THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: Personalization of History

In the previous post about THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, I made mention of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) ambiguous nature and the film’s invitation to identify with the events depicted. They’re about us, and our lives, letting a personal portrayal to be pasted in their events and experiences. This point is vital to understand the film’s essences and its various motifs, which are more than a Hummingbird. Hurricane Katrina’s involvement and the short but evident reference to times of 9/11 have been two elements that have been criticized as superfluous, but they’re actually relevant to this idea of personification in the narrative. That the film doesn’t delve into a commentary about them and doesn’t use them as anything further than details of time and place for the characters’ experiences is, in fact, the point.

Indeed, each character personalizes each item or event to be seen throughout the narrative according to their experience. Hurricane Katrina is not seen as anything more than what Daisy (Cate Blanchett) sees because that’s her accounting of it – that’s her experience with the hurricane, one that other people share, waiting for the impending hit. World War II doesn’t contain any commentary or in-depth ideas about it, other than how it impacted Benjamin’s life and the friends he lost. The film overviews these episodes as chapters that have different meanings to different people and what it meant on a intimate level, not on a historical one. It evokes the always asked question of “Where were you when [insert historical event] happened?” and focuses on the personal answer.

As Captain Mike (Jared Harris), who defines his body with his tattoos, the characters mark personal meanings into what they see and posses. The film starts with the tale of a blind clockmaker who creates an odd clock that goes backwards, and it has a personal meaning to him: it is a tribute to his son, who he lost at war. He hopes other people are able to appreciate the clock and relate themselves to it, those who share his loss, this as a nice symbolical stand-in for Benjamin and the film itself, after all, since they hold the same dynamic for the audience, encouraging us to place our projection in the character. We each have our own understandings about things, and each of us give our own meaning to these moments and items.

These historical chapters illustrate different emotions, sensations or memorable moments in which they are defined individually. For Benjamin, his stay in Russia during World War II is defined as his first kiss, and his relationships with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) as one of the most memorable he’s ever had, writting it as an important episode in his life. But for her, it merely means a time in which she cheated his husband, who was a spy for the British government, and demonstrates the trivialness of it when she simply writes to Benjamin: “It was nice meeting you.” Her five words are devastatingly pitiful compared to Benjamin’s long accounting of it in his dairy.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is all about time, and the message we learn is of living it to the fullest with death as a destined end, but it is further about how such time is memorized differently by each person on characteristics of sensations and space (“Some nights, I’d have to sleep alone. I didn’t mind. I would listen to the house breathing. All those people sleeping, I felt safe.”), and significant memories of people and relationships (i.e. Benjamin’s description of Daisy, and vice-versa). The characters always remember events by describing details of these, not the period or era, since in the film such things such as age, date and years are just mere numbers, irrelevant to the living of the space and emotions that constitutes them. More often than not, Benjamin doesn’t move us in the narrative with historical numerical transitions of date or his age, but instead by his discovery of new feelings and different places, each dictating when the chapters start and end.

The postcards become a perfect motif to typify this importance of a person’s time and space in history, appearing as photographs of the episodes from Benjamin’s life and of others. These pictures of moments in time, they’re portrayed with longing and affection, telling the stories by themselves and the sensations in them. Jason Button (Jason Flemying), for instance, relives his past with the pictures on the walls of his house, each portraying the happiest moments in his life when he was with his wife, on the early 20th century, telling us how he would see them and live them. There’s an appropriateness to Mr. Button’s last scene, with Fincher’s photograph capturing the light, the heat, the sense of place as if it was actually a postcard of his last moment alive. This is what a picture is supposed to do, after all. 

Fincher’s visual language treats several of the memorable moments similary, letting stories be told with small images and a clue of what period it was on the surroundings. The movement in time when Benjamin and Daisy are together in their house, painting it, moving around their space with the overlay of one shot over the other, and then the Beatles singing on TV, this is their postcard for the 1960’s and captures so well the passage of time under the youthful and surging “Make Love, Not War” American counterculture.

These pictures of small, personal experiences are made to be absorbed, and ultimately, remembered. They’re lived by the person showing them, and memorized by the one seeing them, passing their own history on and on. The film’s finale works appropriately as a perfect compilation of such postcards, passing on stories and people whose existence will now forever be remembered by the evidence of their legacy, with their families and the ones who read or see things from them carrying on their memoirs. Few films were as introspective about death as BENJAMIN BUTTON, tapping with honesty and optimism on the unfortunate facts about the end but the beauty one can find by focusing on the present living and the continuous legacy left for others.

The last shot of Hurricane Katrina and the clock is especially heartbreaking, and a visual microcosm of the relationship between historical texts and personal legacies, the remembrance of the former and how forgotten is the latter if left without people to retain them; the history of Hurricane Katrina overwhelming the story of the clock. BENJAMIN BUTTON culminates on a note that is both tragic and beautiful, and accomplishes to offer hope and connection alongside depressive observations and people’s deterioration. Even at death, and even at historical irrelevancy, there still is a story and some meaning behind everything, celebrating the importance of all of us, the different stories and the different legacies.

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One Response

  1. 🙂

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