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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Looking Back on Garden State with 2018 Eyes

With all the heavy blog posts I do, I think I’m allowed to write something light and fluffy every once in a while, so let me share my thoughts on a movie I watched last night: Garden State. The director and lead actor was Zach Braff. I’m sure you remember him as the main character from Scrubs. I certainly do; I liked him in that.

In this movie, he played everyone’s stereotype of a guy from the second half of Gen X (twenty-six years old in the year 2004): white guy from a somewhat privileged background (Jewish and from suburban New Jersey), struggling with a career that had some initial promise but wasn’t going anywhere (an actor in LA), supporting himself with a McJob as a waiter, living in a crappy apartment, estranged from his family and friends with whom he grew up, nobody significant in his life, zombified on prescription psychiatric drugs, and open to self-medicating.

The movie opens with his dad, with whom he hasn’t spoken in nine years, leaving him a phone message that his mom has died, and he needs to return home for the funeral. He reconnects with old friends, reminisces, but can’t feel anything. He wants to. Some of his friends have shot low and gone establishment—one is a cop. Others live off of petty corruption. One has gotten rich off of an invention, bought lots of stuff, stopped trying to do anything else productive in his life, and now is bored.

Then Braff’s character meets a woman who can break him out of this funk, played by Natalie Portman. She is a delight in this role, that of an exuberant pixie. Her happiness turns out to be a form of mental illness, likely manic depression. While watching, I was remembering her other iconic role as a mentally ill character—the prima ballerina in Black Swan—and wondering how an actress accustomed to gravitas in roles could have taken on the goofy, fun, and enchanting role in this movie and done so brilliantly with it. I loved her character.

And I enjoyed the film, because I took it for what it was: a period piece about that generation’s type of slacker pursuing 2004 goals of the semi-privileged—happiness and love—rather than trying to leave their stamp on the world. The Internet disagreed or agreed, in either case, violently. Either it was the paradigm upon which all models of characters from that generation were based and thus insightful, or it was a film with virtually no plot and goofy dialogue that celebrated that which had no justification for celebration.

Period piece. 2004. Four years later, the economy was in free fall. For me, the iconic character from 2008ish was the friend the four main characters meet in the bar in Hot Tub Time Machine. (See, I told you, I can do fluffy posts! Hot Tub Time Machine, bitches. Get fluffier than that, why don’t you?) They ask the guy how he’s doing, and he tells them he graduated from Yale and went to work for Lehmann Brothers as an investment banker but had been unemployed since they went belly-up. When the friends chip in to try to help him, he says it isn’t enough to pay the bills and asks if any of them want to stroll to the men’s room and pay him $40 for a hand job. That was 2008 America—even the golden boys, the ones who worked all their privilege and advantages and played every card right were still reduced to cut-rate sex work to get by.

Tellingly, both years are presented from the point-of-view of the educated, urban upper middle class. Even though some of us foresaw from the get-go the carnage of America’s lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the militarization and stunting it would eventually bring to the US (not that I’m in any way comparing the American travesty to the level of suffering of Afghans and Iraqis), most Americans didn’t. So, with a 2004 movie like Garden State, you can forgive the characters their isolation from the America of shipping soldiers out for extended tours of duty while banks foreclose on their homes and their families stand in soup lines, but by 2008, that was so much of America, that an on-the-nose, in-your-face portrayal of failed dreams seemed a bit too real be funny. Garden State made the protagonist’s sadness into art, drew us in with the indie rock soundtrack, let us join at the three main characters yelling in the rain out into the canyon—a cry for mattering in some small way to somebody. Hot Tub Time Machine was trying to be comedy and wound up sad because it resonated accidentally.

So what of today? Garden State featured the discourse of slackers who may not have expatiated upon deep thoughts out loud, but at least you had the sense Braff’s character was capable of such thoughts. The quintessential slacker movie about those who were twenty-six in the early 90s,Clerks, the slacker (some characters) and cynical former idealist (others) movies for those who were twenty-six in the early 80s, Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill, and the granddaddy slacker movie of them all, The Graduate, from 1967, all featured educated characters. They had read books. They had discussed them. And thus, their angst came from a deep place.

But all that was before the smart phone. Today’s twenty-six year olds were the standardized tested generation—learn nothing unless it is on the high-stakes exam. A friend of mine who is teaching creative writing at a mediocre, regional public university told me that of his class of thirty-five creative writing students, on the first day, when he asked what a novel was, four knew. They hadn’t read any. Just excerpts. And they hadn’t actually read those; they had just skimmed sufficiently to answer the questions or cheated off of someone who did. Today’s twenty-six-year-olds grew up listening to fake news. The compendium of the world’s knowledge is in a device that fits in their pockets, and they use it to share memes that make Idiocracy’s “Ow, My Balls” seem deep and insightful.

The real economy has disintegrated in the US, while the fake economy—playing with investments until the next bubble pops—hums along in the boom – bailout - boom cycle for the one-percenters and in the struggling - food insecure/homeless - struggling cycle for an increasing share of the population.

And the fake news tells the country the climate crisis is exaggerated, so if they don’t own coastal property, Americans ignore it. And the fake news tells the country the cops are fine people, heroes, who are using the military equipment—obtained from those other heroes—for purposes of public safety and not terrorizing communities of color, and (white) Americans dismiss the victims as likely guilty of some other crime. And the fake news tells the country of older folks going bankrupt to pay medical bills, and this might feel a bit more real, but at twenty-six, you are superman or superwoman and that stuff will never catch up to you.

Will we even have an iconic slacker movie for the smart phone generation? If the characters aren’t intelligent, it isn’t funny. And that was precisely the point with the non-POV characters in the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” They pedaled their bicycles that provided power for money, which they invested in watching stupid TV shows on the screen ahead of them and back in their cubicles. They did nothing but preen and giggle moronically, both in the shows and on the bikes.

What would the plot be? Someone refuses to mount his/her bicycle? And he/she starves?

Not the same vibe. Not hip. Not cool.

Gee willikers! I’m really not good at light and fluffy, am I?

And of course there are caveats to all of this, individuals who break the mold, but I shoot to capture the zeitgeist of an age not my own, and I end up sounding twice as angsty as any previous era’s movies about twenty-six-year-olds.

At least that makes sense. I’m fifty-two. Two times twenty-six.

And I never took the time out from life to be a slacker.

So what message do I have for this generation, as they approach this part of their existence?

Skip the deleted scenes. They’re pretty dull. Just play the movie—characters in their world is what’s cool. I have the sense that these characters will eventually move beyond the angst and get on to changing their world for the better, and that makes me happy. My seeing this potential in the two characters played by Braff and Portman left me rooting for them.

Same advice for life as for movies on DVD. As Braff’s character put it, “Good luck in exploring the infinite abyss.”

Ahem. Fluffy. You think next time I ought to blog about “Guardians of the Galaxy”?

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