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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

What should a movie be? More specifically, what characteristics should a movie nominated for Best Picture have? Theoretically, the nominees (and especially the winner) are those rare movies which are codified into the canon in their own time, held up as worthy examples of the form to be passed down to succeeding generations. This is why people still watch Casablanca and The Godfather. (Of course, the Academy doesn't always get it right, see The Greatest Show on Earth beating both High Noon and The Quiet Man.)

Some people think a movie has to be important to be granted entrance into this club, that it must deal with an important issue to be included. Or even better, it should be a sweeping statement (preferably an indictment) of us and our times. These people are how Crash won a Best Picture despite being one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

I may not be much of an expert in cinema, it's really not my field, but my belief is the same as it is for fiction. A movie should try and tell whatever story it has decided upon, and do it in the best manner possible. Most great stories will provoke reaction and introspection anyway. The difference is that they don't come across as lectures.

This may be a demeaning and unenlightened thought, but what I want out of a movie is a good story and great pictures. To my mind, the reason movies exist is to show us pictures. This is why I don't get upset so much by the existence of CGI but by its lack of realism. That's what makes Benjamin Button so amazing. At no point in this effects-laden film do the tricks of the trade distract from the story by calling attention to themselves by being unnatural or obviously fake.

They do however occasionally intrude by being so utterly fantastic that they cannot help but arrest your attention. So much has been said about how the movie goes about making Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett look older than their real selves, but the movie's most gosh-wow moment comes when Pitt shows up as the much younger version of Button. The effects make Pitt look like he did when he was 20 himself, to the point that you have to remind yourself that Pitt really isn't that young anymore.

Movies are supposed to impress us in this way. From the early 20th century, when the Lumiere brothers made their audience believe a train was heading straight at them, it is what they have been intended to do. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is perhaps one of the surest signs that CGI is advanced enough to trick the human eye in ways that will allow to be a benefit to the films that use it, instead of a distraction.

The story is a little thin for a movie which lasts nearly three hours, I guess, but for whatever reason the love story between Benjamin and Daisy really resonated with me, much more than it seems to have for many other critics. The scene where a Benjamin (looking 50-ish) is watching Daisy dance around the studio with her ballet friends and realizes he's made a mistake in coming by was poignant. His reluctance to pursue Daisy at other points, and her conflicted feelings about a possible relationship all felt very real to me. Despite the fact that one of them was aging backwards, this couple felt much more true to life than the "destined" union of Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire.

A lot of people are complaining about the movie's similarities to Forrest Gump, and while I can certainly see the argument (heck, they were written by the same guy) I think to a large extent that complaint misses the point. First of all, a lot of the so-called exact similarities are pretty slim. "Both Benjamin and Forrest are unusual people, with unique views on life." That's a quote from IMDb. Um, aren't most movies about unusual people, like say, a gay civil rights leader, an illiterate female Nazi, an unbelievably lucky gameshow contestant, or the 37th President of the United States?

Anyway, I think Benjamin Button is a better movie. Whereas Forrest Gump was really some sort of catch-all homage to Boomerism and its principles, this movie feels more like a story about a person, instead of an excuse to make jokes about Nixon and Vietnam. Forrest Gump didn't deserve it's Best Picture win, but Benjamin Button might not get the one it deserves. (I haven't seen Milk or Frost/Nixon, so I can't say for sure yet).

What should a movie be? A story, yes, but also a spectacle. And if I had to describe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in one word, spectacle would be my choice. I give it a 9.4 out of 10.

Next? I'd still like to see Frost/Nixon and The Wrestler.

1 comment:

  1. John- Even though I can't pester you in Knott anymore, at least I know that I can come and pick your brain on pop culture here on your blog.

    Hope to see you this summer!