Why Benjamin Button has changed my life

It is time for us all to break free from the Oscars and start giving movies our own awards. I award a Howson for Best Robot to Wall-E and a Howson for Most Growling to Gran Torino. What about you?

404px-benjamin_button_posterI am not making this up: I had another dream about the Oscars. I was at a wedding in a log cabin, and a bunch of my friends were there, dancing feverishly to some sort of wedding DJ’s jams. My friend Tim, who can only be described by the words “debonair gentleman” turned to me as we both leaned against the wall, watching the roiling knot of dancers in front of us, and said matter-of-factly, “2008 was just a despicable year for films, wasn’t it?”

Let me give you a tiny bit of quick back story. Every year I go nuts about the Academy Awards, make a ton of predictions, yell at anyone who tries to book my time that Sunday with an activity other than the Xth Annual Academy Awards Ceremony…I’ve never pretended to agree with the Academy’s choices, but I have pretended (loudly and often) to come up with formulas as to how and why people and the films they make get awards. It’s almost gleeful to me sometimes when some terrible movie wins, thereby proving some points I probably made and allowing me to be all, “IN YOUR FACE, JUSTIN MORGAN!!” *

When the nominations were announced this year, I got the familiar rush of nerd-with-a-mission adrenaline and rolled up my sleeves,** ready to get on down to the business of picking it all apart. But what to my wondering eye should appear, the most bland, uninteresting collection of drivel this side of 2001. Heartbroken a little more this year than usual, I poked around on the internet to see what bigger, better critics than I am were saying about it.

Turns out, I don’t have to pay attention to the Oscars at all! “The Oscars take place in a corner of the cinematic universe that’s only tangentially related to the movies I love,” says Jim Emerson (just Roger Ebert’s editor) in this article. And as soon as I read that, it was like the fog lifted and I remembered what I have always known, which is that the Oscars are about money, just like everything else. They’re about the movie industry and not necessarily about art, and I don’t HAVE to go on a tirade when the lifeless case of Benjamin Button wins ten awards. I don’t have to prove that shifting notice from innovative, well put together works of what will surely be represented in the annals of film history as genius filmmakers who helped to shape the future of art indicates a decline in the whatever whatever of America. Nope, who cares! Because with or without the Oscars, those films still exist and the future is shaped whether the Academy likes it or not.

I’ve also cheerfully revised my opinion of the filmmakers who are responsible for mediocrity – these people are not idiots! If anything, they are a different type of genius, because they’re the ones hauling their sacks full of awards all the way to the bank. Why not take advantage of the tried and true patterns? If you are skilled in putting banal elements together into a cohesive whole, you can and should make a trillion bucks doing so. Why not? People will watch it because the studios market it to them in ways they know work. One of those ways is by generating Oscar buzz, which will in turn make you a more sought-after director, and everyone is rich and/or happy, and you are hopefully both because now you have the financial freedom to work on something that is actually good. That’s my theory anyway. The films that are moving things along will move things along and the ones that keep the system going will keep the system going, and that is my new outlook on life. Oscars, be damned!

Back to what may or may not (who cares, right??) win every award, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I’ve set this up a little badly because now you’re going to expect me to be like “I mean sure it follows the standard plot and character development conventions but doesn’t wow in any particular way,” but unfortunately, it doesn’t even have that going for it. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt less about a movie. Nothing about the characters, nothing about the plot…I’m not even sure what the plot was, exactly, except a guy getting younger as he gets older. That’s not a plot, that’s an interesting fantasy. A fantasy that could have been set to a similarly imaginative storyline, that is, if we’d had any character development beyond “Benjamin (Brad Pitt) likes to go on a boat.”  But we don’t. We know he loves a girl (Cate Blanchett) but we don’t really know why they fell in love or much about the nature of their relationship. What are his desires? What are his hopes and dreams? It’s unclear.

In a sense, the film is really only what its title suggests – a human interest story. Here is the life of a man with a strange affliction put under the microscope for us to examine. It’s a hypothetical situation, a fine example of special effects and make up. Watch while we make various people older and younger. Look! He’s an old man who is actually a seven year old child, and somehow he still resembles Brad Pitt! It’s a triumph of technology, that much is true. But all we’re seeing is its effects on a visual image. We’re not vicariously exploring the possible effects of this imaginary affliction on a human being’s psyche.  Benjamin’s psyche remains fairly intact, apparently. A little lonely, maybe, but all in all he seems to weather the storm pretty evenly, and no one else seems to be too bothered by him either. It’s an empty shell surrounded by Brad Pitt’s computer-manipulated body, which isn’t nearly as grotesque as the Southern accent he attempts to use.

And as for the Oscars, I recommend getting out of your living room entirely. I know I’ve got no plans that night, and there are plenty of other excellent movies to talk about. Want to meet up? 8pm? Cake and coffee?

*Although in reality, he usually has more reason to be all “IN YOUR FACE, SUSAN HOWSON,” if we’re being honest.
**Not literally.

  • error

    Report an error

Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

There are 11 reader comments. Read them.