Max DeCurtins is on the case of a curiously forgettable Oscar entry from 2008: David Fincher’s Katrina-framed adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
In an odd confluence, it turns out that having lived through Halloween in Isla Vista prepared me well for the first academic conference I ever attended, which also took me to New Orleans for the first time ever, for a triple joint conference of the American Musicological Society, the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the Society for Music Theory. In other words, Canal Street in early November 2011 was positively lousy with nerds who had better things to do than listen to some silly papers on “Hallucinatory Audioscapes in John Cage’s 4’33”: an Ethnography” or on how tuning is A Thing that Happens in Music.
I arrived in Nola on Halloween night, and after unceremoniously dumping my things in my room in the dinky hotel next to the main conference hotel—because grad student—I headed straight for Bourbon Street.
Halloween on Bourbon Street bears a lot of similarity to Halloween on Del Playa Drive. Floodlights in strategic locations, for one thing. The fire-and-brimstone religious hecklers, for another. Enough people crowded into a space meant for half that number that getting inexplicably separated from your party posed a real danger. Being asked if you sold, or wanted to buy, drugs. Police on horseback, I think.
IV Halloween probably had more creative (if also more tasteless) costumes. Nola Halloween had better food and better architecture. Three guesses where I come down on this.
I wasn’t a particularly savvy traveler in the conference-filled few days that I was in New Orleans—I was, as a prospective doctoral applicant, foolishly spending my time trying to “network” with people from musicology departments I thought I wanted to join—but I did manage to eat and drink some decent stuff. Even in the French Quarter, arguably the most tourist-heavy neighborhood of the city, I remember just how evident the lingering damage from Katrina really seemed in 2011.
All this figures into my experience of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (hereinafter, Benny Buttons) because the only other time I’d seen this film after my initial viewing was in the summer of 2010, when I stayed on after the end of my Birthright Israel trip, visited a college friend living in Ramat Gan (a suburb of Tel Aviv), and first concocted the idea of researching early music in Israel, the line of scholarship I would later try pitching to dismissive faculty at the AMS-SEM-SMT conference the following year. And so we’re back to New Orleans. And now I want beignets. Fuck.
But let’s re-view this curious case of a movie.
Benny Buttons, directed by David Fincher, opens in a hospital room in New Orleans on the cusp of being hit by Hurricane Katrina. A young woman, who we will later learn is Caroline (Julia Ormond), tends to her dying mother by reading to her from the diary of Benjamin Button, someone whom Caroline will discover, over the course of this framing story set in the present, to have been not only the love of her mother Daisy’s life, but also her very own father as well.
Benjamin Button (mostly Brad Pitt, but also others) is born geriatric on the night of the Armistice, with all the physical manifestations of a body slowly giving up its long fight with time and death. He ages backwards, a product, we are left to infer, of some unusual cosmic magic stemming from famed New Orleans horologist Mr. Gateau’s clock that keeps time in the wrong direction. His father, Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng), foiled in his plan to throw baby Benny in the river to drown, instead abandons him on the steps of a boarding/nursing house run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, in one of the best performances in this movie) and Tizzy Weathers (Mahershala Ali), who take him in and raise Benny as an adopted child. It’s an eclectic childhood, full of characters both consistent and transient. There’s Pleasant Curtis, who got struck by lightning seven times. There’s Mrs. Whatsherface, who teaches him how to play piano. And there’s young Daisy (Elle Fanning, later Cate Blanchett), who will forever haunt his life.
Benny grows old/young enough to leave home, and ends up working on the tugboat Chelsea, captained by Mike (Jared Harris), who inducts him into the pleasures of booze and the flesh. The crew winters in Murmansk, Russia, where Benny encounters Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), the bored wife of the British Trade Minister; they have a brief affair that involves caviar, vodka, and casually strolling the snowy streets with a bottle of Champagne, underscored throughout by a slightly drunk waltz with dulcimer—a nod to Slavic folk music—from composer Alexandre Desplat, whose score for Benny Buttons really is rather good.
Let us now take a moment, dear Reader, to appreciate this fabulousness. I will watch the heck out of Tilda Swinton in pearls, eating caviar and drinking vodka.
The affair ends soon thereafter, and I’m sorry to report that there are no further scenes featuring Tilda Swinton dressed in couture and luxuriating in decadent cuisine. When the U.S. enters World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Captain Mike takes the Chelsea and her crew—who have apparently spent the last however many months in this dim, slightly Gothic hotel in Murmansk—into salvage duty for the Navy. They witness the immediate aftermath of the torpedoing of a troop transport ship by a German submarine, and the Chelsea rams the U-boat after Mike and the crew have gotten themselves gunned down. The Navy collects Benny and a few other survivors, and just like that, another glimpse into Benny’s unusual life departs as abruptly as it started.
Benny returns to New Orleans and again crosses paths with Daisy, who has spent the foregoing time in New York dancing ballet under the direction of Balanchine. He visits her unannounced in Manhattan, only to discover that she’s met someone, and so Benny, who long nursed his attraction to Daisy, takes off to go be sad some more. Despite the cruelness Daisy’s shown him over the years—such as when she basically tells him to GTFO after he’s dropped everything to come to Paris following the car accident that ends her ballet career—Benny still carries a torch for her, and so when she turns up in New Orleans again in 1962, they finally begin the relationship for which, frankly, we’ve been waiting a long goddamned time. (No, really, it’s been like two fucking hours already.) And yet, even though we’ve been anticipating this coming for so long, it doesn’t quite feel right, as if we’re watching the Mirror Universe version of things. I attribute this at least partially to Desplat’s unusual use of a solo harp in the lower registers, a decidedly creepy sound, to introduce Benny and Daisy’s first time sleeping together.
Over the course of almost a decade, Benny and Daisy have a storybook romance that includes buying a place, goofing off while painting it, having sex on a mattress in front of the fireplace, having sex on a boat, having sex on a beach, and having sex while probably talking about not having sex. Hey look, kids! Here’s the version of romance we want to sell you so you’ll forget that late-stage capitalism won’t let you have any of those things! Then one day Daisy tells Benny she’s pregnant, and that’s when Benny Buttons really starts to get real in the angst department. He tells Daisy that he can’t bear the thought of not being able to be a father to the baby, and that she shouldn’t have to deal with a teenaged version of himself while also trying to raise a daughter. Not long after Caroline’s first birthday, Benny offloads most of his assets, leaves the money with Daisy, and takes off.
I think I surprised myself at how angrily I reacted to Benny leaving Daisy; this asshole finally had this amazing life but split well before he would have begun losing his capacity to be a father to Caroline. Not only that, but he denied Daisy the agency that she, like any adult, had by right; had she said she would have taken care of both of them even as Benny regressed, he should have respected her enough to let her make her own decisions. Not only that, but surely we can agree that while a stable pecuniary situation is all well and good, providing that and then taking off doesn’t erase the emotional pain or compensate for the lack of, you know, being there for your kid.
After Benny leaves, we continue to traverse time towards the present, through a series of postcards written to Caroline at various moments throughout her childhood. Benny’s postcards, heretofore unseen until she discovers them on Daisy’s deathbed, read like a litany of Kodak Moments That Weren’t.
“I wish I could have been there to—”
WELL YA COULD HAVE, YA LOUSY ARSE.
Clearly I’m channeling Captain Mike. But seriously. When Benny shows up to Daisy’s dance studio as something like a twenty-ish gift of a benevolent adolescence, she declares that Benny was right, that she couldn’t have handled raising two children. (Except that, by the time Benny would have regressed to some pre-tween child-rearing nightmare, Caroline would have been at least in college and presumably mature enough to take care of herself. But whatever. No need to worry about temporal plausibility, brah. We’re already running backwards and forwards here. Shit is what it is.) I’m not sure I’m inclined to let Benny off the hook so easily.
Following Benny’s return, the movie crams in his continued transformation from young adult to child, to toddler, to infant, as well as Daisy’s death and a short epilogue—all in the span of less than ten minutes. After two and a half hours of at times self-indulgent luxuriation, this highly compressed ending feels almost clumsily abrupt.
I’m not sure what to say about Benny Buttons ten years later. I’ll be honest, I hardly remembered a damn thing about this film. I do have a memory, of all things, of this cue from the score, because it’s the background music on the DVD menu (remember those?), and when I watched it with my friend in Israel, we fell asleep and woke up to find the menu—and the music—still playing on endless loop. But Benny Buttons is a real movie’s movie. There’s something Twilight Zone-ish about the story, inspired by an eponymous text by F. Scott Fitzgerald, of two people who age in opposite directions. It’s a dead-simple premise that provides a surprisingly robust springboard from which to explore different adventures and quandaries, something that stands out to me as unusual, as something plenty of more recent films eschew. While critics such as the late Roger Ebert panned this premise insofar as it constrains the relationships between characters, I wonder if this has more to do with the execution, and how Fincher sometimes spends too much time on one aspect of the story and not enough on another.
I like that the film finds a variety of ways to inject comedy into its otherwise somewhat melancholy observer dynamic. Don’t ask me why, but I find the little silent-film glimpses of the dude who gets hit by lightning hilarious. I had no memory of these bits, but it’s clear the movie needs a few moments of self-aware levity.
The film takes its time to thread all of its pieces together; Fincher almost seems as if he’s playing around the edges of a kind of Nolan-esque narrative style. It’s true that some parts of the movie feel like they drag, and others feel a bit rushed. If a bit of protraction is the price for doing the story justice, then so be it. That Benny Buttons takes a long time to unfold perhaps reflects the story of its journey to the silver screen; it went through approximately twenty years of searching for the right leadership team, and in an alternate universe it might have been directed by, variously, Frank Oz, Steven Spielberg, or Ron Howard. And speaking of alternate universes, in explaining how Daisy sustained the injury that ended her ballet career, the movie presents one of the best chaos theory sequences I’ve ever seen on film.
Of the three Best Picture-nominated films I’ve re-viewed this month for 10YA, Benny Buttons makes the strongest case for deserving the award. Though it lost in that category—as well as in Best Director—to Slumdog Millionaire, it did capture awards for art direction, makeup, and visual effects, and most deservedly. Benny Buttons has simply magnificent visuals, and in this too the film reminds me a little of recent Nolan titles such as Interstellar and Dunkirk. And while I think I always rather underestimated Alexandre Desplat on account of his rather corny score for Julie & Julia, here he (and an orchestrations team of six!) deploys a marvelously textured score brimming with unusual instrumentation, phrases that dovetail into other phrases with only the weakest of harmonic resolution, thus propelling the musical impetus ever forward, and a general drunken lilt that gives the effect of being in some carnival magician’s tent as he spins a fantastical yarn for a credulous audience.
So few movies anymore seem to give a sense of atmosphere, but Benny Buttons has it in spades. I suppose New Orleans in its heyday presents a culture just about as far removed from my lived experience as any, so perhaps I’m bound to find the film a bit more atmospheric. Hello, exoticism! Eric Roth, one of the writers, acknowledges as much in describing the decision to relocate the story from Baltimore to Nola. Old buildings and double-gallery houses line the streets, cloaked half in shadow and half by the ferns and flora. New Orleans’ famous gas lamps seem to struggle to illuminate the city that Benjamin explores, furtively, by night; a somewhat sickly glow bathes the interiors of bars and brothels. Verily, even the light looks humid.
Though it papers over the racial dynamics of a South very much still committed to Jim Crow, the film does an excellent job of describing visually the richness of the city and the Gulf more generally. So please, by all means enjoy some elegant rooms with wood paneling and chandeliers, not too brightly lit, with tasteful ornateness and Sazeracs aplenty.
Still, for all its visual beauty, musical character, fairly solid acting, and sheer imaginative evocation, Benny Buttons does at times feel as though it’s merely scratching the surface of the kind of philosophical melancholy that it exudes. Pitt and Blanchett turn in impressive performances as Benny and Daisy, though, if anything, Daisy’s character anchors the film more than does Benny. And, it must be acknowledged, the movie presents what is almost certainly a dreadfully sanitized picture of racial dynamics in Louisiana in the decades prior to the civil rights movement, as if to say, don’t focus on this racism stuff, it’ll distract you from watching all the pretty people do pretty people things.
Ten years later, I appreciate the film for the Twilight Zone-light fantasy it is, but it doesn’t stand out to me as An Important Film. It’s the cinematic expression of the old cliché that youth is wasted on the young. So here I am, almost three hours and change (from revisiting certain bits) later, glad to have picked this re-view for 10YA, even if I can’t quite place it in a larger filmographic context a decade later. One thing’s certain, though.
I still want beignets.
– “Button’s Buttons” instantly reminds me of Pushing Daisies—in Bryan Fuller’s world of things duplicatively named, Chuck’s father calls her “button button.”
– The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced Rod Serling would have been the perfect way to prologue the film. For your consideration, the curious case of one Benjamin Button. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop, New Orleans.
– I’m not really sure why Hurricane Katrina is so central to, or even present in, the frame story of Caroline and Daisy on her deathbed. There’s no especially plausible connection to the inner story. The only explanation I can conjure is political. Ten years ago this month, Obama was preparing to succeed Bush, whose administration badly botched the disaster relief response to Katrina, and to some degree, including Katrina strikes me as a parting political potshot.
– I want all the New Orleans foods and drinks now, please and thank you.