Garden State. Dir. Zach Braff. Big-Time Theater Company, 2004.
And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Plot: An actor in his mid-20s returns home after years away from his family for his mother’s funeral; confronts past.
So runs Zach Braff’s (Scrubs, NBC) screen-writing and directorial debut. New York Times writer Stephen Holden has dubbed it both the Graduate of 2004, due to its similarities to the 1967 classic and its melancholy pop soundrack (featuring Coldplay, the Shins, Frou Frou, and, fittingly, Simon and Garfunkel) and, alternatively, the anti-Graduate of 2004 due to its surprising optimism, a feature normally absent from depictions of suburban malaise. An anonymous reviewer, less generously, calls the film “existential angst for the Saved by the Bell generation.” But while some may see it as little more than a canned coming-of-age spin off, Braff’s film should be applauded for (quite literally) exploring new depths in the genre.
Right up front, both Braff and Natalie Portman present characters who are refreshingly real. The actors take risks to look into the fragile psyches, and dare I say souls, of our generation. What they unearth is very interesting; still, characters don’t make a movie. The real appeal of the film comes from its mythos, or if you prefer, storytelling.
This may seem a surprising statement, since plot is the one element ostensibly absent from Garden State. Andrew, Braff’s character, drifts through the film from party to kitchen table, graveyard to bathtub, and moviegoers are left with little thread with which to weave a coherent story. But wandering and homecoming comprise the second oldest myth in the Western canon. One word in Greek expresses both those ideas: nostos. By Andrew’s random shuffling through scenes, Braff presents his protagonist subtly as a suburban Odysseus. Other films, like American Beauty, have managed similar modernizations of myth, but Garden State exceeds its predecessors by challenging our culture rather than acquiescing to it. It touches on the greatest of all mythic themes—rebirth.
One of the trademarks of the Saved By The Bell generation has been its tolerance of an increasingly liberal sexual ethic, especially in the realms of television and entertainment. Sex, separated from its God-given purpose, has become an anesthetic; a means of numbing the deep emptiness that consumer materialism creates. Garden State recognizes this void, and challenges it by placing at the climax of Andrew and Samantha’s (Portman) relationship not a sex scene, but a fully clothed embrace. Both are sitting in a bathtub, where it would have been easy enough to follow the soul-bearing conversation with a little undressing, but Braff makes the choice to have Andrew fall into Samantha’s arms and say, “I feel safe with you.” He presents a picture of intimacy and real knowledge of another human being that many only dream of having.
In the same scene, Braff reveals his understanding that home itself, as we know it as children, must inevitably disappear. “Maybe families,” Andrew says to Samantha, “are just groups of people who are in love with the same imaginary place.” Braff has made a critical observation about the Western nostos: there is no coming home, only back again.
But Andrew’s sentiment, well guided as it is, leaves something wanting. Shouldn’t the desire for home have some real fulfillment? Garden State falls short of providing an answer, but then, what more can be expected of it? It is, at its heart, a secular myth. And though it contains splintered reflections of the truth (as Tolkien often said), it cannot provide any real answers.
A case in point is the “scream scene,” which, if you hadn’t guessed it from the movie posters, is the climax of the film. Three lost young adults, wearing trash bags to fend off the rain, stand on top of a tractor in the middle of a dump, which is supposed to be a garden, and stare into a chasm which they’ve been told is infinite, trying to make some sense out of the suffering in their lives. Mr. Braff has read his Nietzsche. But instead of peering wordlessly into the abyss, the three boldly scream in the face of nothingness, defying it with some unfounded hope that there is more to life than this. Joseph Campbell would likely point out that the presence of the cave and the rain makes this a rebirth scene. But where was the baptism? They were wearing plastic bags. And what good does a scream do when the abyss echoes back? The only thing this scene says for sure is that we are somewhere east of Eden.
The Christian who sees this film has a special obligation to respond to it. It is the cry of our age: that it does not want to accept consumerist sexual idolatry and nihilism, but has no other answers. “Maybe,” we must say, “there is one who has gone into the abyss before us. Maybe there is one who has brought us back. And maybe, families are just people who are all in love with the same real place that none of them have ever been to before.” Such has always been the case for people of faith. As it is written in the letter to the Hebrews:
“They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
Michael Cover ’04 is a Classics graduate from Currier House.