“Like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, or the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, Fincher is an auteur-facile, an auteur of illusory depth.”
The choice of a late December 08 release of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an instant indicator of what the producers want out of their “very special” three-hour movie: an Xmas perennial and Oscar showcase; a film that is “generous” to its actors, that leaves its audience in polite tears. The actors get a chance to stretch out and “run” with their characters in nice one-page monologues galore all through the film. And they get to age. Actors love to age in a film — it’s the equivalent of writing a novel as opposed to a vignette — their characters get to have arcs (usually) and they get to do funny voices and wear lots of makeup. Well, top actors such as these earn a lot of money and should be able to do as they like. But man, not since the days of Douglas Sirk has America seen such latex-covered histrionics, and so generously spread throughout the cast: crying at hospital bedsides, anguishing, brooding, storming, but most of all bathing in the warm glow of a universal Louisiana love lock, where everybody knows your name and no one cheats at cards. And a flood is always around the corner. The tears blend into the rain, of course. (Button is the sort of movie that has to say “of course” at the end). And there’s not a dry eye in the house, but are the tears real? Or has the theater at Oscar time just become the safe place to come and unburden in the darkness while the actors onstage reach for the gold ring?
This metatextual fact of “actorliness” infects Button. We who are jaded and hip wink to ourselves in advance of its warm, hazy Gumpian nostalgia. It’s a “Christmas movie” and, like a semi-wanted relative, brings its associative baggage, never brings you the gifts you were hoping for, and takes a little longer each year telling the same old stories. But what could have been just a minor-key Gump unwrapping yet another damned box of chocolates becomes something else in David Fincher’s hands. Instead of chocolate, there is . . . nothingness.
Like Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, or the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, Fincher is an auteur-facile, an auteur of illusory depth. These auteur-faciles make very pretty and ornate and fantastic wonderful images. They expand your mind and what cinema can do. They give their actors breathing room to develop their own characters, but at the same time the forward momentum of genuine suspenseful narrative often eludes them. While too self-aware and canny to fall into the same warm fuzzy trap of Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump, Fincher suffers from not knowing where else to go once he’s free. Pitt wanders around through the cavernous hotel sets, or bikes hither and yon, all without any definite purpose. Similarly, we in the audience wonder what our purpose is, besides to cry and genuflect.
As for the leading role, Pitt is much more enigmatic than the “loveable” Hanks. Whereas Tom Hanks’ retarded savant in Forrest Gump is a magical force of innocence in the Spielberg fascist state where children and family are as above judgment as visiting diplomats or Baptist preachers, Pitt’s Button by contrast is more of a cipher, an objet d’art who comes to us a “whole” person before he even begins to learn his life lessons. Straight male critics seem to blanch at Fincher’s objectification of Pitt in the film — during his short-sleeve shirt period especially, though of course the main problem will be the “coldness” of the film. Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times noted that Button “leaves you colder than it should, and it shouldn’t leave you cold at all.”1
But wait, who is the guy who decides the temperature at which Button should be served? Fincher or critics like Turan? Is there some promise in the film’s poster to deliver warmth? Is that what the golden hues are supposed to signify? Do I give Fincher too much credit in assuming he intends to leave us “cold”? That he’s had it in for the expectations of his audience since as far back as shaving Ripley’s luscious hair off in Alien 3? Even in his lesser work, like The Game or Panic Room,Fincher’s busy trying other stuff than what you want, like a bored prostitute who looks delicious but wont stop playing with her cell phone long enough to return your hungry glance.
While even as far back as Gump and the similar Bridges of Madison County, the time-spanning narrative seemed to take longer, to stretch out in scenes that here collapse into a long visual stream. In the climate of 2008 we are in the Ridley Scott American Gangster mode, where scenes play out willy-nilly over great stretches of time, illuminating little but one cool set after another. While American Gangster seemed to be missing something (a genuine character in place of Denzel Washington’s bland cipher), with Button, the missing something becomes the point. Fincher uses the “fast flow of time” novel structure to illuminate the trauma of watching the world grow younger as you change into an old person; he illuminates it by reversing it.
At the rest home where young Benjamin resides as the John Irving-ish observer of magical-realist quirkiness, there is no more “aging” since everyone is old and dies there and then is replaced. The number of old people stays the same, as more come in as others go out, creating a stasis. This idea of time out of mind is something that we in the real world are used to in our TV characters. Just look at the Simpsons! They haven’t aged in 20 years, and yet the world around them changes. Many of us started watching The Simpsons in college, wherein Homer Simpson represented an adult — older than us. Now he’s actually younger than many of us, the same viewers. And yet the show’s cultural context has remained current with the times, creating all sorts of anachronisms that the show’s writers sometimes seize on for comedic purposes (Homer’s high school romance with Marge was once set in a 1970s high school but his entry into college occurs in the early 1990s to allow him a stint as a grunge rocker). We notice this when we realize the only “dated” elements in the reruns are those references to television shows long since forgotten (such as “the critic” guest starring, or the cast of Cheers.) When these bits of winky reference appear, we don’t laugh. We remember that show, it was ten years ago at least! Suddenly, in a flash, we are old.
The weird metatextual links between Imitation of Life and Button are worth talking about, though not often noted by the critics. Each involves the fantasy of the interracial mom. The old white kid with the salt of Gibraltar black mom, and Imitation’s “pass for white” girl hungering to pretend Lana Turner is her mom and not the kindly maid. The director of each film is noted for his godlike gift with imagery and passable gift with narrative; in each case the “black funeral” becomes a set-piece opportunity to use a lot of black extras and soul singing to a cathartic effect. In each case the presence of the white stars — friends of the deceased in one way or another — provide an offset opportunity for racial healing. If it’s one thing white people admire about black culture, it’s their music and spiritual vibrancy, and no better place to display it than a funeral! The white man’s funeral tends toward empty stagnation — bitter old women frowning on any sort of genuine expression, dusty old preachers babbling from old bibles . . . while in the black church there’s Mahalia Jackson.
This is of course to say nothing of the “colonialist” fantasy on display in each, that the black person is happiest when humbly serving, and their death is a final liberation from the curse of “being colored” in America, a burden they bear stoically. With the death of the black matriarch in each film, the white people are also free to go back to their own “kind.” And the maid’s “high-yella” daughter can now be free to be always white, with no black mom following her around to make her feel guilty. In other words it’s a final solution to Reagan’s declaration that when he was a boy there was no race problem before he knew about the riots. The deaths here are the Men in Black quietly erasing Reagan’s troubled memory. All is well, sleeping white man . . . all is well.
In each case, the African American woman dies, which gives way to a big old Louisiana-style Baptist funeral. For Imitation of Life we get Mahalia Jackson, who basically cracks the film open and lets God-sized heartbreak come gushing in from all directions. In Button it’s more about the white fantasy of being accepted in the black community, a guarantor in the cosmic honky unconsciousness of being “sanctified” and “earthy” and probably a natural blues musician. In Imitation of Life, Sirk is not going to fall for the quick fix. Like all those other artists who fled the Nazis, he doesn’t need to go looking for Original Trauma the way, say, Joel “Who’s Lubitsch?” McCrea did in Sullivan’s Travels. Lubitsch fled too, so he didn’t need to search either. The Button down syndrome is definitely a USA-born disease.
In each case, we have a director who is above all a creator of imagery. David Fincher is becoming more like those Kubricks of Commercial the Scott Brothers every day. Button is a film bathed in glowing golden affect and vague import. The backwards-spinning clock intro and other bits of magical realism should add up, so maybe it’s our fault they don’t. Perhaps Fincher always needs a serial killer to keep his films urgent, to activate our paranoia to start digging for connections and meaning where there aren’t any. The warm golden 1970s of Zodiac’s own trip through time was always suffused with queasy dread that kept us ransacking the ‘scope frame for clues, admiring the great haircuts and shag carpeting the way Jon Voight pauses in Deliverance to admire the view while climbing a cliff face to get the drop on a hillbilly sniper — with queasy dread that signifies life, in short. But in Button, it’s tough to know what to feel, beyond the “not being heart-warmed.” I wasn’t alone in feeling cut off from the narrative yesterday at the old 12th and 2nd across the street from my house. I gazed down from the balcony at a sea of glowing green text boxes. People fell in and out of rapt attention with this lengthy film, a vast departure from the riveting and disturbing Zodiac. And yet at the end there were tears as well. That we can text and cry in the same movie says a lot for our distracted age. Perhaps Button is the Gump we deserve after all.
What redeems the film is the relevance and metatextual relation to film-going itself. Just as we can watch a movie in our youth, looking up to the adult characters, and then later on in adulthood, see the film again and actually be older than those same characters and then deal with the apparent falseness of our childhood memories of the same film, so too can the Button cast age and get younger in all directions. The next step would be Slaughterhouse Five’s chronosynclastic infundibulum, but either way, before we travel into deep space along the proposed wormholes, we have to grow accustomed to the slow process of aging being different for some than for others. People who travel into wormholes become, perhaps, a little like actors in a movie: they never age. We remember them at 5 and at 75, and they stand as living proof of immortality (Pitt proved he was ageless decades ago in Interview with a Vampire). Bring out the Gods, the Bowman of 2001, Zarathustra! The Lestats and the Buttons, the Tyler Durdens and the Reeveses . . . Ohmmmmmm. The future is written in the latex-covered stars.