Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Warning: Possible spoilers.

I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button yesterday afternoon. Afterwards, I went within myself, thought about the film, dreamed about it, and, when I woke up early this morning, thought on it some more. The more I thought about it, the more complicated my thoughts got. I wanted to write some thoughts down before I got to the point of giving up trying.

It's a very good movie. Brad Pitt, who is one of my favorite actors anyway, gives a beautiful performance. All the acting is first-rate. It is a fairytale for modern times, so it draws on rich archetypes and themes.

Having just taught a course on fairy tales and modern culture at the university, I couldn't help but notice a Beauty and the Beast theme in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I thought a lot this morning about the baby boomers and how our films have followed our generation's maturation and development. We've had our Cinderella tales (Saturday Night Fever, Pretty Woman), our Little Red Riding Hood tales (Thelma and Louise, Company of Wolves, Michael Jackson's Thriller), and also our Beauty and the Beast tales, like The Elephant Man. We've considered various beasts, such as physical disfigurement, mental illness, AIDS, race, authority (Cuckoo's Nest, Cool Hand Luke). Even Disney's Beauty and the Beast looks slant at hyper-masculinity and fear of homosexuality. (The music for the animated feature was written by a gay man who later died of AIDS.)

The baby boomers have considered every aspect of growing up, but The Curious Case of Benjamin Button gives boomers a curious outlet for its fear of aging and death. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Brad Pitt plays Benjamin, who represents the repellent beast of old age.

Benjamin, who is born old and becomes younger as the years go on, is seen as beastly by his own father, who abandons him. From a psychological point of view, we might say the father fears his own aging and death and therefore sees his son as "monstrous." Normal children see Benjamin as strange, too, as well as women in the brothel where Benjamin loses his virginity to one sympathetic prostitute.

Benjamin grows up in a sort of old folks home, where for the most part he fits right in and learns the lessons life's impermanence. He meets Daisy when, as a little child, she visits her grandmother who lives there. Daisy sees Benjamin's beauty like no other person can--even her grandmother views him as monstrous when she catches the two children baring their souls before a burning candle in a secret place under a table.

Old age is a beast, yet in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it is depicted as both idyllic and horrifying. In the old folks home where Benjamin grows up, there is no suffering, really, just mild indignities, usually experienced by the men (one aged man goes outside naked to raise the American flag; another man repeats again and again that he was stuck by lightening seven times). But for the most part, the old people are not in pain. The women die quietly, sometimes wearing pearls. Death is a visitor, not a horrible spectre.

Daisy's death as an old woman, though, is modern and terrible. She is in a hospital connected to tubes and her physical body is in agony. The film effectively taps into our worst nightmare. Her death happens just as Hurricane Katrina, itself a figure of death and devastation, makes landfall.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's story begins in 1860. It is situated in the old Confederacy. However, the film begins on the day that WWI ends. This is the day that Benjamin is born. Thus he experiences the apex of his youth during the 1960s, an appropriate time setting for baby boomers.

I think that those of us who have followed Brad Pitt's career and who have loved him will feel a bit of sadness at seeing him aged. It gives you a jolt. We remember him best from Thelma and Louise, where he played a sexually charged Trickster figure. We also remember him as Achilles, the beautiful god with the fatally flawed heel who, mercifully, dies in his prime rather than suffering the debilitation of old age.

It's rather difficult to accept that Pitt is not immortal. And, furthermore, if he can age, so can we.

But The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shows us that reverse aging is no picnic, either. You still experience loss of loved ones, bodily functions, memory. You still die.

What the film says is that it is essentially how one lives that matters. Dance while you can; play the piano with your whole heart. If you aren't happy with the way your life is going, make it new: it is within your power to do that. That's not a new message, but the film finds a way to make fresh old truths. That is what art is for!

This is only a rough sketch of my ideas.


Light and Voices said...

You certainly love words. It shows in this article. Kudos and more kudos and more kudos.
Happy New Year!

ggw07 said...

Brilliant review for a strange wonderful film- it's pace and length are more like a foreign film-demands contemplation rather than only illiciting emotional jolt. Brave performances- Not without weaknesses but leaves much for potent conversation. Gretchen

Virginia said...

"If you aren't happy with the way your life is going, make it new: it is within your power to do that."

I need to keep remembering that for myself.



Judith HeartSong said...

"If you aren't happy with the way your life is going, make it new: it is within your power to do that. That's not a new message, but the film finds a way to make fresh old truths. That is what art is for!"

Standing ovation from over here... I am glad you shared your thoughts Theresa.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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