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?