Creative Destruction

September 27, 2006

I Didn’t Hate Garden State

Filed under: Content-lite,Feminist Issues,Popular Culture — Ampersand @ 12:41 pm

I’m sorry, I didn’t hate Zack Braff’s movie Garden State. It was sweet and wistful and funny. Sure, it wasn’t The Greatest Movie Of All Time, but it certainly didn’t deserve a heaping double-scoop of contempt from Slate.

The Slate article has good laugh lines, but some of its criticisms are bewildering:

Braff also uses pop songs as a cheat, an easy way to heighten the emotional impact of otherwise unremarkable moments. The music in Garden State is so load-bearing that the movie becomes ridiculous if you swap in different tunes—if you don’t believe me, check this out.

The link leads to a YouTube video in which whatever sensitive alt-rock piece was originally in a scene from Garden State is swapped with a hip-hop song. It reminds me of Mad Libs – yes, it’s funny, but it’s not a meaningful criticism. We’ve demonstrated that swapping a song chosen to match the emotional tenor of the scene with one chosen to conflict with it changes the scene. Big deal.

I’m also bewildered by the claim that using music to successfully convey meaning and emotion to the audience is bad.

The Slate critic – who praises Braff’s sit-com Scrubs – is of the “how dare you have artistic ambitions – don’t you know your place?” school of thought:

Instead of focusing on the one thing he’s good at, Braff is quitting Scrubs after this season to focus on his film career. His rumored upcoming projects reveal two possible career paths. The first: the leading role in a Fletch remake. The second: starring in, writing, directing, and producing a remake of a Danish Dogme film about a woman whose husband gets paralyzed in a car accident. Please, Zach, leave paralysis to Lars von Trier. Chevy Chase—now there’s a guy you should look up to.

Yes, because what the world really needs is a Fletch remake, rather than someone attempting to do something that has ambitions of being good.

In the comments of Pandagon, “The J Train” calls Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State a “vagina ex machina” character, which she defines as “the beautiful, together, inexplicably single woman who just seems to fall out of the sky in front of the protagonist. See also Kirsten Dunst, Elizabethtown.” ((There are also penis ex machinas – see the veterinarian character on Gray’s Anatomy, for instance.))That, I think, is a much more on-target criticism than grousing about a movie director incorporating pop music he loves into his film. The Portman character was embarrassing, not so much a character as a girlfriend-shaped blob pulled out of a prop closet so that Braff had something to play his romance scenes against. Portman was aggressively cute! cute! cute! all movie long, but Braff’s script didn’t give her much to play. (And although it’s too long since I’ve seen it for me to be sure, I don’t think Garden State passes the Mo Movie Measure either).

Finally, it’s annoying that Braff — who owes his career to the willingness of producers to cast someone without cookie-cutter movie-star looks — didn’t show a similar daring when he cast the parts in Garden State. Maybe he’ll improve in his future movies.



  1. Wow.. I liked the movie, but certainly don’t feel it deserves the contempt that Slate gave it. The soundtrack alone was one of the most important pieces in the film and actually introduced me to several artists I now know and love (The Shins, Postal Service, Zero 7, etc).

    It really wasn’t half bad especially considering it was his very first attempt at not only writing, but directing. I’m curious to see how his next few films develop..

    And Penis/Vagina Ex Machinas.. I’m totally stealing that. XD

    Comment by Haggis — September 27, 2006 @ 12:56 pm | Reply

  2. I think that Natalie Portman was cast in that role because:

    1) Natalie Portman has been cast in that role many times before and

    2) Zach Braff probably thought it’d be great to kiss Natalie Portman.

    Comment by Olive — September 27, 2006 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks for the link! (I’m a he, BTW.)

    Comment by The J Train — September 27, 2006 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

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