Friday, January 02, 2009
A Curious New Year
There's something magical about winter afternoons anyway, since they're dark and quiet and it feels like evening by four o'clock, but a winter afternoon in the pre-New Year's Eve maelstrom in midtown is another plot entirely, especially when movies are involved. Entering Loew's 34th street at 3:40, it is empty and quiet and cold; emerging over three hours later it is simply freezing, all static and winter and electric currents, the street filled now with buzzing throngs of people. Me, I'm drained and sad yet ecstatic, having just seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a movie made, it seems, for New Year's Eve.
Think of it: a movie about a man born old who ages backwards, on the one night of the year whose special symbol is wizened Father Time passing the torch to a newborn babe. Symbolism. Yeah. But really, it is a movie of surprising maturity and emotional warmth, a mediation on life and death and transience far more beautiful than, say, the unrelenting bleakness of Synecdoche, NY, and therefore a fitting way to spend the last day of the year (made all the better if you happen to see it with your true love). There's something awfully endearing about the early innocence of Brad Pitt's aged man-child -- his exuberance at growing older, his glee at the discovery of sex and the pure gusto with which he shovels bird shit on a tramp steamer. Secondary characters are grace notes -- not fleshed out exactly, but somehow not needing to be, if you follow me -- rendered with the same glorious simplicity as Tilda's Swinton's good-bye note in the film. Even hackneyed framing devices that shouldn't work are actually brought off by sheer commitment, and the pretty fable of the clock that runs backwards is touching enough to stand alone.
Many moments, in fact, could stand alone and still be beautifully effective. Cate Blanchett's scene in the swimming pool, in which the observation of a youthful, unimpeded female swimming next to her brings tears over the deep sadness and loss of seeing her own aging flesh, would be effective and beautiful even if she didn't have a backwards-aging husband. Speaking of Cate Blanchett's character, I think the decision to make her a dancer is inspired -- what more transient vocation is there? Defined by corporeality and therefore impermanence, the career of the dancer lasts only briefly, the most fleeting in all the arts. And in the final act, Pitt's regression into the body of a child with an Alzheimer-ridden mind is fairly staggering.
So, fresh from this experience, we rush home -- we must avoid the New Year's crowds, and head for the subway like it's the last chopper out of Saigon -- only to find a surreal counterpoint in the televised spectacle of Dick Clark -- poor, aged, stroke-ridden Dick Clark -- passing the torch to a grinning, utterly sincere Ryan Seacrest (Clark's midnight kiss to his wife is ghastly despite being touching, as the love of old people is always touching, because Mrs. Clark's dressed like an early 60s fembot with the tight blond ponytail of that other taut robot wife Cindy McCain). And then to open the paper come morning and find that Donald Westlake died on his way to a New Year's Eve party -- well, it's sad news, but it has a certain style to it, doesn't it?
But New Year's ain't all life and death, and matters of consequence. A Preston Sturges double bill of Palm Beach Story and The Lady Eve added levity to this milestone, and as Henry Fonda proposed to Barbara Stanwyck while the two of them were getting aggressively nuzzled by a friendly horse, fresh tears ran down my face, this time from laughter.