Friday, January 9, 2009

Benjamin Button?

I saw The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button today, and... well, I really liked it. I have seen various reviews from people whose opinions I respect alleging things about bad philosophical undertones regarding race relations, and a dislike of the use of Hurricane Katrina in the movie.

As to the first point, this is always a difficult thing to judge. I am an Israeli-American from Orange County--I can count on one finger the amount of black kids who were in my elementary school, and I didn't exactly wind up with a lot more. I wound up open-minded, I hope, but... well, okay. There's two kinds of racism. The first is actually believing one race to be inferior--hard racism.

Recently, I saw David Mamet's play Edmond performed. The ideological undergirding of that play appeared to be that... well, that black people are genetically predisposed to avoiding responsibility and doing stupid, short-term-enjoyment-oriented sinful activity, which ends them up in jail. I'm not kidding. White man decides to live like a black man for a day, and therefore winds up picking up hookers, killing a waitress, and going to jail. There he finds his true home, because he realizes that's where he was meant to be--because he wasn't born like all those other white folks. Again: I'm not kidding.

So, that's clearly over-the-top racist. My impression of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not that. The black characters are shown to be no more or less caring, kind, gentle (maybe more so).

But there might be a case to be made about the second type of racism, soft racism. Does it portray accurately how black people lived in New Orleans over the span of the film, or does it fall into two dimensional Gone With The Wind stereotypes? The answer is somewhere in the middle. I winced when, early on, a black woman (whose identity was never properly explained to me) referred to "Miss Daisy" while trying to make her feel comfortable--if not a deliberate reference to Driving Miss Daisy, then a huge oversight by the director. But I didn't feel I was looking at watermelon eating, "what is I gonna do," minstrel blacks.

Did I notice that in the "modern day" period, blacks were still mostly serving the whites, and that this wasn't questioned? Yes. But this, like it or not, has been my personal experience. I went to the Irvine Train Station for the first time a week ago, and was surprised to find that all of the ticket staff were African-American. This in a town in which I have not met an African-American resident.

But I am not in a position to judge, seeing as I haven't lived in New Orleans, among either communities. I don't feel the movie was disrespectful to African-Americans deliberately, but it may have had some elements that were offensive (I have not read a nuanced argument detailing what exactly the qualms might be). Still, if they exist, they probably are the victim of either the original short story (F. Scott Fitzgerald is still a product of his times) or modern day ignorance--or even just clumsy storytelling.

As to the second point, I do feel more strongly that using Hurricane Katrina was actually the right choice. It actually reminds me of the way that 9/11 is used in 25th Hour. It's part of the fabric of New Orleans now, a historical moment. But more than that: it's part of why we're telling the story.

See, the fascinating aspect (for me, at least--but I think it's central to the story) is how we deal with death. Each of the character confronts more than one close personal death, whether from old age or war, whether alone or all together on the tugboat. Some of the death is metaphorical--Daisy's dancing life dies after the car accident, Benjamin's affair dies with WWII. But it's about coping with death (and with aging, the sign of looming death).

What was most overpowering about Hurricane Katrina was facing up to death, just as it was the hardest part of 9/11, and remains the hardest part of Iraq. People, en masse, are stripped of even the right to die with dignity, with purpose--they die suddenly, without preparation, without knowledge of what is going on. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is told as a story to that younger woman who is about to lose her mother. Now, her mother doesn't die from Hurricane Katrina, but the fact remains that after the Hurricane there will be many people who want to know things from their parents, who want the story of their lives, and may have lost it.

Whether or not the story could have been told better is a matter of debate. I was not perturbed by the length of the movie, although it was pushing it, because it earned the length from me the same way Marquez' Hundred Years of Solitude did: by offering me a world, not just a story, and letting me watch that entire world unfold.

I think this movie has gotten a bit of a bad shake. I liked it a lot.