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27 December 2008

"Backward, Turn Backward, O Time, in Your Flight":
A Review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by David Fincher

Written by Eric Roth, story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, based on the 1922 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Starring Brad Pitt, Kate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Tariji P. Henson, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Jason Flemyng, Jared Harris, and Tilda Swinton

Official site: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Since film critics must so often complain that a film has shamelessly trashed or dumbed down its source material, it is refreshing to report that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is actually far richer and more nuanced than the 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald story that inspired it. Fitzgerald was content to take a basic conceit — a woman gives birth to an old man who steadily grows younger and younger until he dies as an infant — and exploit it for gentle comedy: his socially prominent parents are embarrassed by their odd child, he constantly cannot get people to believe his true age, he cannot reclaim his position as an experienced general because he has come to look like a teenager, and so on. This properly neglected story is absurdism more than fantasy. In contrast, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord's story, the basis for Roth's screenplay, endeavors to take the premise seriously and thoughtfully consider all of its implications.

Needless to say, such an adaptation required innumerable departures from Fitzgerald. For one thing, while the original Benjamin Button lived from 1850 to 1920, this one is born in November, 1918 (on the day that World War I ended) and dies in 2003, and for reasons to be discussed, the locale has been shifted from Baltimore to New Orleans. As a quasi-explanation for his condition, the film adds the story of a blind clockmaker who, embittered by the death of his son in World War I, constructs an enormous clock for the New Orleans train station which runs backwards. His skewed reasoning is that this might somehow reverse time and allow dead soldiers to return to life and come home, and in reversed footage of soldiers walking backward away from a train that illustrates his dream, the film briefly presents the scenario of a global reversal in the flow of time as explored in science fiction novels like Brian W. Aldiss's An Age (American title Cryptozoic) (1967), Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World (1967), and Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1992). (A collection of essays I co-edited, Worlds Enough and Time [2002], includes an excellent survey of such stories, Andy Sawyer's "Backward, Turn Backward: Narratives of Reversed Time in Science Fiction.") The implication is that this clock, the lifespan of which coincides with Button's own lifespan, somehow caused his life to run backward. And it is fitting that the ceremonial unveiling of this clock is attended by none other than Theodore Roosevelt (shortly before his death in January, 1919), since Button will come to embody the vigorous, exploratory lifestyle that Roosevelt advocated and practiced.

Other changes in the story range from the ingenious to the irksome. While the original Button's parents reluctantly accepted their son, this one's mother dies in childbirth, and his distraught father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) takes the gruesomely aged baby and abandons it on the doorstep of what would then have been called an "old folks' home" (and what now, I suppose, must be termed a "senior retirement center"), where he is adopted by an African-American employee, Queenie (Tariji P. Henson), and her husband Tizzy (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali). This allows Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) to appropriately grow up in the company of senior citizens who share his decrepit appearance and sedentary life. Yet there was no need to account for Button's name (which Fitzgerald did not) by explaining, when his father belatedly reenters his life, that Thomas had been a successful button manufacturer, a point which contributes nothing to the story (although somebody thought it would be clever to turn the film's introductory and concluding images of the Warner Brothers logo into a mosaic of buttons). The screenwriters' worst decision, however, was to construct an elaborate frame story featuring Benjamin's former lover Daisy (Cate Blanchett), now an elderly woman dying in a hospital, who instructs her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read aloud from Benjamin's diary, which regularly leads to Pitt's voiceover narration and another series of flashbacks telling his story. All of this not only generates a plot inconsistency (when Benjamin has entered childhood, he complains that he can no longer remember his life, something which wouldn't have happened if he had had access to a diary recounting his life story) but also leads to a series of tedious interruptions as the film keeps lurching away from Button for another few minutes in Daisy's hospital room. Forgive me for putting it this way, but it seems little more than a way of wasting time.

As for the messages conveyed by this film, the clearest one involves the apparent desirability of Button's situation. The standard attitude is that a person's youth is a golden age of vigor and good health, while old age represents a tragic decline into decrepitude and senility; thus, it might seem attractive to imagine reversing the direction of time so that someone could begin life as an old man, endure the miseries of age, then gradually grow younger and advance toward the pleasures of youth. This is the wish presented in the opening lines of Elizabeth Chase Akers's 1859 poem, "Rock Me to Sleep, Mother":

Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight

Yet as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button reveals, approaching extreme youth can seem just as tragic as approaching extreme age, as Button becomes unable to function as an adult and gradually loses his memories and abilities. In truth, human life is best understood as a Bell curve: moving from left to right, there is the initial low of childhood rising to a peak sometime in adulthood and then dropping down to the second low of old age. Reversing the direction rearranges the order of one's experiences but does nothing to increase the total amount of happiness in life. Here, the best time in Button's life comes when both he and Daisy can be regarded as young adults and they enjoy several idyllic years together: "we're meeting in the middle," they say, one on a trajectory toward youth, the other moving toward elderliness. But after their daughter is born, and Button realizes that he is growing too young to be a father to her, he decides that he has to leave, so that Daisy can marry another man who can fulfill that role.

A more familiar theme of this film is a contrast between the confinement of life on land and the freedom of life on water, another element not found in Fitzgerald's story. To help him gain the ability to walk, Queenie regularly puts Benjamin in a bathtub and massages his legs. Later, when he can walk but is still elderly, Button first escapes from his home by taking a job on board the tugboat of Captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris), who then introduces him to the pleasures of sex by taking him to a brothel. He soon embarks on a three-year voyage with Clark which takes him to Russia, where he has an affair with the wife of a British diplomat, Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), and after Pearl Harbor he gets involved in a naval battle. When he is living with Daisy, he buys a sailboat and goes swimming and sailing with her in Florida, at one point observing a rocket taking off from Cape Canaveral as another image of personal freedom. (He also starts riding a motorcycle.) Finally, after leaving her, he travels to India and bathes in the Ganges River. (Perhaps an aversion to the liberating effects of water on her wayward husband can explain why the film's frame story occurs in the New Orleans of August, 2005, so that the reading of Benjamin's diary is interspersed with news bulletins about the coming of Hurricane Katrina — is it just another body of water intruding upon and ruining Daisy's life? It is more likely, though, that just as filmmakers after September 11, 2001 have often sought an extra aura of drama by shifting their stories to New York City, this film is a harbinger of a new tendency to similarly exploit the tragedy of Katrina by shifting stories to New Orleans.)

Hearing about all of Benjamin's activities, one might say that these are the sorts of things that many men do after many years of life. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about this film is that it invites consideration as a literalization of a male desire to constantly recapture's one lost youth by going to sea, taking risks, and/or abandoning responsibilities. As one of innumerable examples, one might recall the homeless man in With Honors (1994), who left his wife and newborn son to join the Merchant Marines. In effect, by getting younger and younger, Button is doing what most men dream about doing, his actual second childhood symbolizing their hoped-for second childhood. To put the point another way, one finds it hard to imagine a version of this story with the genders reversed — an increasingly youthful Daisy abandoning her husband and baby daughter to travel the world and indulge in adolescent pleasures while a maturing Button calmly stays home to raise their child and gets a nine-to-five job; this simply doesn't seem the way that a woman and a man would act. Along with Fight Club (1999), then, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the other Brad Pitt film that my colleague David Werner might consider including in his college class on "Men's Issues." (The sense that Benjamin Button is just an exaggerated version of the typical male is reinforced by the film's reference to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and film Carousel (1956) — when Benjamin visits Daisy in New York, he sees watches her dance to the tune of "If I Loved You" — since it is another story about an immature man who acts irresponsibly, is forced to leave his infant daughter, and later gets to see her one more time as a young woman.)

Still, however typical he may be in some respects, it is hard to overlook the fact that Benjamin Button is also very "different" — a term repeatedly used to describe him — and the film occasionally strives to celebrate the value of being an individual and following one's own course. After all, Benjamin's favorite childhood story is one of Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, "The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo" (1902), about an animal that wants to be different above all else. "This is just how I am," Benjamin says early in the film; "you gotta do what you're meant to do," advises Captain Mike; and Benjamin's final words of wisdom include "I hope you meet people with a different point of view" and "it's never too late or too early to be whoever you want to be." The film underlines that last message in an understated fashion: when Benjamin is having his affair with Elizabeth, she laments that she once attempted to swim the English Channel, gave up two miles away from shore, and never tried again; but we get to see her once more near the end of the film in a brief television news report about the oldest woman ever to swim the English Channel at the age of sixty-eight — Elizabeth has finally become who she wanted to be. Yet all of these uplifting, inspirational messages strike me as forced and inorganic to the film, perhaps the products of a last-minute rewrite after some influential figure complained that the film seemed too dark. And it is; as my wife observed, this is a very depressing film, and its central theme, inescapably, is not individuality or freedom but rather destiny — or "Kismet," to use the term Daisy brings up while discussing Edgar Cayce and the theory that "everything is predetermined." As Benjamin grimly learns from a constant series of funerals during his years at the home, all people are destined to grow old and die, while he is singularly destined to grow young and die. Daisy sums it up this way: "We all end up in diapers."

There are glimmerings of other portentous ideas in this film, though these would have to be characterized as underdeveloped. Does the initially mature Benjamin's steady progression to infancy from 1918 to 2003 represent not only a male impulse, but all of American society's increasing impulse during that time to reject the aging process and retain the appearance and lifestyle of the young? Surely the most breathtaking special effect in the film comes with our final glimpse of the forty-something Brad Pitt looking exactly like a teenager, in a sense embodying the goal of many contemporary people in their forties. And then there is that other macabre way for celebrities to achieve eternal youth — dying before their time, so that they remain forever youthful in our collective memories. There is no other way to explain the film's references to assassinations: Tizzy explains to Benjamin that he can recite speeches from plays because his grandfather worked for the actor John Wilkes Booth, the notorious killer of Abraham Lincoln: Teddy Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt during his 1912 presidential campaign which might have contributed to his death seven years later; and when Benjamin and Daisy watch the Beatles performing "Twist and Shout" on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, they are listening to another man who later became a political leader of sorts and was assassinated, the song's lead vocalist, John Lennon. Does a refusal to accept growing old, and an insistence on striving to become young again, thus represent a sort of death, a disinclination to properly keep growing and maturing, a form of self-assassination?

In choosing to express them as rhetorical questions, I'm obviously indicating that this film is only conveying such notions fitfully, if it is conveying them at all — a state of affairs perhaps symbolized by the film's images of hummingbirds, which constantly flit about but never land. Yet if this is a film that sometimes seems unsure about what it wishes to say, I would choose such a film any day over the all-too-common alternative of a film seeking to bludgeon into my brain a simplistic message better suited for a Hallmark card. Consider the fact that a Philadelphia theatergoer named James Cialella Jr. actually shot and wounded a man because he and his family were talking too much during a screening of the film — and then he sat down and continued watching the film until the police arrived to arrest him. It is strange and contemptible behavior, to be sure, but it does suggest that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a film that people will want to talk about, and a film that people will want to watch attentively without annoying distractions. And if such a film becomes a box-office success, that would be, for Hollywood, a curious case indeed.

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