Some Things Last (Benjamin Button, Contemplation, and Impermanence)

Fran and I went to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Everyone is comparing it to Forrest Gump, but I think it’s more like what would happen if you put Big Fish and Into Great Silence into an Osterizer. Benjamin Button, wrinkles and all, would pop out once the blending was done.

I commented on my Facebook status last night that I thought Benjamin Button was the finest contemplative film since Into Great Silence, and a couple of folks have questioned that assesment. So I thought I would write a bit about it. Read on (there are spoilers here, so be forewarned) if you’d like my take on why old (young?) Mr. Button could very well be the contemplative hero of our time.

Obviously, this is not a film about monks or people given to the life of prayer, even though I think religion has a lovely background presence in the film, with Catholic, Protestant, and even Hindu imagery showing up from time to time. Queenie’s faith is presented in a very nice way, and while an itinerant faith healer who harangues young Benjamin into walking comes across as a huckster, beneath the tent revival histrionics the young protagonist really does claim his ordinary miracle.

This film is a contemplative experience, not so much in terms of what is said in the movie, as in what is unsaid. I think Benjamin, who in his wide-eyed innocence does offer an encore of Forrest Gump’s ingenuous waltz through the 20th century, is more of a Buddhist monk than a mentally challenged waif — although, granted, this is one “Buddhist” who happily indulges himself in whatever sensual pleasures comes his way. But he’s quite unattached to it all, whether it’s his wealth, his sexual exploits, or even his emotional claim on Daisy. It’s more than a coincidence that when Benjamin, fearing that he is growing too young to effectively be a father to his child, leaves Daisy and Caroline, he heads to India: right at the time that an entire generation of young Americans were turning to the east, looking for wisdom and silence. But Benjamin knows that if he wants wisdom and silence, all he has to do is go sit on the pier on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain, gazing over the silent water and watching the sun rise: a graced moment he shares with his father, and later with Daisy.

Hurricane Katrina

The movie’s central symbol — the hurricane — is all about impermanence (after all, the movie ends with Katrina washing away Benjamin’s world), and certainly impermanence is the central “problem” of the film — just as it is a central concern of all the great contemplative/wisdom traditions. Isaiah 40:8 is poetically restated in the film when Benjamin, glowing after making love with Daisy, becomes somber for a moment. “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is,” he confesses, in a rare moment of anxiety. “Some things last,” she irenically reassures him, gazing into his eyes.

Speaking of eyes, the movie is all about eyes (which I suppose is why at least one critic has fussed that blue-eyed Benjamin and blue-eyed Daisy couldn’t be the parents of brown-eyed Caroline!), and perhaps the most important eye in the movie is the eye we never see: the eye of the storm, whether that be the storm of the swirl of human life — or the impending cataclysm of Katrina as the film comes to its rather understated conclusion. We’re never really shown the eye of the storm. It’s up to us, I think, to find it.

And isn’t that what the contemplative life is all about?


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0 thoughts on “Some Things Last (Benjamin Button, Contemplation, and Impermanence)”

  1. Wonderful summations, Carl. Thanks for the review. I loved the contemplation of this movie (way more than I loved Brad Pitt on his motorcycle at the end. What a laugh it was to hear the collective sigh and then laughter of the women in the movie theatre 🙂

    Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning 7 times? 🙂

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