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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Merrick Morton / Paramount and Warner Bros.
Taraji P. Henson and Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
This is another in our series looking at year-end lists. series introduction and index

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.

On Reevaluating Films and the Vacuum of Ben Button

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.

If Robert Zemeckis had directed this movie, I might have said, hey, David Fincher should have directed this movie. Fincher would've had no patience for this treacly aw-shuckery, I'd have said. But back in the real world, I now say: Raoul Ruiz should have directed this movie. — RD

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.

The Discussions That A Film Generates

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.

* In an earlier version of this post, I briefly claimed that David Edelstein also loves the film, and I linked to his top ten list, which does not include the film, making a rather unconvincing argument on my part. Turns out, the film is not in his list because he does not love the film. See his comments below and at New York Magazine. I'm not sure what I was thinking. My apologies.

12 Responses to “2008 in Negative: Kent Jones and Benjamin Button

  1. Robert DAVIS says:

    On his blog, Jonathan Rosenbaum says

    Having just seen Benjamin Button, I still don’t know whether I might have included it in any of my lists, but I have to admit that I suspect I already prefer it to all of Fincher’s other films, with the possible exception of Se7en. It took me a while to warm to the weird premise and some of the grotesqueries it involves, but I think part of what impresses me is how nervy it is in playing out the poetry of the conceit for all that it’s worth and letting all the social-historical elements — from two world wars to Hurricane Katrina (and not overlooking the degree to which it sidesteps all the racial issues)–take a back seat to the love story. It’s also more impressive to me visually than Fincher’s other works. Whatever one concludes about the story and all its ramifications, he certainly knows how to fill a frame.

    I like his conflicted view of the grotesqueries and sidestepping. And I'd agree that some of it is nervy; I'm just not sure if that's laudable.

  2. David Edelstein says:

    Actually, I didn't love it at all! I thought it was a decently restrained soap opera. I appreciate Kent Jones but I think RD is right on... The fact is (and it is a fact, not an impression), the center of the film, BB, is a cipher. For all the praise about Pitts's tenderness etc., there's no there--no tension between body and mind, no upside down emotional trajectory. It is RD who nails it when he considers the psychology of BB approaching his high school years versus the neutered protagonist of the film. That's the best argument against the film I've seen--and would have cited it in my own review.

  3. Robert DAVIS says:

    David, thanks for the correction. Sorry for the misattribution -- I'm not sure what happened there, but I blame it on holiday food and general merriment. I've updated the text.

  4. Robert DAVIS says:

    Maybe the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the people who vote for the Golden Globes, has more clout than a sampling of dentists, many of whom seem to talk to me about movies. After all, the HFPA is a self-described group of journalists who cover the entertainment industry and live in the Greater Southern California area.

    But based on their track record, I'd rather go with dentists. Or lawyers. Or librarians. Better yet, we could just stop acting like the Golden Globes matter. Even though I'm chomping a the bit to see who wins the "Musical or Comedy" grudge match between Burn After Reading, Happy-Go-Lucky (which does, after all, have "happy" in the title), Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and Mamma Mia!

  5. Jim says:

    David Fincher can't resist a technical challenge, even though this particular challenge isn't validating enough. Fincher isn't really interested in people, as the negative claim goes, is he? He's interested in people doing things and solving puzzles: hunting killers, figuring out how to defeat crooks from inside a panic room, watching one's sibling negotiate the most mind-fuckingly crazy game, for which his brother payed tons, hoping that it forces him to a revelation, or taking a deeply depressed soul, whose life is a dissociative nightmare, who fights first alongside, then eventually against his twisted other. Fincher relies on the hook of the bizarre to get himself into a film. This is not a bad thing. But it is true that the mechanism of a Fincher film is always front and center. I've always found the fact that he stuffs his films with Big Stars amusing.

    What Fincher should do next: a remake of Frankenheimer's "Seconds".

  6. Brian says:

    Nobody needs to remake Seconds. I'm not opposed to remakes on principle, of course. What really needs to be remade is the Player, but for the opening shot at the studio offices, the screenwriters are not pitching ridiculous "Doritos" meets "Häagen-Dazs" concepts to the producers, but are instead pitching outlandish remake ideas like "a modern-day update of The Apu Trilogy with Dev Patel in the lead" or "A 3-D version of Birth of a Nation, directed by Spike Lee".

    Rob, thanks for the explanation of the term. I had a feeling you were unfairly maligning dentists there.

  7. Robert DAVIS says:

    I have only knowingly maligned dentists when lying in one of their chairs. Otherwise, I have no complaints. In fact my previous dentist not only talked to me constantly about movies but also had an office near the 4-Star on Clement in San Francisco, which gave me an excuse to wander past and look at the schedule, something I didn't do often enough.

    I'd like to see what Michael Haneke could do with a shot-for-shot remake of Mamma Mia!

  8. Robert DAVIS says:

    I've been too busy lately to crack the pages of the latest Cinema Scope in which Kent Jones does in fact write about Benjamin Button. "The Time of Your Life: David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is not yet online, as far as I can tell, so I'll have more to say when I've returned home and opened my copy.

  9. coffee fiend says:

    Benjamin Button was very Fincher-esque... almost as good as his other stuff if not for some nagging plot holes

  10. will says:

    2C2B (love the abbreviation, by the bye) isn't Fincher's strongest film, but that's Eric Roth's fault, not Fincher's. The hooks of the story put it leagues beyond that pablum called Forrest Gump, but while watching it, I thought, why can't Roth get farther with this material? Why can't he he keep from cliché-dropping and cutting the story up into such tiny, disparate episodes. This isn't Forrest Gump. Plus the melodrama was a bit too much at times.

    That being said, I'd classify 2C2B as a brilliant failure (the failure mostly landing squarely in Roth's camp, plus some slight disappointment that Pitt hasn't been brave enough to explore his brokenly human Babel territory since then, & has been content to play elusive. Which, I've gotta admit, is still more interesting than his 90s versions.)
    The brilliance is in the mythic center of the story, which is at the same time compelling and perverse. It felt like a combination of Tristram Shandy, Birth and the wonderful un-ageing sequence of La Cité des Enfants Perdus. The brilliance is, to be honest, in the nearly seamless effects, some of which were astonishingly convincing. The brilliance is in Fincher's visual sense, his pacing, his ability to let his viewers be insider outsiders. I disagree with Jim when he says Fincher isn't interested in people. He IS, just in the narrower category of what people (everyman category) experience when faced with challenges to stasis.

    In short, I was expecting more (as a Fincher fan, as well as a fan of Hou, Assayas & Desplechin). But I don't know that it's necessarily out of place on Kent's list. Or mine, once I get around to making it. I sense that the main difficulty for you *may* be the commercial appeal of the film, as much as the fact that the film didn't move you. Thoughts?

  11. Robert DAVIS says:

    Thanks for the thoughts, Will. I only have a short bit of time as I'm preparing for a trip tomorrow, but I'll respond to your last comment. I don't think I'm resisting the film because of its commercial appeal. I really like The Visitor, for example, and find it far more thoughtful than many dismissive critics are giving it credit for, and it did bang-up business at the art house this year. My extended 2008 recap nods to a number of popular faves, I think. I love a good night at the movies.

    But I do sense a tendency in myself to resist movies that seem designed to win awards. There's a genre of sweetness and shallow emotion that hits the sweet spot (so to speak) of voting bodies, and when filmmakers stoop to that -- especially good ones -- and in so doing hog the limelight from better (IMO) films, it grates on my nerves. Seven Pounds is a more obvious example than Button, and there are a few things I like about the Fincher movie, but what I crave most of all is food for thought, and I find in the wake of Button that I'm thinking/talking/writing about what people thought of the film more than what thoughts the film itself generated, because it didn't trigger much in my head.

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