Monday, May 16, 2011

There’s Beauty in the Breakdown: GARDEN STATE Revisited

It was the summer of 2004. A young Derick Armijo had just graduated high school and procured his first job. Hocking key chains and t-shirts to tourists at Universal Studios in a denim shirt/khaki pant ensemble that was a galaxy away from resembling flattering. He was free for the first time in his life. No one told him where to go. No one told him want to do. He was charting his own path that would eventually lead to writing this blog. He had just figured out how to use the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit System and the world was his oyster. Access to buses and trains allowed him to travel to places that he never thought he could go on his own. The place was Hollywood. The theater was Arclight. Fancying himself a purveyor of independent cinema, he found himself traveling to this mythical city to watch a film called GARDEN STATE. It can’t be said for sure, what his initial interest in this film was. But he did like the posh demeanor of this theater. He was an adult now. He should act like it by paying way too much for a 1pm matinee. He was late for Arclight’s signature introduction of the film, coming in just at the end. He sat back, completely ignorant of the running time or the fact that his pager should be off, and was prepared to enjoy the film.

It was a little rocky from the start. Derick, to this day, is squeamish during scenes of simulated intoxication and early on in the movie, the characters partake in the party drug known as Ecstasy and gallivant around with young women of a questionable age. Derick rarely walks out of movies and gave it serious thought at this point.

This movie was too dark and depressing. That is, until the knight showed up. Once a comedic scene in which Zach Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Jean Smart and future star of THE BIG BANG THEORY have a comical discussion about Medieval Times. The movie started being funny and he was instantly more comfortable. Forever more he would refer to the moment a seemingly bad movie turns good as “the knight showing up”.

Fast Food Knight sounds like the name of a Paula Cole album. He was charmed the rest of the way through. Natalie Portman was that fantasy maiden of a type he didn’t realize he was interested in. The existential dilemma of young and good looking people spoke to my young impressionable heart. And the music. My God, the music.

Like a young Knives Chou would lament six years later, he didn’t even realize good music existed when he was 17. He just consumed whatever songs were on soundtracks to his favorite movies and wore a ring into a Smash Mouth CD he received in the 7th grade. This was the first time he heard music like this and he loved it. Walking out of the theater, he got that special excitement that was similar to the way he would walk out of summer blockbusters when he was younger. Instead of “I want to BE Ethan Hunt!” he was saying “I want to BE Andrew Largeman!”. “I want to be a sad sack that complains too much and attracts damaged women! I want to whine about my parents and be numb to my future path! A new kind of hero to admire!”. The great Amoeba Records is right next door to the Arclight, so he ran right in and purchased the soundtrack and listened to it all the way to work and over and over and over after that. Okay, let’s drop the third person. I was very into this movie and so were a lot of others my age. That summer was also the summer I discovered Rilo Kiley and really felt what it was like to become emotionally attached to music. Later, that Christmas season, I worked at a Best Buy when the DVD came out and we sold out in a day. This was a generational phenomenon that had nothing to do with spaceships or capes. Since it was a small film, everybody felt that they had discovered it and needed to let others know about this gem. Every girl I knew told me “Wow, they finally got me right” when talking about themselves and Natalie Portman’s character. Which was a pretty amazing side effect, seeing as how none of them were anything like Portman’s character at all. People saw themselves in this movie, for better or worse and like me, felt a strong emotional connection to the characters and themes and the music.

Five years later, I was having a drink with some friends of a friend and we were having a pretty good time. The discussion was bordering on intellectual but in that fun three beers in kind of way. I felt very comfortable with these people, so when one of the girls asked me “Have you like GARDEN STATE?”, I felt totally fine with blurting out “Yeah, when I was fucking 12”. How the hell did I get there? Why did that come out of me? I found myself explaining how I was really into it at the time it came out but somehow, it doesn’t really rate with me right now. I might have hurt her feelings, she might still love this movie but it was at that moment that I realized that this movie didn’t mean anything for me anymore and I don’t know how that happened. So, like the tagline to the BACK TO THE FUTURE PART IV poster I photoshopped a few years ago for my myspace page states, “Sometimes in order to go forward, you must go back”.

The movie starts with Zach Braff (who I wasn't aware of at the time, I got into SCRUBS because of this movie) in a dream sequence where he’s in an airplane that’s going down and he doesn’t give a shit. He wakes up in his empty apartment and takes some of the medication out of the myriad of prescription bottles that line his bathroom cabinet. He lives in Los Angeles and he fights traffic to his shitty job in a trendy restaurant as a waiter. He gets hassled for being late and has to deal with bitchy customers but like the plane dream, he seems pretty numb to it all. His father calls letting him know that his mother had unexpectedly passed away and that he has to come back to his hometown of South Orange, New Jersey for the funeral. When he gets there, we find out that he’s an actor who’s actually showed up in a few things that people have seen. He runs into some old friends who invite him to a party and while he watches townies take drugs and drink alcohol to forget their daily grind, he continues not to feel anything.

At a doctor’s appointment waiting room, he meets the beautiful and incorrigible Sam, Natalie Portman’s character. She’s scatterbrained and annoying at first and desperately wants Braff to listen to her Shins album. A moment that every hipster douche guy would want to happen as he waits at the bus stop on a drunken Thursday night. She keeps saying she’s a pathological liar which here, is cute, but in real life is a giant red flag. Run, Zach Braff! This one is a drama powder keg just waiting to explode! He gives her a ride home and she tells him that she wears a helmet because she is prone to epileptic seizures. In this generation’s world, flaw is sexy. Especially when it’s a deadly flaw. If she had asthma, she would almost be too perfect. She invites him into her house where she has two gigantic dogs, a hamster habitat that trails around the entire house and the Christmas tree is still up in the middle of the summer. Red flag, red flag, red flag. She introduces her brother Titembay, a large African gentleman and they retreat to her room where they share some deeply personal issues.

So in one visit to Sam’s house we get a healthy dose of white guilt and inability to let go of childhood things. If only we had a sign that she was desperate to be unique than we would really have a ---

Yeah. We’ve got a fully formed Generation Y hipster girl on our hands. If Braff ever does a Special Edition, Lucas style, he should CG big box frame glasses on her face. I’m sure that was his original vision anyway. A little earlier we learn that Braff is on Lithium and other mood stabilizers and he decides to maybe stop taking them against the advice of his psychiatrist father who put him on them in the first place. He’s protecting his son from the terrible emotions that could have plagued him after he accidentally caused his mother’s paralysis when he pushed her and she tripped on an open dishwasher door and she hit her neck on the counter. Doesn’t sound like an accident to me, but that’s a matter for the courts to decide. He starts spending a lot more time with Portman and introduces her to his hometown friends. One of them got rich off of his silent Velcro idea and invites them to his mansion where they fire flaming arrows into the air and dodge them. Peter Sarsgaard spends time with them as well and strongly insists they they go with him on a hunt for a present for Braff. Braff wants to spend time with his new pretty lady alone, but Sarsgaard is pushy about it. They go to a local five and dime and this happens.

So what did we learn from that scene? Braff’s former classmates are either losers, scam artists or dead. Earlier in the movie, Braff gets stopped by a cop who happens to be a former classmate. He has a cocaine problem and is very comfortable with drawing his gun for show. With the exception of his lucky friend that made millions off of a stupid idea, everyone he knows has a horrible future ahead of them that is rapidly becoming their present. On their treasure hunt, they stop by a hotel where Method Man works and is charging perverts to watch through peepholes as johns take hookers into the rooms to fuck them. This is all very dark, but provides set up for the best line in the movie “Raise your hand if you just saw some titties? Now calm the fuck down”. Braff is starting to become very annoyed by all this because he’s wasting his final day in New Jersey. They finally end up at this giant pit, which is being guarded by a houseboat. Inside, are a married couple hired by a development company to watch the land they just purchased. It is here where Sarsgaard cuts a deal with these people for a necklace they have in their possession. You see, Sarsgaard is a gravedigger and he takes whatever jewels or valuables left on the dead to sell them. He did the same with Braff’s mom and now he’s getting the loot back. I don’t know whether to be happy about this or creeped out about this and neither does Braff. But the couple tells him a story about the pit and Braff is no stranger to pits of dispair so he compares the actual pit to his metaphorical one.

When they leave, it’s pouring rain outside. Braff climbs up some boxcars and screams into the pit as if to say “You don’t own me, sadness!” and tosses his hair around as if he’s being baptized by the rain. Symbolism! Character arc! This doesn't happen in movies! The next day, Braff is leaving to go back to LA and Portman is being a cry baby about it. They say goodbyes at the airport and then Braff realizes that he wants to stay and dramatically comes back to her and that’s the end. Braff's signature dramatic style of acting by talking quietly coupled with some very vague dialogue that only serves to prolong the inevitable helps the movie stumble to the finish line. As an older dude, I can't help but think that maybe the movie would have made more sense if he didn't go back to her and allowed his awfulness to consume him or never have gone to the airport in the first place. Anti-climactic maybe, but it seems more honest.

I’m not that much older from when I first saw the movie, but it feels like I’ve grown out of it. I’ve met a lot of people since then who either consciously or unconsciously play out the neurosis of the characters out in a very dramatic way, and it’s just not as cute when they do it. The most interesting thing to happen from the release of GARDEN STATE is how Zach Braff unwittingly out Crowe’d Cameron Crowe. At the same time he was making GARDEN STATE, Crowe was working on a movie about a young man who after some minor success and big failure, comes back to his hometown for the funeral of a parent and is bombarded with zany hometown characters and falls for a young strange girl who teaches him how to have fun. The exact same movie with the same big splashy soundtrack. It was released a year later to no acclaim or accolades and just faded into obscurity along with Crowe’s career. He hasn’t made another movie in six years, but I hear he’s finally rectifying that. This internet trailer, if you fast forward through the preamble to about a minute in, is mostly music and no dialogue, like the GARDEN STATE trailer. Kind of fools you into thinking it's good but I've learned to be weary of these kinds of trailers now.

In the end, GARDEN STATE is the same kind of message that a lot of films before it had made with some new flashy packaging. It’s a story about people who aren’t ready to be adults but this time, they’re Generation Y. A super annoying, whiny, apathetic, desperate to stand out while still being self loathing that aren’t even sure why they grew out their facial hair in the first place kind of people. In a way, every generation has the same kind of annoying traits but the sad truth is I CAN’T GROW A BEARD. Where does that leave me? I tried once a few years ago and it came out bright red and strange looking and the only picture I could find of it is, fittingly enough, a photoshopped REALITY BITES poster I put myself into.

That stunning lack of upper lip growth aside, I don’t feel close to this movie and it’s hard to remember why I ever did. Afterwards, I got really into SCRUBS and met Zach Braff at the Arclight and told him how much I enjoyed the movie and his show as he sleepily listened to me and signed a ticket stub while Mandy Moore tried to ignore what was happening. Years later, my entire corkboard full of Arclight signatures that included Christopher Nolan and Shane Black and Joe Dante were thrown away by family during some spring cleaning. I nearly had a heart attack over it. It wasn’t just the signatures but old bus passes and schedules and a button that said “Cite This!” I got from my high school English teacher for completing my senior thesis. Also a few pictures of old friends and some mementos. That corkboard was a physical representation of my first post-high school years. And in an instant, everything on it was thrown away so it could hang in the kitchen with a single business card for a plumber tacked onto it. A bitter reminder that all my memories only mean something to me and me alone. I was kind of crushed when this happened but it was also sort of liberating when I finally got over it. I was happier to realize I didn’t have to be angry about it then I was mad that it happened. And maybe if my generation has more moments like that, Hot Topic would disappear from our nation’s malls and perhaps I’d have a Suncoast again to browse through and never buy anything from. The one thing that does hold up is the music. I can still listen to that with a certain degree of enjoyment. Sure it reminds me of a more infantile time but you won’t see me jamming to Raffi or Baby Beluga as I drive down the street, so there’s that. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to Zero 7’s In the Waiting Line as I chugged up to the top of the hill in Universal City on their little pedestrian tram. In the first car that I ever owned, the GARDEN STATE soundtrack was in the CD player when it died for good. So it remained inside forever and is probably still there. The center of a crushed cube that slightly resembles what my car used to look like if it were a crushed cube. That Christmas, I received it again from Santa so now I have two boxes!

I was very excited to see what Braff directed next, but it wasn’t meant to be. He starred in a movie called THE LAST KISS that he polished the script on and contributed some soundtrack picks to. It didn’t light the young world on fire like GARDEN STATE did and Braff kind of let his career die a slow death with season after unwatched season of SCRUBS. Does this look familar?

Cool music and no dialogue again. Hmmm. In the end, I sort of feel a little sad that I don’t enjoy the movie like the girl I insulted does anymore. It’s like a little part of you dying, but it’s important to continue to move forward. But I still really dig the first TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movie, so don’t listen to me about growing as a person.

Until next time.

- D

PS: Another one! She runs a lot in this movie.

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