Monday, January 05, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Some directors use visual effects as a crutch. David Fincher uses them as a tool. I can think of no director who works so comfortably, and frequently so invisibly, with digital effects. Until you watch the DVD special features, you would have no idea that many of the key scenes in Fincher's Zodiac, including the examination of the taxi cab at the corner of Washington and Cherry, were shot on a green screen, with nearly everything except the actors and the car painted in using computers. It's the same sort of technique used to create the world of Sin City but consider how different Zodiac looks and feels than that movie.

Brad Pitt stars as the title character, who is born as a shriveled raisin of a baby, with all the ailments of a man on his deathbed, and grows physically younger as he mentally ages, so that when he finally does die some eighty years later, he looks like a cherubic newborn. Along his way from grave to the cradle, he meets and falls in love with a vivacious dancer named Daisy (Cate Blanchett), whose normal human physiology and development conspire to keep the pair apart (When they're both in their early teens, Benjamin looks like a 70-year-old man, which makes their late night rendevous under a kitchen table awfully creepy).

Fincher's films (Alien 3, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, and Zodiac) would not seem to bear a good deal in common with a lengthy meditation on mortality. But I look over that list and see what a filmmography primarily concerned with fear of the various terrors that hide in the dark corners of alleys or spaceships or even our own personalities. Benjamin Button, while certainly the most sedate film to bear Fincher's directorial signature, is still about that same fear, only this time he doesn't disguise it in the form of a slimy alien or serial killer.

The movie spans most of the twentieth century. No matter what time period Benjamin and Daisy cross paths in, one image repeats in Fincher's frame: light bulbs. The number of times the movie places the two characters into composition with bright, unshaded lights are too numerous to count. From a directorial perspective, the sharp direct light casts deep shadows which are visually striking and likely also a helpful tool when trying to mask the subtle but elaborate visual effects playing out across Pitt and Blanchett's faces. But I wondered if there was a more symbollic meaning, and according to this dream dictionary, a light bulb in dream logic "suggests that you are ready to accept and/or face reality." In the context of Benjamin Button I wonder if they could serve as a visual reminder of the fact that the characters are having a hard time doing exactly that. It's something worth exploring on a second viewing.

A few days ago, my Termite Art partner R. Emmet Sweeney posted his Best of '08 List, which includes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sweeney praises Fincher because "his talent for subordinating digital gimmickry to the demands of story and character is unparalleled." As my earlier comments would suggest, I agree, although you will note Benjamin Button didn't show up on my own top ten. Though I was never less than completely engrossed by the picture, I don't know that the movie always succeeds: Fincher's technique is so workmanlike that it infuses Benjamin Button with a buttoned-up atmosphere that's sometimes counter to what is essentially a tragic love story. Moments of true emotional release, of genuine passion, even when Benjamin and Daisy both "meet at the middle" of their respective journeys, are few and far between. Maybe Sweeney can respond with his own lengthier piece on the subject to explain what I missed in that department. Regardless, this is a movie I would easily recommend. The proper word to describe the movie is right there in the title; it does indeed weave a curious spell.

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Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:43 PM  
Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

I'd like to see it again before blathering about it, but Kent Jones has a really good piece in the new Cinema Scope that I entirely agree with. Unfortunately it's not online, but check it out if you can.

But briefly, I would disagree that Fincher's style is "workmanlike". I think it's very subtle and thorough in how it inscribes the "apartness" of Pitt's character, posits him as this calm observational eye in the storm of life's activity. I find the tragic romance incredibly affecting because of the resigned acceptance of the leads, and necessary because of the overall elegiac tone of the film. For it to leap into romantic operatics would be very out of place, I think. Anyway, I'm still working through why I found it so effective.

5:44 PM  
Blogger the STIG said...

hey man
thanks for ur review,
helped me understand the movie more...

can anyone help me figure out the mise-en-scene of the movie?

thanks in advance

1:06 AM  

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