Thursday, January 1, 2009

Best Films of 2007 #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Now that we've rung in the new year 2009, just when it's really time to start reflecting on the best films that 2008 had to offer, it's about time I finally wrote a bit on my favorite film of 2007.* Actually, it was just returning from a highly acclaimed film from this past year that will not end up in this year-end praise-a-thon that reminded me that the task had gone unfinished. And, since the latter film reminded me of the better earlier one, and since both films are really about looking backward and understanding our cultural legacy only in retrospect, it only seems appropriate that I would open this post by discussing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

I had had the utmost confidence that I would love this film when I had first read about it about couple of years ago. David Fincher is among my favorite filmmakers, and his previous two pairing with Brad Pitt are among my very favorite films of all time (Se7en and Fight Club). Fincher was also in top form: his Zodiac, one of my favorite films of the previous year, is just looking better to me over time, and I'm convinced that I'll think of it as his defining work at some point in the near future (if I'm not already there now). Sure, the premise of Button, adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story about a man who ages backward, seemed a bit gimmicky at first, but I had confidence that this was precisely the kind of fantasy that Fincher would be able to transform through his misanthropic, Kubrickian vision into a dark meditation on how memory defines experience, on how entirely contingent circumstances define social life.

To some extent, the film delivers on that promise. It's not a bad film: the mix of digital and traditional cinematography is often breathtaking, and the digital effects are even more seamlessly incorporated into the narrative than they were in Zodiac. This is a film, more than most others, that genuinely uses its special effects in service of the kind of narrative it wants to tell, and in that regard, because this narrative is so absurd, they warrant even more care to allow for a suspension of disbelief. A tall order, and the film accomplishes it beautifully. The actors are also all in fine form here: Cate Blanchett has never been more winning, and Brad Pitt here perfects the kind of passive observer role he's been crafting since the beginning of his career.

But notice here that while I'm discussing how well-crafted the film is, I'm not saying a whole lot about what ends toward which craft was directed. And, sadly, the reason is that there isn't a whole lot there. The narrative itself makes a lot of gestures toward some heady issues: the social constructedness of race in America's history; the aforementioned interrelation of memory and experience; the recognition of the contingent circumstances that cause personal experience to become explicitly political. Although, in these regards (as well as in its picaresque structure), it seems to be stealing a page from the equally mediocre yet more annoying The Jerk. A whole lotta critics are comparing the narrative to screenwriter Eric Roth's narrative for Forrest Gump, but it actually reminds me much more of a less fanciful, and thus paradoxically less hard-bitten and pragmatic, version of Tim Burton's similar deathbed fantasy Big Fish.

But I digress. What I really want to get at here is that Benjamin Button is in some ways the opposite of the previous year's Brad Pitt vehicle, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Where Fincher's film uses its gorgeous imagery and its busy and absurd narrative to make gestures to such big ideas, Andrew Dominik's film uses equally gorgeous (if simpler) imagery and the pregnant silences of its narrative to speak volumes more about such issues. For instance, while Benjamin Button uses a Hurricane Katrina subplot to no discernible end (even as such a framing device could have fit perfectly with the sloppily laid out ideas about race, social context, and the governmental intervention into the personal set up in the first hour of the film) other than as a beautiful image that has been evacuated of its social import and thus rendered inert, Assassination uses barely-spoken conversations and nearly still images of nature and of Western interiors to articulate a complex understanding of how a mythic vision of the West had to be displaced by "civilization" (or encroaching governmental policies) even as that very mythos helped to create the kind of "civilization" we have today, defined as it is by the myth of the rugged individual's pursuit of commercial gain. And while Fincher's narrative makes such hollow gestures in the service of a rather schmaltzy, saccharine love story, Dominick's makes such sublime gestures in the service of a genuinely heartbreaking and intellectually astute gunslinger tale in what is perhaps American film's definitive contribution to cinematic genre. In other words, Fincher seems to be up to Danny Boyle's old tricks that I had complained about on a previous occasion (although, as we'll see, his Slumdog Millionaire seems to be a move in the right direction for him), while Dominick has crafted the kind of imagistic tone poem about America's cultural memory that I had previously only believed possible in films like Terence Malick's Days of Heaven or The New World. He has crafted, in other words, one of the very best films of its year, in a year that produced at least seven or eight of the very best films ever made.

* Actually, as you'll note in one of the early segments of my best of 2008 series coming up, I did have another favorite for 2007, but I didn't actually get around to seeing it until the next year rolled in. Dedicated readers could probably guess what it is anyway, since I've written about the film before.

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