The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Director: David Fincher
Writers (WGA):Eric Roth (screenplay)/Eric Roth (screen story)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton

The movie moved me deeply, but i would struggle to articulate why. It reminded me of Forrest Gump, but unlike Gump, it lacked clarity. Forrest ran. Benjamin? He just wandered… All the actions seem to end in non-consequencial ways, and everything felt at odds with each other somehow. Yet, I would still shed tears when i thought of certain details, such as when Benjamin came back to see Daisy in her studio and she showed up in his hotel room afterward, he said, “I’ve never stopped loving you.” When Benjamin and Elizabeth were walking in the snow at midnight hour, champagne in hand, she said, “If we are to have an affair, we will never say ‘I love you’.” However unsatisfying the movie felt as a whole, I still loved it.

When the light came out, and when the credit started rolling, i noticed that it was based on a F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. I found that shocking. The story didn’t feel like a Fitzgerald to me.

In the evening, i dug out Fitzgerald’s short story on-line and read it. Aha, i was right. The original story reads just like a Fitzgerald. It was full of cynicism, and it was cold and depressing (I do love Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. But I’ve never cared much for Fitzgerald’s short stories). As if an English teacher gave an assignment, “Write a story about a man who was born old and grew younger by the day. His name is Benjamin Button, and his family is well off and in the ‘Button’ business.” That was all the movie had in common with the story, the name, the premise, and the family business. Everything else, all the stories, the warmth, the characters, were all original creation by the script writer.

I proceed to search and found the actual movie script by Eric Roth.

It was 1am in the morning by the time i finished reading the script. What a classic!

I finally understood what was missing from the movie and why i felt this barrier between me and the movie, the barrier that prevented me from being awed. What moved me was the script through and through. When the movie and acting lived up to the script’s brilliance, I was moved and in love. I really enjoyed the sequence of the magic hour of the Russian hotel “Winter Palace”

INT. KITCHEN, “WINTER PALACE,” RUSSIA – BEFORE DAWN, 1941

Elizabeth and Benjamin quietly talking…

BENJAMIN BUTTON’S (V.O.)
A hotel in the middle of the night can be a magical place…

And we see the empty front desk and tiny silver bell… The vacant lobby, with its musty old rugs… The open elevator, waiting… The dining room, with its crisp
white tablecloths.

BENJAMIN BUTTON’S (V.O.) (CONT’D)
A mouse stopping and running and stopping…

A mouse crossing the lobby floor doing just that…

BENJAMIN BUTTON’S (V.O.) (CONT’D)
A radiator hissing. A sink dripping. A floor creaking. A curtain blowing.

We see and hear it all… All the little sounds, a symphony, that make up life in a hotel in the middle of the night… Benjamin and Elizabeth sitting quietly
drinking their tea.

BENJAMIN BUTTON’S (V.O.) (CONT’D)
There is something peaceful, even comforting, knowing that people you love are asleep in their beds, where nothing can harm them…

…and the sequence of Benjamin and Daisy on their sailing trip and started the happiest time of their lives in the new duplex.

BENJAMIN BUTTON’S (V.0.)
I asked her to come with me…

What follows feels like a HOME MOVIE…without any sound.

EXT. THE FLORIDA GULF COAST – ANOTHER DAY, 1963

And we see the small sailboat out on the gulf coast…
BENJAMIN SUTTON’S (V.0,)
We sailed into the Gulf… along the Florida coast…

EXT. THE FLORIDA COAST, A COVE – DAY, 1963
Daisy and Benjamin on the sailboat at a cove on the Florida coast. They watch a ROCKET, soaring into space from Cape Caniveral.

As they watch it roar overhead, Benjamin marvels at its power…leaving its trail across the sky…Daisy, not so much interested, taking his arm, taking him back down below…

EXT. THE CARIBBEAN, ANOTHER COVE – DAY, 1963
Daisy washing her hair off the side of the boat.

EXT. THE CARIBBEAN, ANOTHER COVE – NIGHT
The boat anchored. Benjamin and Daisy sitting on the deck having a picnic with just a single lamp for light.

EXT. THE CARIBBEAN, ANOTHER COVE – NIGHT, 1963
The boat in still another cove. Daisy and Benjamin in the water. Just their eyes above the dark water looking only at each other.

EXT. THE BOAT – CARIBBEAN – NIGHT, 1963
Under millions of stars. Benjamin and Daisy making love on a blanket on the deck…

EXT. THE CARIBBEAN, AN ISLAND BEACH – DAY, 1963
Benjamin and Daisy asleep on a secluded beach.

DAISY’S (V.0.)
I’m so glad we didn’t find one another when I was 26… I’m glad we missed…
BENJAMIN’S (V.0.)
Why do you say that?
DAISY’S (V.0.)
It wasn’t right…

The barrier was Brad Pitt. Reading the script filled the gap left by Pitt’s acting. It is a love story that was filled with subtleties. Too difficult for him, i suppose. And why can’t he deliver his lines like a real actor (say, a british actor?), if it is not a voice over, he mumbled through them, and i was often at a loss in the theater. Swinton or Blanchett, on the other hand, didn’t miss a beat, they delivered their characters wonderfully, and on certain scenes, they did better than the script. They and the director carried Pitt’s character through, despite his lack luster acting. That was why i was still moved by the movie even though it felt unsatisfying. What a pity.

The script is not perfect though. Not sure why it has to copy Run Lola Run with the accident scene in Paris. Juxtaposed the random events that led up to that taxi accident with what could have been. It is a cute technique. But it doesn’t mix with the style of the rest of the movie. The randomness of events, or “collision course”, in their lives didn’t get mentioned elsewhere in the movie again, so the narrative doesn’t seem to go with the remainder of the story either. At the end, it became an odd piece. Maybe it was meant to mark the turning point of the story, but comparing to the ebb and flow of the love story between Benjamin and Daisy, it didn’t seem a particular special event worthy of this strange treatment.

The one twist of the story that really deserves some special movie technique but didn’t get any(i’m not complaining either) was Benjamins decision to leave. It was least explained. Benjamin’s reason was that he wanted Caroline to have a proper father. He wanted his baby to have a normal childhood that he couldn’t have. Maybe the unstated reason was he didn’t want her to suffer what he had suffered, because of his “curious case.” As a result, he deprived both the mother and daughter of himself, himself of them, too. He sacrificed his own happiness for a normal and, he hoped, a happy life for them. As a result, Caroline seemed “lost at 12” and remained so till she learned of her real father at Daisy’s death bed.

I want to argue that he should have stayed.

But that wouldn’t have made a great movie. Because i cried the most during the sequences when he wrote those unposted postcards for Caroline, and when he came back to Daisy’s studio when Caroline was 12. I cried harder after i read the script then when i was in the theatre.

Unfulfilled love makes great movie material, starting with Casablanca, Out of Africa, English Patient (hmm… all set in Africa?!)…

The tag line of the movie should have been, “Nothing lasts.” or “Somethings last.” Make your pick.

What moved me was the possibility of anything that might last, and the craving of it to last in all of us.

Winter

Some cold air from Alaska moved in over a week ago. For a few days, we saw snow in all of Bay Area peaks. Bay Area looked a bit like Vancouver during those days, with snow-capped mountains.

Temperature hovered around 40’s F. Nothing to complain about comparing to places with real winter. But it was exceptionally shocking because we had such a summer like warm November!

The honest truth is I love it. I love the rush of cold air on my cheek as i step out, I love the white breath fogging up in front of everyone. I loved the fact i could wear a coat and a hat and gloves and everyone else on the street was bundled up too. It reminded me of Beijing, whose winter was extremely atmospheric.

This morning for a brief period, the rain was heavy. Our bed was very close to the window, and the splashing rain and howling wind sounded so close by, as if it was raining right on my pillow. It was lovely.

Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon finally started showing in San Francisco today. One theater only. Worried it would be a sold-out show, we had an early dinner and rushed downtown an hour before the show. Turned out San Franciscan’s enthusiasm in politics has more similarity with teenager’s taste in fashion than anything else. It is probably all about what’s trendy at the moment. Watergate is old news. The theater was half empty when we showed up 10 minutes before showtime.

I’m not complaining. Nothing better than enjoying such a great movie in a spacious and mostly quiet theater. People who did come really loved it.

It reminded me of the documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” because both are centered around a controversial powerful figure, and both managed to portrait that man in satisfactory complexity. Both movies made me see these men in sympathetic light because in them we recognize ourselves. However unforgiven their mistakes might have been, seeing them in their moment of weakness help us understand that they are human afterall, not monsters.

What’s more, they are both highly intelligent.

Even though in real life I have been shown multiple times how overrated intelligence really is (without kindness, personality, and basic decency). I still couldn’t help but be drawn to people who are blessed with such treat. And i tend to forgive mistakes by thoughtful people than by idiots, which seems illogical because idiots are helpless while thoughtful people should’ve known better. hmmm…

But Frost/Nixon is better than The Fog of War because it is a drama about a documentary rather than a documentary. It is entertaining. The story is well told. Characters are three dimensional and interesting. Actors are superb at their craft. The drama mesmerizes. The production is flawless executed. Last but not least, it has a sense of humor.

Things that stood up for me as we were coming home from the theater:
– Power is addictive
– Humanity is more powerful than Power. At the end, the interview of Frost/Nixon turned into a therapy session, and Nixon willingly lost the “war” to gain some absolution.
– Whenever the movie mentioned the phrase “The American People”, i couldn’t help but thinking, “you mean the same people who think Obama is an elitist and elected GWB twice?!”

Highly recommended, I think Frost/Nixon and Slumdog Millionaire are the two best films of 2008, so far.

In me the tiger sniffs the rose

In Me, Past, Present, Future meet
by Siegfried Sassoon

In me, past, present, future meet
To hold long chiding conference.
My lusts usurp the present tense
And strangle Reason in his seat.
My loves leap through the future’s fence
To dance with dream-enfranchised feet.

In me the cave-man clasps the seer,
And garlanded Apollo goes
Chanting to Abraham’s deaf ear.
In me the tiger sniffs the rose.
Look in my heart, kind friends, and tremble,
Since there your elements assemble.


Henri Rousseau. (French, 1844-1910). The Sleeping Gypsy. 1897. Oil on canvas, 51″ x 6′ 7″ (129.5 x 200.7 cm). Gift of Mrs. Simon Guggenheim, On view at MoMA, NYC

Shuttle, Paul Theroux, and The Reader

1. Shuttle
Ever since we moved to the south side of the city, i started using a different shuttle stop. Interestingly enough, the demographic of passengers at this shuttle stop seems to be quite different than the one before.

My old neighborhood belonged to the younger, more hip, more yuppy area of the city. Passengers were younger, more stylish, more preppy-looking. People in my new stop are more family people, older, more low-key, quieter, calmer.

In addition, the bus is less crowded, we have less frequent services, and we get a smaller bus than the large spanking new ones serving northern, trendier neighborhood of the city.

I don’t really miss my old shuttle. Until today, when i wanted to read a book on my way home. The reading light on this older shabbier shuttle are almost non-existent.

So i had to give up reading and came to my computer and try writing instead.

2. The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
The book i’m reading is Paul Theroux’ new travel book “The Ghost Train to The Eastern Star” page 273/496.

He is traveling inside Burma.
I loved the part he did prior to Burma: Sri Lanka. He made it sound so beautiful and serene.
Prior to that was India, which i tolerated, and felt relieved that he finally left it behind.
The eastern Europe sounded very interesting. London and Paris, his starting chapters of the beginning of his journey were also interesting because he mixed it with his life stories.

Gui told me that the reason his prior books (those prior to Dark Star Safari) were so angry and rude, the reason that he as a traveler was so disliked by the readers (me included) were explained in the starting chapters.

He was going through a hard time personally when he was taking his “Great Railway Bazaard” trip. When he returned his wife had taken a lover, and eventually, many years later, they divorced. In this book, he said they divorced because “some betrayal is less forgiving than others.” I found that very hypercritical. Cuz he had affairs too, why is it that her betrayal is more unforgiving than his? But i guess when it comes to matters of heart, there is no fairness to speak of.

I am glad he is happier now with his second marriage. As a result, we readers get to read more pleasant writings from him like Dark Star Safari and The Ghost Train to the Eastern Star! I’m not complaining. 🙂

3. The Reader
I was re-reading “The Reader” about a month ago. I realized that i had forgotten lots of details in the book since my first read 9 years ago. I loved it then and i loved it even more after the second read.

Then a couple of weeks ago i saw it had been made into a movie that was scheduled to release this December, with Kate Winslet. I noted it down as a movie i would love to see. Because Kate Winslet is one of those actors who has a good track record of picking the best script. Last night i saw the movie trailer of “The Reader” on TV. Another surprise was revealed, it not only has Kate Winslet, but also Ralph Fiennes!

The film director is Stephen Daldry, who also directed the Hours, and Billy Elliot.

Possibly a good movie? Fingers crossed. It says LIMITED release on Dec. 12th. Usually that means NY and LA. I wonder when it will come to SF!