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Buttoning Down Time
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
By Professor W
January 17, 2009
If you want to see a movie which discusses time, memory, experience, ageing and how they all link together, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may not be for you. The original short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a light tale about how, by an unexplained accident of nature, the aforesaid Mr Button is born an old man--with an old man’s experience--who over his seventy-year life gradually becomes younger with each passing year. He dies as a new-born baby, by which time his memories have all disappeared. It’s a cute story, which plays with the Mark Twain notion (which inspired the short story) that it’s a shame we don’t have the use of a life’s experience and memories when we are best able to use them.
David Fincher avoids addressing any of these issues in his 2008 movie. It’s a shame because that could have been fun. Instead, he has created a movie which does no more than use phenomenal CGI to show Brad Pitt progresses from a decrepit septuagenarian to become an increasingly young man/boy/baby/glint in his father’s eye.
However, Fincher gives us two insights into time, which some might appreciate. Firstly, during the movie’s two hours and forty-eight minutes the viewer amazingly gets the feeling that he has been living through Mr B’s backward life in real-time. This really feels like a seventy year journey, although less than three terrestrial hours had passed. The other insight (not unconnected) is that there are several scenes in the movie (and I’m thinking of the scenes in the old folks’ home) which truly allow the viewer to gain a feeling of the meaning of infinity. The pace of the movie is so slow that frequently the viewer suspects that time has simply stopped. That is no mean achievement!
This past couple of weeks we’ve all been mindful of time as we moved from the old year to a new one. But what exactly do we mean by time, years, now? Some of us will have made phone calls at five minutes past midnight on 1 January to wish our nearest and dearest a Happy New Year. What does that actually mean when our nearest and dearest are in different time zones? Some will have been in the New Year for several hours or some will have been hours away from the New Year.
In a recent BBC TV program several leading physicists were asked what we mean by time, or more specifically, what do we mean by “now”. In the end, all the scientists gave the same answer: they just don’t know. An Einsteinian physicist explained that all time was simultaneous, that the past, the present and the future all exist all the time. One more practical physicist explained that the only thing he could say with certainty was that the earth had existed for 13.7 billion years. From a layman’s standpoint, the past is easier to grasp, because it relates to what has already happened. Similarly, the future’s manageable as a concept, because it relates to what hasn’t yet happened (and maybe never will). But how to explain the concept of “now”, the twilight zone between the past and the future, that’s a different cup of tea altogether?
We cannot even agree on the date. The Jewish calendar has us in the year 5769. For the Japanese we are in year 21 of the latest emperor’s reign. The Catholic Church introduced a new calendar, the Gregorian, in 1582 to try to give some uniformity to time and our date system. Eleven days simply disappeared from the old Julian calendar, when the new Gregorian era was introduced. Imagine all those children who missed out on birthdays, when the new calendar was being introduced, how many husbands avoided the embarrassment of forgetting their wedding anniversaries! Russia was amongst the last countries to accept the new Gregorian calendar, which they finally did in October 1917, as a result of which their glorious October Revolution actually happened in November!
Now that we are a couple of weeks into the New Year, whatever that means, we are maybe all just a little aware of our own mortality after the holiday excesses and already breaking New Year resolutions. Perhaps we are all considering a little New Year austerity. A patient once asked his doctor, “If I give up alcohol, smoking and women, will I live longer?” The doctor replied that if the patient gave everything up, he wouldn’t live any longer--it would just feel like it.
If you want to feel that you’re living forever and that you’re never going to die, go see Benjamin Button. Maybe you’ll learn something about time, too…