What to do with an idiotic script? Douglas Sirk replied,
“I realized maybe Jane Wyman could be right, and this goddamn awful story could be a success. And it was. My immediate reaction to Magnificent Obsession was bewilderment and discouragement, but still I was attracted to something irrational in it, something mad in a way, well, obsessed, because this is a damn crazy story if ever there was one. The blindness of the woman, the irony of it all—not irony in the usual sense of the word, but a structural element, an element of antimony—it is a Euripidian irony. One person pacifying death by taking the place of another. It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness. But craziness if very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic. There is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”
Trash is stupid for telling us what we know; art’s pretty for proving it: sex is tempting, love is powerful, time goes on, and one day, we will die. Eric Roth’s script for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is full of these idiotic homilies, all true: death makes us realize the value of life; you never know what’s gonna happen. This is advice good only to the blind, but then, walking into Magnificent Obsession or Benjamin Button is meant to feel, quite intentionally, like opening your eyes into a new, entirely self-contained world. Walking into a coma. The realities of Button and Obsession are entirely virtual, not just by virtue of their dumbass scripts, but deliberately. They’re the works of exacting artists who understood such scripts could only take place in worlds that look to have been created—all of it, from the lighting to the actors’ flesh itself—only as an extension of the characters’ unwieldy desires or memories. Sirk called himself an expressionist. And David Fincher, a video game wizard?
Button works largely as an apology for itself. The theme—Button has just one, reiterated every scene—is victims of fate attempting to recapture the past. As in Fincher’s Zodiac, the heroes spend their lives imagining a perfect scene—a scene of murder in Zodiac and a scene of love in Button—that time just can’t sustain. To recapture time, an opening prologue in Button winks, as dead soldiers are rewound back into life, we need art—a director who can play God. And so, Fincher makes recapturing time his own task, awesomely in Zodiac, which resets all the minute details of an era to be lived over on screen. But with that opening prologue in Button, Fincher acknowledges the futility of his task. The prologue—the story of a man who tried to recapture time—is shown as if it were filmed, with all the creaky glows and scratches of a film reel replicated. They are again later in the sepia-toned memories of a man who got hit by lightning—as though, because he got hit by lightning during the silent era, the event would be remembered as a silent movie. And they are finally in Button’s end credits, with a glow that flickers as if by candlelight. Film isn’t just a way of recapturing the past, but in the digital era, belongs to it. Button was made digitally.
And unlike Zodiac, Button makes no pretense about recasting history as digital wallpaper; it all looks computer-animated. When Button came out, Danny Kasman noted its closed mise-en-scène, in which every shot is self-contained, with no life on the edges of the frame. The same might be said for melodramas by Stahl, Sirk, Minnelli, and so on, in which the world outside of the characters, even to the characters, never matters—this is the great lesson lovers learn in All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, There’s Always Tomorrow, and Imitation of Life, in which, like Romeo and Juliet, they find themselves shedding their social identities to be defined entirely by their feelings for one another. But Button’s lifelessness is such that it may be the first prestige zombie pic:
1) History is recited as the same old top hats and Charlestons and aw missah black nannies, and is occasionally brought in through the radio not as a living day-to-day matter, but as a greatest hits parade presented entirely for symbolic value. Hurricane Katrina plays Fate; Pearl Harbor lets us know where we’re at in the timeline. The actual, historical outside world enters the world of Button as much as the matted forests out the window enters the world of the characters in Magnificent Obsession.
2) Roth’s schematism conceptually is matched by Fincher’s stylistically. A montage of people’s little actions that determine the timing of Daisy’s car crash, inexplicably narrated by a suddenly omniscient Button, and filmed by Fincher like a series of illustrations to a Rube Goldberg contraption, finds its parallel in the movie’s major sex scene, another montage which serves mostly as a demonstration of love’s mechanics: the buttons that must be unbuttoned, the zippers that must be unzipped, the bra that must be unclasped for the romance to find its consummation. Button plays like an attempt to diagram out a man’s life, and only in a third montage, Daisy’s rainy dance, as the images again play as illustration to what’s being told on the soundtrack, as in a child’s picture-book, does the fluttering imagery and elliptical editing seem to evade Fincher’s attempt, even here, to pin-down the actions in sequence and the bodies in place.
3) Because Fincher embraces his movie’s digitalness: its tendency to flatten images like butterflies pinned in portfolios, its ability to stencil exact lines of white and color against black. Button’s as beautifully composed as a corpse in a 5th ave. funeral. But it’s not just life to the side of the frame that it lacks—it’s life within it. Characters hardly move, and when they do, they simply grow bigger and smaller when on film they’d be moving forwards and backwards. The original function of movies—to show worlds that can be entered into—is deliberately jettisoned by dulled laminations of an impossible world Fincher never wants us to think could be otherwise.