If we must always aim for grandness, can we find it in simplicity?

I rewatched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button recently. I’ve seen the movie several times (probably more than necessary). It’s a beautiful film that tends to be relaxing rather than riveting. It’s touching and easy to watch and leaves me feeling good, usually. 

I like rewatching movies because I’ve come to appreciate the certainty of knowing what’s about to happen. I don’t have to get mired down in plot. I can enjoy the ride, kind of the way children do when they rewatch things. A lot can be said about our comfort in anticipating the familiar. But I also appreciate analyzing things, and it’s difficult to get at the layers the first time around. (I just rewatched Heat, having recently moved to DTLA, and WOW). 

So with CCBB, I appreciated the aging — or anti-aging — and that he was wise when he was young enough to put that wisdom into action. Isn’t that everyone’s dream? Both wisdom and youth? “Youth is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children,” as attributed to George Bernard Shaw. 

This time around, it hit me that BB does very little with the gift he’s given. He joins a tugboat crew, sure. And he goes to war, sure. He even falls in love and is loved in return. But is all that enough? He reconciles with his birth father before the man’s death, but then he squanders his inheritance on frivolity. His father built his button factory from the ground up, but BB does nothing notable with it. He sells his father’s family home and buys a duplex, furnishes it with a sole mattress at first, and an ice box eventually. It’s charming, sure. But it’s also menial, I suppose. He doesn’t even give money to Queenie, from what we know. He does odd jobs around the estate to help out, but he doesn’t give her pause or ease with all his riches. He buys a boat and sails off into the sunset with Daisy. 

Yes, BB has a child, but even that doesn’t seem like something he desires or actively pursues. He doesn’t raise Caroline. And yes he leaves Daisy with plenty of money to do so, and she’s able to be independent and open a dance studio, but he doesn’t stick around long enough to pass on any wisdom — other than leaving his journal behind. When he goes off into the world, he does so with nothing but a cool motorbike and a few sundries in a rucksack. Maybe he takes some cash, but otherwise his globetrotting is framed in poverty and done with a bit of good ole getting-by.

So what’s my point?  

I felt cheated when I rewatched the movie. Or at least it gave me pause, and I thought about him not really doing anything with his life, especially when he was wise and young. His wisdom seemed wasted, I suppose, and I was disappointed in this subtle emptiness. It was only later, after giving it more thought and turning to the source material, I realized the profundity of it all. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story is different, and BB actually does quite a bit, from running the button factory to joining the Spanish-American War and becoming a decorated lieutenant colonel to enrolling in Harvard and playing football. It’s eventful, but also only about him. The character serves himself, leaving for the war when he gets bored at home with his aging wife, Hildegarde. 

By giving the film’s BB a relatively unremarkable life, David Fincher makes his character an everyman, an observer, someone who lives through and for others. So maybe he doesn’t become a button magnate and end poverty and save the world with his wealth. Maybe he just lives the life he’s been dealt instead, which isn’t something to diminish.

I wonder if that’s where BB’s grandness lies. In his ability to enjoy life’s simplicities, and to take it as it comes. He sends his daughter postcards from every place he visits, and birthday cards, and he shows up, to Daisy’s chagrin, to see her when she’s twelve. His gestures speak to his love, and they are grand in small ways. He leaves his mark. Not on everyone, but on some.

Maybe we should aim for that. Maybe our grandness is only tabulated at the end of our lives, when we count up all the little events, the small encounters, the daily experiences that evince we’ve done our best with what we’ve been given. You know, the mosaic we make of our life with all the mismatched buttons we collect and pocket along the way. 

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