The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Max Tivoli

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” David Fincher, director. Kennedy/ Marshall, producers. 159 minutes.

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ” F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1921.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” Andrew Sean Greer, Picador, 2004.

“It’s a pity that the best parts of life come at the beginning, the worst parts at the end.” –Mark Twain.

“Youth is wasted on the young” — George Bernard Shaw.

In 1921 F. Scott Fitzgerald, musing on the above quotation from Mark Twain, wrote a short story called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” exploring the idea of aging backward–of starting out old, and then becoming young. Director David Fincher credits the Fitzgerald novel as the source for his remarkable, Oscar nominated  film. But several works have examined the prospect of aging backward, and each focuses on a different effect of the condition.

In Fitzgerald’s short story, the unfortunate man is born nearly full sized, with normal speech, reading skills, and wisdom. As he devolves in age, his mind devolves too; as a 60-year-old in a 20-year-old body he can discuss philosophy, but by the age of 3 he is unable to count. Most interesting about this version of the story is the father’s insistence on raising his son “by the rules.” The old man must drink milk when he would prefer to smoke a cigar and play with a rattle when he would prefer to read the newspaper, simply because he is, chronologically, a baby.

I like this approach, as it demonstrates the absurdity of categorizing people by such arbitrary measures as age or gender. “There’s a right way of doing things and a wrong way, ” Benjamin is scolded in the Fitzgerald story. “If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate”–as though he has any choice in the way he was born.

Like all good fantasies, Fitzgerald’s story is meant to be read metaphorically rather than literally. Many people do things backward–or at least differently from the norm. When I met my husband, he was the right man at the wrong time. I was 18, a freshman in college, and he was completing his master’s degree and leaving for a career in Washington D.C. I chose to go with the man rather than the age and virtually skipped a decade, moving into his world and leaving mine behind. I raised children in my 20s, went to college in my 30s, took up figure skating in my 40s and began a career in my 50s. I understand a character who lives life backward.

However, Fitzgerald’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button” bears very little resemblance to the film of the same name, other than the protagonist who ages backward.  In the film, Benjamin is born the size of a baby, but with the wrinkled skin and arthritic bones of an old man. Now everyone knows that babies are born with wrinkled skin, absurdly shaped heads, wispy hair, and rickety curved legs, so this alone should not terrify the father. But it does. This Benjamin cries like a baby and suckles like a baby. Fitzgerald’s idea of the baby spilling out of the bassinet and asking for a cigar is much more shockingly satisfying.

What is shockingly satisfying about the film is watching Brad Pitt age and then grow young. We’ve come to expect actors to age believably through skillfully applied makeup and prosthetic wrinkles. Pitt adds to the effect with a marvelous ability to blend the physicality of an old man with the exuberance and wonder of youth. His body and his facial expressions work perfectly against each other. But to see him continue regressing past his current (and handsome) 45 to the breathtakingly gorgeous youth we saw 16 years ago in “A River Runs Through it” and even younger, to a lanky, carefree youth of 17, is nothing short of amazing. It was worth the nearly 3-hour movie just to see the beefcake–er, I mean, to observe the computer technology.

The film is also a beautiful work of cinematography. The lighting is exquisitely natural, the costumes perfect for the time and financial status of the characters, and the minor characters are well cast. The setting envelops you, and the story moves surprisingly fast.  In this version, Benjamin is abandoned by his horrified father on the steps of an old-folks home where he is rescued, like Moses from the bulrushes, and raised by a childless woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Benjamin fits right in at the home, where “death and old age felt normal.”

Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, is the granddaughter of one of the residents. She comes and goes in his life until that magical moment when they “meet in the middle” and both of them are the precise age to fall in love with each other. But this is Hollywood, where relationships only last as long as they are mutually satisfying. When Benjamin grows too young and Daisy grows too old, Benjamin leaves, “for the sake of their daughter,” telling Daisy to find another man to marry and become a father figure to their child. (!) He narrates in voice over: “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are to us?” (Huh?)

The film version focuses more on the cycle of aging than on the stages of life. “We start out in diapers and we end up in diapers,” Queenie says pragmatically. Benjamin starts out in an old folks home, and he ends up there as well. As Benjamin becomes younger and younger, he loses his memory, very much like a victim of Alzheimer’s. It’s a sad thought, losing a loved one to dementia, and I have heard more than one caretaker of a parent stricken with Alzheimer’s describe it as “caring for a baby.”  In that respect, the film is philosophically sound and emotionally moving.

The storyline of the movie is more closely linked to Andrew Sean Greer’s bestselling novel, “The Confession of Max Tivoli” (2004) than to Fitzgerald’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” In Greer’s story, an age-reversing man meets the love of his life three different times, at three different ages, just as the film character does. And like the movie, which unfolds as a diary written to Benjamin’s daughter, “Max Tivoli” is a memoir written to Max’s son.

Greer’s book uses the story indirectly to examine the Oedipus/Electra complex. Max meets his Alice first when she is a young teen turning to him for fatherly comfort, then as a woman who marries him, and finally as a mother who adopts him. At each stage she loves him, but in a different way. Max, however, loves her the same way every time–as an old man he wants to kiss her, and as a young boy he wants to zip her dress. Kind of creepy, actually, when seen from her point of view.

Interesting though each version is, none of these stories allows the protagonist to take advantage of the wisdom of age. There are so many things I have wished that I could redo in childhood and especially adolescence, using the wisdom I have gained over five decades.  Benjamin has that chance. I wanted to see the early Benjamin make a bad choice in his aged body and then use that wisdom to make the right choice in his youth. But he doesn’t. In fact, the later Benjamin’s decisions are as shallow and self-serving as any teenager I’ve ever met. Daisy, by contrast, develops a much clearer understanding of love and devotion as she ages.

Twain and Shaw both jokingly remarked that youth is wasted on the young. But as Henry David Thoreau observed in “Walden,” “Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost.” Each of these stories about reversed aging ends in a profound sense of loss. They meet loved ones in the middle of their lives, but then they veer off into different directions. If anything is learned from these stories, it is the importance of staying on the same path with those we love, and walking hand in hand into the distance.

Valkyrie

“Valkyrie.” Bryan Singer, director. United Artists, 120 minutes.

In Norse mythology the Valkyrie are warrior maidens who gather the souls of fallen heroes to Valhalla to form an army against the sorcerer Albrech. In the film “Valkyrie,” Adolf Hitler describes them as “handmaidens of the gods choosing who will live and who will die.” Hitler considered himself the protected hero, and in some ways, he was. As a soldier during World War I he claims to have heard a voice telling him to cross to the other side of the road while eating lunch with his platoon. Within moments a mortar hit in the exact area where he had been sitting, killing his comrades. During World War II, at least 15 assassination attempts were made on his life, and he survived them all, dying by suicide in a bunker when Berlin was about to fall.

“Valkyrie” tells the story of the final known attempt to assassinate Hitler. The plot was organized by a German underground movement that was about as above ground as possible–a group of generals in Hitler’s highest command–and planned by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), a German war hero and director of the national police.  This was not an easy decision for men who had risen to power with the belief that they were members of a chosen race, following an almost godlike leader.  It took courage to realize that “in serving my country, I have betrayed my conscience,” as Stauffenberg says. “My duty now is not to my country but to save human lives.”

Early in the film Hitler says to Stauffenberg, “One cannot understand national socialism, if one does not understand Wagner.” I have continued to reflect on that quotation, and offer you no pat explanations. In fact, I welcome your reflections on what he meant. Partly, I think, it lies in the Wagnerian idea that heroes are more important than normal mortals. Partly it is in Richard Wagner’s personal belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. And partly it is in the music itself, so heroic and stirring that it evokes emotional heroism and national pride. In the opera, Siegmund’s own father, Wotan (interestingly, a one-eyed character like Stauffenberg), acquiesces to his son’s death. Fittingly, “Operation Valkyrie” was the name given to Hitler’s backup plan for putting down a coup in the event that the Secret Service or someone else in Hitler’s inner circle rose up against him.

Like Stauffenberg, most of the plotters are motivated by moral conscience. Initially loyal to Germany and their Fuhrer and bound by an oath to “render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler,” by 1944 they had come to realize that they had been following a mad man. “We have to show the world that not all of us are like him,” Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branaugh) urges the others. “Otherwise, this will always be Hitler’s Germany.”  Their goal was to restore Germany to the Germans.

But some members of the group are motivated by self-preservation rather than conscience. “I always come down on the right side,” General Friederich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) warns them when they carefully suggest their plan without revealing their plot. For most of these men the “right side” is the side of conscience, but for Fromm and military careerists like him it is the side that will win. He tells them he will support them or arrest them, depending on the outcome of their plot.

Originally the role of Stauffenberg was offered to Patrick Wilson. Tom Cruise became interested when he noticed the similarity between Stauffenberg’s profile and his own, and the film became a Tom Cruise project. Cruise has the star power to carry a film, but he doesn’t do accents. Rather than struggle with clunky German accents, director Singer decided to film in what he calls a “neutral English,” which unfortunately sounds very British and upper crust. Pragmatically it was a good idea–no one wants to endure a bad accent, ala Brad Patt in “The Devil’s Own” or Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood.” But symbolically, the decision negates the point of this story, that the Germans themselves began to turn on Hitler and his army. I would have preferred to see this filmed in German with English subtitles, to create the full effect of the German people taking charge of their future and resisting their government. But that would have required a different cast.

The magnificent strains of “The Ride of the Valkyries” that opens the third act of “Die Walkurie” has been trivialized in popular culture by Looney Tunes, bringing to mind Petunia Pig in Viking horns and Elmer Fudd singing, “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit” whenever it is played. Ironically, in the movie “Valkyrie,” killing the wabbit is the plan. Like all opera goers, we know that tragedy is its inevitable conclusion, but we watch because we care about the characters and what they reveal about human motivation and relationships.

Meanwhile, the Valkyrie wait in the wings to take the fallen heroes to Valhalla, where, through their martyrdom, they lead the fight posthumously to restore Germany to the Germans.  They did indeed show the world–and Germans too–that “not all of [them] were like [him].” Today the spot where they were executed is a revered national memorial. It is no longer “Hitler’s Germany.”

Gran Torino

“Gran Torino,” directed by Clint Eastwood. Double Nickel Entertainment, 2008. 116 minutes.

As “Gran Torino” begins, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is standing at the front of a church, watching the mourners file in for his wife’s funeral, and growling at them–yes, growling like a cur–because he doesn’t approve of his grandchildren’s clothing.  Granted, it is entirely inappropriate to wear sweats or an exposed belly button ring to one’s grandmother’s funeral, but surveying the mourners is a bit much too. Shouldn’t he be seated with his back to the congregation?

Eastwood continues to glare and growl with disapproval at his family, at his neighbors, even at the priest, taking his trademark sneer to a whole new height. It’s hysterical, and deliberate, a wink at his fans without ever breaking character.  He gives us permission to laugh, and laugh we do, throughout the film, despite the pathos of the story. For a film being touted as Eastwood’s last (at least as an actor) it is a masterful salute to the past. No one could ask for a better wake.

But back to our story.  Kowalski is a Korean War veteran and retired Ford worker who just wants to be left alone. He takes care of his house, mows his lawn, polishes his beloved 1972 Gran Torino, chain smokes, and chugs beer. He misses his wife. “Crusty curmudgeon” doesn’t begin to describe this guy. He’s downright mean and bigoted.

His neighborhood has gradually been taken over by Asian immigrants, mostly Hmong, although he calls them all “Gooks.”  When Thao (Bee Vang), the neighbor boy, is beaten up by an Asian gang he has refused to join, Eastwood breaks it up. He just wants them to get off his lawn, but the family next door interprets his actions as heroic. Suddenly they are bringing him gifts of food, flowers, and service. “Get off my lawn!” he barks. “Leave me alone.”

But, as can be expected, Kowalski’s bigotry begins to thaw as he takes an interest in the boy, his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and their family. (The Hmong actors were selected through open casting calls, by the way, and only one, Doua Moua, who plays the gang leader, had any previous acting experience. Unfortunately, it shows–especially in Sue.) When Thao and Sue are threatened with violence, Kowalski protects them with violence of his own, backed up by his Korean war rifles. The action is classic Eastwood: coolheaded threats, a loaded gun, a couple of fist fights, and that trademark sneer. Also as expected, the tension simply escalates.

Kowalski could have become a predictable caricature, a final-season Archie Bunker, crusty on the outside but warmhearted on the inside. In fact, the initial growl is disconcerting, so cartoonish and over the top that one fears a return to the 1970s Eastwood with Sondra Locke and that blasted orangutan.

But Eastwood infuses this character with a believability that harks back to Dirty Harry and the Man with No Name. He’s a man haunted by a past that won’t let go of his present, making the film’s Christmas release date ironically appropriate.  Kowalski is haunted by his experiences in Korea, haunted by his memories of shooting people he didn’t even know. He says he hates his “gook” neighbors, but what he really hates are the memories.

Into the mix comes a young, pink-cheeked parish priest (Christopher Carley) who is determined to keep a deathbed promise he made to Kowalski’s wife, who asked him to hear Walt’s confession. Walt isn’t having it. “I’m not confessing to a 27-year-old virgin priest fresh out of seminary,” he taunts, his lip upturned in that trademark snarl.

The priest won’t give up, and eventually Walt does come to confession. But he doesn’t broach the big stuff, the problem that has been eating him for more than 50 years. “I wish I had developed a better relationship with my kids,” he confesses.

“Is that it?” the priest queries.

“Yep,” Walt responds.

“Say ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers,” the priest tells him.

“Is that it?” we wonder.

The value of going to confession is not just in receiving absolution from the priest but in being able to forgive oneself. Walt needs more than a few “Our Fathers” to receive absolution for what he considers his war crimes. He’s doing some good works–he’s helping Thao learn marketable skills, he’s watching over Sue, he’s learning to love his neighbors–but for the kind of sin he has committed, blood atonement is required.

Eastwood has explored the theme of faith and redemption in numerous previous films, the ones that marked his rise from simple movie idol to legendary filmmaker.  The list includes “Unforgiven,” “Pale Rider,” and “Million Dollar Baby.” In a way, this film’s ending seems to be Eastwood’s way of atoning for the gratuitous violence of his earliest films and the ease with which his characters pulled the trigger. If this is indeed his final film as an actor, the denouement is a fitting and masterful ending to an outstanding career. Clint, thanks for the memories.