As the best-of-2008 lists begin to congeal around a certain body of films, the lists that attract my eye are of course the ones that contain outliers.
For instance: Kent Jones.
He likes Leos Carax and Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-hsien; I've always appreciated his taste. Last year Hou's latest film, Flight of the Red Balloon, seemed to be underwhelming audiences at festivals (although not all of them) and then earlier this year seemed to slip into American theaters almost unnoticed, along with Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights, as if it were not a remarkable turn of fortune for a long-revered, contemporary Asian master with historically limited success at finding distribution in the US to be screening a film at the art theater of many American downtowns. Jones was one of the film's champions, and I appreciated his efforts on the film's behalf. (How interesting that a year later, Flight of the Red Balloon has just topped the indieWIRE critics poll. Meanwhile, the dentists who vote for the Golden Globes have never heard of the guy.)
For 2008, Jones' list of favorite films is buried inside a special issue of Sight & Sound, but let me pull it out for perusal:
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Fincher)
- RR (Benning)
- The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
- Generation Kill (HBO mini-series)
- Tokyo Sonata (K. Kurosawa)
- Summer Hours (Assayas)
- A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
(See the link above for Jones' brief comments about the films, on page 36.)
I saw and enjoyed RR, Summer Hours, and A Christmas Tale, would like to see The Headless Woman (as I mentioned previously), and have heard enough nice things about Tokyo Sonata to give Kiyoshi Kurosawa another chance. Screeners of Generation Kill are waiting for my belated attention; as a fan of The Wire, I'm eager to see this series from executive producers David Simon and Ed Burns, but since I'd missed the reviewing window, they fell in priority.
But the film in Jones' number one slot is a movie I disliked almost entirely. I wouldn't bat an eye if the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences lauded David Fincher's latest -- it has an epic sweep and a golden hue -- but when Jones too thinks it's a major achievement, I'm inclined to hear him out. He says
Benjamin Button is so moving and so frank (about mortality) yet so wondrous that you might almost forget that it also happens to be a technical feat of the highest order.
I'm an experienced enough film viewer and writer to know what I like. I'm not particularly wishy-washy or swayable, but when I know that I've given a film very little energy -- when I've paid full and careful attention while watching, and thought about it for every minute of its running time but then thought about it very little since writing my review -- I know that my vacuum may be vulnerable to someone else's careful consideration. I welcome that. Give me your thoughts, tell me what synapse firings were triggered by this movie, and I'll take in the information, even if it doesn't change the film's effect on me. The exchange may be productive, regardless.
Then again, maybe it will change the film's effect on me, open it up, turn it potent. My review for Paste focused on the way Benjamin Button's front-and-center special effects carried very few ideas, but let me expand on this final paragraph:
It's only when poor Benjamin shrinks to the size of a newborn late in his life and curls helpless in Daisy's arms that the movie achieves a weird poetic hum, a sadly busted-up situation for a couple of sweethearts who had the misfortune of being star-crossed by reverse aging. (Plus, hurricane Katrina is bearing down on Daisy’s reminiscence. She’s got hellish timing.) There's symbolism in that motherly embrace, I suppose -- the nurturing lover whose drive to coddle her man enables his unfortunate childishness -- but those are themes that exist nowhere else in the film. Curiously, they echo the plight of Forrest Gump's girl, Jenny, but after hours of empty special effects and golden-hued sets, this philosophical conundrum amounts to a tiny non sequitur, a clever couplet at the end of a mind-numbing soliloquy.
Consider for a moment the ending of Chaplin's City Lights. Like Benjamin and Daisy, the tramp and the flower girl are doomed sweethearts. In fact we can't properly call them sweethearts because they've been driven apart by the spinning of the globe, and even as they courted we knew it would never work. But in Chaplin's story, the reasons for the star-crossed nature of their affair, and therefore the reason for the psychologically complex ending, is about class. It's about beauty and ugliness. It's about social lines that people cannot cross. No matter how artificial the rest of the plot may be or how convoluted the twists and turns, the wedge between the two characters is a very real fact of the world we all live in. She is in love with something that does not exist; he is in love with something that exists but that he cannot possess; and Chaplin's use of a traditional shot-reverse-shot during those final seconds, in close-up -- common for most filmmakers but rare for him -- invites us to consider the characters' intertwined destinies and even to compare them as we attempt to find footing.
By contrast, Daisy's poor plight is that she fell in love with a man who could pass for eighty when he was four, and four when he was eighty. The construct has "a weird poetic hum," but it's so alien that I look elsewhere for wisdom or evidence of emotional contact, because it's not inherent in a romance wrecked by science fiction. But elsewhere, I find nothing to sink my teeth into.
What would be interesting about someone living backward except the thoughts and feelings that such a person would have, but those are what the film denies us. Benjamin doesn't actually live backward, of course -- he hasn't lived in the future like a youthening Merlyn -- he just has a physical abnormality. And yet that one difference allows him to occupy life's rooms at different ages than one normally would, so by the time he gets to his college years, it's not interesting that he has the muscles of a young man but that he plays football with a "cold, remorseless anger," as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in the story that inspired the film. In my review: "You'd think that someone who lives backward would approach his high school and college years, the years when he looks like a young man, with an odd blend of wisdom and inexperience, wisdom gained from his sixty-some years on the earth but inexperience from using fresh muscles for new tricks." That mental difference between us and Benjamin is the unexplored nut of the story.
Put another way by Roger Ebert, "the film's admirers speak of how deeply they were touched, what meditations it invoked. I felt instead: Life doesn't work this way." Sometimes telling a story about altered reality highlights our own condition, but the Benjamin concocted by Fincher, Roth, and Pitt has no apparent inner life, does not consider his condition, and therefore does not illuminate ours. So I'm left with nothing to consider except the out-of-sync lovers, as if Benjamin's unusual condition is the equivalent of marrying the wrong person or being sent to war or moving to another country, any of which might have caused Daisy to look back wistfully at what might have been but never could be.
It just happens that the road block between this particular pair of lovers allows snazzy special effects.
One way to gauge the impact of a film is to listen to the discussions that it generates. It's not the only way or even the best way -- people talk about a lot of stupid things, and you can't blame the movies they watch for all of them -- but when a movie that purports to be about aging and the effects of time generates so few discussions of those topics, I begin to wonder what it's really saying.
Most of the discussions spawned by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- in my admittedly small sample of anecdotes -- are about special effects and Brad Pitt. Like a movie that gets people talking primarily about its wonderful performances, 2C2B dazzles us with craft without setting deeper roots. (I also wondered why Brad Pitt gets the latest special effects but the old version of Cate Blanchett looks like she belongs in one of George Lucas's cantinas, circa 1976. Falls in love with a reverse-ager, spends her dying day under the threat of Hurricane Katrina, and looks like rubber in her old age: Cate's character gets the short end of every stick.)
Also, let me assure you of this: the film could have been made without putting a movie star's face inside an old shriveled body. I'm not saying it should have been, just that it could have been. When someone says that some story or other could not have been told until computers advanced far enough to allow such a spectacle to be placed onto a screen, they're betraying a cynical disbelief in the medium at its core.
Those are my thoughts about the film today. But Jones loves the film.* Sometimes a negative response like mine can happen when a critic has overprescribed a film's boundaries, thus closing off the potential for fruitful wandering. Must the movie work as I say? Are there ideas or nuances built into the idea of a body aging in reverse that aren't crossing my brow?
I'll leave it at this: if Kent Jones writes a think piece about the film (or has already -- link?), I'll read it from top to bottom, not to pick it apart but to find those vacuum fillers. Tell me what you saw; tell me where it took hold. I look forward to it.
Someone who appreciates Summer Hours and RR just might be able to turn a few cranks for 2C2B. That's the point of 2008 in Negative.