Criticisms of Garden State
From Pandagon the other day:
This article by Josh Levin has in it what could be, word for word, one of my better rants over an alcoholic beverage or two.
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.
I don’t have anything against using pop music in movies, but seriously, one of my pet peeves is a mediocre movie or TV show leaning on great music to salvage crappy scenes. The entire 60s oeuvre of Motown and Phil Spector have been particularly ravaged by this practice. The worst perpetrator was David E. Kelley on “Ally McBeal”—he took this practice to a whole new level of suck by using a relentless onslaught of 60s R&B and pop in an attempt to make the audience mistake their enthusiasm for the music for their enthusiasm for Ally’s miserable existence.
One thing I absolutely cannot stand is the disrespect that, well, almost everyone shows to the notion of "form" or "medium". For example, my latest cross to bear is
this phenomenon where, because of the popularity of documentaries, everyone who should really just be writing a magazine feature has decided to make a movie, but they don't make a movie, they make a 35mm (or, more likely, DV) version of a magazine feature that I would have enjoyed in Harpers, but can't stand when it pretends to be a documentary film.
I used to be in the dance world. It was common to discuss a choreographer's "reliance on score". The choreographers who were hot shots choreographed something and then found music for it. In fact, many were known to change the music from time to time for the same piece. Even in fucking ballet. I can't help but think the quote above is akin to that sort of bizarre snobbery.
If you are a filmmaker (or editor or music supervisor) and you have a weaker scene, or even just a scene that could be vastly improved by a masterful choice of music, your job is to put kickass music behind that scene. Duh. Music is one of a filmmaker's tools.
"Gee, that scene wouldn't have been that great if the writing hadn't been good. The filmmaker is really 'leaning on' the writing there."
Maybe you, as a viewer, prefer a film that's well-written to a film that's well-shot. That doesn't mean that a film with better cinematography than writing is using that cinematography as a crutch.
As for Garden State, which I think gets altogether too much criticism because hipsters can't handle that they themselves didn't make it, it seems that people are mad at the movie because it used music too well. It can't be that good because it did one thing too well.
And let's think back to THE FILM ITSELF. (As my high school English teacher used to say, "Read the goddamned text!") Garden State is a VERY interior film. While Braff could have gone the "Interiors" route of Woody Allen, using no music, and making an unwatchable film, he didn't. He chose to use music to turn the film inward, to show an exterior landscape, but to allow the viewer to hear the interior landscape.
My adored Ampersand comments on the Pandagon post and notes:
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.
This reminds me of my student the other day who pretended to have viewed the film for class, but referred to the main character as a "he" though the protagonist was, in fact, unmistakably a woman, and a movie star to boot. I don't know if "The J Train" saw or remembers Garden State. One thing Natalie Portman's character is NOT is "together". She's a total mess. It completely understandable that she's single. She's a total mess. She doesn't fall from the sky. She's a total mess, he's a total mess, they meet at the doctor's office to take care of that.
(Also, shouldn't feminists be a bit alarmed by a phrase like "inexplicably single"? Doesn't it kind of indicate that the only reason a woman would be single is because she's damaged goods?)
I don't like Natalie Portman, as a person. Her interviews never cease to offend me. But she rocked that part. And it wasn't an easy part. She wasn't ever playing some random-sexy-girl. True: her character wasn't particularly brilliant or successful. I don't really think she needs to be. She's sad. And she had plenty of pathos to play. She wasn't just cute.
I'm pretty critical. I'm especially critical of the sort of early-twenties-bilgundsroman, common in indie film. And I liked Garden State. That doesn't mean you have to. But please come up with a critique more film-sensitive than, "there was too much good music in it". If what you don't like about it is the writing, criticize the writing. Not how they got away with it by doing other things right.