Garden State

A recent post on Kenneth's blog made me think about this little piece of drafty writing that's been sitting in my computer since September of 2004. Since I don't suppose it'll ever find a home anywhere else, I thought I'd post it here. I'll warn you up front, it's unfinished, it's academic-y (I'm sorry to say that I actually use the term "post-postmodern"), and the anonymi and others who found the Star Wars post objectionable for its analytical approach to pop culture are bound to find this unbearable. But for what it's worth, some thoughts on Garden State.

Let me start with the obvious feminist critique of the film. All the critics have recognized it as an heir to The Graduate, and like The Graduate, it casts a young white man’s individual journey as characteristic of an entire generational moment and presents women in their traditional roles as muses and nurturers (although absent The Graduate’s sexy Anne Bancroft.) I remember high school, when The Graduate was one of my favorite movies, identifying with Dustin Hoffman’s character but also recognizing, at some gut level, that my real role was supposed to be the weepy, doe-eyed “Elaine!” that he screams for, not to be the one screaming. Similarly, with Garden State the women are crucial, but still peripheral, to the transformation that’s occurring in Largeman. I’d hoped by this ostensibly “post-feminist” generation that the Everyman wouldn’t still be such a familiar and unquestioned figure, but apparently he still is. Also whiteness: the only people of color we see in the film are the receptionist at the medical office, the bellhop at the hotel, and Sam’s brother. The characters taking the journey—and inspiring it and propelling it—are all white.

Now moving to my larger, and perhaps less obvious, feminist assessment of the film.
I did find the film to be, as it’s touted, “This Generation’s Movie”—but I might define “this generation” more broadly than the film’s promoters, and I see it as iconic for reasons other than those most critics identify. Yes, Largeman’s reliance on—and rejection of—a whole host of pharmaceuticals speaks to this Prozac-Ritalin-Xanax nation. But what I see as relevant to/indicative of not only “Generation Y” but the whole post-Baby Boom, late capitalist, post-movement cultural moment is a rejection of cynicism and a reclaiming of sincerity, hope, and possibility.

We are a cynical bunch. All of us who were born in the last forty years know the deck is stacked. We know large, secret forces are amassed against us--that's why we understood the X-Files. Multinational corporations, ever more consolidated corporate owned media, etc. And Garden State is in some ways immersed in this sort of cynical irony:

  • Life defined by media: when Largeman wants to cry at his mother’s funeral, he thinks of the saddest things he can—and they’re all media images. Actually being at his mother’s funeral isn’t the saddest thing he can think of. Life almost entirely mediated by pop culture images. We all want to be on TV. We all imagine our lives as sitcoms.
  • In an early scene in Sam’s bedroom, she discusses wanting to do something unique, something that no one else has done before, and so she does a funky, weird dance that would be embarrassingly odd if she weren’t embracing it and enjoying it. She’s taken the modernist idea of genius, individual achievement, and given it a postmodern twist: she has no illusions that she can really be a pioneer, really have a significant idea or create a significant something that hasn’t already been done. We cynical postmodernists don’t have that illusion. This, in and of itself, is charming and identifiable to me, resonates with my experience—but the film doesn’t leave it at this.
Later, we meet a man who lives with his family in an ark at the bottom of a quarry. He becomes identified, tongue-in-cheek, as “the guardian of the infinite abyss.” When Sam, Largeman, and Mark ask him about why he took this job, and why he explores the abyss at night, he says essentially the same thing Sam had said earlier: he wants to do something new, something that no one else has done before. And then almost immediately he dismisses this: “But that’s just ego. Really what I want is to be here with this woman, and my child…” In this moment, the film takes a step away from postmodernism into something different, a kind of post-postmodern mentality. It moves from a playful postmodern revision or parodic reclaiming of a modernist idea to a kind of sincerity that I see as indicative of a post-postmodern ideology.

The family in the ark are central to the film’s transformation. Up until this point the film had had a kind of magical realist atmosphere, but it had been fantasy in the service of the utterly banal—Largeman sitting still while a drugged party unfolds in utter awfulness around him, the visual plane of his face being replaced by a cabinet of seemingly infinite drug bottles, a knight walking through the kitchen. With the ark, this all changes.
  • It’s an ark, it’s at the bottom of a quarry, they have to take a kind of hero’s journey to get there: it’s established as an old-school symbolic, sacred site.
  • The movie has set us up to expect some kind of awfulness (like the scene in the hotel where they’re watching people have sex)—it’s a junk yard at the bottom of an abandoned quarry that’s going to be a mall. We expect the worst kind of humanity. Largeman says he’s expecting to see “crack whores shooting turpentine.” And instead, a young-ish man opens the door holding an infant. He puts the baby to bed. His wife offers them tea. They are smiling.
  • The guardian keeps talking about what he imagines: “I like to imagine that this is an ark, and if the apocalypse comes, we’ll float away.” “I like to imagine that the abyss is infinite.” This connects to my sense that I have a failure of imagination, perhaps a generational failure of imagination. This iconic figure of the guardian is advocating imagination.
  • Largeman says, “Good luck guarding the infinite abyss.” The guardian pauses for a beat, then says, “You, too.” Largeman stops, then tilts his head back into the rain, stretches his arms out, and shakes his head hard, like he’s shaking loose his hair, his thoughts. Like he’s opening. I absolutely love this moment. It makes me cry every time I watch it.
Ultimately, what the film affirms are almost clichéd ideas: feeling your feelings, being in the moment, recognizing that this, right now, is your life. And I think the fact that it is unafraid of these clichés is yet another part of its post-postmodernity.

It’s not a film about activism, or feminism, in any immediately apparent way. But in its gentle loosening of the irony and cleverness of the postmodern social identity, in its willingness to offer up straightforward feeling, in its sweetness, is the film articulating a change that's occurring? Needs to occur? In feminism as well as other social justice movements?


The Mom said...

Alison, I really liked this. I've never seen "Garden State", and don't know if I would like it or get out of it anything like what you have, but I loved seeing your mind work in this piece. I know...I sound like a mom!

slittle said...

Reading this makes me miss your class!

It also reminded me of when we were playing an intense game of "name that quote" at SEWSA. I believe your quote was, "hold up, HOLD UP!. Who here just saw some titties?"

Alison said...

Oh, I am soooo classy!

Charlie said...

zach braff + peter sarsgaard + natalie portman = 1 post-postmodern pretty party!

I think I have responses/questions to this post, but I'm going to save them for a blog post of my own, because a comment would be too long. I'll send you a note when I do it.

Charlie said...

also: aversion to post-postmodernism = popomophobia. ::snort::

Kenneth said...

I haven't seen it.