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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

His consciousness advances and matures in the normal manner, so it is only the body of the hero that ages in reverse in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an extended romantic story with what can readily be considered a fresh perspective. David Fincher directed the 2007 production, with Brad Pittundergoing innovative makeup effects for the central role and Cate Blanchett portraying his lifelong love. The narrative also tracks through much of the Twentieth Century, but not in any sort of gimmicky way. With the exception of World War II and a couple of other incidents, the characters are, for the most part, oblivious to current events. The film is based upon a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who also once wrote a fantasy about a family that owned a diamond as large as a hotel building), but the tale’s one make-believe element justifies its 165-minute running time, turning a typical story about a career-obsessed woman and an unanchored man into a genuinely touching experience, rich with oblique symbolism about the phases of spiritual growth. The hero beats on, in his boat with the current, ceaselessly into the future to be born, or something like that. It is apparent that even without the fantasy, Fincher’s direction is so good at creating a sense of place (a good deal of the film is set in New Orleans), communicating atmosphere, overseeing performances and modulating pace that just a normal love story in his hands would be mesmerizing, but the fantasy creates a special viewpoint. It is not displaying the arcs of life and loving for the first time, but it is showing them with some standard filters removed and some unusual ones added, stimulating new ideas and responses in every beholder.

Paramount has released the film on DVD, but they have also turned the title over to The Criterion Collection for a two-platter collector’s edition. On both, the picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The picture transfer is crisp and, when appropriate, glossy. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a compelling dimensionality and clear details. There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1 Dolby and optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The standard DVD has no other features. Criterion’s presentation is accompanied by a commentary from Fincher, who shares his experiences in making the film, explains what he likes about it and talks about other aspects of the filmmaking process. “It’s an interesting thing, shooting a movie with septua and octogenarians as extras because, you know, extras, normally, from the standpoint of the production team, do not engender a lot of sympathy. In fact, a lot of times they’re sort of considered to be the most problematic department. It gave me a whole new take on how difficult and confusing the process of making movies is, to people who have never read the script and have no idea what it is you’re trying to do. These are people who are very frail. It’s like you don’t kind of realize how frail somebody who’s seventy-eight is until they have to stand up and hold a glass of lemonade for 13 hours and be in continuity. So, I have a newfound respect for extras.”

The second platter on Criterion’s release presents one of the great production documentaries (how tempting it must have been to start with post-production and conclude with pre-production, but fortunately they didn’t), which not only chronicles the development of the film’s innovative special effects, but also records Fincher coaxing his cast through various scenes, places the creation of the film within its own historical context in regards to the destruction and revitalization of New Orleans (they were scouting the city for the film before Hurricane Katrina hit), and conveys a comprehensive and accurate sense of how the daunting task of creating the film was broken down into its manageable units and then gradually brought together again as a whole. The program runs 175 minutes. Also featured on the platter are two trailers and extensive still-frame presentations of storyboards, production and costume designs, and photos.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh

I feel strongly connected to young cinephile culture. The thing about filmmaking—and cinephilia—is that you can’t keep hanging out with your own age group as you get older. They drop off, move somewhere. You can’t put together a crew of sixty-somethings. It’s the same for cinephilia: my original set of cinephile friends are watching DVDs at home or delving into 1958 episodes of ‘Gunsmoke,’ something like that. The people who are out there tend to be young, and I happen to be doing the same thing still, so it’s natural that I move in their circles.

In terms of the filmmaking, there was a gear shift: my first movies focused on people around my age, and I followed them for three films. Until The Unspeakable Act, I was using the same actors, not because of an affinity for people at a specific age, but because of my affinity for the actors. I like to work with actors a second time, especially if I don’t feel confident casting a new film. But The Unspeakable Act was a different script, and I had to cast all new people. Even for the older roles, I couldn’t get the people I’d worked with before. But when it was over, the same thing happened: I wanted to work with Tallie again in the worst way, and I started the process all over again.

I think Rohmer did something similar around the time of Perceval and Catherine de HeilbronnHe developed new groups of people that he liked to work with. These gear shifts are natural. Even if you want to follow certain actors to the end of their life (which I kind of do) the variety of ideas that you generate makes it necessary to change. And once you’ve made the change, you’ve got all these new people around.”
~ Dan Sallitt