By Tim Barlow
“…makes you want to feel like a teenager, until you remember the feelings of a real life emotional teenager, then you think again.” – Sound of Silver, LCD Soundsystem
Garden State has fallen on tough times. Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s no longer cool to like it. It’s creative driver, Zach Braff has lost his Hollywood buzz and become something of a punchline. The movie itself has been decried by the late-twenty, thirty-something Internet blogging community as void of real substance, laughable, a melodramatic plot surrounding by a melodramatic (and overly adored) soundtrack. As a blogger for the site Grantland puts it: “People who express opinions on the Internet, almost as a rule, despise Garden State down to its marrow.”
This is all such a bummer cause I really liked this movie. I saw it for the first time at a matinee showing on a weekday afternoon, by myself, in a theater near my parents house where I was temporarily living, the fall after I graduated from college. You’re gonna want to let that last sentence soak-in; was I not in the most awful-awful (wonderful-wonderful) position to fall completely head over heels for this movie? And I did, I LOVED it. I’m shocked I didn’t start a diary that night and cry dance around my childhood room to the soundtrack. But even if I did, I can’t just write it all off so quickly because, and I don’t say this without a cursory understanding of the implications…Garden State changed my life.
Go ahead, come at me, hipsters. Say what you want, you boutique agency creative directors, and post-modern graffiti artists, and you too, snapback wearing baristas, cause I’m not afraid anymore! Garden State changed my life!
For starters, it introduced me to the earnest Indie movie genre. Before that, it was all summer blockbusters and Brad Pitt. It also introduced me to Indie music, the magical land that laid beyond the realm of Top-40 radio, watered-down alternative acts, and club hits. Garden State also validated a sense of loss I felt about leaving behind institutional education, and my lack of direction or purpose about what to do next. Before that I was putting on a brave face as I procrastinated towards an eventual job I would undoubtedly hate and work at until I died – but Garden State showed adventure and purpose within that transient anxiety. And finally, and most importantly, Garden State helped me get married. Wait, WHAT?! Yep you actually just read that. Watching this movie actually (helped) encourage me to reach back out to a long-distance, ex-love interest to try and rekindle what still felt unfinished. And even crazier, that ex-love interest is now my wife of nearly 6 yrs. So, as much as this movie’s proximity to my real-life marriage makes me want to throw a shame party from now until forever… I have to accept that (cough, mumble) Garden State kinda helped me get married.
But then again why is that a shameful thing anyways? I mean don’t get me wrong, it clearly is, but why? The tragedy of historical criticism, like the kind found in this very blog, and scattered willy nilly by those who express opinions on the internet, is that it’s far too easy to view our artifacts (movies, music, art, tv shows, clothes, books, whatever) strictly through the present tense. And when the emotion that accompanied watching this movie, or listening to a certain song, or surrounding a beloved piece of clothing fades, it’s easy to dismiss the artifacts along with it. Without that genuine emotion, it’s a quick step to the dismissive conclusion that loving or hating or worshiping what you did back in the day was sooo stupid or sooo weird or silly or embarrassing. I can’t believe I did that, what was I thinking?!
And this recency bias isn’t just for us in the audience, artists go through it too. I heard an interview with Radiohead’s, Thom Yorke, where he was discussing the band’s first hit, “Creep” which came out in 1992, and he spoke to how hard it is to rationalize that he even wrote that song because he feels so removed from it in every way. And in the face of fans continuing to love “Creep” and attribute it to him, he has actually grown to despise it. Given this, I start to wonder if maybe things would be different for Garden State or for Creep if they never became popular in the first place? Maybe obscurity would safeguard them from our judgmental retrograding and they could remain cherished relics in the past?
This feels a little like when the small, little known thing you found early-on gets popular, be it a band, a movie, a style of clothing, and as it stops being your thing and becomes something shared, your feelings change, not because that thing changed, but because the way it made you feel begins to fade, i.e., you’re not more special, or more creative, or smarter, after all, you’re still kinda, a little bit like everyone else. On one hand, this makes sense, we like what we like because of the way it makes us feel, and we want to feel special. But while evolving and changing tastes are bound to happen, they shouldn’t come at the cost of undermining the past. Our former artifacts, which we may be embarrassed of, and call silly, or weird, or stupid, are still formative and can leave lasting, positive legacies long after they’ve lost their popular cultural appeal. So don’t be so quick to discount Garden State, or your former obsession with 98°, or that faux hawk you sported for a little too long, or how all your clothes were from Abercrombie, or what you wrote in white out on your backpack or any of your other personal artifacts, because you may owe them quite a bit more than you realize, maybe even your marriage.