In the current issue of The New Yorker, David Denby bemoans the decline of the Academy Awards selection process, focusing on the paltry quality of this year’s Oscar picks compared to previous years. In toting up the golden votes present vs. past, he notes:
The total of thirteen nominations for “Benjamin Button” has to be some sort of scandal. “Citizen Kane” received nine nominations, “The Godfather: Part II” eleven, and this movie, so smooth and mellow that it seems to have been dipped in bourbon aging since the Civil War, is nowhere close to those two.
If we accept Denby’s premise that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Awards was ever about quality rather than commerce, and concentrate on the seeming vacuity of Benjamin Button it is clear that Denby misses the true message of the film, which is both a savage rebuttal of traditional linear modes of film viewing and a call to arms for all of us to revisit and re-evaluate our cinema favorites by viewing them in reverse.
I have obtained a bootleg DVD of Benjamin Button and have discovered that the film plays much better backward rather than forward. By means of the reverse button on my remote control, I can watch the marvel of the film’s protagonist growing old while everyone and everything around him rejuvenates. For example, Cate Blanchette transforms from a crotchety middle aged woman with a truly Medean mother complex into a vibrant young woman with an alarming Oedipal complex.
In forward time Benjamin Button takes us through a veritable IMDb of cinematic classics as the protagonist de-matures through a Grapes of Wrath New Orleans, an End of an Affair Moscow, a Guns of Navaronne war era, A Harold and Maude 50’s romance, a decidedly non Brando-esque Wild One on a road trip, until finally settling into a perverse version of Look Who’s Talking. In reverse, Benjamin Button’s United States of America progresses from its present Bush-ian chaos back to a golden age when robber barons, racial apartheid and the absence of womens’ or workers’ rights characterized the century.
Benjamin Button is beyond post-modern and therefore deserves something beyond post-modern critcism. Looking backwards, as it were, may be the new technique for looking forwards. For example, run Citizen Kane in reverse, and the Wellsian morality tale takes on a new patina. Rather than summing up or explaining a man's entire life experience by means of a lost childhood toy, getting that "Rosebud" discovery out of the way at the beginning of the film enables us to see that Kane is really about growing young gracefully. In the end (former beginning) of the film, young Kane is joyfully reunited with his beloved sled and returns to a life where happiness is determined by the ups and downs of snow accumulation.
The Godfather: Part II in reverse chronicles the ascent of Michael Corleone from the depths of mafia moral corruption of America circa 1955 to the heights of the mafia moral corruption left over from The Godfather: Part I, setting us up for his ultimate regeneration in the backwards viewing of that previous epic.
This new approach to film criticism, which might be call pre-post modernism, works for film after film, whether its Tom Joad and his family triumphantly returning to their Oklahoma farm, in effect putting the wine back into the grapes, or Moses closing the Red Sea as the Israelites reconsider the relative merits of being the “chosen people.”
I’ve run dozens of films through this reverse critical process and the result has been a deeper understanding of the human condition and the art of filmmaking. The sole exception so far for some reason is Memento, which makes no sense no matter which way its viewed.