Friday, December 26, 2008

Do we see ‘Benjamin Button’ clearly?

Have you seen David Fincher's new masterwork yet? I caught it yesterday with a theater full of patrons. If you've been living far, far away from Planet Louisiana, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" was shot in New Orleans. It easily represents the state's biggest project of the decade – "Ray" was no slouch, either – and should garner quite a few Oscar nominations.

I'm a bit dismayed by the critical reception Fincher seems to be getting these days. Most critics single out the technical wizardry of his movies – "Zodiac" was similarly praised – but they don't seem to feel his stories, his characters have genuine heart.

Here are a few excerpts from "Button" reviews:

Lisa Schwarzbaum, for Entertainment Weekly: "… this Button is a curious case indeed: an extravagantly ambitious movie that's easy to admire but a challenge to love."

Claudia Puig, for USA Today: "'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' (* * * out of four) is worth seeing just for the superb prosthetic makeup and seamless computer-generated effects in which Pitt's head is digitally imposed onto older bodies. The film, ambitious if flawed, also is lyrical and melancholy as it tells the story of a man aging backward.

"But the tale, though laudably imaginative, is overlong and not as emotionally involving as it could be."

Peter Travers, for Rolling Stone: "What Fincher does, shooting digital instead of on film, is simply extraordinary. His astutely restrained direction fuses ferocity and feeling and creates a world you want to get lost in. …

"What Button shows is that Ben is ultimately not the hero of his own life or his own movie. He gets inside our head, that's for sure, but, frustratingly, we never get inside his."

A.O. Scott, for The New York Times, sees the film more clearly: "Above all, though, 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is a triumph of technique. Building on the advances of pioneers like Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Zemeckis — and on his own previous work adapting newfangled means to traditional cinematic ends — Mr. Fincher ('Fight Club,' 'Zodiac') has added a dimension of delicacy and grace to digital filmmaking. While it stands on the shoulders of breakthroughs like 'Minority Report,' 'The Lord of the Rings' and 'Forrest Gump' (for which Mr. Roth wrote the screenplay), 'Benjamin Button' may be the most dazzling such hybrid yet, precisely because it is the subtlest. While he does treat the audience to a few grand, special-effect showpieces, Mr. Fincher concentrates his ingenuity on the setting and the characters, in particular — and most arrestingly — on the faces of his stars, Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt."

Kenneth Turan, for the L.A. Times, is baffled: "... 'Benjamin Button' would've had a better chance of success if it had landed in the hands of a director with more of a facility for telling emotional stories than Fincher, whose films include 'Se7en,' 'Fight Club' and 'Zodiac.' No wonder everything feels icy and removed. Giving Fincher this project is like asking the great French humanist director Jean Renoir to do a slasher movie. As my mother used to say, no good will come of this."

I haven't quite worked out my response to these critiques yet, but I'm working on it.

My thoughts run along two lines:

1) As critics and moviegoers, we don't assess digital filmmaking very fairly. We're too hung up on spectacle, and the mere act of perceiving visual innovation/invention. We want to be impressed more than we want to be immersed. (That's not very well put, but I'm working on it.)

2) We're also losing our appreciation for tragic characters like Benjamin Button. We too often dismiss them as "flawed," too often put them at a critical distance, too often describe them as unknowable, or too unlike us.

Again, I'm still cooking on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and will write more about it later.

In the meantime, I'd love to know what you thought about the movie.

PHOTO: Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton. (Merrick Morton/Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Pictures)


Anonymous said...

We have know Mr. Fincher. He has no heart or soul, I am sure the movie couldn't possibly either.

chrisbrad said...

That was an odd first comment. Anywho...

I, too, am a bit unsure as to what to make of the film. Don't get me wrong --- it was amazing, beautiful, even breathtaking. But I think a few days of letting it steep(?) may help me when it comes to how exactly I regard this film.

I have a few others on my radar I want to catch, so maybe seeing them will help me put "Benjamin Button" properly in its place. Maybe... Hopefully.... We'll see...

Alexandyr Kent said...

"Wall-E" is still my number one. (Granted, I have to see "Doubt," "Gran Torino," "The Reader" and "JVCD" in the coming weeks. Yes, I wrote "JVCD." Can't friggin' wait.)

Still, I'm getting a bit tired of how we're reviewing Fincher. We seem to be reading his pictures as if they were Spielbergian, Zemeckian, Lucasonian or Jacksonian efforts in CGI, where the creation of an alternate world is an end in itself. We should be done with that paradigm, and expecting that from Fincher isn't (critically) fair to him.

I guess all I mean to say is that Fincher doesn't set out to make a spectacle when he revisits history, or pieces together a fable, or stitch together scenes from the past. He means to do something altogether different. As to what, I'm still figuring out.

But perhaps I'm being shortsighted. Can't figure it yet.

chrisbrad said...

"JVCD" or "JCVD"

I totally agree with you on Fincher. The guy never seems to be able to shake the critics from their need to classify his work. When I see anything Fincher made (from Fight Club to Zodiac to Benjamin Button) I try to avoid the classification a lot of critics want to place.

He is who he is. He makes films that are always more than can be dissected or classified. Like you mention, film-goers will be trying to "figure him out" for as long as the guy makes movies. But that is their mistake. He is who he is!

It would be a treat to see reviews of "Benjamin Button" that reviewed the film --- not the filmmaker.
That may be a cold day in Tijuana, but it would be nice.

Also, I have a friend in southern Cal who had a chance to see "Gran Torino." She said the film was surprisingly flat and felt very lackluster. Normally, I would ignore such talk about anything Eastwood, but she has yet to miss the mark on films... I can't wait to see for myself (and hope she is wrong).

Alexandyr Kent said...

Oh, no. You just made me realize that my "JVCD" tattoo artist is dyslexic. Damn it!

chrisbrad said...

Is it just me or are the crazies blog commenting in record numbers these days?

Alexandyr Kent said...

I blame the recession.

Chris Jay said...

"Zodiac" was one of my favorite films last year. I've seen it four or five times now and I enjoy it more and more each time, I even shelled out for the crazily-expensive two-disc director's cut. I can't wait to see "Benjamin Button," but a lot of my favorite film reviewers are getting pretty vitriolic over it. Karina Longworth from Spoutblog's review is the most brutal I've read in ages:

Still looking forward to it, though...

coffee fiend said...

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