Unbutton

I’ve been reading review after review of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, trying to find acceptable enough interpretations of the film to put before Calvin students as they file into the Fine Arts Center to watch Brad Pitt age backwards, looking more and more handsome while Cate Blanchett screeches.  I’m sure you know the premise — Pitt’s title character is born an old man and becomes younger as he grows older (truly the only person who can knew what Dylan was talking about in “My Back Pages”).  

There are a few common threads running throughout the (mostly) glowing critical body devoted to Button, most of which center around the interpretation that the film is a “meditation on life and death and the passage of time.”  Every single review I’ve read has said the word “meditation,” though perhaps the word’s best implementation came thanks to Roger Ebert, who criticized his fellow critics, saying, “the film’s admirers speak of how deeply they were touched, what meditations it invoked. I felt instead: Life doesn’t work this way.”  And though I enjoyed Button (particularly its glossy picture of a peaceful-for-a-change, non-existent New Orleans), I have to agree with him.  Pitt as Button is too laid back, a little too lackadaisical about the world around him — and the world around him treats him the same.  He is abandoned by his father at birth and watches life pass him by for seventy years.  From the moment he’s born, he is acutely aware of the fact that he is watching the clock, and so nothing seems to matter particularly much.  Pitt — as many have noticed — plays Button as aloof, distant, and cool, and while he is a fair balance to Blanchett’s spur-of-the-moment spiritism, it’s no way to go through the world.  

This detachment is Ebert’s main problem with Benjamin Button, but it speaks further to what we think art does and/or should do.  That Button was lauded for its meditative pace implies that we believe our films are about teaching us lessons than they are about making us feel things.  Nearly every critic who praised Fincher’s stately direction and Pitt’s “nuanced reticence” also mentioned, sometimes in passing, that the film is emotionally quite cool.  Simply put, it’s hard to care about Benjamin Button because he doesn’t really seem to care too much about the world around him.  Sure, there are times when he seems to break out of it, particularly as he and Daisy’s physical and emotional ages begin to converge, but for the most part we are left with a man to whom history happens.  In a weird sort of way, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an apologetic for life being nothing more than an object of study, a bizarre little thing that simply happens, though, you know, we shouldn’t really, like, do anything about it.  Even the title implies that — my, oh my — what an odd situation we’ve happened upon here.  Well, do something.

As a Christian, and particularly as a Reformed Christian whose deeper Christian education has been derived from Calvinist teachings, I’m incredibly sick of inaction.  There is the sense in which we often lean too far back from our lives, saying that God is in control, and merely allow things to happen to us.  And while, yes, of course, I affirm that God is in control of all of our lives, I don’t think that that means we kick back and Benjamin Button it.  We do things.  We take chances.  We run out onto the water and trust that the Holy Spirit is actually a comforter and a rebuker and that maybe, just maybe, the Teacher is good to us after all.  

Hear me right — I’m not saying we ought run around and do whatever we want.  But at some point, God left the world of theory and spirit, and he entered the world, and he walked around and did things.  He took risks.  He ate food and laughed and wept.  He acted, trusting that the Father wouldn’t abandon him.  Why on Earth don’t we do the same?  You can talk while you walk.  It’s this obsession over theory, thought, and theology that keeps us from making good art, that keeps us from loving more fully.  And yes, theory and thought and especially theology are important, but at some point we have to trust that are theology is right when it tells us that God entered the world and became man.

Perhaps it’s also worth noting the words of Queenie, Benjamin’s adoptive foster mother, as she picks him up from her back steps.  Looking the wrinkled and cracking child in the face, she blinks a bit, shrugs her shoulders, and says, “You’re as ugly as an old pot, but you’re still a child of God.”  Then she takes him inside the house, and she raises him.

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