Counterpoint: In Defense of "Garden State"

El of My Amusement Park agrees with me that it’s silly to criticize Garden State for using music to convey emotion:

If you are a filmmaker (or editor or music supervisor) and you have a weaker scene, or even just a scene that could be vastly improved by a masterful choice of music, your job is to put kickass music behind that scene. Duh. Music is one of a filmmaker’s tools.[…]

Garden State is a VERY interior film. While Braff could have gone the “Interiors” route of Woody Allen, using no music, and making an unwatchable film, he didn’t. He chose to use music to turn the film inward, to show an exterior landscape, but to allow the viewer to hear the interior landscape.

Of course, I’m utterly mad for the divine Ms. El. But then she has to go and show me up:

My adored Ampersand comments on the Pandagon post and notes:

In the comments of Pandagon, “The J Train” calls Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State a “vagina ex machina” character, which she defines as “the beautiful, together, inexplicably single woman who just seems to fall out of the sky in front of the protagonist.”

This reminds me of my student the other day who pretended to have viewed the film for class, but referred to the main character as a “he” though the protagonist was, in fact, unmistakably a woman, and a movie star to boot. I don’t know if “The J Train” saw or remembers Garden State. One thing Natalie Portman’s character is NOT is “together”. She’s a total mess. It completely understandable that she’s single. She’s a total mess. She doesn’t fall from the sky. She’s a total mess, he’s a total mess, they meet at the doctor’s office to take care of that.

(Also, shouldn’t feminists be a bit alarmed by a phrase like “inexplicably single”? Doesn’t it kind of indicate that the only reason a woman would be single is because she’s damaged goods?)

I haven’t seen Garden State since it was in theaters, so it’s very likely that I’m mistaken and El is correct on this point.

Also, Olive says that Garden State does pass The Alison Bechdel test : “Natalie Portman’s character and her mother discuss a dead hamster.” (But is the hamster male?)

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5 Responses to Counterpoint: In Defense of "Garden State"

  1. 1
    Decnavda says:

    OK, if you NEED to change the name of the Mo Movie Measure, & I’m not sure you do, come up with something else. Reading the update on the original MMM post, Alison Bechdel is quoted as stating that she “stole” it from a friend, Liz Wallace, whom she credited by sticking her name in a movie marque in the strip. You could name it after Wallace, but she is unlikely to be famous enough for people to get the reference. The Dykes Movie Test might have other connotations, as might the Aliens Movie Test. (“Aliens” was mentioned in the strip as the only recent movie to pass the test: The two women talked about the monster.) Plus, I think requiring that the two women have names is a good addition to keep. Fankly, I vote for sticking with the Mo Movie Measure misnomer.

  2. 2
    BStu says:

    I just watched “Garden State” for the first time a few months ago, and I have to agree with El’s characterization. She is definetly portrayed as being measurably “off”. Nevertheless, I would arguee that this is an adjustment to the “Vagina deus Machina” prototype and not refutation of it. For THIS film, the perfect girl would be a bit of a mess. This just maintains her equillibrium with the male character status. Still (just so I can flip-flop yet again in a single paragraph), I don’t think one can disqualify her as a potential protagonist in this story. Many films have far more obvious VdM’s than Garden State. I think it would be foolish to suggest that Braff’s character isn’t the primary protaganist, but Portman’s character is hardly a passive observer, either.

  3. 3
    Sage says:

    On manipulative music – I think Garden State does a good job with the tunes, but I understand the earlier post about using music in lieu of character development or more complex ways to further the plot. Personally, this will make some enraged, but I hated Lost in Translation. I did laundry and read the paper while I watched, it was so boring. I didn’t give a hoot about either self-absorbed character. But at the end, when they’re in the street and the music swells, I got all teary-eyed. That’s music manipulation.

    I think the girl-guy match-up actually worked really well. They were both a bit broken and helped one another through their struggles. The thing that bugs me about Garden State though is the idea that a guy can be a regular consumer of a daily handful of anti-psychotic meds, then go off them all at once with no adverse effects. Ya, that’s believable.

  4. 4
    Daran says:

    A hamster isn’t a man (but does her mother have a name?)

    I agree that you shouldn’t change the name of the measure. As for the requirement that the characters be named, how much difference would that make?

    And just what is a vagina ex machina when its at home? It sounds like a Fleshlite.

  5. 5
    EL says:

    Wow, it’s an honor to get so much attention. :)

    I hadn’t thought about the Mo Movie Measure on this one, but, hey, a hamster counts!