Sunday, May 10, 2009

Benjamin Button: a postmodern Gump

Forrest Gump won six Oscars and grossed over 300 million dollars in the U.S. Any Hollywood producer worth his salt would want to find the film’s magic in the hope of recreating its critical and commercial success. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button appears to have done just that. There are many parallels with Forrest Gump: they both take place in the South, have eccentric heroes, doting mothers, and storylines which cover several decades.

Yet all the similarities, on closer inspection, are superficial. On a deeper, more thematic level, the films diverge significantly. Take, for instance, the moral dispositions of the characters. Up front, Button and Gump are similar because their eccentricities make it difficult for them to fit in with the surrounding community. They are both mistreated despite their gentle demeanors. But their gentility takes different forms when it comes to sexual mores. Benjamin visits a brothel, carries on an illicit affair, and has numerous liaisons. Forrest, on the other hand, refuses to have a one-night stand because the woman's kiss "tasted like cigarettes." Forrest, who has a quixotic view of love, has his heart still set on Jenny. But Benjamin has his own Jenny (Daisy) and their relationship provides the second point of comparison between the two films. Jenny and Daisy’s entrances into the films are as children and the audience watches them grow up and reject their suitors in order to pursue a more ‘glamorous’ life-a life which cannot be found in the South. Forrest and Benjamin must wait for years before their women come to their senses.

At this point the stories diverge. After Daisy gives birth to their child, Benjamin leaves them on the grounds that he doesn't want to be taken care of as he grows older. (The film’s twist is Benjamin is getting younger, but the point is the same either way-as a person ages he becomes more and more dependent on others.) Daisy, who is conflicted about this, later says he made the right decision.

Benjamin’s desire for autonomy contrasts sharply with Forrest’s self-giving nature. Jenny has contracted a terminal illness, likely AIDS from her years as a libertine, and will require constant care. She and Forrest also have a son who she had not told him about. When he hears both of pieces of news, Forrest’s answer is immediate: “You and little Forrest could come live with me, Jenny.” Up to this point, Forrest has lived the self-sufficient life of a bachelor. Jenny and his son’s entry into his life will complicate things, but Forrest is undeterred. Jenny dies a shortly thereafter; Forrest mourns her but moves on for the sake of their son. The film’s final scene shows Forrest walking his son to the bus stop, like his mother had done for him. Forrest’s dignity, unlike Benjamin’s, is found not in the renouncing his responsibilities to others, but in embracing them.

The final point of comparison is how the characters deal with death. Forrest's belief in an afterlife, "I'm going to heaven, Lt. Dan", contrasts with Benjamin's repeated aphorism "Nothing lasts." These beliefs lead to differences in practice. Forrest's mother, who shares his worldview, has a good death. She dies in her own house with Forrest at her bedside. They talk about providence and she offers him solace in terms he can understand, "Life is like a box of chocolates..." Like Forrest’s mother, Jenny appears to have a peaceful death since the last image we're given of her is talking serenely to Forrest. Benjamin and Daisy, on the other hand, both grow in despair as they near death. He becomes angry and recalcitrant as his memory starts to fade away. Daisy dies in a hospital bed, saddened by the whole affair and unsure of how the whole thing played out. Hurricane Katrina is about to overrun the city-a reflection of the lack of peace within her own soul.

In the three instances mentioned above, we can see a clear difference in how the films address the most important issues, love and death. If the Hollywood producers behind Button were trying to find out what made Forrest Gump work, then they failed. For its success had less do with an eccentric hero and his slow drawl than it did with his underlying orientation to the world.

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