Friday, August 28, 2015

Birthday Take: David Fincher in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008)

Scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: David Fincher
Born: August 28, 1962 (53 years old)
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Take

Technology is everywhere in film. As we exit the summer blockbuster season, there's a good chance that majority of the content you consumed had a significant portion dedicated to CG imagery. With many pointing out the many cons to this, it does seem like we should pay some respects to the positive. Sure, there's plenty that is pure laziness and doesn't add anything to the story. Its lack of practical effects ages movies to a degree that takes away its personalized impact. For what it's worth, special effects have gone from a last ditch effort to the standard in a matter that isn't quite sitting well with those who wish to connect with cinema on a deeper level. For every Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, there's more Terminator: Genisys. Just let that sink in.

But back to the pros. What are the pros? Two words: David Fincher. Now, you may likely be wondering to yourself why he would be the go to for this debate. Considering that James Cameron's Avatar was more at the forefront of computer effects wizardry, why go with Fincher? Here's the thing: he's unassuming about it. More often than not, you don't even know that you're watching his special effects. In fact, there's a ton of special effects in Gone Girl. You likely didn't notice them because they were practical and background images that look natural. At best, his earlier films like Fight Club and Panic Room have a more noticeable use of effects due to the format's somewhat primitive features. But they have only gotten better. In Zodiac, there's whole scenes of cities that aren't even there. You wouldn't know it because, guess what, it's too convincing.

I could go on and on about Fincher's influence on modern special effects and why he is among the best. However, I will choose to focus on the one film that obviously has them: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Besides seeming like an odd project for Fincher, considering his voyeuristic aggression is his namesake, but it does reflect what he could do with a budget and some creativity. Mind you, the original F. Scott Fitzgerald story isn't very long and lacks majority of this film's story. Still, the concept was present enough to make an epic about romance and aging. You are swept in by the story and one of Alexandre Desplat's best scores. You notice Brad Pitt's reverse-aging without ever getting distracted by effects.

Is the film too sentimental? Your call. However, it is probably the perfect calling card for why Fincher is among the best. Take away the story, and you're still left with a hefty dose to boast about. There's the aforementioned reverse-aging. There's the various set pieces that definitely used special effects. You are likely aware that a lot went into this film. Yet, you are not distracted by the visuals. You are impressed that the medium was able to produce something so ominous and complicated. You're left wondering how they did it, but in the way that the best of films are. In retrospect, there's very few films that warrant that awe anymore. Life of Pi was likely the last one. Even if Fincher has only made his work more slight in the films since, I do think that there's merit in using this film to explain his slight genius.

Of course, Fincher is just great when it comes to telling stories that you're invested in. You are more caught up in the corruption and voyeurism on display in his work. You are in awe of the scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You want to live in these worlds, which feel so real that you will feel bad when you discover the lies. So as the fall begins Oscar season, do know that while most of the best films will still rely on practical effects, you are not entirely seeing what was in the room on that day. If you're going to bad mouth special effects, just know that it has its usefulness too. You're just not aware of it.

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