29 March 2010

Benjamin Button & Ota Benga

Yesterday I saw the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" for the first time. The story is loosely based on a short story that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1922. It is said that he was inspired by a quote attributed to Mark Twain that goes "Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18". The movie doesn't really follow the Fitzgerald story much other than the theme but there was a genuine thread of Mark Twain in the movie and if it wasn't put there because of Fitzgerald's influence then I believe that one of the writers of the screenplay, Eric Roth, must have been a real Mart Twain fan. Among other things there are elements of the Benjamin Button story that come right out of Mark Twain's unfinished work, "The Mysterious Stranger". Twain worked on this story for twenty years and never finished it. It was a story about the morals of "the damned human race". The scene in the movie that shows the events that led up to Daisy's (Cate Blanchett's) accident where her leg was injured and thus ended her dancing career is a scene right out of "The Mysterious Stranger". The movie is also reminiscent of the sequences of improbable history that one finds in the movie "Forrest Gump". That should not be surprising since Eric Roth won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for "Forrest Gump" in 1994. The co-writer for Benjamin Button , by the way, is Robin Swicord.

One of the elements of the movie that stands out in my mind is a scene with Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) wearing sun glasses and sitting on the deck of a sailboat where he looks just like President John F. Kennedy. Another scene shows Benjamin and Daisy on the the deck of that same sailboat in the Florida Keys and you can see a space craft launching over Benjamin's shoulder even though the Florida Keys are on the opposite side of Florida from Cape Canaveral. Another scene had Teddy Roosevelt visiting New Orleans at a time when Roosevelt was suffering from bouts of malaria and would soon be on his death bed. Oh, well, that's show business.

The most far fetched scene in the movie though, was a scene where a character named Ngunda Oti, a diminutive black friend of Queenie's lover Tizzy, claimed to have been exhibited as a Pygmy in the Philadelphia Zoo. This is no doubt in reference to a real person named Ota Benga who had been captured in the Belgian Congo by slave traders and bought for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth by a man under contract to bring some pygmies to populate an exhibit at the 1904 Worlds Fair in St. Louis. The St. Louis Fair was the first World's Fair lit by electric light and it was much to do about America bringing light to the rest of the world. There were several exhibits of indigenous people on display from places like Africa, the Philippines, and Mexico. It was a shameless affair with racist undertones. After the fair Ota Benga was taken to New York and exhibited in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo. After people began to protest , he was released in 1906 when the powers that be "realized" they had been inhumane, and he was placed in an orphanage until 1910 when he was relocated to Virginia. He received formal education before starting work at a tobacco factory, and he began to plan his return to the Congo. With the outbreak of WWI his plans seemed impossible and he became depressed and killed himself in 1916 with a shotgun.

The is a lot more improbable history in the movie but it is such an entertaining story that if you haven't seen it you probably ought to. I give it two thumbs up. It's a good flick.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.