Friday, December 26, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Or, Forrest Gump, Part II

This was not a matter of one's inevitable mortality, of a man going round taking names: it is one thing to know that you are going to die, and something else to know that you may be murdered.
-James Baldwin, J
ust Above My Head

Last night I went to see "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with my family. I knew little about the film, save that it was about a man who aged backwards, starred Cate Blanchett, and was directed by David Fincher. I thought this provided a decent enough basis for a good movie. I was wrong.

"Benjamin Button" is an awful movie. It it sentimental, mythologizing garbage. Ostensibly concerned with examining the meaning of death, loss, and love, the movie can only deal with these issues in the most milquetoast manner possible, as it evades every aspect of history that makes them matter.

The film begins in New Orleans in 1918, with a blind clockmaker (actually it begins in a modern day hospital in a framing narrative. However, this narrative is completely undeveloped and nonsensical, so I am going to be ignoring it here). The clockmaker has just lost his son in World War I, and has retreated to his workshop to design his masterpiece. When it is finally completed and hung in the New Orleans train station, those present at the ceremony are astounded to see the clock runs backwards. The clockmaker explains that he designed it as such in hopes that he could run time backwards and bring back the boys lost in the war so they could live full lives. This moment is the most significant engagement with history in the film; it's all downhill from here.

Soon afterward we see an Armistice Day celebration. A man rushes home to find his wife dying after giving birth. The child is deformed, he looks like an eighty five year old man. Panicking, the husband dumps the child on the doorstep of an elder care home run by an African American woman, Queenie.

Queenie sees the child, and adopts him, naming him Benjamin. Benjamin spends his childhood in Queenies' elder care home, thus growing up with death as a regular and unremarkable part of life.

This is where the movie's evasions begin. To begin with, there is no hint of racial tension in the New Orleans of Benjamin's youth. At one point, we see Benjamin and an African man he has befriended riding the city public transportation. White and Black sit together comfortably in the same seat in the same section of the train. At one point, the African man even makes a point of frightening some white children, with not the slightest hint of reprisal from the trolley driver or any other white citizen. All of this harmony on the trains in the city of Homer Plessy.

Queenie runs a nursing home taking care of mostly white clients. Though it's never explicitly stated, Queenie appears to be the proprieter of the establishment, making her decidedly wealthier than the majority of inhabitants of the city. That white seniors would hand themselves over to a middle class Black woman is simply a ridiculous premise. It is one thing to have Black maids; it is quite another for whites to patronize Black businesses.

Queenie's character is one of the film's most offensive. She is, to put it bluntly, a mammy. She is a Black woman whose only real purpose seems to be to take care of white people. Her dialect is ridiculous. The audience, of course, is encouraged to laugh at this vile archetype as she dispenses folksy wisdom. At multiple points in the film, she is giving advice to Benjamin and he dismisses her with a curt wave of the hand. Black people are funny, it seems, as long as they know when to shut up.

Benjamin continues growing up (or down) and joins a tugboat crew. His travels eventually take him to Murmansk, Russia, before the Second World War. During the entire period he is in Russia, the film gives not the slightest hint that Benjamin is in the Soviet Union. There's a brief reference to his hotel, the "Winter Palace," but it's unclear whether the film has any consciousness of the significance of this name. The Soviet Union is as equally vacant of history as New Orleans.

Soon the tugboat gets orders to become a military ship, and its crew is drafted. Here we meet Queenie's only rival for the film's most offensive character: Dennis Smith, "a full blooded Cherokee" whose family, Benjamin reminds us, had been in America more than five hundred years. Dennis loves America more than any other character in the movie, even treating us to a nice explanation of why pacifism is wrong: "You have these pacifists. They say they won’t fight on conscience. Where would we be if everybody decided to act according to their conscience?"

Dennis' family may have been in the United States for a long time, but they probably wouldn't have been citizens until 1924 when Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act. Given that Dennis is a Chief Gunner in the movie, he probably was not a US citizen until he was four or five, despite his family's length of residence. His parents were probably alive for the 1879 Standing Bear trial, before which Native Americans weren't even legally human beings. That the film would choose a Native American in the 1940s for its representative of American patriotism is disgusting. It was at this point that I decided I hated the movie.

If Benjamin Button's erasure of history sounds familiar, it's because it is. It was done in much the same way 14 years ago in "Forrest Gump." The similarity between the two movies became glaring partway through, and when I got home I found out that they were both written by the same person, Eric Roth.

Comparing the Benjamin Button to Forrest Gump is not a compliment. Gump is, as H. Bruce Franklin likes to say "one of the worst movies, ever!" Vietnam is a scary jungle that shoots at nice American boys who happen to be walking through it. Vietnam Vets are spat on and called baby killers by antiwar activists. And to top it all off, the film's protagonist is constitutionally incapable of understanding history or his place in it. He bumbles his way through some of the most important episodes of American history, reassuring us that it isn't important to understand the world in order to change it.

Gump and Button also share a specific archetype: the slut who must be punished. In Gump, it's Jenny, Gump's childhood friend who becomes a sexually promiscuous hippie. The film punishes her, quite sadistically, with abusive boyfriends, drug abuse, and finally cancer. In Gump's world, women who stray from their place deserve no quarter.

The same is true in Button. Here it's Daisy, Button's childhood friend, who goes on to become a dancer in Paris and Manhattan. We learn of her scandalous sexual activity in her dance troupe, and when Benjamin visits her she has the audacity to dance with and kiss another man. Like Jenny, she must be punished. A car accident shatters her leg, ending her dance career.

Like Gump, Benjamin Button's evacuation of history results in the film being utterly unable to deal with the issues it raises. The film is a tear jerker for its sentimental lessons about loving life no matter what cards you are dealt, and learning how death makes life valuable. This is standard stuff. But as Baldwin reminds us, there is all the difference in the world between dying and being murdered. Countless characters in the film die of old age after leading fulfilling lives doing what they love. There is not much to be learned about how to love life from studying this.

It would be a far more interesting film that explored how to love a life marked by the bitterness that is cultivated by what human beings can do to each other. Would we be so eager to celebrate Queenie's life if hers had resembled at all that lived by most African Americans in early twentieth century New Orleans? What joie de vivre is produced among les damn├ęs de la terre? This is an emotional and intellectual project worth doing. The length of this review is warranted not by the film's worth, but by the importance of the questions it evades. How we can keep the bitterness that grows out of oppression from consuming our lives is not merely a worthwhile project, it is a necessary one.