Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (film review)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the new film directed by David Fincher and written by Eric Roth, was inspired by a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, from which it differs considerably. Fitzgerald’s story is about a man born a septuagenarian, 5’8”, and fully developed mentally as well as physically. He smokes his father’s cigars and reads the Encyclopedia Britannica instead of playing with child’s toys. Rather than aging, the man gets younger every year.

It’s a strange story about a freak of nature, a man who is loved neither by his parents nor his own child because of his strange deformity (for lack of a better word). The fate to which this condition condemns him is to never be accepted, or even to be understood. Even his wife – when she eventually discovers his condition – blames him for it:

“I'm not going to argue with you,” she retorted. “But there's a right way of doing things and a wrong way. If you've made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I really don't think it's very considerate.”

“But, Hildegarde, I can't help it.”

“You can too. You're simply stubborn. You think you don't want to be like anyone else. You always have been that way, and you always will be. But just think how it would be if everyone else looked at things as you do--what would the world be like?”

Fitzgerald’s story is, indeed, short; but the film is not. In fact the film has very little in common with the story that inspired it. Fitzgerald fleshes out none of the characters but his protagonist. (We never even meet the remarkable mother who gave birth to a 5’8” child.) Roth – who also wrote Forrest Gump – creates a number of compelling characters on which to base this touching (sometimes cloying) story about love, loss, acceptance, and forgiveness (strikingly similar themes, in fact, to this season’s animated Tale of Despereaux).

While I was watching it, I was constantly torn between Fitzgerald’s intriguing premise and Roth’s heavy-handed Gumpiness. Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and Tilda Swinton, as well as a fine supporting cast, make the film enjoyable to watch. As in Forrest Gump, though, the filmmakers (and I’m assuming Roth in particular) make unnecessary efforts to connect the story quite superficially with a snapshot-view of American history, culminating in a Katrina-gripped New Orleans which allows the audience to anticipate the inevitable. I’m assuming the potential for audience identification was Roth’s sole motivation for setting his story in New Orleans; Fitzgerald’s is set in Baltimore.

In the film, Benjamin is a foundling, a white child raised by a black woman, Queenie, whose love and nurturance seem infinite. But as A.O Scott points out in his review for the New York Times, Benjamin, “though he is a white Southerner raised by a black woman…seems untouched by racial turmoil or by much of anything beyond the mysteries of his peculiar destiny.”

Another Gump-like feature of the film is Benjamin’s initial naivete; he’s a child, after all, even if he looks 70 and is born with cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, and other crippling diseases of old age. And he’s born the size of a normal baby. Fitzgerald’s Benjamin is not only adult size (which Fitzgerald never attempts to explain in naturalistic terms), but he apparently has the knowledge and experience of an old man as well. (His first words to his father, when meeting him at the hospital nursery: “Are you my father? Because if you are I wish you would get me out of this place – or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here….This is a fine place to keep a youngster of quiet tastes. With all this yelling and howling, I haven’t been able to get a wink of sleep. I asked for something to eat, and they brought me a bottle of milk!”)

For all its tear-jerking poignancy, the film’s final message is a feel-good one (or two): you can be whatever you want, do whatever you want; and you have to experience pain and loss in order to experience love. As I was watching the film I kept thinking that Fitzgerald’s story must have had more of an edge, and I wondered if it was more Poe-like than Gump-like. Since the story’s in the public domain, you can read the full-text version online, which I did, and found its aesthetic spare and direct. It’s not spooky, exactly, but there’s an uncanniness about it, and it has poignant, touching moments even without Fincher’s heavy-handed melodrama. In the last chapter, Fitzgerald tells us:

In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby's own grandfather.

The child’s loneliness – condemned to live his life in reverse, without the sympathy or understanding of any living soul – is heartbreaking. Fitzgerald does not hit us over the head with this heartbreak, however; it hides at the margins of the story, and can easily be dismissed along with the story’s overall eccentricity.

Fincher does not condemn poor Benjamin to a lonely life; instead he gives Benjamin a soulmate, Daisy. They meet as children, fall in love, have a child together; and at the end of his life, Benjamin (now a child himself) is cared for by the aging Daisy, now more like a mother or grandmother than anything else. Their love and intimacy surpass that of normal couples; such is the stuff of Hollywood films. The New Yorker film review is rather unfavorable: “This science-fiction reverse-aging conceit, from an early F. Scott Fitzgerald story, has been rendered by the writer Eric Roth and the director David Fincher with a fanatical literalness that occasionally touches the uncanny but that often feels laborious and even pedantic.”

Some of the more intriguing aspects of the film lie outside of Benjamin’s own story. Thematically they lie in the enclosing of multiple, tangential stories within the folds of the primary one. Filmically they reside in the corresponding representations of those stories, beginning with the framing narrative – Daisy’s extended story of the blind clockmaker (Mr. Gateau, or Mr. Cake) whose son dies in the Great War, so he makes the clock for New Orleans’ new railway station to run backwards, as if to reverse time and bring back his son (alluding to Benjamin’s aging backwards). At the end of the film, when Katrina breaches the New Orleans levy, we see the waters lap at the dismantled clock in its dusty storage. Then there are Benjamin’s brief visions of the old man as he tells Benjamin he’s been hit by lightning seven times. These episodes reminded me of Magnolia, one of my favorite contemporary films (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, released in 2000).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Film Bookends Part II: "Amelie" and "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not"

Everyone has seen Amelie -- well, almost everyone, with the exception of those who were deliberately protesting its saccharine-sweet (and borderline fascist?) nostalgia for a sort of pre-immigrant-riots France. It was the big crossover foreign film of 2001. (Full title: Le Fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain.) I've got to admit, I liked it. The strangely quiet titular heroine, played by Audrey Tautou, was not all goodness and light; I thought her unexpected romance with the guy who collected photographs of strangers from the Metro station photo booths was borderline kinky and gave the film a subtly eccentric twist. Amelie spent all her time secretly helping improve the lives of those around her, motivated evidently by her love for humanity.

The flip side of that coin is represented in the 2002 film, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (or in French, A la folie...pas du tout). It's the same wonderful actress, Audrey Tautou, but this film is like Amelie meets, what? Run Lola Run and Fatal Attraction, maybe, with a little bit of The Sixth Sense thrown in. Sadly I don't know anyone else who has seen it, other than myself and the friend I saw it with back when I was living in Detroit for a one-year teaching gig. Since I don't know anyone else who's seen it, I haven't had much chance to discuss this film with friends. Suffice it to say, you guys are really missing out; you really ought to see this film.

He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not is the flip side of Amelie; it's like, what if the character Amelie weren't actually all goodness and light? What if she were really a psychopath? The problem is, you have to sit through most of the film before it occurs to you that it might actually be a response to Amelie, and that puts the film in a whole new light. My friend who saw it with me hated it, understandably so because it is fairly odd; I would argue that it only makes sense if you read it as an anti-Amelie story. The chief clue is that Audrey Tautou plays both roles. You'll have to watch it yourself to pick up the rest.


Try the "Amelie" Drinking Game at this link

Monday, December 22, 2008

"Rats, Rats, Lay Down Flat" - Tribute to Syd Barrett

Followers of this blog know I occasionally give in to a post-adolescent nostalgia for what's euphemistically called "classic rock" (meaning it was made long before the biggest music-buying demographic were born). Some might assume I'm revisiting my teenage tastes, but for the most part I'm not; I'm discovering some of it for the first time, thanks to my music-afficionado husband, AND to my 4-year-old son.

A few months ago my son (at the tender age of 3 -- what he now refers to as "the old days") was given to periodically shouting, "rats! rats! lay down flat! we want to know why you act like that!" After witnessing this behavior a few times I learned from my husband that this is a line from a Syd Barrett song called "Rats," off the 1970 album simply titled "Barrett." This became one of my son's favorite songs (along with "Bungle in the Jungle"). I don't know if he ever shocked his teachers and classmates with this line, because if so, they never told me about it.

Who knows what it means? I sure don't. Syd Barrett was a strange dude. He was a founding member of Pink Floyd, but left the band early, an "acid casualty," as my husband calls him. The song "Shine On, You Crazy Diamond" was reportedly about him. (That's from my favorite Pink Floyd album, "Wish You Were Here.") Rumor has it that the members of the band hadn't heard from Barrett in years, but when they went into the studio to record this song, he appeared out of the blue. Maybe they conjured him up, like a genie.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Volto Santo of Lucca

No, this is not Santa Claus. It's supposed to be the crucified Christ, fully dressed. Seeing as how it was made in the 15th century, he's not exactly wearing historically accurate clothing for the 1st century, even for someone NOT being crucified. I ran across this image in the ARTstor database while searching for images of Bramante's Tempietto of San Pietro in Rome. This just goes to show how odd search engines can be. I like that they are more inclusive rather than less inclusive, because it lets people like me see unexpected things that our normal scholarship and teaching might never lead us to.

It represents a statue found in the Cathedral of S. Martino at Lucca -- an over-life-size wooden statue, possibly from the late 12th century. It is "one of the best known and most venerated of all icons in Italy" (according to ARTstor).

More from ARTstor: "The legend of the Volto Santo has been hopelessly intertwined with that of a female saint, known under a variety of different names, who preserved her virginity by taking on Christ's features, beard and all, and was then crucified....The statue is reputed to have been sculpted by Nicodemus - all but the head, which was fashioned by angels while Nicodemus slept....A fresco of Nicodemus carving the in Lucca's cathedral. Said to have been brought to Italy in the eighth century, the statue's fame as a goal for pilgrims was almost unparalleled during the middle ages and beyond. Reproductions of it are common today and were surely just as numerous in the quattrocento, a popularity evidenced by the construction in 1482-84 of a new chapel, or Tempietto del Volto Santo, designed by Matteo Civitale. Many versions of the image survive from the Renaissance onward, and they show a remarkable amount of variation in the style and ornament of the dress, the crown, and the face itself. The tunic in this print, for example, is nothing at all like that of the statue, which would often, however, have been covered by a separate, detachable garment. This is still current practice on feast days, although the crown now in use dates to 1665 and the gaudy embroidered skirt to 1818. In all likelihood, accoutrements like those seen in the engraving adorned the statue during the fifteenth century."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Film Bookends Part I: "Casablanca" and "An American in Paris"

"We'll always have Paris."

This weekend we watched Vincente Minelli's 1951 Hollywood musical An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly. (The man can dance like nobody's business!) I had never seen it before, and my strongest impression of the film was that it was the Hollywood musical "answer" to Casablanca, the 1942 Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman classic directed by Michael Curtiz. It was uncanny. I don't know if Minelli loved Casablanca or hated it, but I do know that he responded to it quite overtly in An American in Paris. Consider this:

1. Casablanca is set during the war, and it was made during the war, too (in Hollywood). An American in Paris was made, and is set, after the war. Both have action that takes place in Paris; in Casablanca, it was immediately before and during the German Occupation of the city, and in An American in Paris it is set in a liberated city, one that is filled with Americans (three of the film's five main characters are Americans).

2. In Casablanca, there's a love triangle. The beautiful Ilsa Lund is secretly married to Victor Laszlo, international hero of the French Resistance. He's wanted by the Nazis, and they're hot on his trail as he tries to escape to America with Ilsa. But Ilsa is also in love with the American gunrunner Rick Blaine, with whom she had a brief but passionate affair in Paris a few years back, just before the German Occupation, while she thought Victor was dead.

In An American in Paris, there's also a love triangle. American GI-turned-painter Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) falls in love with 19-year-old Frenchwoman Lise Bouvier, but Lise is involved with famed French singer Henri Baurel. Lise is the daughter of French Resistance fighters; during the war, the parents had asked their friend, Henri Baurel, to take care of her. (We never meet her parents in the film, but I like to imagine that she's the daughter of Ilsa and Victor.)

3. In both films, men decide on the fate of the trio. In Casablanca, famously, Ilsa can't decide between Victor and Rick (she loves them both), and she tells Rick to decide her fate: "you have to think for both of us." Rick tells her he'll leave Casablanca with her, but instead he puts her on the plane to America with Victor, thus saving a crucial Resistance leader and becoming a hero. He even kills the Nazi leader to save Victor from capture.

In An American in Paris, Lise loves Jerry, but can't break up with Henri, because she "practically owes him her life." But Henri makes the decision that she should have made, freeing her to be with Jerry.

I think it is significant that these women -- Ilsa and Lise (even the names link them; Lise is pronounced "Lisa") -- aren't in control of their own fates. Only the men get to decide, and their decisions are therefore seen as noble because they have to break their own hearts to restore "the good" to the world. Women are emotional creatures; they are duplicitous and indecisive. Men are rational creatures, and they make noble decisions.

4. Casablanca has a poignant ending: our hero -- the American male -- does NOT get the girl. An American in Paris, on the other hand, has a happy ending: our hero -- the American male -- DOES get the girl. Perhaps it signals a better time for America, which became culturally dominant after its World War II victory.

5. In Casablanca, Rick's famous last words to Ilsa are "We'll always have Paris." In An American in Paris, Jerry tells Lise, "Now what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that's enough for some, but it isn't for me anymore, because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you." How can this not be taken as a reply to the resignation, self-denial, and nostalgia expressed in Rick's farewell to his beloved? "Maybe that's enough for some [i.e., Rick and Ilsa], but it isn't for me anymore."

The message to Americans? We're entitled to it have it all -- after all, what other nation of people are told in their founding documents that they have the "right" to the "pursuit of happiness"? And if that's not enough, we earned that right in the war. And who could better represent America in the postwar period than Gene Kelly, the man with perfect teeth?

American women are the real losers in An American in Paris. The American woman who pursues Jerry, Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), is aggressive and domineering. She's a rich heiress who tries to win Jerry's heart by supporting him as an artist, thus undermining his masculinity both as sexual aggressor and as financial breadwinner. For Minelli, the American female is unfeminine and pushy. American women took a lot of hits from Hollywood in this postwar period -- don't even get me started on this subject.

An American in Paris is an interesting film for a lot of reasons, most of which I'm giving short shrift in this essay: the cultural stereotype of the artist; the use of artworks (paintings) in film; the myth of Paris. It's definitely worth watching. Casablanca, of course, is a classic; I've seen it so many times that I can't count them, and I could watch it again and again. It's sometimes hard to analyze something that you feel so attached to; for me, seeing An American in Paris helped me to think about an old favorite in a new way.