Friday, June 5, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- life's changes

Director: David Fincher, 2008.

The premise is curious, even intriguing. The lead character says it himself, "My name is Benjamin Button, and I was born under unusual circumstances. While everyone else was agin', I was gettin' younger... all alone."

I had always thought it strange that when we are at our most energetic, when our vitality is at its highest in our youth, we usually have the least wisdom and wealth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have our life's riches to spend on untold adventures when we can enjoy them, instead of when we are old and dying. But life has a linearity to its temporal dimension that God has devised for our benefit. Despite the story of Benjamin Button, this still prevails.

David Finch has taken a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald and turned it into an over-long epic, that many have compared to Forrest Gump. Reunited with his Fight Club and Se7en star, Brad Pitt, Fincher has seemingly paced this to match the slow southern drawl that Pitt adopts. Known for the intensity he brings to his thrillers, such as Zodiac and Panic Room, Fincher here parallels the film's tagline (life isn't measured in minutes, but in moments): Button isn't measured in minutes but in hours.

Button starts with an extended prolog about a blind clock-maker who creates a beautiful and curiously unique clock for the New Orleans train-station. This clock runs backwards. As he says, it is to give people hope that maybe some of the boys that went off to the great war might come back someday.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Publicity StillThe day that great war (World War I) ended in 1918 was the day that Benjamin Button was borb. And it was the same fateful day his mother died in childbirth. When his father sees him, a monster looking like an old man in a baby's frame, something happens. He snaps. He picks up the baby and wanders the streets of the Big Easy, before leaving him on the porch steps of a house. Queenie (Taraji Henson), a black woman who runs a retirement home, finds him and keeps him as her own white child.

As he grows he begins to look more and more like one of the residents. Yet, he is the age of a grade-schooler. One of the themes of Button is loneliness. Benjamin Button cannot fit in. He is not old yet looks old and has infirmities that go along with old age. His closest friend is young Daisy, whose grandmother lives in the house. Yet he cannot play with her as it looks shameful.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Movie StillLoneliness permeates the lives of many people today, regardless of their social situation. They may be single, they may be married. A person can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. Button learned to accept this loneliness, to live with it, to embrace it. We all will experience loneliness in our lives. How we deal with it will say much about our character. One temporary resident in the house, a pygmy, tells Button to not be afraid of his loneliness. And this is a message for us. If we embrace Jesus, then we can cling to the promise he gives us that he will never leave us or forsake us (Matt. 28:20). Even in our loneliest moments, we can count on Jesus as an ever-present friend.

Button discovers one sad consequence of living in a retirement home -- frequently his "friends" die. Their route out of the home is in a casket. But one resident offers a pearl of wisdom: "Benjamin, we're meant to lose the people we love. How else would we know how important they are to us?" We will all die. There are no exceptions. So, those we love will one day be gone. When that happens we will realize what they meant to us? How important it is to make the most of the time God gives us to spend with our loved ones. We should never take for granted even an hour of the day. Who knows if we will wake tomorrow, or if they will wake tomorrow (Lk. 12:16-20). This is a lesson that carried Button through his strange life and one that we can grasp to help us, too.

Throughout the film, Fincher employs the plot device of having Caroline (Julia Ormond) read from Benjamin Button's diary to her dying mother Daisy (an elderly Cate Blanchet). This kind of device was used in The Princess Bride, but here it is more like The Notebook, and connects the story, present and past, together in a reverse chronology allowing for huge jumps in time between the episodes of Button's life. However, it is a little distracting, and the hospital drama adds nothing to the main storyline.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Publicity StillAs he grows, Button (Brad Pitt) starts to realize there is life outside Queenie's house. He takes a job on a tug-boat and sees the world. He serves in the navy on this boat during WW2. Throughout, he remains in love with Daisy, the young girl he met years ago. When he comes home he sees her in all her beauty. Their love affair is the heart and soul of the story. But it is one that is destined to end because of Button's curious aging.

Change is a key theme in Button. At one point when he comes home, he remarks, "It's a funny thing about comin' home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You'll realize what's changed is you." And he has changed. Each time he comes home Queenie is older and grayer, and Button looks younger with less gray hair. But he has travelled and understands things many miss. He realizes something about change: "For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it." Change happens but how we respond to change defines us.

We can understand this. We all experience change, daily even. But we can do something about it. We can choose to be who we want to be. We don't have to suffer and struggle in a job if we don't want to. There is always an opportunity waiting. Life has no human rules, only birth and death and a journey in between. We can make choices that will impact us today and tomorrow and beyond. Indeed, how we face this life will define how we will face the life beyond the grave. If we choose to follow God and embrace his rules for life, rules of love (loving God, loving ourselves, loving our neighbor, etc -- Matt. 22:37-39), we will be ready to love him and live with him in the afterlife. In a sense, this life is just the introductory chapter to the books we have yet to write with our future life.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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