  on  01/05  at  06:27 PM
  32. 21. “how will CCBB play in countries outside the US?”

    Well, given that this entire thread more or less negates any need for us to see the as-yet-unreleased-over-here film, I guess we might save our Pounds and Euros.

    Posted by s'dog  on  01/06  at  07:04 PM
  33. FSM = Family Security Matters.

    But ALSO: FSM = Flying Spaghetti Monster!

    I think we’re being tested by He of the Noodly Appendage.

    Posted by  on  01/15  at  09:31 PM

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