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.

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