Thursday, June 21, 2012

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2009)

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, up for thirteen Oscars, is a meticulous, golden-glowing fable about a boy who arrives into the world in 1914 as a wizened old man, and ages in reverse. Brad Pitt plays Benjamin, growing up in an old folks’ home, serving in WW2 as a long-in-the-tooth cook and deckhand, and attaining his full youthful glow in the 60’s and 70’s.  Cate Blanchett plays the love of his life, only a little younger measured by time on earth, but physically compatible for only a few meeting-in-the-middle years.

Benjamin Button

It’s a very well made film, arguably one of the greatest deployments yet of digital technology. Despite its length, pushing three hours, this isn’t really an epic. Benjamin doesn’t do too much with his life once the war ends (living in the rest home, for example, much longer than he’d need to), and isn’t given to grand statements (actually it’s hard to think of a recent protagonist who says so little of interest). He’s not surrounded by quirky characters or a stream of incidents. The character’s recessive quality reflects the central conundrum; Benjamin’s reverse aging renders him even more a prisoner of biology, providing him with a fixed end point (i.e. where most of us begin), and a victim of enforced loneliness. The film provides no explanation, linking his condition to such phenomena as a man being struck seven times by lightning in his life, or (in one of its few explicit clasps on reality) to Hurricane Katrina. You never know, goes the repeated mantra, what’s comin’ for ya.

The film has lots of supporters, but I can’t for the life of me grasp what exactly it is they’re praising. “Watching Benjamin age in reverse,” said Peter Howell in the Star, “has the curious effect of making you appreciate how your own life runs forward…” Uh, right, quite the discovery. The always entertaining Rex Reed labeled it “not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the greatest films ever made,” summing up the “point” as follows: “everything in life and death is predetermined, and even if you turn the clock backward, you might be able to reverse the order but you can’t change the outcome.” Uh, right, and so how will that help me out at the office? The film seems to me artfully and beautifully vacuous, yet another example of my recent theme about how the so-called best films continuously fail to address the issues that most matter to us. Unless you spend days hung up about what direction your life runs in, or what would happen if it started running the other way, or whatever it was Rex said.


Belonging much more to your nuts and bolts school of entertainment, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie is a mostly staid if not monotonous drama set in Hitler’s Germany…and given how often the Nazis still crop up in movies, you could believe time actually is running backwards. Tom Cruise plays an army colonel who’s come to believe the best chance for Germany’s future is to knock off the fuhrer; he and like-minded others evolve a plan not just to blow up Adolf, but at the same time to avoid a mere transfer of power to his lieutenants. There’s a historical basis to all this, but it’s hard to care very much now, and the film increasingly just seemed to me like a bunch of uniforms being shuttled from A to B and back again.

Actually, I was most diverted when allowing myself to think the movie might allow itself to fly off into some alternate history where they actually did kill Hitler, leaping from there to who knows where? It’s not that kind of movie though. Actors like Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson are old pros at injecting colour into mostly functional dialogue, but Cruise doesn’t do much to bolster his flagging reputation. Still, spinning your wheels at this movie for two hours may have the curious effect of making you appreciate how your life usually runs forward.


Ron Howard’s version of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon is another Oscar contender, just as it earlier gathered major stage awards in both London and New York. I was lucky enough to see it in London, and enjoyed it there, as I did again on the screen. Still, I can’t help being a little puzzled that it’s been quite so acclaimed. It’s a great anecdote, rich with both comic and serious subtext, but I struggle to see it as much more than that. This is probably even truer for the film, deprived of the play’s striking design (which made prominent use of live close-ups of the actors, projected giant-size behind them).

In 1976 Richard Nixon had retreated to California, hurting for both cash and credibility, after resigning the Presidency in disgrace. TV personality David Frost, best known at the time for interviewing the likes of the Bee Gees, offered Nixon a then even more mind-boggling $600,000 for a series of exclusive interviews; unable to interest the networks, he ended up financing and syndicating the project personally. Frost/Nixon casts this as a grand confrontation. Nixon wanted above all to regain his stature, perhaps even to find his way back into the circles of power. Frost needed meat and revelation, above all a confession of wrongdoing.

Howard handles the material very fluidly and seamlessly here, even if, as I mentioned, he can’t find a way to replicate the impact it had on stage - consequently, when a character remarks near the end about the revelation of having Nixon’s loneliness exposed in close-up, it can’t possibly carry the same weight here (in a medium where close-ups are the standard meat and potatoes). In general it often seemed a bit glibber to me than it did as a play (although I may be misremembering, or may be missing the initial pleasure of discovery). Still, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are wonderful as the protagonists, and there’s a smooth ensemble in place around them. Langella is particularly skillful at capturing Nixon’s ungainly approach to social interaction, while leaving appropriate ambiguity about how much of this might have been a ploy.

The film’s main impact may be in what it doesn’t say, simply in the inherent contrast between its time and ours. Squalid as Nixon’s actions may have been, his brooding over-calculations now seem almost virtuous next to the torrent of knee-jerk regression that marked the Bush years. And we might all wish for a time when a serious extended conversation could constitute a TV event. And, as an aside, for a time when airplanes had spacious upstairs bars (well, I guess that was only ever in first class). I surrender - take me back.

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