The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s Button

2 01 2009


Benjamin Button has no particular button, not even, as far as we get to see, a belly button; nor does he find buttons interesting (even when he comes to own a factory that makes them), nor is especially tickled by anybody else’s buttons or by the idea of buttoning up or buttoning down. He gets younger all the time, if you can believe that. You can’t. That’s why at each moment in this four hunjdred and seventy-one hour movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, you keep thinking, “What a great performance Brad Pitt is giving, seeming to get younger all the time.” The filmmaker, Mr. David Fincher, is now and has long been obsessed with death, and in this weird film–a film without a story, really, but in which a large number of delicious and also pointless episodes masquerade as a story–there is scarcely a character about whom we fail to wonder, “When and how will they die?” We look forward to Benjamin’s death almost from the moment of his birth, and therefore Sigmund Freud would roll in his grave with fascination for this film.  Or not.  To convey the essence of it:

Cate Blanchett gets older while Brad Pitt gets younger, and for a brfief while, when they are both in their mid-forties, they have a nice fling.

Tilda Swinton, meanwhile, tries to swim the English Channel, and looks absolutely stunning in a robin’s-egg -lue flannel bathrobe. Hers is the only real performance in this work, and I would say it’s worth paying the price just to see it: and it is, but it isn’t quite worth sitting through all of the episodes David Fincher subjects us to. Could we just, please, have Tilda Swinton?  There is a moral to the film:  Some people, at any rate, munch chocolates; some people catch striped bass; some people deliver philosophy lectures; some people drive taxis; some people fix automobiles; and some people sit in movie theaters.

There are a few shots that are quite spectacular (as is, in general, the production design by Donald G. Burt and the art direction by Kelly Curley, Randy Moore, and Tom Reta): Benjamin shows up in his friend (or is she his lover?  or is she his friend?) Daisy’s dance studio one night when she is about fifty-seven and he is about seventeen, and:  how on earth did they get Brad Pitt to actually look seventeen? And then later, when she is in her sixties or seventies, she finds him at around the age of five, and then aged two months, and I can’t figure out how they did make-up on Brad to get him to look five, and then just two months old, But wow! There were more than two dozen make-up artists on this film, and I guess that’s the answer. He always gives such a great performance.

The music: well, there’s a touching scene where he goes sailing to Florida and we hear The Platters singing “Twilight Time,” or is it “My Prayer,” or even “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”–or was it Texas? It’s beautiful.

This film originated in a fiction by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it keeps whispering, for some bizarre reason, “Woody Allen,” in the sense that one feels somebody is watching us watching, and whispering in our ear, “So, if you think this is crazy, just wait for my next bit . . .” Also, and I don’t know why, the two words “Forrest . . . Gump . . .” kept reverberating in my mind all through. There was a nice moment with a hummingbird appearing outside a ship near Murmansk, after an Irish sailor, who has been rhapsodizing about a hummingbird he tattoed on his own belly, dies. Not a floating feather, perhaps, and not a box of chocolates, and yet . . .

Benjamin has been taught early in life by his mother, who isn’t really his mother–but that would take too long to explain–that you never know what’s coming at you. Nope. You never do. I didn’t know this film was coming at me.


La lucha continúa

14 09 2008

Steven Soderbergh’s Che (aka Guerrilla): two hours eleven minutes in Cuba, 1957-1959, followed by a twenty minute intermission and then two hours eleven minutes in Bolivia, early to mid-1960s, culminating in Che’s assassination. Che (Benicio Del Toro) has asthma, bad; and it gets worse. Most of the film is spent showing us how the loyal machismo friendships developed between Che, Fidel Castro, and the virtually countless men and few women in their revolutionary bands; as well as patiently explaining dozens of planned sorties, detours, backup plans, and everyday events. Every person Che meets gives his name, and the names become overwhelming, far too many to keep in sight. Many, indeed most, of these people get slaughtered by the forces of Batista in Cuba and Barrientos in Bolivia. The fighting is uniformly beleaguered, especially in the extended ravine finale where Che is captured. There are cameo parts by Matt Damon (why?), Julia Ormond (why?), Lou Diamond Phillips (why?), Franka Potente (why?) and, officially, Benjamin Bratt (who did not seem to appear in the film I saw). The revolutionary cause is patiently explained and patiently followed. The images in Part I seem documentary, both because they are intercut with a mixture of actual documentary footage and newly filmed “documentary” footage, and because the events transpire onscreen with no apparent narrative self-consciousness. In Part II, the action has the appearance of being dramatized to a greater extent. It is not evident in the film itself why these distinctions of style are made by the filmmaker.

We become attached to Che and depressed as his courageous battle against imperialist domination becomes weakened, fragments, finally dissipates in the hot mountainous sunlight.

Soderbergh shot the film himself, with great economy of style and an unerring and passionate sensitivity to the variant qualities of light and color which could be obtained on location. In the principal performance, Benicio Del Toro is affecting, hypnotic. It is a flawless performance.

The film never manages to achieve a dramatic structure, and the finale is superfluous and fake in an obvious kind of way. Let it be said that the capitalism this filmic Che wars against, so heroically and so persistently, and the capitalism out of which a film such as this springs, are never reconciled onscreen at all. We take Che’s side through it all, perhaps never quite registering how this story of the people, in which individuals matter far less than the principles of the cause, makes its way to the screen only through the starring vehicle of a principal role, a “lead” character, whose image, if not his name, highlights the work itself in its presentation to the audience. The failure to dramatize–ostensibly a respectful gesture intended to draw our attention to the importance of the common cause Che celebrated–is actually, in the end, as bogus as the crassest advertisement or as the elegant food this Che is invited to devour when he visits the society ladies of New York.

Given the number of characters we meet who have nothing to say and nothing to do but die in valor and ignominy, the film could be shorter: but as it is, we are drawn to feel part of the struggle, indeed drawn to struggle through this motion picture and perhaps to consider ourselves noble for doing so. Che Guevara himself had higher motives than that.

An Audience Is An Audience

5 09 2008

Sadly, an audience is an audience. Overheard last night, at the opening gala of the Toronto International Film Festival, from a twentysomething woman responding to the words “Burt Bacharach” that were floating in the air near her ears: “Oh yeah, I know him. I know him! He’s the guy who plays two pianos. He plays two pianos! He was in Austin Powers, and he played two pianos!” And she is, of course, correct.

This is the gentleman who was companion in his youth to Marlene Dietrich. This is the gentleman who wrote “A House Is Not a Home,” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” and “This Guy’s In Love With You,” and “The Look of Love,” and “What’s New Pussycat?” and so much else. Now he’s the man who plays two pianos in Austin Powers. This is the man upon whose songs Dionne Warwick made her career—-and now . . .

Well, he has an audience, and an audience is an audience.

“People Aren’t as Different as We Think”

27 08 2008

Just a few flip little notions about Hillary Rodham Clinton, especially at this historic moment when she has produced Barack Obama’s acclimation as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States:

1. She has become a mother of the nominee, and his nomination and nominated self stream out of her mouth. Not for his nomination, but for the fact that he has been acclaimed to it, Obama will always have to thank Hillary Clinton. He will always have to be grateful, and will never be able to forget. If he becomes President, this moment will be behind him, golden, shining. No more than he can deny that he has been nominated can he deny that he has been acclaimed, and that the acclamation came as the result of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s motion to the chair. She has made the Barack Obama that Barack Obama is today. (Nancy Pelosi, chairing, was careful not to allow any time for nay votes to be heard: all the musical timing of a finale in an Arthur Freed movie.)

2. She has given a marvelous performance for some time, but especially today and during her address last night, of bearing up with dignity under tremendous strain and after a substantial wound–in short, the posture of the hero who has been attacked but will not collapse. Now, H. R. Clinton has not been attacked, she merely failed to mobilize sufficient support to win the nomination herself. She may be disappointed, even mortified by this condition–but she has no professional business making that part of the engagement of her efforts on behalf of electing a Democrat. In short, the performance can only be in the name of some future consideration; it can only be promoting a Hillary that will have our sympathies even as she does not continue to appear in Democratic campaign ads and thus get the attention of a huge audience.

3. Obama himself remains absent from Denver, and so while the tagline at the bottom of the screen obsessively flashes the “breaking news”–in hot blue and white–OBAMA NOMINATED BY ACCLAMATION, it is nevertheless Hillary that we see, shuffling slowly among delegates to leave the hall, getting kissed, expressing herself sincerely to supporters, and so on. The word “Obama” and the idea of “Obama being acclaimed” are linked, then, to the image of Hillary. Hillary becomes Obama. Hillary IS Obama. Obama himself may turn out to be the shadow version of the Hillary/Obama we met tonight. When he goes public, we may see Hillary as the afterimage, rather than his wife Michelle. Hillary IS Obama, and Hillary is LINKED TO Obama.

4. Hillary looks just like Shirley Jones on “The Partridge Family”: an accident?

Big Screen BSG

26 08 2008

Edward James Olmos has announced that he will direct a feature film of Battlestar Galactica, in which, among others, Chief Tyrol (Aaron Douglas) will play a central role. One hopes the film will be written by Ronald Moore and his team, whose scripts for the television series have brought to the medium a level of intensity and depth one hasn’t really seen consistently since “Playhouse 90” in the 1950s. This isn’t glib, in-your-face, one-jolt-per-second writing, with character dev

elopments often taking long arcs that span a whole season. And the story–generally not more important than the portraits of the characters–is so complex it is virtually impossible to appreciate all the nuances without seeing the episodes in strict chronological order, beginning with the pilot. BSG is a challenge to viewers on every level, and showcases one of the really fine ensemble casts working today, some of whom are considerably experienced Canadian actors (Michael Hogan [Tigh], Donnelly Rhodes [Dr. Cottle]) but many of whom are relatively unknown Canadian actors of great charm and talent, such as Douglas, Tahmoh Penikett (Helo), Tricia Helfer (Number Six), Alessandro Juliani (Gaeta), and Nicki Clyne (Cally). The show is produced at the Vancouver Film Studios. The television series is in its final season, a fact that has loyal fans either depressed or resignedly turning away in search of an alternate diet. But BSG has a flavor, and a nutritional composition, entirely its own.

Survival of the Most Opinionated

23 08 2008

Art critic Harold Rosenberg
by Elaine De Kooning (1967)

One of the principal side effects of the reality-television phenomenon–especially on competitions with adjudcation panels–has been the participatory audience, which typically picks up the telephone at a fixed point in the proceedings and votes on contestants to determine who shall be thrown off the show, who shall remain. The systematic production, and brief celebration, of losers is a central feature of reality programming in general, and the participatory audience makes the production of weekly losers possible without compromising either the knowledge or the personal reputations of the so-called “judges” who sit as part of the entertainment. . . . Without compromising the judges’ knowledge, or, indeed, without making any reference to it, or to knowledge at all:  since the participatory audience is “out there” in Viewerland, where all thought, all experience, all opinion, all taste is averaged and nullified in a great throbbing vacuum.

This audience–what can we say about it? That it’s capacity for aesthetic experience has become fundamentally linked to its sense of empowerment, its believe in being part of the show, its sense of having a voice about what it sees. There is an apocryphal tale of a visitor to the Louvre standing in front of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” (“La Joconda”) and smirking, “Nyeh!”, whereupon a guard comes up slowly from behind and whispers, “That painting is no longer being judged. YOU are.” Today, this story would have almost no meaning at all. The audience is categorically not being judged, and the great works of art, such as we can claim to have them, are (not that a contestant on “American Idol” is in any way a “Mona Lisa”). The point is that the new audience doesn’t stand back and watch, it watches by voting (and votes in its watching). The audience is thus full of critics, whose every moment of aesthetic involvement is a critical endeavor.

Were we to know anything about this audience, we might be able to determine whether it has any basis for its critical judgments other than momentary and random nervous stimulation. But its geographic, gender, age, and educational qualities are hidden, even as we are trumpeted the audience’s reaction week after week–often in the form of trembling and collapsing young artists who are deemed, apparently, “insufficient.”

A similarly critical and participatory audience–an audience unprepared to simply accept an aesthetic work as such and form judgment upon it afterward, according to standards–lived around the time of the first World War in the British music hall; and again in the USA in vaudeville. It operates as well today in cinema, deciding, for a large part, which films will be made available for us to watch and which not. This audience dictates the aesthetic forms that the popular media broadcast and emphasize. Is it an audience of thirteen-year-olds? Thirteen-year-olds living in the San Fernando Valley (or influenced by images of, or images vetted by, thirteen-year-olds living in the San Fernando Valley and broadcast in the media)? What are its standards of beauty?: Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Bros.? Bette Davis and John Garfield? Harrison Ford and Karen Allen? John Ford and the badlands?

And given that the audience is now full of critics, might not the occupational standing of the professional critic now be threatened? The function of the judge or critic, after all, as reality television has it, is to be outweighted by the knowing audience, to be debunked, to be trumped even in the face of critical knowledge and taste and a history of critical endeavor. The audience is supreme. When all art has been destroyed by its callousness, this audience will survive.


23 08 2008

To coin a word: “Obamalot.” The new Democratic myth of promise and utopia, sprang on the morning of August 23, 2008 when of all possible contenders, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D, Del) was named running mate for Barack Obama. Biden is a straightforward liberal, a serious and learned man with both taste and wit and experience, who gives reason to hope that a better way can really be found in the United States.

Obama himself has resonated with something of the tone of Kennedyism for some time, but his aggressive, even at time belligerent campaign against the Clintons has threatened to divide the Democratic party rather than reunite them under the banner of a unified challenge and a unified hope for the future. Joe Biden’s addition to the ticket brings the needed and brilliant ray of hope. While Obama himself has promised “change,” Biden’s presence will ensure change with wisdom, change with reasonability, change with knowledge of the system and its perils, and change with responsibility in a way that other considered candidates for the slot did not.

The idea of a mythical and fabular realm of goodness and prosperity is neither new nor, in itself, American, but America has often adopted it, and often, too, allowed the myth to dry up in the face of a too easy militarism and a too unfeeling commitment to only the rich. There is a platform now for real belief and projection, for imagining a future where people are not thrown out of their homes, where the lives of the young are not squandered in misconceived wars against the civilian populations of other countries, and where the spirit of rebuilding at every level is again alive.