Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Something funny happened to me after watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As I drove home, every song I heard on the radio reminded me of the first time I heard it, and I started to compare how it was to hear them for the first time to hearing them now. That's when it hit me that that was what the movie was about, the way your mind goes backward the more time moves forward.

Isn't it funny how in hindsight, you were so much older in the past? Think of the major events that have happened in your life. The you that was then knew exactly how to handle them, and whether rightly or wrongly, the old you got you through. I think the reason so many of the important things in life happen in youth, like romantic love, developing passions and dreams, discovering loss, is because it is only when you are young that you are old enough to deal with them.

Benjamin Button starts his life very old, and dies a baby. But throughout the movie, he is really no different from the normal people around him. He is just a physical manifestation of how they really feel inside. In his early years, when he is a shriveled up little guy, he is treated like the rest of the old folks he lives with. They spend their days trapped inside the old folks' home, looking out windows in between their napping and feeding times, exchanging fanciful stories. Just like children do. Then Daisy comes to visit, the granddaughter of one of the boarders. She is only a few years younger than Benjamin, and they instantly see in each other kindred spirits. Only a truly young person such as Daisy could spot the child behind the wrinkles that cover Benjamin. The two become fast friends, but quickly discover the limits their age has on what they are allowed to do. Their friendship is considered vile by the grandmother, and they are not allowed to be together anymore.

The next time the two meet Daisy is in her early teens and Benjamin is still elderly, though much more mobile. This is when Benjamin leaves the home as most people do in their teens. Daisy demands he write to her from every place he visits, and Benjamin does. So while Daisy moves to New York and becomes a ballerina, Benjamin becomes a sailor and travels the world, though much like when one travels in youth he never really sees much of the world, just "sees the ports". Benjamin looks like an older man, and is both respected and ignored as such. He does manage to have an affair with a lonely married woman who never quite lived up to her dreams (she wanted to be the first woman to swim across the english channel, but quit when she was close to finishing, after 32 hours in the water). He also goes to war, and experiences the loss of friends that are taken too soon, before their time. Benjamin learns, at this point in his life, what it is like to fail in life, and spend year after year just treading water. Despite his actual age, Benjamin experiences middle age in all its loss and failings.

The next few times Daisy and Benjamin meet up are disasterous. Benjamin takes a luminous 23 year old Daisy out to dinner, where she breathlessly talks the whole night about the art of dancing. Benjamin, looking frumpy and defeated next to the fiery Daisy, is tongue tied during the dinner, and even more so afterwards, when Daisy dances seductively in the moonlight for him. He rejects her bold advances, and although it appears it is because he has some romantic view of her he does not wish to shatter, it is probably more likely that in her prime she is too much for him to handle. Later, when he goes to surprise her with flowers after a performance in New York, she shrugs him off, well into her new sophisticated life. She has found her life's passion, something Benjamin has yet to discover for himself. He looks and acts much like a failed old man, and when he mumbles "I thought I'd come to sweep you off your feet or something like that" both he and Daisy are aware of how ludicrous the statement is in light of who they are at that point in their lives.

It is only when Daisy suffers an accident and can no longer dance that she can slow down enough for Benjamin to catch up with her. In their early 40's, they are equals, meeting at that fleeting moment when their lives are on the same path. The two embark in an idylic love affair, during which Benjamin ponders sadly: "I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is". To this Daisy wisely replies "some things last". The two have a child, and because Benjamin knows he cannot raise his daughter as the child he is destined to become, he leaves.

This is when Benjamin embarks on his own life's passion. He travels the world again, but this time as a young man, with all the whimsy and intelligence of youth. He finally catches up to the life experiences Daisy had when she was a young adult. It is only after this journey that Benjamin is able to come back home to see Daisy one last time. He is a teenager now, and Daisy an older woman. The two meet for one last night together, and the contrast between Daisy's sagging body and Benjamin's youthful glow is a striking parallel to Daisy's moonlit dance so many years before.

Benjamin ends his days in the same old folks' home he spent his early years trapped in. He becomes a wayward child who no longer remembers who he was or where he came from. Slowly, he shrinks into a baby, forgetting how to walk and speak, and dies He dies an infant in Daisy's withered arms.

The story is told as a flashback. Daisy, dying in a hospital during hurricane Katrina, asks her daughter Caroline to read from a diary. The diary is Benjamin Button's, and it is during this reading that Caroline learns this was her father. Caroline comes across as a woman who seems lost, worried she has somehow disappointed her mother. She is clueless as to how to live her life, literally caught in the eye of a hurricane. The diary ends with postcards Benjamin sent Caroline during his last trips around the world. It seems Daisy's dying wish is that her daughter learn from their love story that it is never too late for her to start over again, and that no matter how inconsequential she believes her life is, she gave meaning to someone's life, therefore she will always matter.

What a beautiful film. Every minor character adds to the the story line and theme. There is the old man in the home who was struck by lightning seven times for no apparent reason other than to live to tell it, the "plain as paper" married woman who finally accomplishes her dream of swimming across the english channel as an elderly woman after years of living her life just treading water, the preacher who heals the sick through prayer and faith who then falls dead on the pulpit, the artist whose only art are the tattoos he makes on his own body... they all have passions and dreams that while on the surface might seem inconsequential together make up the fabric of Benjamin's life. They became memories, people and events that became permanent images in the fabric of time. As Daisy said to Benjamin, "some things last". It is only through memories that time can move backwards.

If I got one thing out of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it was that life is precious, and it is good that we are born old enough to create the memories we will live off of.