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The lessons derived from aging backward


I enjoyed seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but not because the film finally coheres into a memorable totality but rather since the sum of the parts end up actually greater than the whole, where vivid moments linger after the grand narrative arc fades.

The premise on which the story is based, the idea of an anomalous child born physically old who dies decades later after complete disappearance into infancy, is constrained by several challenges, some of which are skillfully handled (the old boy grows up in a retirement home, and so attracts no special notice) and others which strain credulity (including the fact that his former lover, having been essentially abandoned by him, ends up providing years of now-maternal attention without her new husband or daughter ever thinking to ask about the young child for whom the mother nows cares as she takes up residence in the same rest home).  [I am still unpersuaded of the narrative plausibility of this turn of events – the film implies that the cognitively vacant infant(old) Benjamin reconnects because Daisy’s name is all over his diary, but everything in his prior behavior and decision to leave makes implausible the idea that he would want the diary to serve as a child’s name tag, enabling a return to her or the imposition of his own care onto her later life.  And if, by the end, Benjamin can’t remember who he is or anything about his past, why should we believe that his journals and scrapbooks would have been so well preserved?]

His biological father follows Benjamin’s development from a distance but, oddly, when they reconnect at his dying invitation, not much time is spent dwelling on the biological mysteries of the reverse aging.  The fact that Benjamin’s strange trajectory is never discovered (in contrast to the original story, where the Methuselah story makes the papers) allows the terribly abbreviated end-of-life sequences a kind of melancholic privacy – the teen-then-boy-then-infant never raises anyone’s interest and no one apparently ever connects the dots, but the benefit of this is that the more mundane moments of early/late life take on an unexpected sadness, such as the quiet passing observation noting the moment when the boy loses his capacity for speech.  It hadn’t really occurred to me until that instant that this would be so haunting a moment.

The idea that old age is a sort of reversion to infancy is cruel, and apart from those whose physical or mental infirmities cause total end-of-life dependency on others, I always find myself repelled and even afraid of the mentality that leads minimum-wage nursing home attendants to treat their clients as addled or stupid.  The idea of ending my life in a nursing home is less jarring to me, per se, than is the idea that having lived a life of growth and experience and (hopefully ongoing) intellectual stimulation, one is reduced finally to having some 20-something screaming at how I need to finish my oatmeal.  I am skeptical that any death is a good one, and I know many end-of-life professional caregivers are angels in disguise, but it is the possibility of old-age condescension as much as isolation that terrifies me.  But Button, despite his final senility, is able to die a good death, lovingly cared for to the end in a mode of caregiving that recalls what caring for someone with Alzheimer’s must entail:  is the final gleam in his infant eyes a sort of final cognitive reaching out or just the last biological gasp?  And is the senile child’s sad efforts to remember the piano he played for so long a failure or a final point of human contact, or both?

Button’s awful choice to abandon his Daisy and child at a time that seems far too early – after all, Pitt is in his prime, and would any child really think to notice that her father is getting younger all the time for several more years? – raises questions too that are larger than the unique temporal disconnection haunting Benjamin’s relationship to the people he loves.  Evoked are the larger ways in which so much of human destiny is shaped by the randomness of timing and the disconnections that keep people apart.  The audience is rather beaten over the head with this theme, especially in the backwards-edited scene derailing the end of Daisy’s performing career, but it pops up everywhere.  And even with respect to Daisy the issues raised by disconnection are interesting – a scene where she and Benjamin have physically moved within the realm of sexual plausibility ends instead in a disappointing failure to connect, produced not by their respective ages or even by their sexual histories (which by this point in the midnight park have come into sync), but by the awkwardness of seeing a child-as-lover (for Benjamin in this moment an unbridgeable chasm).

The film is bracketed at both ends by disasters – World War I and Katrina – and their denouement, but their visual enactment is oblique and produce their own temporal reversals.   World War I, today remembered (if at all) as a war of horrifically widespread and anonymous slaughter, is reenacted through the very particular personal drama of a blind clock maker and his wife who lose their beloved child to battle, and to the extent the war evokes mass drama it is the exuberance of its conclusion more than the horror of its killing machines that we witness.  And Katrina, which we remember in part for the indignities of the preventable deaths it caused, is here recalled within the confines of a hospital that while impersonal (under threat of the advancing storm) is also a place of close and immediate care.  [Tangent:  Button is an example of how the twists-and-turns of film industrial production can have significant consequence.  The movie only got made, according to an account in the New York Times, because Louisiana offers big movie tax breaks to production companies.  This, in turn, caused the story to shift to New Orleans, and this has yielded a film wholly unimaginable in its originally anticipated location of Baltimore, the setting of the original short story].

Benjamin, born on the day of the Armistice, is raised and dies in a house wholly comfortable with frequent death, a upbringing at odds with a contemporary milieu where even adults are so often separated from end-of-life experiences that when they finally start to happen with friends and family their accompanying rituals and significance seem all the more jarring and derailing.  A baby in an old man’s body, physically caucasian but raised by parents of color, made mightily richer by the manufacture of something as tiny as a button, a boy who attends a faith healing where it turns out the fake patter inspires the boy to walk without changing him physically (one might say the lie actually has healing power) but kills the minister, an American who works many years of the 20th century in Russia or on the water and who wins his own battle with the Nazi subs not on a carrier but on a tugboat, a man who for much of the story seems not self-reflective at all but (it is revealed) kept a detailed daily journal for most of his life – much more than time is narratively reversed.  The familiar is thus made strange.

The opening of the film, with its clock-that-runs-backward allegory, is intriguing too.  The idea of God as a kind of watchmaker who has set into motion a universe of logically connected causes-and-effects and who is the lord of time itself was already in circulation 50 years before Darwin published Origin of Species, now 150 years old, and provides a persistent commonsensical response elaborated today by Intelligent Design Theory.  Read this way, one might see Benjamin’s magical appearance on earth as a divine effort to awaken our sensibilities and unnerve our comfortable sense of time passing.

Or one might take an opposite tack.  It was Richard Dawkins back in the 1980’s who worked to turn the designer idea on its head, arguing for a Blind Watchmaker, which is to say the concept that a universe may be ordered in ways reflective not of a central intelligence but rather a universally available concept (here, natural selection).  In Benjamin Button the blind clockmaker is visually but not cognitively impaired, and his grand backward-running clock is not an error but a commemoration of possibilities lost.  Read this way, Benjamin’s case is more curious than compelling, evidence of the oddities produced by evolutionary caprice.

The F. Scott Fitzgerald short story (written in 1922) on which the film is very loosely based reads more like a fable on medicalization (part of the problem, it seems, may be that in 1860 the Buttons decide to have the birth in a hospital instead of at home) than the allegory of aging and dying that structures the film.  And in the story Benjamin is born talking and with not just the body of an old man but his sensibilities too (“See here, if you think I’m going to walk home in this [baby] blanket, you’re entirely mistaken.” he says hours after birth).  It is inevitably mentioned that the film bears virtually no relationship with the Fitzgerald story; having just read the short, I think this fact is to the credit of the film, whose melancholic aftertaste is far sweeter than the sense of absurdity and only occasional sadness induced by F. Scott original tale.

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