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The curious coolness of Benjamin Button


Todd McCarthy of Variety, who's old enough to know better, writes at the end of his review of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button":

Still, for what is designed as a rich tapestry, the picture maintains a slightly remote feel. No matter the power of the image of an old but young-looking Benjamin, slumped over a piano and depressed about his fading memory and life; it is possible that the picture might have been warmer and more emotionally accessible had it been shot on film. It has been argued that digital is a cold medium and celluloid a hot one and a case, however speculative, could be made that a story such as "Benjamin Button," with its desired cumulative emotional impact, should be shot and screened on film to be fully realized. These are intangibles, but nor are they imaginary factors; what technology gives, it can also take away.

[Don't worry -- no spoilers.]

This makes about as much sense to me as blaming the weather on Doppler radar pictures. It may be the second-most misguided thing I've read about movies all year (after Patrick Goldstein's assertion that a "dumb summer comedy" is more worthy of contempt that a dishonest or inept film that expects its ambition to be taken more seriously).

OK, let's say the movie feels "cold" to you, and you attribute this feeling to something in the film. You could acknowledge the movie's predominantly wintry settings and sepia color pallete (exemplified by the fully digital image, set in the dead of night in an empty hotel lobby in the middle of the Russian winter, above). Or contemplate the loneliness of the emotionally detached title character/observer/narrator, who is born an old man in a decrepit body and is cursed to grow physically younger while watching everyone around him age and die.

And you might very well consider the Kubrickian sensibility of the director, David Fincher ("Seven," "Fight Club," "Zodiac"), the most deliberate and precise of filmmakers. Not known as Mr. Warm 'n' Cozy -- even when working from a Gumpian screenplay by the writer of "Forrest Gump." If the film is dark and cool in tone, it's not because Fincher chose digital technology. It's because Fincher chose to make it dark and cool. You may dislike the countless ways in which the movie emphasizes these qualities (in every composition, every cut, every performance), but don't pretend it's the video that's doing it.

Earlier in the same review McCarthy says as much himself:

This odd, epic tale of a man who ages backwards is presented in an impeccable classical manner, every detail tended to with fastidious devotion. An example of the most advanced technology placed entirely at the service of story and character, this significant change-of-pace from director David Fincher poses some daunting marketing challenges, even with Brad Pitt atop the cast. Strong critical support will be needed to swell interest in this absorbing, even moving, but emotionally cool film, which is simultaneously accessible and distinctive enough to catch on with a large public if luck and the zeitgeist are with it.

I'm not saying that certain film stocks and certain video technologies don't have their own distinct qualities. I am saying that "coldness" is not unique to all video or all film. There was a time when photographic film (24 frames per second, projected with light) and videotape (30 frames per second, interlaced, involving electrons projected inside a cathode ray tube) were instantly identifiable as different media. There were Monty Python jokes about it. For example, film was distinguished by emulsion; video, by lines of definition.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote in "Understanding Media" of movies as a "hot" medium and television as a "cool" medium, he wasn't talking about emotional temperature-metaphors:

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone.

In this sense, many of today's video games are, like print, cool media that require more activity on the part of the user than more passive hot media like movies that provide more "high definition" information to the senses and require less from the observer.

The resolution of current the high-definition digital video technology used in a film like "Benjamin Button" makes these distinctions between traditional 35mm films and "video" immaterial. The frame rate is the same, and in the case of feature films, most are still transferred to 35mm for distribution and exhibition. Digital intermediates are used to make the final color corrections before final prints are struck, whether the movie was shot digitally or on analog film. Directors, cinematographers, lab technicians can get just about any "look" -- warm or cold -- that they want. Filmmakers like Fincher or Michael Mann like to use digital video for shooting in the dark because its sensitivity to low light is more detailed, and more akin to what the human eye sees, than even the highest-speed motion picture film. But they switch between film and video during production according to their needs, and Fincher used both on "Benjamin Button." (Can you tell which shots are digital and which are film?)

Even HDTV transfers (1080 lines of horizontal resolution, compared to more than 4,520 for some films) sometimes use software to soften the image and/or introduce "grain" so that it feels more like the film many are accustomed to. But the qualities of any projected image (sharpness, warmth, etc.) ultimately come down to the circumstances under which the movie is projected -- including the projector lamp and lenses, the size of the screen, and your distance from it. (For example: An early screening of "Benjamin Button" at the Director's Guild Theater, attended by the film's DP Claudio Miranda, was cancelled about a half-hour into the showing of the film because of a faulty color channel in the digital projection system.)

Whatever its attributes, and critics have been polarized -- remote or gushy, gimmicky or heartfelt, empty or profoundly moving -- the medium is not its sole message.

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