Recently I?ve come across several articles on hipsters and indie cinema that point to ?Garden State? as some sort of (un)holy text, for better or worse. Of note is one written by a personal friend of mine, music and culture enthusiast Matt Buttler, who seems to be arguing on his blog that hipster-dom is a sort of necessary result of the postmodern condition ? that is, a culture of anti-ideas rather than ideas, seeming creative dead-ends rather than new avenues, etc. Matt is responding in part to an article printed in Adbusters last year that made the claim that hipsters marked no less than the end of civilization. This week, Vadim Rizov, who may be my favourite film blogger, posted a rebuke of Twitter users who took part in a meme that defined ?indie? film as such and such, more often than not incorrectly out of ignorance, citing ?Garden State? as the film that kick-started a useless paradigm and stigma about independent cinema.
I don?t think of myself as a hipster, which is, of course, a classic hipster assertion to make. I turned 30 last week and I feel as though I?ve largely outgrown those kinds of definitions. If the definition of a hipster comes down to a lifestyle of constantly attending awful rock shows, making bad or extreme fashion choices, drinking a beer with too many consonants in its name and exhaling sarcasm instead of air, I?m about one for four. This isn?t to say that I?ve never bought an ironic t-shirt, thought that compilations weren?t a spiritual necessity or spouted asinine opinions about contemporary society that had no basis in informed fact. A lot of that comes out of the energy of being young and submitting to the false recognition that life is short, that cool is exclusive or that certain existential dilemmas can?t be solved with a little perspective.
I was first attracted to ?Garden State? because of the music. About a year before its release I took the advice of a friend and started listening to online radio stations to discover new songs, and that?s how I came across ?Breathe In? by Frou Frou, the former dance pop duo comprised of Imogen Heap and Guy Sigsworth that would come to pop up on ?sounds like Morcheeba? Amazon recommendation lists. I bought the record while on a trip to New York City in June of 2003. Less than a year later, the album?s first track, ?Let Go?, was featured prominently in the teaser trailer to ?Garden State?, which began opening in theatres on July 28th, 2004.
The teaser presents a series of images and brief snippets from many of the more visually alive sequences in the film. Writer/director/star Zach Braff is shown prominently wearing an expression of near catatonia as bizarre things happen around him or to him. A group of people scream for dear life as his plane crashes to the ground. A room full of people move in fast forward as he sits perfectly still on a couch. He is shown wearing a shirt that has been stylized in sync with the wallpaper behind him, causing his torso to blend in to the background. He discovers a torn gas pump handle still attached to his car. Throughout all of these moments, the same expression, the same glassy-eyed acknowledgment that he should be reacting to these incredible circumstances, but somehow can?t. Quotations from Newsweek and efilmcritic.com sell Braff as a young visionary. All the while, Frou Frou?s lilting dance number drives the preview forward, filling the cracks with heart and the melancholy observation that there is beauty in breaking down.
Perhaps my personal discovery of Frou Frou was instrumental in finding "Garden State" so appealing initially. Those who knew of Braff knew him from the popular television sitcom ?Scrubs?, in which he played a goofy medical intern with a bizarre imagination. His prominent presence in a film represented something fresh for a young generation, a new and unique kind of auteur that the youth could call their own without admitting to it. His devoted online presence fueled his fandom and drove scores of people to the theatre and video stores, turning ?Garden State? into a cult classic. Studios began their cookie-cutting process and the inevitable backlash followed. For some, the movie has come to stand for all that is unbearable about Generation Y, a collection of misguided individuals who assembled their cultural histories from soundbytes and conveniently located hyperlinks that teach them all they need to know about how the world works.
When we first see Andrew Largeman in a non-dream state, he is tucked tightly in bed in a purely white room, looking up at the ceiling. His phone rings. It?s his father, calling to tell him that his mother has died. Andrew reacts to the message as though he?s trying to do rudimentary math in his head ? the previous generation dies and leaves the next alone in mental disarray. We discover that Andrew gets through life on a cocktail of lithium and other anti-depressants that keep him functioning, but only barely. Throughout the course of a weekend, he abandons his meds and allows his emotions to surface, whereupon he is able to forgive himself for his mistakes and deal more truthfully with his own life.
The emotional sad sack with psychological issues is the hipster prototype. Kids understand dour and upset. The world is a massive letdown, but that?s sort of comforting. There is a solace in not being all right. It means that a person can be different, more fully individualized in a global village that has suddenly and dramatically shrunk in size. There is a relief in thinking that no one understands. And that?s how the hipster subculture thrives: by a superficially singular yet mutual understanding of a collective?s ironic apart-ness. Back in 2001, Donnie Darko excitedly turned to Gretchen Ross and asked, ?What emotional problems does your dad have?? as though emotional problems were trading cards that could be negotiated for a complete set. In ?Garden State?, Andrew Largeman sports a proud collection, as does old high school friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard), though someone has stolen his Wolf Blitzer.
Sam (Natalie Portman) enters Andrew?s life in the waiting room of a doctor?s office. Her affliction is epilepsy. Her medicine is a sense of humour and music. She dares to utter the name of a band that will change Andrew?s life, pouring on the significance of The Shins before a brief few bars of ?New Slang? plays over her grinning face. It?s a moment with little precedent on film. Certainly, characters have luxuriated in music and called artists by name, but an actual, for real ?indie? rock band? The past decade has marked a period of time in which pop radio married itself to hip hop and music video channels stopped playing music videos altogether. How would a young woman in Jersey know of a band out of Portland with a couple of 7-inch singles and a full-length debut released on Sub Pop?
It?s unspoken in the film, perhaps because modern narratives still don't know how to discuss 21st century technology without sounding infantile or corny, but Sam in particular is a child of that technology. The Internet has expanded the definition of what can be called authentic, while simultaneously enforcing authenticity as a prime secular ethic. Anyone can now be the first to hear anything. The moment in ?Garden State? when Sam plays The Shins for Andrew, a band he?s never heard of, attracts hipsters by presenting itself as a moment of unbridled authenticity. The boy listens to the girl?s music and it/she changes his life. She pulls him out of his medication-induced clouded haze to realize that life is worth encountering by showing him that a song can still mean something to two people at the exact same time.
Music?s always had that power. The soundtrack to ?Garden State? is lathered with good, solid songs. They emerge from the narrative like a thoughtfully chosen playlist, repeatedly evoking the right kind of modern emotion. Every song spirals around the loneliness a person can experience when coming of age. Mark tells his mother that he?s only 26 and that he doesn?t want to feel rushed. At 24, I listened and thought, yes, I didn?t want to feel rushed. There?s something about being 23, 24, 25, 26 that makes the rest of a life feel unacceptable somehow. People speed by like blurs and rarely stay. The future is an infinite abyss.
What ?Garden State? does well is sustain a mood and vision that is quite apparently of its writer and director. Braff deserves due credit for it. He has yet to follow it up, and when he does, he won?t be telling the same story. The film is the acute result of being a certain age, feeling a certain way and resisting the belief that everything will change. ?Garden State? is about the process of letting go.