Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Curious Narrative of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an interesting film to look at for writers, because it's one of the few mainstream Hollywood films to 'disobey' some of the cardinal rules of screenwriting. But how succesful is it in doing so?

The film is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald but obviously credited writers Eric Roth and Robin Swicord (there have been many others during the development phase, including Charlie Kaufman) have created a ton of extra material, as there's a framing story which takes place during Hurricane Katrina, and Benjamin Button's life lasts from 1918 to 2003, whereas Fitzgerald died in 1940 and had his protagonist born in 1860 - in Baltimore.

I'll try to focus on the storytelling aspects of the film and leave the other factors out of it as much as possible. Just to get a few things out of the way, the film looks amazing, digital effects are used (as with Forrest Gump) not to create empty spectacle but to tell a story in live-action which would have been impossible to do without the use of CGI, the make-up making Brad Pitt and Catherine Blanchett look old never looks real (sorry, make-up department, I know you've won an Oscar for this, but it just wasn't convincing) and Pitt and certainly Blanchett are miscast.

So onto the film. And of course major SPOILERS! If you haven't yet seen this and intend to go into it 'virginally', stop reading now.

The curiousness of Benjamin Button is that he is born as an ancient baby, and grows younger all the time. So we have a protagonist who suffers from a unique predicament, which is never explained except in terms of magic realism (the story of the clock which ran backwards). Mentally though, he ages normally - at first he's a child trapped in an invalid body, at the end he suffers from dementia while looking like a child and, finally, becoming a real baby.

The film chooses to use a framing story in which a dying elderly woman, in hospital in New Orleans, asks her daughter to read her from a diary - the diary of Benjamin Button. We shift from present to past quite regularly.

Let's focus on this framing device first. In the beginning of the script, there is absolutely no conflict between mother and daughter. She tries to comfort her mother and does whatever she can to please her - i.e. she reads to her from the book.
At first we don't quite know the relationship between Benjamin and , but we surmise they must have been lovers, so it's no great surprise when this turns out to be the case. So there's no mystery and no conflict - the only element of suspense is the arrival of the hurricane - and that only because we know what happened to New Orleans in real life. To be honest, there doesn't seem to be any compelling narrative or thematic reason to use Hurricane Katrina in this film.
Only during the last third of the film is there any conflict when the daughter discovers Benjamin is her real father, and he deserted her when she was only one years of age. She's angry at her mother for making her find out the truth like this, but it lasts just a few moments (the time to try and light a cigarette), before she's okay again and continues reading from the diary.

Benjamin is born on the last day of the First World War. His mother dies in childbirth, and his horrified father leaves him at a nursing home for the elderly which seems to be run by Blacks (the entire film completely sidesteps the racism issue). Benjamin is taken in by a young woman, Queenie, who becomes his de facto mother.

Benjamin grows up among the elderly, so he doesn't stand out. Bit by bit, he is cured of his arthritis and learns how to walk after visiting a prayer meeting. Soon he meets Daisy, a little girl at the time, and falls in love right off the bat. However, they're far too young to stay together forever at this point, so first he goes off to work on a tugboat with an alcoholic Irish captain, sees action in World War II, learns the identity of his real father and inherits their button factory, meets Daisy again who is now a ballerina and temporarily no longer interested in him, sails the open seas with his father's yacht... and finally, in 1962, Daisy returns to him after she's recuperated from a traffic accident that has left her unable to dance again.

So what's wrong with this picture so far (we're now two thirds into the movie)?

Benjamin Button is a protagonist who has it extremely easy.

At no time in the narrative is he thrust into a direct conflict. His youth is ironically fairly idyllic, he becomes rich through no effort of his own, the woman he loves finally comes to him of her own accord. And when earlier on she treats him badly, he just takes it with the same air of benevolent detachment which seems to be his only emotional state for most of the film.

In fact, Benjamin almost seems to be a Buddhist sage at times, though unlike Forrest Gump he doesn't really create major changes in the people he encounters throughout his life. He's more of an observer, even when he takes action (as when he decides to go and work for Captain Mike).

So the film's narrative thrust is hampered by a protagonist who, though he doesn't exactly doesn't want anything (he wants Daisy), does precious little to get to his goal. Good things come to those who wait seems to be the unstated theme of the film - but that's not exactly conducive to keeping the audience emotionally involved.

Moreover, two thirds along the way Benjamin gets his goal - a relationship with Daisy. At this point, the narrative slows to a complete halt.
However, soon after it starts up again, with the first real problem for Benjamin since the film began.
Daisy becomes pregnant, and Benjamin is afraid he won't be able to function as a father because of his condition. He doesn't want Daisy to have to take care of two infants at the same time. So strong is his fear, that he leaves Daisy and his daughter, Caroline, shortly after her first birthday, before she can remember him.

I don't know whether Eric Roth was responsible for this structural twist, but it resembles the narrative of Forrest Gump very much. Forrest also gets his girl long before the end of the film, happiness is achieved, and then she turns out to have AIDS and dies.

In both films, a new problem pops up to give the third act a totally new narrative drive which comes out of nowhere. And here, it doesn't really work.

When Benjamin leaves his wife and daughter, he acts as a coward, even though the film tries to put another spin on his decision. But it's not even a remotely logical decision: when he runs away, Benjamin is approximately fifty years old, which means he's about thirty. So he has at least 15 years to be with his daughter, all the time in the world to explain what's going on with him (except for his father at birth, no one in the film ever reacts to Benjamin's condition as something appalling, horrifying or unacceptable, why should his daughter be any different?). And by the time he does regress, his daughter would be an adult herself and be able to help Daisy look after her dad.

Sure, there is a heartbreaking moment when the adult Caroline discovers all the birthday cards Benjamin wrote to her but never sent; but his "sacrifice", such as it is, comes across as shallow and selfish, rather than as a noble gesture. Moreover, we've never seen Benjamin upset or moved, not even at Queenie's funeral, and he considered her as his real mother. So why would he get so upset about his perceived inability to be a father?

The reason is: there has to be a plot. Although this film is largely character-focused, at this point all psychological realism or logic is ignored in order to have something happen to the main character. Because otherwise, he'd just have stayed with Daisy and Caroline, and there would have been nothing left to tell at all in either storyline up till the moment of his encroaching dementia and his death.

Interestingly, the original short story has Benjamin born as a mental adult, and he regresses to a child and eventually a newlyborn infant on both the physical and mental level. In his youth, his dad forces him to go to school and play with children even though he'd rather smoke cigars and ponder philosophy; when his wife gets older, he becomes disenchanted with her and leaves to fight in a war; and as he becomes a child again, he goes to kindergarten together with his grandson and finally shows interest in toys and games. It's a far more conflict-laden way of handling the material, and one cannot help but wonder why all these ideas were ditched.

Instead, we have - two storylines with nearly no conflict, and that conflict only coming in the third act of each story
- a largely non-active main character who almost never initiates action
- an epic love story in which one of the characters (Daisy) is actively unlikeable and not very interesting, making us wonder why Benjamin is so besotted with her
- a major decision by the main character which alienates him emotionally from the viewer.

On top of this, there's the matter of theme. Though many themes are mentioned throughout the film (you can do anything, fate cannot be escaped so just accept it), there doesn't seem to be one theme that binds everything together - and certainly not a theme which could only be told with precisely these characters in exactly these conditions. There is no pressing reason why Hurricane Katrina should be the backdrop of the framing story; and there is no big theme or metaphor which needs the reverse aging idea to be communicated to the audience. In Forrest Gump, the theme and the narrative did fit together. Here, it's almost like we're being offered a semi-sequel which doesn't really make sense. Benjamin Button is to Forrest Gump what Evan Almighty is to Bruce Almighty...

Could the narrative have worked better than it does now, even with the same non-active protagonist? I think it could have. There's one sequence (Daisy's car accident) which has a playfulness in the storytelling which reminded me of Amélie Poulain (another film with a very passive protagonist, and not one of my favourites though it probably is one of yours). It shows every detail which lead up to the accident and then also shows how it could have been avoided. If there had been (far) more risk-taking of this nature, the film would constantly have received energy from its narrative unpredictability.

Another way to render the narrative more powerful would have been to tell less and show more. The diary becomes a crutch. For instance, when Benjamin leaves his family, we don't see him suffer, have scenes where we see him regret his decision, or whatever. We just see a travelogue of India and then, somewhat later, a scene where he returns to Daisy for no special reason except to show Brad Pitt as a glowing twenty-year old. By jumping through time, and having the events in the story continually told to us even when they're being shown, the narrative keeps us at an arm's length even when we should be totally entranced by the 'great love story to transcend the ages' which it tries to sell us. But when your female character is cold and selfish and your lovable hero deserts the people who need him most, that sort of becomes a lost cause.


Anonymous said...

You're quite right of course -
as you sit there watching this film, you realize that it is an attempt at 'auteurism' by an extremely talented genre-director. Devoid of any conflict, the movie becomes all about the impossibly beautiful images, a travelogue of visual wonders which are quite literally impossible to film and therefore must be cgi. You may have problems with the old-man-make-up, but that's nothing compared to the creepiness of 'young' Brad & Cate.
The only episode in this terribly episodic movie that roused me from my slumber is the one where Tilda Swinton shows up in a Russian hotel. Partly because it's Tilda of course, but also because the situation is rife with mystery and intrigue: is she a femme fatale? will her husband turn out to be some kind of spy? will she? how will this love triangle play out? If you forget that Benjamin is supposed to be in love with Cate Blanchett - and as you indicated this is very easy to forget - you really want him to run off with her. Of course, he doesn't. She simply ups and leaves, he - again - doesn't do anything to stop her or (god forbid!) go after her. The movie goes back to its travelogue mode. Only near the end do we get another glimpse of Tilda - now almost seeming like a different character - who realized her dream of swimming the channel, reminding us of the emptiness of everything else we've seen.
A terrible disappointment, but, surprisingly, very successful...

R.N.B. Boom said...

Zeg Wout,
breng dat een beetje op, die advertenties van Google?

mrswing said...

@RNB Boom: geen rotte eurocent.

@Anonymous: yes, young Brad was very very creepy - and cleverly kept out of (clear) sight for most of his scenes.

It's amazing to read that some critics consider this to be one of the best American movies of all time, when the storytelling is so weak and the 'message' doesn't flow from the narrative at all.