Friday, January 02, 2009
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.