Metaphysical MacGuffins and Benjamin Button

by John Holbo on November 21, 2012

For some strange reason, Amazon is selling a Criterion Collection 2-disc set of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for $1.99. I would like to hear the extensive Fincher commentary, so maybe I’ll buy it at that price, even though I already own it. Thing is. I didn’t like the film. It didn’t make any sense to me. It seemed very self-serious, in an Oscar-fodder-ish way. Without having anything serious to say. It seemed to commit the elementary fallacy of assuming that, because the story doesn’t make any ordinary sort of sense, it must make some extraordinary, deep kind of sense.

I’m interested in this kind of production because in my philosophy and film class I teach a segment on films like Groundhog Day and The Exterminating Angel. I call them Metaphysical MacGuffins. Something metaphysically inexplicable yet consequential happens – same day over and over; everyone trapped in the same room – and the characters have to suck it up, basically. That’s the plot. And there’s no reason for the thing, nor do the characters wonder much about the reasons for it, usually. They are too busy just trying to ride it out. Such stuff ranges from the relatively trivial – Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar – up the scale to more ‘serious’ productions. This class of works substantially overlaps the theater of the absurd, which is at least a thoroughly familiar term, even if there are inevitable, endless arguments about definitions. But the Metaphysical MacGuffins often have more of a science fiction flavor. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The monolith is a bit of a Metaphysical MacGuffin, after all. Solaris is basically a a bunch of scientists trying to study a Metaphysical MacGuffin. Darko Suvin says sf is a function of some ‘novum’ crashed down or erupted or invented in the midst of unsuspecting folk. There’s something to that, although there are tons of counter-examples and, once you add in good old ‘sufficiently advanced science indistinguishable from magic’ it ceases to be distinctive of sf, as opposed to fantasy. These cases have a Fairyland, Twilight Zone quality. Pleasantville, Being John Malkovich, Stalker. For no sufficient reason people find themselves in a strange and fabulous yet threatening world in which rather arbitrary rules need to be followed lest disaster befall, or this strange world collapse. G. K. Chesterton on the Ethics of Fairyland. And another adjective springs to mind: Kafkaesque. So ‘Metaphysical MacGuffin’ is a placeholder at the border of various genres and sub-genres.

Benjamin Button seems to me a case study in how not to do it. (Tell me I am wrong!) The MacGuffin – Benjamin is aging backwards for no reason! – doesn’t seem like allegory or analogy for anything. Most of these films are, after all, pretty transparent allegory or analogy. Phil, in Groundhog Day: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” His truckdriver-capped interlocutor: “That about sums it up for me.” Even Exterminating Angel is legible as allegory, despite Bunuel’s taste for sheer surrealism. Society is like a little world in which everyone could decide to do things differently, but still they don’t. I don’t really enjoy the film much, I must confess, but I do like the scenes outside the house where the people on the street have the same problem as those inside. They could go in, but they can’t make themselves choose to, apparently. How quickly they acclimatize themselves to this new normal! They flip from finding it absurd that they can’t go in to finding it absurd that anyone would think it should be otherwise. A guy shows up late and says he can do it and is dismissed. Who does he think he is, thinking he could walk up to the front door of a house and go in?

But I digress. Point is: you don’t watch Benjamin Button and undergo a strangely alienated re-recognition of ordinary life, in absurdist disguise. Ordinary life is like being born old and growing young! Nope, it just doesn’t seem like a resonant metaphor (do you disagree?) But is that a problem? Must all these works exhibit some A is to B as C is to D theme structure, such that they could almost be turned into questions for the SAT? Seems suspiciously narrow, as an artistic constraint. But think about Kafka. His Metaphysical Macguffins are always strongly suggestive of allegorical readings. Gregor Samsa’s transformation is a symbol of … The Castle is a symbol of … Kafka is overproductive of allegorical suggestiveness. That saves him from the thinness of A is to B as C is to D, as in, say, Orwell’s Animal Farm. (No one suggests that the Pigs are Freud’s id and the farm is the mind. Nope. It’s pretty clearly about Stalinism.)

You can get around the need for legible allegory if you go all-in for sheer dreamwork. Surrealism. Bunch of crazy stuff happening for no reason, but it’s eye-catching. That’s half the music videos ever made. But that’s not Benjamin Button. Getting back to theater of the absurd, Martin Esslin (who coined the term, I believe) contrasts absurdist drama with ‘well-made plays’.

These plays [the absurd ones] flout all the standards by which drama has been judged for many centuries; they must therefore appear as a provocation to people who have come into the theatre expecting to find what they would recognize as a well-made play. A well-made play is expected to present characters that are well-observed and convincingly motivated: these plays often contain hardly any recognizable human beings and present completely unmotivated actions. A well-made play is expected to entertain by the ding-dong of witty and logically built-up dialogue: in some of these plays dialogue seems to have degenerated into meaningless babble. A well-made play is expected to have a beginning, a middle, and a neatly tied-up ending: these plays often start at an arbitrary point and seem to end just as arbitrarily. By all the traditional standards of of critical appreciation of the drama, these plays are not only abominably bad, they do not even deserve the name drama.

It seems to me that we are so acclimatized to Metaphysical Macguffins by this point – it really is a standard Hollywood trope: a kind of film – that Fincher and Roth (the screenwriter) wrongly tried to make a ‘well-made’ chunk of Oscar-fodder out of a story idea that was only suitable for ill-made story-making, as it were. The romance is supposed to be almost conventional in its emotional highs and lows. But that’s just silly. Brad Pitt is turning into a baby! There’s no way to make that remotely normal, or even sensical. Metaphysical MacGuffins can only be ‘well-made’, in a conventional way, if they are clear allegory. We understand why everything is happening, morally – a lesson is being taught, maybe – and the story acquires a conventional structure-by-proxy in virtue of that moral-to-the-story. As in Groundhog Day.

I haven’t read the original Fitzgerald short story. I understand it’s quite different from the film. What’s it like?

{ 94 comments }

1

Rupert 11.21.12 at 4:26 am

I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t really comment on the differences with the original story. However, I recall the story as a conventional life fairly straightforwardly (and indeed forwardly) told, with no real suggestion as to what was happening or why it mattered.

2

ben w 11.21.12 at 4:26 am

It didn’t make any sense to me. It seemed very self-serious, in an Oscar-fodder-ish way.

Have you heard or read Stephen Mulhall on Benjamin Button?

3

John Holbo 11.21.12 at 4:29 am

No, where does he talk about it? Googling, I see there’s forthcoming material in The Self and Its Shadows.

4

tony 11.21.12 at 4:29 am

I haven’t watched the movie, but when it came out I read the story online (you can too!). It also seemed to oddly have no allegorical meaning, and it made me wonder how you could squeeze a two-hour movie out of it.

5

Alan 11.21.12 at 4:37 am

Great post! I use the example of Goundhog Day in teaching John Hick’s “soul-making” argument in Phi/Rel. Give someone enough chances and eventually they’ll get it right–just as Bill Murray’s Phil goes from manipulating asshole to a decent guy. He made the repetitions matter in finally building his soul. Not that this justifies Hick’s view–but it helps illuminate his point in a way that appeals to our collective sense of decency and redemption as against the one-and-done of heaven-or-hell retributive theology.

6

John Holbo 11.21.12 at 4:43 am

Thanks, tony. Well, the tone is clearly a lot more whimsical but, as you say, it seems the sort of whimsy that promises allegory. But there is none. It’s not manic enough, or hilarious enough, or dark enough to be ‘proper’ absurdism. Edward Gorey might have made something of it, at chapbook length, in rhymed couplets. “The Reversible Baby”.

The nurse, in a panic, cried ‘Where will it stop’
And Benjamin ceased to exist with a ‘pop!’

That sort of thing.

7

Izzy 11.21.12 at 4:50 am

I’m not sure about the larger point about metaphysical Macguffins and allegory, but to me there’s a pretty (parallel) way of understanding why Benjamin Button fails: the protagonist has nothing about him to make us care about him, aside from aging in reverse. It’s a film whose Macguffin can’t overcome the fact that Button simply isn’t in any other way a compelling character.

But maybe that’s another way of saying the same thing. Perhaps allegory only works when we are invested in the outcome, which of course suggests we are invested in the character.

8

John Holbo 11.21.12 at 5:01 am

“But maybe that’s another way of saying the same thing.”

I think maybe it does come to the same. Why do we care about Gregor Samsa? It’s because his story seems somehow allegorically resonant, even if we all disagree about what the allegory means. Benjamin is all about aging in reverse. That’s his whole deal. And that just doesn’t seem to ‘mean’ anything.

9

Martin 11.21.12 at 5:22 am

One wonderful thing about Groundhog Day is that if you don’t feel like thinking about metaphysics, it also functions as a rock-solid meditation about filmmaking, or Life from the Perspective of a Director (Take 1, Take 2, Take 3….). This is most clearly felt in the sequence where he robs the Brink’s truck, I think.

10

Martin 11.21.12 at 5:28 am

I also want to bring Mork and Mindy into this (??) — bear with me, this makes sense. In Mork and Mindy, believe it or not, we’re told that Mork ages backwards. In season 3 or whatever, they introduced Jonathan Winters to the cast, as their newborn child, and they tried to pass of his dual parentage as a mixed product of Earthling/Orkian by saying that he mixed the two, he aged backwards, but started out childlike and got older mentally, like an Earth child. But … I think I’m right about this — frequently they would break the rules, and the logic of his ageing proved indistinguishable from Mork’s, that is, he was doing the same thing but they’d forgotten or fudged it. Don’t remember exactly. But the point is, this stuff is inherently tricky, easy to get wrong, and ultimately meaningless (which is what you were saying).

11

Hidden Heart 11.21.12 at 5:28 am

John@8:

That’s not at all why I care about Gregor Samsa, though. I care about him because I’m fascinated to find out what a guy who wakes up to find he’s become a big bug does next. I love the meticulous delineation of a scene into which the impossible – or just the unexplained/inexplicable – has been inserted. If the story, characters, etc., engage me, the strongest resonance for me will be that very basic thing: Yes, I too live with things that feels impossible, or at least inexplicable, in terms of the life I thought I was leading. It is not in the slightest bit a flaw for me if there’s no closer or more detailed point of metaphysical contact, and it strikes me as really odd that this would apparently matter so significantly to you.

(OK, not odd in the sense of “I’ve never encountered that before”, just odd in the sense of “whenever I encounter it, I never end up understanding why it’s a deal to them”.)

12

bob mcmanus 11.21.12 at 5:35 am

1) You left out part of Suvin: “novum validated by cognitive logic” More from the article of Suvin.:”cognitive presentation of alternative realities that directly contradict the status quo.[6]” Also “cognitive estrangement” We approach SF in a different way than we approach fantasy, we do expect things in SF to have an explanation that derives from “our world”. It contradicts, it has a relation to our rules in this reality. That is the cognitive estrangement. The One Ring or Dragons in Game of Thrones or repetition in Groundhog Day are accepted according to the rules of their reality, and don’t have to fit or relate to ours.

2) But sometimes SF writers leave us in suspension. Gardner Dozois wrote an award winning short short story “Morning Child” in 1984 about a son who is caring for his father. His father is a veteran of some future war who goes from diapers to senescence and back again every 24 (48? doesn’t matter) hours or so. There is a description of a distant and incomprehensible weapon effect in the far distance. Nothing is explained. There are episodes of play with the child, companionship with the adult, commiseration with the old man. Poetic and quite beautiful, it is partly about the horrors of war and partly about the incomprehensible consequences of war that almost demand justification and explanation. We don’t get them.

3) Arthur Clarke did this several times, since you mentioned 2001. Rendezvous with Rama and especially Childhood’s End. CE tickles our sense of wonder but then leaves us hanging, staring at the strange. The magic trick without the prestige.

And The Prestige, leaving out the end, is another good example. The appearance of the magician tells us that it is a trick, makes the estrangement “cognitive.”

13

bob mcmanus 11.21.12 at 5:41 am

And the difference between SF and Fantasy is the difference between the magic trick and the miracle. The trick works because we could figure it out, the miracle works because we never can.

14

Bruce Baugh 11.21.12 at 5:45 am

Bob’s spread of examples encourages me to throw in one of my own.

“The Metamorphosis”, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”, “Tlon, Üqbar, Orbis Tertius”, Lost Highway, and “The Events at Poroth Farm” all have this same basic resonance for me – here we are, stuck in things we cannot comprehend but must live with anyway, so now what? I can certainly pull out different kinds of emotional emphasis, story construction, and so on. But deep down, they all live next to each other in my mind, and what differentiates them and even leads me to rank some as better than others is pretty much never what the specifics of any allegorical content may be.

15

John Holbo 11.21.12 at 5:48 am

Bob is correct about Suvin and ‘cognitive estrangement’. Time to reread Suvin.

16

Bruce Baugh 11.21.12 at 5:48 am

Also, I like Bob’s #13.

17

John Holbo 11.21.12 at 5:50 am

“That’s not at all why I care about Gregor Samsa, though. I care about him because I’m fascinated to find out what a guy who wakes up to find he’s become a big bug does next.”

There’s something to that, of course. But there’s something not right about it. It’s not just a ‘what if’, although it would be funny to do a Kafka parody as an issue of that old Marvel Comic. “What if … Gregor Samsa had been transformed into a giant bug!” You will respond that he’s much better as a character that some crummy Marvel effort. And that’s right. But It isn’t right to say that we are interested because it’s such a compelling – realistic, believable – portrait of life after being giant bugified. Because, after all, Gregor’s behavior isn’t exactly ‘plausible’, in a realistic way. It’s all too dreamy for that. So it’s compelling as a dream. But also as a teasing allegory of we-know-not-quite-what (which is what dreams all feel like, I suppose.)

18

Phil 11.21.12 at 7:53 am

It’d be interesting to compare Never Let Me Go with Logan’s Run. Both seem to start from a MM, and quite a similar one, but in the case of Logan’s Run it just seems like a horrible situation which our heroes need to escape. When I read NLMG the allegorical resonances were hitting me in the face by about page 30.

19

Phil 11.21.12 at 8:00 am

Also:

Run the Film Backwards (Sydney Carter)

When I was eighty-seven they took me from my coffin
They found a flannel nightshirt for me to travel off in
Innocent and toothless I used to lie in bed
Still trailing clouds of glory from the time when I was dead

The cruel age of sixty-five put paid to my enjoyment
I had to get a bowler hat and go to my employment
But at the age of sixty I found I had a wife
And that explained the children – I’d wondered all my life

I kept on growing younger and randier and stronger
Till at the age of twenty-one I had a wife no longer
With mini-skirted milkmaids I frolicked in the clover
The cuckoo kept on calling me until my teens were over

Then algebra and cricket and sausages a-cooking
And puffing at a cigarette when teacher wasn’t looking
The trees are getting taller, the streets are getting wider
And Mother is the world to me, and soon I’ll be inside her

And now it is so early, there’s nothing I can see
Before the world or after, wherever can I be?

20

Phil 11.21.12 at 8:24 am

Interestingly enough, there’s another version of the above which seems to have been modified (by another performer) to the point where it is just a “who’da thunkit” story without any religious content – the first and last verses are heavily altered. So it’s not the MM, it’s what you do with it.

21

Zora 11.21.12 at 8:26 am

I proofed a late 19th or early 20th century novel at Distributed Proofreaders which turned on the Benjamin Button premise: a man starts growing younger. Unfortunately, I’ve worked on so many books that I can no longer remember the title or the author. This was a serious work, no lurid sensation fiction.

22

Adam Roberts 11.21.12 at 10:19 am

I didn’t much like the Benjamin Button film either (ponderous and over-long); but since John asks to be disagreed with on the ‘symbolical or allegorical relevance to life’ front, I’m going to. There seem to me at least two ways in which the conceit of the film has things to say about actual life. One is the notion, more or less banal, that youth is wasted on the young; that what you really want is a lifetime of experience and then you get the youthful vigour and beauty and so on, when you know what to do with it — the older I get, the more I’m struck by that. (Why was I such a prat when I was young? and so on). The film is kind-of about that, I suppose. Except that it’s also about the way love is so often a process of two individuals who can’t get their shit to align, allegorised in the film by the notion that when he’s too old she’s too young, and when he’s young enough she’s now too old … there’s something in that, I think, as a way of rendering love as star-crossed in a new way.

No?

23

Phil 11.21.12 at 10:34 am

The Time Traveller’s Wife: MM (allegory) or MM (who’dathunkit)?

On reflection, it occurs to me that Logan’s Run – novel written in 1967, film made in 1975, on the topic of (a) young people outnumbering old people and thinking they run the place and (b) young people getting pointlessly slaughtered – might just have some contemporary allegorical resonances. So not a complete whodathunkit. Perhaps there are several categories:

MM (who’dathunkit): Benjamin Button
MM (entertainment with resonances): Logan’s Run
MM (legible allegory): Groundhog Day
MM (allegory, but of what?): “Metamorphosis”

24

Clay Shirky 11.21.12 at 11:34 am

Reading this, I was reminded that TH White’s Merlin ages backwards, and that fact gives him both great wisdom and a kind of ineffable sadness (the sadness that can’t be effed because there’s no one else around to empathize, and not anyone to even get nostalgic with.)

Which observation contains no big point other than support for Holbo’s “Cain’t anybody here play this game?” thesis, since even having a backwards-aging character doesn’t wreck your chances of making interesting work.

25

seeds 11.21.12 at 11:58 am

Reading the thread, I was also going to mention Merlin in TH White, but I see that Clay has beaten me to it.

For me though (proviso: I haven’t read The Sword in the Stone since childhood) it seemed an incidental detail which added to the air of playfulness and whimsy that slowly dissolved as the series of books continued.

In that respect, it’s like other sign-posts which say “don’t bother thinking about this too deeply, we’re in the land of fantasy”. Off the top of my head, it’s like the references to our own, real world in the Hobbit (which must have frustrated JRRT when he started taking the mythos very seriously in the LOTR), or the whole of Alice in Wonderland, or Pooh’s thought processes.

Which would be why it’s incompatible with a deeply serious and po-faced piece of Oscar-bait, presumably.

26

BenK 11.21.12 at 12:15 pm

I hate to disagree with someone who teaches film and philosophy about film and philosophy; but I can’t help myself. There are cases in which created worlds have a total being, a consistency, yes. One example is Tolkien, whose ring is well explained in Middle Earth, even if it drops out of nowhere in the Hobbit – and that illustrates nicely the other case, where the so-called MacGuffin seems to disrupt the normal existance of the created world, generating some shock in the characters. There is a third – where the thing is shocking to the reader but not the characters, because the world seems to be so similar to our own that it would shock us, but it is written to be consistent for the characters.
Regardless, there are some cases in which it is a real McGuffin – just an arbitrary place holder meant to advance the plot – and there are other cases in which it is an ‘experimental device’ in the same sense that many science fiction worlds are essentially ‘experimental.’ The insight about ‘whatever’ (humanity, life, etc) is gained by changing the conditions in some subtle or grand way and pretending to observe the results. What would happen if nobody had a sense of smell? What would happen if some people couldn’t remember more than 10 minutes into the past? Etc. So what would happen if someone were locked in a loop such that his actions could only influence himself in any enduring fashion (groundhog day)? Would he feel freed from moral qualms? What about his attitude toward risk? Or, what about the 7 ages of man, are they so symmetrical that they could be substituted without great disruption?

This is why I think that the notation of McGuffin is inappropriate, even disrespectful, to these works as a whole.

27

seeds 11.21.12 at 12:18 pm

Actually, scratch that last line – the context matters.

Introducing a “silly” idea like a character that ages backwards, or goblins inventing modern weaponary, or whatever, in a throwaway line with no explanation comes across as a nod to the reader. ‘Don’t forget, this is kid’s stuff – it’s meant to be fun!’.

If it’s the central conceit of the story (metamorphosis, Ben Button, etc) then it can work fine in a sort of “this is axiomatic of the way my universe works”… in which case John’s original point stands. Is the story actually any good – are you crafting an interesting narrative, or alluding to suggestive analogies, or revealing something deep about what it means to be human, or [insert what makes a worthwhile piece of storytelling here]? And in that case, do you need to include the weird axiom of the universe to have the story work? If not, what’s it doing there?

28

Buck Theorem 11.21.12 at 12:35 pm

Noel Carroll’s “The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart” defines the success of the genre as instigating curiosity and the structural pleasure: that is, the fiction asks a question that makes the audience curious and the structure spins out in further questions and answers, providing narrative and audience pleasures (I hope I’ve read him right).

I pretty much agree with this – and surely this works for all/most genre fiction? – and so I agree with Hidden Heart @11 that fascination is the key attraction of “Benjamin Button”. I’m drawn in by the questions: “A man ages backwards? Why? What does that mean? What kind of drama, insights and revelations can come from that? How will it all end up?” Well, I don’t believe there needs to necessarily be an answer to the “Why” (just: “Why not?”) just as I don’t believe allegorical resonance is needed to make it work or worthy. But I probably think “What kind of drama, insights or revelations can come from that?” needs to be answered to make it work, and there isn’t so much in Fitzgerald’s short story (and I haven’t seen the film).

It’s as if the story thinks the novelty of the concept alone will make the story work in and of itself, when it ought to be just the starting point for bigger themes. So maybe lack of thematic – rather than allegorical – resonance leaves it unsatisfying in some way? Doesn’t even whimsy need a little colour?

… which I see is what seeds @27 seems to be saying too.

29

Trader Joe 11.21.12 at 12:36 pm

I’d fully agree that Benjamin Button is pretty thin soup…but I wouldn’t call it devoid of allegorical content. I’d echo Adam’s comment at #22, but add:

Why do we age?
Life changes regardless of the direction?
People need someone to love at all ages.
Note the needy-ness of both the old and young

That said – I’m guessing 95% of the people who watch the film see it more as farce and fairly crummy even at that and even writing this has invested far more time then I ever expected to spend after the two hours of my life in the theater that I’ll never get back whether I live to be 1 or 100.

Maybe we call it a one joke comedy about life – and there’s your allegory.

30

seeds 11.21.12 at 12:44 pm

There are cases in which created worlds have a total being, a consistency, yes. One example is Tolkien, whose ring is well explained in Middle Earth, even if it drops out of nowhere in the Hobbit

Hmm, but (feel free to disagree here) that’s really why the Hobbit is a superior work to LOTR. In the Hobbit, the ring is straightforwardly a plot device (albeit not technically a McGuffin), whereas in LOTR its existence been retconned into a much grander and less interesting world.

The strength of the Hobbit is that details of the world can be alluded to, allowing the reader – or in my case, the read-to – to feel that the action is a tiny part of some huge and very exciting whole. This is beautifully balanced with the gentle reminder not to take it overly seriously, which comes from the interjections of the narrator.

In LOTR, the details of the world are made explicit, so that the reader is forced to take in a lot of dry historical exposition about the imaginary world. Relatedly, this is why the world of fandom is so unsatisfying, at least to me – people who obsess about the gravity on Endor and so on have missed the part about the work of fantasy being entertainment. What do all the anal details add to the stories? The stories, after all, are what the world was created for. And if it’s tempting for fans to follow this path, it must be even more tempting for authors, who come the closest to “living in” the worlds that they create.

31

Daryl McCullough 11.21.12 at 12:58 pm

I agree with BenK; I don’t think that these weird plot devices are really McGuffins in the Hitchcock sense, which is just some object of great significance that rallies people to search, kill, die for, but it doesn’t really matter what it is. The Maltese Falcon could just as well have been a precious diamond, or a rare painting and the story would have unfolded the same way. In the examples given, the oddity is not a McGuffin in that the plot is significantly influenced by the precise choice of oddity.

32

Daryl McCullough 11.21.12 at 1:01 pm

Since people are bringing up time reversal stories, I thought I should mention “Time’s Arrow” by Martin Amis. In that novel, the atrocities of Nazi Germany are run in reverse.

33

seeds 11.21.12 at 1:17 pm

Agree with both Daryl and BenK that in SF stories – particularly short stories – the plot device is often the point. But I don’t think that this is the case in LOTR. LOTR and the Maltese Falcon are interesting for comparison – the ring in LOTR is very much a McGuffin in that throwing it away is the excuse for a quest. Except that the quest is really an excuse for a sightseeing tour of middle earth. You could have replaced it with an enchanted stone, or sword, or any number of other things and still have had the quest, and with it the sightseeing.

If all the hard-boiled dialogue and gunplay in the Maltese Falcon had led up to Gutman giving Spade a three volume history of the Knights of Malta, instead of the page and a half he gets, then the analogy would be clearer.

34

seeds 11.21.12 at 1:20 pm

Sorry – I’ll stop grinding axes about Tolkein now.

35

Uri 11.21.12 at 1:47 pm

I saw the post title and got all excited about the term ‘Metaphysical Macguffin’, and then realized you actually had something different in mind than what I imagined. So what would you call this (I will probably think of it from now on as a kind of MM)? I mean the esoteric thing/illumination which is chased by the reader alongside the characters in New Ageish books, Bildungsromans etc.
Examples: Steppenwolf, Illuminatus!, The Magus, The Secret History, Wilhelm Meister, The Da Vinci Code. The protagonist and the (teenage?) reader are always on the brink of that one great secret to life. I hope I’m making clear something besides the fact that I tend to read shitty books on occasion (not that the preceding list was composed entirely of) .

36

RSA 11.21.12 at 2:02 pm

@13: And the difference between SF and Fantasy is the difference between the magic trick and the miracle. The trick works because we could figure it out, the miracle works because we never can.

This is a good point. (It also reminds me of something Daniel Dennett said: There’s fake magic and there’s real magic, but fake magic is the kind that exists; “real” magic is imaginary.)

Bob’s previous point about SF leaving the reader in suspension makes me think that there’s a difference between pieces like 2001, Solaris, and Stalker/Roadside Picnic, versus say Pleasantville. In the former, there’s the suggestion that it’s all explainable in principle, but not necessarily to us human beings. The stories make us think about our limitations in a way that unexplainable magic or fantasy doesn’t. At least for me.

37

Maria 11.21.12 at 2:08 pm

JG Ballard has two early-ish short stories about men aging backward.

Oddly enough, I’ve never heard of a story about a woman doing it. Pity, as it would be doubly paradoxical for them to have children, backwards, if they had any.

I’m writing a story with what turns out to be a McGuffin as the framing device / trigger. John makes a fair point that it needs to work both from the “hmm, I wonder what would happen if..” side, and also the “and this tells us something interesting and true about the human condition”. And there was me thinking I’d be home-free if only I could get the structure sorted and the dialogue to sound right!

38

The Modesto Kid 11.21.12 at 2:11 pm

Has a straight comic or cartoon of “The Metamorphosis” ever been done? I’ve seen many joke comics of it and at least one joke cartoon — but it would totally work as a early Marvel comics style piece, without any self-consciousness.

39

cs 11.21.12 at 2:31 pm

The metaphysical MacGuffin is probably very similar to another type of movie (you could call it the criminal MacGuffin), where some bad guy creates some silly rule or task which for some reason the protagonist is forced to comply with. The first movie that springs to my mind with that plot type is Speed, but I know there are lots of them.

40

Ben Alpers 11.21.12 at 2:35 pm

OT (I suppose), but why the hell did the Criterion Collection do a two-disc edition of this film? Is it just Fincher’s involvement (he’s a very good director, but not yet in the everything-he-touches-must-be-deathless category)? I had always thought that Benjamin Button was universally seen as mediocre.

Uri @34: Add The Crying of Lot 49 to your list, too.

41

RSA 11.21.12 at 2:52 pm

Another reversal story: Damon Knight’s “Backward, O Time” (1956) follows a man whose consciousness is flowing backward in time, with the story opening at the point of his death. I found it interesting because of what Knight said about the writing. If I remember correctly, he developed scenes with time going forward but wasn’t able to fit all the details together to his satisfaction. When he cut up the story and reassembled it in reverse order, though, everything seemed to work just fine.

42

JanieM 11.21.12 at 3:11 pm

I was trying to stay away from this thread, having nothing to say about movies, but this caught my eye:

people who obsess about the gravity on Endor and so on have missed the part about the work of fantasy being entertainment.

Some people get their entertainment out of obsessing about stuff like the gravity on Endor.

Tastes differ.

43

Phil 11.21.12 at 3:16 pm

something Daniel Dennett said: There’s fake magic and there’s real magic, but fake magic is the kind that exists; “real” magic is imaginary.

“The idea of God isn’t a supernatural idea. If the idea of God were supernatural, then religion would be true.” – Dan Sperber

Bob’s previous point about SF leaving the reader in suspension makes me think that there’s a difference between pieces like 2001, Solaris, and Stalker/Roadside Picnic, versus say Pleasantville.

The universe of Monsters Inc really irritated me the first time I saw it – the fact that there is no universe, or just enough to fit the story into. (My family thought I was nuts, it has to be said.) In RPG terms, some fictional universes are free roamers and some aren’t; LotR proverbially is, Monsters Inc quite definitely isn’t.

Uri @34: Add The Crying of Lot 49 to your list, too.

You’re not adding the (Un-?)Great (Un-?)American (Un-?)Novel to your list on my watch.

“how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity? For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. … Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.”

Some McGuffin.

44

phosphorious 11.21.12 at 3:20 pm

Spider-Man and Iron Fist once teamed up against a villain who aged backwards. It presented more as a grotesque accident of science than as a Metaphysical Macguffin.

Of course they defeated him.

45

Bloix 11.21.12 at 3:22 pm

I wonder if Rozencranz and Gildenstern are Dead qualifies as an MM by your definition. The characters are constrained to act in a certain way because they are also characters in another work known to the audience, which controls their behavior regardless of what they would choose to do.

Shakespeare in Love does more or less the same thing – not surprisingly, as it’s by the same author. You can think of Shakespeare in Love as a romcom version of R&G.

Along these lines, sometimes you get untintentional MM’s of this sort in biopics or historical films. Why does the character do such-and-such? Because that’s what “he” – that is, the historical personage – really did, even though the on-screen character is not shown to have any plausible motivation for doing that thing.

46

Hidden Heart 11.21.12 at 3:25 pm

It’s possible I’m getting hung up on “allegory” in particular. What makes these kinds of stories work for me is something much less specific in definition, a kind of emotional resonance – “Oh, it turns out that living through X feels like living through Y, in some ways.” X isn’t secretly or implicitly just a representation of Y. But X and Y do similar things to the lives of people they afflict/transform/visit/sell cookies to.

This isn’t hugely different from the kind of connection I can feel out of a great work of history, or a carefully naturalistic novel. I don’t think that the real-life experiences of, say, a Chinese court official falsely accused of attempting to poison the Emperor are in any sense actually about my life. That’d be Fox News-worthy levels of dumb. But I found some really interesting resonances in it that led to fruitful discussions in a support group nonetheless. Illumination of this kind is a much wider thing than allegory as I think of “allegory”.

So maybe that’s where some of this chafing comes from.

47

rea 11.21.12 at 3:54 pm

“(the criminal MacGuffin), where some bad guy creates some silly rule or task which for some reason the protagonist is forced to comply with.”

The 12 labors of Hercules being an early example . . .

48

Ben Alpers 11.21.12 at 4:08 pm

Phil @42:

I certainly meant no disrespect to Lot 49 (far from one of Uri’s “shitty books”); it’s a book I truly love. But it’s at the very least playing on (or with) the same turf as the books that Uri lists (though Pynchon, as you suggest, wrests far more (non?)meaning from his MM).

49

seeds 11.21.12 at 4:24 pm

Some people get their entertainment out of obsessing about stuff like the gravity on Endor.

Tastes differ.

Clearly, and that’s why I included the four words that immediately preceded the part of my comment which you quoted.

The OP and thread seem to be (at least in part) about what makes a work satisfying or not. As you say, tastes differ. I don’t have any objective basis for saying that an obsession over incidental detail sucks all of the joy and life out of fantasy and SF, helps to confine it to genre status and encourages work that violates the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. (smiley wink thing goes here) All I can say with any empirical certainty is that from the healthy state of fandom, it’s pretty obvious that others disagree with me.

Still, I wasn’t trying to offend anyone with the derail. Sorry if I did.

50

ajay 11.21.12 at 4:36 pm

Along these lines, sometimes you get untintentional MM’s of this sort in biopics or historical films. Why does the character do such-and-such? Because that’s what “he” – that is, the historical personage – really did, even though the on-screen character is not shown to have any plausible motivation for doing that thing.

Tim Powers “Declare” (and others) do this in pretty much the reverse sense: find all sorts of inexplicable things that really happened to Kim Philby or Bugsy Siegel or whoever, and make up a hidden motivation for them all.

51

Mao Cheng Ji 11.21.12 at 4:52 pm

There is an X Files episode where the hero wakes up every morning – and it’s the day before yesterday.

As for Benjamin Button, it’s just a bad, boring film. It’s possible to make a thrilling movie about bookkeeping, and a very boring one about time travel. Nothing metaphysical about that.

52

JW Mason 11.21.12 at 5:00 pm

Reading this, I was reminded that TH White’s Merlin ages backwards, and that fact gives him both great wisdom and a kind of ineffable sadness

As do the aliens in Gene Wolfe’s New Sun books. (I think it’s discussed in The Sword of the Lictor?)

Some people get their entertainment out of obsessing about stuff like the gravity on Endor.

Not to mention the gravity on Dagobah.

53

Metatone 11.21.12 at 5:43 pm

I haven’t seen the film or read the book, but it strikes me that ageing backwards could be allegorical about alienation or the modern condition where as a society we appear to understand less and less about the world (following the high point of science/modernism in the 60s.)

Of course, from what you say, the actual piece in question doesn’t do much of that.

I’m reminded of the Red Dwarf episode “Backwards” – just because.

On the topic of MM, I’m reminded of Chekov. All these people, seemingly stuck far away from Moscow (& living life) – but what’s really keeping them? To a modern viewer sometimes it feels like an MM.

54

b9n10nt 11.21.12 at 6:45 pm

Maybe it’s like this:

We will make a hero’s story allegorical (and make a story that is about society, and not the self, allegorical about our own society). The character’s experiences will be meaningful to us as commentary or prediction about our own experience. So then heroic stories can be placed on a continuum from “this is obvious: the Sirens represent distractions that sap our will” to “this is open to interpretation”. The effectiveness of the latter, vague, allegories lies in their ability to make us reflect on our own experience with more precision. The fact is you will glean something out of Benjamin Button (and if, the movie is bad, you won’t much care about what you gleaned or maybe it won’t be very conscious), but it’s up to you. The former type of obvious allegories come pre-gleaned, so to speak.

But this gives us an appreciation for surrealism and theatre of the absurd. Our efforts at allegorizing are frustrated at every turn. We are forced to stop gathering all of our eggs in the single basket of romantic heroism and consider the immediate, unadorned experiences of the self without the weight of narrative. “Existential frustration” or “existential despair” or “existential anticipation” which have no basis in a narrative that will heroically resolve allow us to viscerally connect to life as it is lived in our nervous system, before behind and between the stories we tell ourselves about what these feelings mean or what we are to do about them.

55

Odm 11.21.12 at 7:07 pm

@The Modesto Kid (38)

There is a graphic novel version of The Metamorphosis: http://www.randomhouse.com/crown/metamorphosis/

56

PJW 11.21.12 at 7:21 pm

Nick’s (Christopher Walken’s) uncanny ability to win/not die at Russian roulette in Deer Hunter strikes me as at least hinting at the MM. When Mike (Robert De Niro) returns to Vietnam in order to save his friend and sits down at the table for a game of Russian roulette with Nick, it’s as if Mike’s presence is what conjures the bullet that kills Nick. An observer’s effect on the observed sort of quantum scenario. Mike at the table, so long owned by Nick, has perhaps caused a warp in the weave of things. That’s how it feels to me every time I see it.

57

grackle 11.21.12 at 7:25 pm

Reading this, I was reminded that TH White’s Merlin ages backwards

It’s been years since I read it, but my memory is not that he ages backward, but that he travels backward in time, quite a difference.

58

bianca steele 11.21.12 at 9:36 pm

Interesting, and there sure are a lot of comments since midnight last night, but two things: why doesn’t Being John Malkovich fit into the category, and is the problem with Benjamin Button really that it’s a big old Forrest Gump of (as you said) Oscar-fodder? It has the historical sweep and the Big Drama romance already. That’s enough to make it plenty boring. Could it really have been made better or worse by adding a concept (or, if you’re right, a half-concept)?

I liked BJM, didn’t love it, it benefits from being shorter than BB, or seeming so, anyway, but it doesn’t make sense in any allegorical kind of way, any more than BB does.

59

bianca steele 11.21.12 at 10:04 pm

I was also wondering if surrealism can only happen in a country where (they think Jerry Lewis is a comedic genius and) there are not so many movies like High Anxiety, Airplane!, and Scary Movie. What’s the difference between the Abyss and a punchline?

60

Keith Edwards 11.21.12 at 10:36 pm

Benjamin Button is allegorical of the emptiness of Hollywood Oscar-fodder drama. It has all the structure and trappings of an allegorical work but any attempt to pin down the specific allegory fails, as there isn’t one. It seems like it should have a meaning, and everyone involved int he production acts as if it does and it’s obvious, but that too is part of the allegorical structure, at least for big Oscar-fodder dramas.

61

Keith Edwards 11.21.12 at 10:47 pm

A story with an MM doesn’t necessarily have to be allegorical, I suppose, but it’s like, you’re wearing the parachute and already up in the plane, why not just jump? Because deep down you know you don’t really have a parachute, just the harness for one.

I was working on just such a story a while back: a man inexplicably born with the head of a wolf comes to town. Got as far as him sitting down with someone to discuss what it was he wanted and couldn’t think of a single thing that necessitated the wolf head (he was also dumb, as he had no human vocal chords. But why not just make it a story about a guy with no voice looking for one? That has allegorical weight. Still no reason for him to have a wolf head though.)

I abandoned the story, since it had no point. But maybe that’s why I’m not as famous as Fitzgerald, who could clearly follow through and write an entire story that pretended to be about something but wasn’t.

62

kent 11.21.12 at 10:55 pm

Merlin goes backward in time, which is different, yes.

I seem to remember a character in the four-book “Hyperion” science fiction series by Dan Simmons — a woman, I think it was — had aged normally for a time but then suddenly started to age backward. I don’t quite recall what the point was or the reason….

63

Brendan 11.21.12 at 11:33 pm

Yes, that’s “The Scholar’s Tale” in the first book. Hyperion is a great example of bad MMs, come to think of it; it has several of them.

64

james 11.21.12 at 11:45 pm

The short story is almost the opposite of the movie. It’s a frivilous thought experiment “inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” At the start he’s really grouchy and only gets along with his grandad while the rest of society is horrified by him, then, when he’s middle aged, he becomes great friends with his dad, ect. It’s really funny and intentionally ridiculous, so it is kind of baffling that some guy in Hollywood read something so light and absurd and decided to turn it into the new forest gump .

65

b9n10nt 11.22.12 at 12:20 am

“Still no reason for him to have a wolf head though”

The wolf head represents a blind, biologically mechanistic desiring that communicates nothing to others, gives nothing to others, seeks nothing from others. What if our journey from pre-personified infancy into childhood happened consciously, with the individuated awareness of an adult. Having a wolf head emphasizes this character’s psychological maldevelopment, and shows by contrast how fundamentally social we humans are (the wolf man has lived by bread alone, but some urge to develop is arising in him. So you have an allegory about socialization, becoming human.

When wolf man comes to town, he first clears the pantry of the house he visits. After feasting, when wolf man falls asleep (he takes out a blanket and a pillow and sleeps on the couch, even sets a timer) the homeowner returns and now we have another allegory for confronting the Other.

Allegory has become software, downloaded into the reader’s consciousness, integrated into the very act of listening to a story. All literary traditions trained have trained us to this functionality, to the point that it becomes second nature. Knowing this, contemporary narratives increasingly have the option of letting the meaning of the story be vague and drawing out the allegory from the reader. Of course, we have to signal that this is what we’re doing (otherwise we would just write stories about having jam on our toast): Metaphysical McGuffins are the solution: they open the “allegory app” in our consciousness without resolving the specific nature of the allegory.

66

John Holbo 11.22.12 at 1:52 am

Thanks for all the good comments! I hadn’t expected this thread to be such a live one. A few responses. Adam R. is probably right about the allegory: youth wasted on the young, ships passing in the night. I suppose it just seems weak to me, which is a weak response. It’s missing some ingredient. But perhaps that’s just the film, not the conceit, inherently. Kafka could probably have done it right. Benjamin needs to be more neurotic or something.

I thought of the Merlin comparison others have made. He’s a different case, as others have noted. He is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses. He’s a fun ingredient in a story mix, but I can’t say I’ve ever found this version of the character compelling as a protagonist, only as a secondary support character. Probably Italo Calvino or Borges or Lem could do a good backwards Merlin, just by constructing the cat’s cradle of his consciousness cleverly enough. Then the fun would be in that: the cleverness of just making imaginative sense of this backwards vision, enough to make it habitable.

Thought-experiments vs. Metaphysical MacGuffins is an interesting axis to think about. Obviously a lo of these scenarios are thought-experiments as much as they are allegories. It’s interesting to try to say what the difference is.

There is a big difference between stories where something strange happens, and the characters sort of take it in Fairyland stride, and a proper sf ‘novum’. Bob McManus is right that cognitive estrangement is an important marker of difference.

67

Keith Edwards 11.22.12 at 2:02 am

b9n10nt@66:

Well now. That kind of really works. I may need to get your public name for the Acknowledgements.

68

b9n10nt 11.22.12 at 2:15 am

Great! But I’m trans-species myself, so you’ll never get my name!

69

bianca steele 11.22.12 at 2:21 am

Martin @ 9
I think it’s entirely possible that film about filmmaking, based on a deep meditation on filmmaking could have universal significance. I’d think it was strange to call it an allegory using filmmaking to stand in for life, if the filmmaker meant it to be about filmmaking, or it was autobiographical, etc. Somehow, I’d expect an allegory about life using filmmaking as a metaphor to be different from an autobiographical film about filmmaking. An allegorical film about life that was based entirely on a filmmaker’s reflections on his own career, that would be something different (maybe Groundhog Day).

70

Lee A. Arnold 11.22.12 at 2:36 am

I don’t think it’s a stretch of “Metaphysical MacGuffin”, as defined, to include Skyfall. I am not about to defend the Bond series’ misogynous aspect, but what I will defend is that Sam Mendes was careful to include it. The point of hitting every note of the franchise, while shifting the story to mother and origins, was to take you carefully through cinematic childhood while composing a gorgeous mash note to the movies. The only thing it lacked was Adele singing the song in a smoky bar, and Sean Connery in those final scenes, but hellah, we got Albert Finney.

71

Lee A. Arnold 11.22.12 at 3:22 am

By “Metaphysical MacGuffin”, I don’t mean only that the characters don’t question the unreal circumstances, such as that the supervillains must all have access to endless scads of cash, and hire the best engineers in the world to give them all this technological ability, like Emilio Largo’s yacht turning into a hydrofoil and all that. Perhaps you would say that this is NOT a metaphysical macguffin, because a hydrofoil hidden in a yacht is scientifically possible, if rather curiously ostentatious, as opposed to living the same day over and over. (Reversing age could be technologically possible someday. It will be widely subscribed.) Of course Bond is unaware of the unusual success-ratio of his flights of derring-do, which is also completely unreal. Perhaps he supposes he is outdone by Clark Kent Superman. But in Skyfall, he is also unaware of the narrative as a conscious and humorous compendium of quotation. His metaphysics is to take what is happening at face value, and it gives a bit of Kafka’s effect.

72

Keith Edwards 11.22.12 at 3:27 am

b9n10nt, Rumpelstiltskin it is, then!

73

JW Mason 11.22.12 at 3:41 am

What if our journey from pre-personified infancy into childhood happened consciously, with the individuated awareness of an adult. Having a wolf head emphasizes this character’s psychological maldevelopment, and shows by contrast how fundamentally social we humans are (the wolf man has lived by bread alone, but some urge to develop is arising in him. So you have an allegory about socialization, becoming human.

Yes, that one’s a classic.

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b9n10nt 11.22.12 at 6:26 am

Keith, I think JW wants the homeowner to be Sumerian or something. Anyway, consider your script crowd-s0urced.

75

David Irving (no relation) 11.22.12 at 6:37 am

One of Phillip Dick’s novels (Now Wait for Last Year, IIRC) has everyone living backwards.

76

Lee A. Arnold 11.22.12 at 7:25 am

I keep trying to imagine a world opposite to ours in which there are many routes to be born into it, but only one way to die.

77

ajay 11.22.12 at 9:32 am

I was also wondering if surrealism can only happen in a country where (they think Jerry Lewis is a comedic genius and) there are not so many movies like High Anxiety, Airplane!, and Scary Movie.

I would have thought there’s a very close link between Airplane! type humour and surrealism. See this, on the Goons (p261 et seq).
http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=DV9_6DAOSscC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

78

bianca steele 11.22.12 at 4:44 pm

ajay,
I had in mind the scene in High Anxiety where the new director of the Institute dies, bleeding at the ears, because he can’t turn off the loud rock music coming from his car radio (which scared me pretty badly at the time, at age ten or so). Pynchon can be very Brooks-like at times, but compare Men in Black with Existenz. Cronenberg is never funny, but Existenz certainly could have been. Or David Foster Wallace on Kafka, saying “what most people don’t get about him is that he’s incredibly funny.” I love Kafka, but I don’t find him funny. (OTOH I think some of Wallace’s stories are hilarious, and I may be alone in this judgment.) So why are some authors or filmmakers funny while some are not?

Or The Parallax Effect: it’s paranoid, and you could say it’s surreal, but I wouldn’t call it funny, and it isn’t “surrealism,” exactly, that isn’t its point.

79

ajay 11.22.12 at 4:49 pm

Cronenberg is never funny, but Existenz certainly could have been.

Existenz was inadvertently funny.

80

Adam Roberts 11.22.12 at 4:52 pm

David Irving (no relation): I’m a pedant, but the Phil Dick novel you’re thinking of is Counter Clock World.

81

bianca steele 11.22.12 at 5:12 pm

AlsoOTOH re. Cronenberg, when I was seventeen, I thought the bit where the geeky, IIRC furnitureless mad scientist had an espresso machine, and thought the machine was a terrific inducement for a woman to visit his home late at night, was very yuppieish and very funny. I guess the modern equivalent would be a sous vide.

82

bianca steele 11.22.12 at 5:13 pm

in The Fly

83

TheSophist 11.22.12 at 7:48 pm

@Bianca Steele – You are not alone (at least in your views on DFW.) I think that “The Depressed Person” is absolutely hilarious. Then there’s the story in Obsession (I forget which one) in which the secretaries sitting around having lunch suddenly start rehashing Zizek on fecal matter and toilets. (That’s a bit of an easter egg, perhaps – but v funny if you’re aware of the original.)

There are also some gloriously funny bits in IJ. Setting out to make the most depressing music in the world by taking a Wings tape and editing out everything except Linda’s off-key back-up vocals and off-time tambourine banging…

84

TheSophist 11.22.12 at 7:49 pm

Obsession = Oblivion, of course. Magna mea culpa

85

TheSophist 11.22.12 at 7:54 pm

I wonder how The Doctor and River fit into this (where this = the overall discussion about aging backwards.) They are, after all, aging backwards from each other’s point of view – but it doesn’t seem McGuffiny (and it makes sense according to the rules of the universe (I think)) and serves to add both timey-wimey plot twists and tinges of sadness.

86

Hidden Heart 11.22.12 at 8:24 pm

Cronenberg not funny? Bianca, have you seen Naked Lunch? Peter Weller is hilarious! As is Roy Scheider. And the typewriter. Now granted that’s an adaptation of work that is routinely very mordantly funny, but there are some lovely humorous moments in work like Eastern Promises, too.

87

Soru 11.23.12 at 12:35 am

@85 interesting example – doctor who is at least nominally a sci fi show, but that relationship is clearly Moffat riffing off the Time Traveller’s Wife, which is pure metaphysical mcguffin.

That makes clear the distinction between the genres. Sci fi counts as having a flaw if it fails to fully explain things to the audience in a way that makes sense. MPMG doesn’t; just like a rom com is not counted as flawed because it fails to include a kick ass action set piece.

Which is why is why pure sci fi rarely works well on tv or film; there about 3 scientific ideas that can successfully explained to a typical audience, and so once you have seen those 3 films (2001, Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys) the genre is done.

88

OhPlease 11.23.12 at 2:53 am

Other MMs: Orlando, The Tin Drum, Slaughterhouse Five, Tuck Everlasting

89

Lawrence Stuart 11.23.12 at 3:57 am

My contrarian ire has been raised.

The backwards aging Benjamin McGuffin casts a new and unfamiliar light on ordinary events. It’s not allegory, failed or otherwise, at all. It’s an optical trick, analogous perhaps to cross processing film. There is nothing hidden in the depths. It’s all right there on the shiny surface.

Now, there are parts of the film where the effect is much too maudlin (it’s Hollywood, after all, and Schmaltz sells). But there are others, as I recall, that seem to work quite well. My overall impression of the film (which I saw quite a long time ago) is that I felt, not thought, something quite wondrous was going on.

A film about the wonder that is life, and how easily we can fall into a Gradgrindian calculus of cause and effect? And about how art (in this case a simple little trick) can challenge, or at least refresh our view, of that same dull round of things?

90

bianca steele 11.23.12 at 4:40 am

Bianca, have you seen Naked Lunch?

No, but I’ve heard the book is funny.

there are some lovely humorous moments in work like Eastern Promises

Which?

91

Katherine 11.23.12 at 10:36 am

As far as I could tell, Benjamin Button was almost entirely about the wonderfulness of CG and make-up. Look – they cried, like toddlers demanding attention – look, we can make a very handsome man look old and weird, much more convincingly than people have before!

And that was it. Benjamin Button did nothing with his extraordinary existence other than go to sea and get prettier, dully. Perhaps that could have been an interesting story. Ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances does nothing actually extraordinary. But that would have taken some acting chops beyond Brad Pitt alas.

92

ChrisTS 11.23.12 at 7:11 pm

I agree with Katherine @91 that part of the problem with BB was his being played by BP.

But, I did find the film wonderful in the literal sense. And I think one aspect of that was the character’s strangely stoical acceptance of his very uncomfortable fate (strangely stoical being something Pitt can do). Further, it had one genuinely funny moment: when the young-old Benjamin is ‘cured’ by the faith healer.

So, great film? Nah. But sometimes odd is just enough.

93

John Holbo 11.24.12 at 6:06 am

“I felt, not thought, something quite wondrous was going on.”

Clearly there’s no refuting a feeling. Right now I’m listening to “The Night Circus” which is, I think, a good example of something working in the way you felt “Benjamin” worked, at least intermittently. (I haven’t gotten to the end yet, but there’s an awful lot of description of wonderful things for wonderfulnesses’ sake, and it’s working for me.) I guess I just didn’t get that from “Benjamin”. All I got was that old ‘look at me, I’m worth an Oscar!’ feeling.

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LeeAnn 11.25.12 at 12:57 pm

There’s also Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, about a Nazi doctor living backwards in time.

And far as Kafka being funny, I remember a graduate seminar on Kafka at the Yale German Dept in the mid-90’s where a visiting professor from Berlin reduced an entire room full of graduate students (both native and non-native speakers of German) to fits of helpless laughter by reading the first page or two of the Metamorphosis aloud in a dry, dead-pan tone. At the time, it seemed like a revelation, as I’d never thought of Kafka as funny either. I attributed it in part to not being a native German speaker, hence missing the deadpan comedic nuance, and in part to not having ever heard the story read out loud.

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