n the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...
Ah, to be a fly on the wall at Miramax during postproduction of new disarmingly-charming, triple-threat man Zach Braff’s directorial debut, Garden State. One can half imagine Joel Silver or some similarly-accoutered executive, sans tie, shirt left open to reveal an alpha-male tuft of poodle-like chest hair, verbally fluffing the sheepish star of NBC’s Scrubs before finally releasing the hammer. “Loved the film Zach—love the heart and the music and you, love Natalie Portman as the compulsive liar—you want a hit of coke?—we’ll make a bundle off the soundtrack. Even love that scary guy who co-starred in the movie about the lesbian hillbilly—what was it? Girls Don’t Cry. But there’s just one thing we’d like to change, it’s really a minor thing, I hate to even bother you with it—you probably won’t even notice in the end—but we need to re-shoot your ending.” I like to imagine Braff giving the studio drone one of those subtle expressions of shock and dismay he employs so adeptly throughout Garden State, a look of ‘you think I’m gay?’ amazement similar to the one he shoots love interest Sam (Natalie Portman) when, upon first meeting and subsequently recognizing Andrew Largeman (Braff) as the actor who so convincingly portrayed a talented but retarded football player in a made-for-TV movie, she asks “Are you really retarded?”
Like so many of its cinematic brethren, risen from the ashes of its particular sociopolitical milieu, Braff’s tale manages to pencil in new character and setting over the familiar wasteland of a twentysomething’s delayed initiation into adulthood, treading over the same woolly path classics like The Graduate and, to a lesser degree, Five Easy Pieces long ago staked out as their own in cinema, the latter two having in turn taken their cue from the well-heeled depictions given long ago by Wolfe and Salinger. Just as Dustin Hoffman's superficially-confident college wonder boy found himself floundering after graduation, so too does Braff's ostensibly less-charismatic but perhaps more-satisfying protagonist find himself floundering, though the graduation we see him confronting is from high school and not college, and while the uncertainty accompanying Hoffman’s character is more ideological by nature (in turn infusing his character with greater metaphorical significance), the trauma from which Largeman’s life has sadly evolved is too idiosyncratic for the audience to take anything away from his story but a similarly-individualized sense of pathos for him and those surrounding him. Physical setting for these tales always seems important—from the dusty oil fields of Texas to the blinking neon of San Francisco, one can think of few places more symbolically appropriate for a damaged soul’s reparative sojourn to take place than in New Jersey, a ‘garden’ state made ironically famous for its garbage and strip malls.
Just as Mike Nichols doubtlessly roped in folk-duo Simon and Garfunkel to lend some well-seasoned hits to The Graduate's soundtrack, Braff’s recognition of the aesthetic and commercial possibilities that lay in cherry-picking pop songs from one’s favorite bands gives Garden State an authenticity it doubtlessly would have lacked under a score by Hans Zimmer or Randy Newman. Aside from some of the striking stylistic and musical homages to The Graduate (the two films’ protagonists even have similar noses), all the more praiseworthy is that Braff amplifies, and perhaps may even be said to balance, the tone and happenings of his script with music. While the emotional tenor of Chris Martin’s stoic lyrics on “Don’t Panic” befit the cold, mental-sanotorium feeling of Largeman’s Los Angeles apartment, the startling mélange of Thievery Corporation's velvet lounge neo-fusion infuses his concluding six hour road trip with an ironically-intended faux-cool three people riding together on a WWII motorbike and sidecar will never truly achieve. All the same, you don’t ever scoff at these characters; Braff doesn't feel the need to use the oft-appropriated music of 'indie-rock' (let's face it folks, for the Britney Spears set, Coldplay and The Shins is about as indie as it's gonna get) to ironically offset our understanding of what they’re going through. Instead, quite refreshingly, Garden State is a movie that floats unobtrusively through its onscreen time, allowing a strong script and fabulously-cast collection of actors to slowly build on any number of emotional tensions, the cumulative effects of which aren’t felt until well after the jarring blow has been unknowingly delivered.
Braff’s story doubtlessly rings truer in the ears of the post-twenty five crowd due to its eclectic collection of strategically-placed pop songs, which sound like they might genuinely have been culled from someone like Largeman or Sam’s own stereo. The lyrics of each and every track are almost frighteningly apropos for the onscreen actions they accompany; as Largeman and Sam sleep peacefully together after finally cementing their relationship, sexually and emotionally, Iron and Wine breathes an entirely different sensibility into the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights.” While the audience gazes intimately from above at the two in various stages of sleep, Sam Beam’s hushed singing gives voice to the ineffable peace found in new love: “That God himself did make us into / Corresponding shapes like puzzle pieces from the clay.” Likewise when Braff unveils the Cheech and Chong “Up in Smoke” era motorbike he rides throughout, the ghostlike voice of Shins frontman James Mercer blares out. As “Caring is Creepy,” from the band’s 2001 release Oh, Inverted World begins to play, the lyrics “I think I’ll go home and mull this over / Before I cram it down my throat” point not only to Largeman’s painful return home but also to the benumbed, depressed state in which he has been stuck throughout his many years of exile. While the suicidal reference is obviously aimed not only towards Braff’s character but also to his mother, whom we slowly learn likely committed suicide by drowning herself in the bathtub, the orchestration between music and movie in both scenes illustrates just how fundamental pop music is to the film’s stylistic makeup.
In trying to catch up on a largely-missed adolescence, Largeman will confront and be confronted by any number of Odyssey-like characters who bend and distort the memories and projected expectations he seems to have had about old classmates. Amazed at the perversity of finding an old coke-fiend acquaintance of his working as a police officer, the wryly-humorous encounter with Kenny the idiotic cop slowly gives way to more meaningful reconnections which, not unlike the life of many a seemingly anonymous twenty-something, is consistently accompanied by music in the background and the joking of friends. What is perhaps most noteworthy about Garden State is the degree to which it succeeds at proffering emotion without becoming emotive, dexterously developing and then, perhaps more miraculously, maintaining a just-below-the-surface sadness that even the audience begs to have put more coherently into words. Those rare times the movie departs from its painstakingly-constructed emotional reticence, such as during the triumphant trip to the junkyard, when Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” showers the scene in high-schoolish revelry, the brief departure to sentimentalism is appropriate; Braff pulls moments like those, when we depart from our sense of dignified composure, off quite nicely.
Garden State is ultimately riddled with too many great moments and songs to talk about in any great depth here. Tracks by Zero 7, Nick Drake, Colin Hay, Frou Frou and a host of notable others alternate with a number of strong performances , two of the best being by Peter Sarsgaard and Method Man, the latter’s talent finally being used to good comedic purpose in a film without his less-talented cohort Red Man.
It saddens me that a movie I’m mostly quite fond of ultimately brings to mind the work of a great auteur whose subject matter does not in the least relate, for in watching Garden State I can’t help but recall Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. The quaintly wrapped-up and shamelessly-hurried last five minutes of the 2004 release wreak of some studio exec intervening on behalf of a malcontented test audience, which apparently demanded (I’m sticking to this belief—it’s much rosier than thinking the movie was intended to go in this direction from the outset) that Braff’s character refuse his interior call to depart from New Jersey and thus from his new girlfriend, opting instead to stay together with love interest Sam so they can both go to jazz heaven with friend Jesse who, having made a bundle off of his Silent Velcro patent, has retired to the sinless good life of aimlessly shooting flaming arrows up into the sky. I can profess that never, outside of a Chevy Chase movie, have I been left so befuddled by a movie’s ending (that’s right, befuddled, you motherfuckers!). As such, I have chosen to invent this ulterior scenario, which I would encourage all fans of the film to adopt.
What could have become one of Generation X’s resounding cinematic responses to the scores of baby boomer movies which have treated the theme so effectively, Garden State instead lapses into stroke-induced torpor during its last five minutes. While Dustin Hoffman’s triumphant rescue of Katherine Ross’s Elaine stands out as one of cinema’s watershed moments, Largeman’s abrupt and inchoate reunion with Portman may very well go down as one of cinema’s all-time great betrayals. When Ben finally fends off members of the Robinson clan after interrupting Elaine’s wedding, the melodramatic scene, despite its unlikelihood, achieves an authenticity in viewers’ minds because the movie takes the time to build up a tension for which Ben’s rescue can be the plausible release. As it stands, we may have to rely solely on Chuck Palahniuk novels to provide a way the world can misapprehend us. If there’s any justice in the world, Braff’s onscreen introduction to Portman won’t be the last time he’s asked “Are you really retarded?”
By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2005-02-03