THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: Narrating our Lives

David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON flies over our history (from the first World War, to Katrina) never making a social commentary, but instead leaving us to make our own, to recognize these different points in our lives and the manner we’ve lived it. Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is a cool and ambiguous individual with no distinctive trait to categorize him in personality. He’s something of an indefinite person, perhaps even emblematic. He’s a vague enough of a character to be each of us, a la Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) in Hal Ashby’s BEING THERE, and to see our lives in him. But he is also different enough to show us a different perspective from our living, such as with Daisy (Cate Blanchett), who could actually be the diary’s author considering how much of her life is written by Benjamin. He is a sort of consciousness, narrating each person’s life along with his. 

The film requests for the rest of the people to become part of the experience in the course of the story and share the stage with the character. He narrates the first time he walked, had sex, kissed a woman and left home, along with various historical experiences in our times, and asks for us to reminisce about ours and how we lived them. Benjamin is a recording man, accounting for his experiences as much as that of others. That the film “requests” or “asks” this from the audience might be part of the reason it has been judged as cold and distant, as some dissenters have argued, never going to the audience with great sentimentality or manipulation. But for those who accept the invitation, who immerse themselves in the images, it is a meditation, as some fans of it like to say.

This emblematical nature from the character – that he is us, narrating personal but universal events – is seen in his use as both a first-person and a part-time third-person narrator, explaining experiences about both his life and that of others. In the scene of Daisy’s accident, for example, Benjamin overtakes the role of a third-person omniscient perspective, talking about other people’s experiences, their emotions, their actions and the consequences of them shaping everyone’s lives, as the story is about the others, as much as it is about him. His continuous movement from place to place, celebrating youthfully one generation after another, expands his image further and the last images of the film play this beautifully, with Benjamin as a traveling man, living different lives, describing different virtues from different people. 

Now, this embracement of people’s different happiness from Benjamin reminded me of another film from Fincher, in which Brad Pitt’s character was emblematical for a certain lifestyle as well, and that is: FIGHT CLUB, his masterpiece from 1999. Both films want to connect to the audience, as Brad Pitt’s characters, Benjamin and Tyler Durden, invite us into their lives, bringing in relatable characters, such as Jack (Edward Norton) and Daisy, as the narratives are started by average human characters, but both of them are taken over by the abnormal ones from Pitt (i.e. Tyler creeps into the narrative and controls it, and Benjamin invades the narration of his daughter). They show our lives. Yet, they both follow different roads.  

The biggest parallel both films feature in text might be the endings. However, this is also where both Benjamin and Tyler directly contradict in philosophies, and Jack defeats Tyler’s mentality with that of Benjamin’s. Indeed, both of them are symbols for a lifestyle, the nature of living in free-spirited themes, but contradict the other in how they go toward the people. In BENJAMIN BUTTON, Pitt’s character is respectful about people’s different satisfactions, and to have a choice about how they want to live, whether you make buttons or dance, and always remains as such. “I hope you live a life you’re proud of,” says Benjamin in his narration, “and if you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.” Yet in FIGHT CLUB, on the other hand, Pitt’s character, Tyler Durden, fights a cultural fascism with another type of fascism, capitalism and materialism against his anarchism, with no middle ground to be had between them. Where Benjamin respects each person’s identity and adopts their different lifestyles, Tyler has everyone assume his, stealing the one from Jack in the process. Jack’s resolution is finally about Benjamin’s suggestion of starting “all over again,” to reset and search for that personal satisfaction that one craves for, as he is left in a destroyed society, now having to choose his desired path again and start all over.

Even though BENJAMIN BUTTON continues some recurrent ideas from Fincher and is not as foreign a film as some people make out, Benjamin’s optimism and essential difference with Tyler, accepting people’s different satisfactions, is indeed an example of how different this film is in tone, at least. Fincher’s films often rely upon average characters meeting abnormal entities that take them to a strange but fascinating narrative, as people’s every-day patterns are broken. Their lives change. But never has the director embraced normalcy so much, celebrating a standard living rather than sending us to an incredibly fantastical place. I was enthralled with Fincher’s focus on the mere passage of time, the space of Benjamin’s house and his discovery of emotions. It was the beautiful image of a young Daisy dancing in the park, and then the feeling of awe with Benjamin and his old dad sitting together watching the sun rise. Indeed, the film doesn’t wonder about people meeting mysterious fantasy elements as in previous outings from the director (i.e. THE GAME, FIGHT CLUB, ZODIAC — each title descriptive of the respective film’s “curious case,” if you will), instead the abnormal admires the normal, finds the wonders within it and rejoices them.

There is always a new experience to be had with films from Fincher, in which he sends us to an unknown territory, and I enjoy that. I really do. But I equally loved in this the sense of identification, the marvel of the common, and the delight of what some of us have actually experienced, seen under the eyes of discovery from Benjamin. His treasure of these moments helps us appreciate them even more than what we’ve done before. The manner in which he discovers them, marvels their feelings, is a revelation for us as much as him. For him it is a breakthrough, and for us (and Daisy) it is a revival — both applaud equally.

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