Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The New Adultescents: An Exercise in Definition

Adultescent, n.

A twenty-something who . . .

Which is the best definition?

1. Does not live with his parents but still refers to their house as "home"

2. Is not and has not been married

3. Does not work at a long-term job

4. Likes "The Simpsons," "Family Guy," and "World of Warcraft"

5. Is the offspring of yuppies

6. Knows the relative trade-offs between an X-box and Playstation

7. Was either a business or creative-writing major in college

8. Likes the same Things That White People Like

9. Takes his/her boyfriend/girlfriend to an album release party for the first date

10. Favors the bong and pipe over the cigar or cigarette.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," so I am told, cost over $100,000,000 and took over two years to make. The result did not live up to what one might expect.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the title and central conceit--a man who ages (or should I say de-ages) backward--are borrowed from a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the movie is hardly an adaptation. Some of this is, perhaps, not to be regretted; it wasn't a great short story anyway (I don't believe one sentence which is set in antebellum Maryland), and some attributes of the story are just plain contradictory and ridiculous; how Benjamin Button--named that instead of Methusaleh--could manage to become less mentally mature while his memory remains perfectly intact is beyond my own comprehension.

That being said, the movie's efforts to separate itself from its source's themes as well as its narrative are more a pitfall than a boon. Whatever the shortfalls of Fitzgerald's earlier and shorter fiction (read: before the Great Gatsby) the novelist was always able to create an almost perfect consanguinity between his story's content and its theme, and, in the "Curious Case of Benjamin Button," this perfectly astute theme is the tragicomic struggle of the individual whose true identity conflicts with truths which are--and always have been--socially understood. Hence, the moment when Benjamin--now fifty-seven but looking no more than fifteen--shows up at a rail station during the First World War to receive a government commission as brigadier general, the ridicule with which he is met elicits the reader's tears: both of laughter and of pity.

The same does not apply for the film version, primarily because Eric Roth's adaptation never really knows what it wants to be about. Based on interviews I have watched and read--and moderately confirmed by the film itself--I get a sense that the cast and crew were trying to make a movie about mortality. Death is certainly a haunting presence in the film, slipping in and out during transitional moments. The life of Benjamin Button--who, in the film, grows up in a rest home--is one punctuated by the passing of those around him.

The problem, though, is that the film never really decides what it wants to say about mortality, other than that "nothing ever lasts," as Benjamin puts it in a not-so-profound truism. Characters drop left and right, but Roth--and David Fincher, the director--never really show how this is more relevant to Benjamin's life than it would be to anyone else who had grown up in the same rest home, but who happened to age in the right direction. Instead, so much time is spent trying to weld the primary theme to the central conceit that no one realizes that they don't obviously pair together.

The pity of all of this is that a film about a man who ages backward might actually make sense as a contemplation on mortality. The brilliance of this concept lies in the fact that it presents the central figure with an unresolvable ambivalence of life: the more alive he becomes, the more he realizes his own mortality.

A film that concentrated on that would have been worth three hours and eight dollars. Unfortunatley, "The Curious Case" chooses not to deal heavily on its protagonist's youthful 60s and 70s. Instead, we learn from a montage that Mr. Button goes on a quest not unlike Larry in "The Raiser's Edge"; beyond that there are a few scenes portraying his return and eventual retirement (which actually does result in a fine irony).

I understand that the reason for this is probably because it is much easier, cinematically, to make a young man look like an old man than it is to make an old man look like a young man; in other words, you can put all kinds of make-up on Brad Pitt to make him look seventy, but, if one wants Mr. Pitt to appear to be eighteen, the most that can be done is to put a hairpiece on him. Still, this ought not to dismiss the objection out of hand, but should rather raise the issue of whether or not they might have chosen a younger actor for the role. On the other hand, not everything can be done on film, so it might be worthwhile to concentrate more on the story's literary aspects instead.

Musing on Temporary Retirement

Unless they change my transcript within the next month, my degree will be pretty much inviolable by the university. I've been musing about it, though. When I was in school, I couldn't wait to get done. Now that I'm done with it, I almost miss it already. I enjoyed my undergraduate years, but I haven't lost my memory and I remember that most of the time I was concentrating on getting through the curriculum for the degree. The point is that, years from now, I really hope that I don't look on my three-and-a-half years of undergraduate studies as a golden age.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Brief Encounter

I am not one for conspiracy theories, but here comes something akin to one: The other day, whilst passing through a study room in the UI Commons (as I am the cat who walks by himself, after all, everything being alike to him), I came upon a certain university official, hiding in the shadows and pounding on his laptop keys. I knew said official and he looked up at me as though he were Raskolnikov and I had just seen him disposing of two corpses. He said "Hi" very coldly and reluctantly. This got me thinking: What was it that he was doing? Was he raising student tuition for next spring? Was he cutting faculty benefits? Was he laying-off maintenance. I hope that none of the above are the case, but, given the current crisis, I would be surprised if the task that he was performing involved all three.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


I went through the commencement at the UI yesterday. I wore the silly hat and everything. The speech was okay, but nothing special. It never is at with the mid-academic year commencements anyway. But receiving the B.A. diploma is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you everyone who helped me along the way.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A New Theory of Victory

I just read a book review by Michiko Kakutani (I think that's how her name is spelled) of a book by John Kenneth Galbraith's son who used to be a diplomat in Iraq. The review was lavish with praise, particularly when it points to what it found to be cogent observations about America's failure in Iraq: Nuclear proliferation, destroying a threat where there was none, etc. Interestingly enough, someone in the mid-twentieth century could have made almost the exact same case about World War II. (That it destroyed a nation which was totalitarian but not a threat to American democracy and that also could have served as a breakwater to Soviet expansionism in Europe; that it led to the Atomic Bomb project which, in turn, enabled totalitarian regimes to get ahold of nuclear weapons; that, far from reducing totalitarianism in the world, it merely traded one nation for another and left all of Eastern Europe behind an Iron Curtain) but such arguments deal in unintended consequences (which is, interestingly, the title of Galbraith's books.) I don't know when our notion of war changed; I think that it was probably around Vietnam era, but, for some idiocyncratic reason, we stopped defining victory by how a war was fought and replaced this judgmental framework with our current understanding: that victory is determined based on the ends we achieve.