I liked Garden State when it came out. I liked the soundtrack, filled to the brim with half-remembered buzzbands (what’s the world going to be like when The Shins are on the oldies station?). In 2004 Garden State felt fresh and kind of like a tonic for a lot of the angst we were feeling. It’s important to remember that art doesn’t debut in a bubble, and it’s really, really important to remember how discombobulated we all were in the years right after 9/11, when we were first getting into the horrible morass of the Middle East. Hell, man, we re-elected George W. Bush that year. This should give you a baseline to understand just how screwed up we were as a country at the time.
But revisiting Garden State is like revisiting pictures of yourself when you’re 12 or 13, that age where you’re first trying to be cool. I remember that age, when I was trying to learn how to breakdance, much to the amusement of all the cool Puerto Rican kids in my neighborhood. I’m glad there are no pictures of me trying to pop and lock at that age because HOLY SHIT that would be mortifying to see now.
Going back to Garden State is a cringe-inducing experience, a revelation of how foolish you were only a decade ago. Unlike my clumsy foray into spinning on a flattened cardboard box, Garden State isn’t bad. It’s a well-made movie, and Natalie Portman and Peter Sarsgaard are both excellent in it. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s well-made that makes it all the worse; while I was fooling around on the street corner failing at breakdancing, Garden State is the rich kid whose parents had the Rock Steady Crew come in to show him how it’s done. Garden State has the moves, but not the soul.
It’s a slick, self-centered piece of white privilege wank, a scream into the abyss of narcissism. It feels like a throwback to the 90s, a post-Cold War time when we all thought history was over and that Generation X was doomed to be the generation tasked with the thankless job of waiting for the future to come. The 90s was a time when the economy was so good, the world so seemingly on the right track, that we all just disappeared up our own assholes and got super sad about our parents breaking up and discovering a generational ethos of ‘Why bother.’ Garden State is the last rallying cry to motivate that slacker generation, a movie that mistakes the navel-gazing of Gen Xers for some kind of profundity.
That slickness is what makes me recoil at the movie now. It’s so calculated, so designed to hit buttons, so manipulative* that I wonder how I could have ever been so blind. In 2004 I wanted to believe so much - I wanted to believe in the return of an indie youth cinema, I wanted to believe in a new wave of cool music, I wanted to believe that the slo-mo disintegration of the world was just a temporary glitch and that we could all soon get back to worrying just about ourselves and whatever part of us fit that dopey metaphor of screaming into the garbage pit - that I threw all of my belief into this film. I feel like Zach Braff took advantage of me.
It comes back to Zach Braff, who finds himself in the very center of a large and hopefully endless backlash. Braff today isn’t the Braff of 2004, and that’s important to remember. Scrubs wasn’t yet a nine season juggernaut that wouldn’t die, it was still a smaller show that was beloved by critics and certain fans but wasn’t a top ten hit. I don’t know if it’s a trick of memory, but I recall being worried from season to season that maybe Scrubs wouldn’t be back the next year. Scrubs is much more what I wanted Garden State to be - a silly, fun and ultimately human and emotionally vulnerable story about young people. Braff making the jump from that show, where we had come to love him, to directing felt like a big leap, like a new talent exploding.
Over time, though, Braff has inexorably morphed into something else. No longer a sign of a new wave, he became the symbol of how the same old maudlin shit gets made with hipper songs. The sensitivity that felt refreshing in 2004 quickly became cloying. And as Scrubs rolled on, Braff became a corporate mascot. His face stopped being friendly and became an advertisement for reruns.
And then came the Kickstarter. I honestly think that Braff would have just sailed on as an uncool icon if he hadn’t done the fucking Kickstarter. Scrubs reruns had endeared him to a new younger generation who latched on to him the way my generation latched on to Gilligan or Jack Tripper, and Garden State became one of those movies we didn’t much talk about. Hey, cool if you like it but please don’t remind me that I once did (in a lot of ways Garden State is our ex, a person we hooked up with during a particularly vulnerable time and now look back at with no small sense of horror). If Zach Braff had just made another mandolin-scored indie movie we would have lobbed some joked and moved on. But the Kickstarter. The Kickstarter!
By the time Braff decided to Kickstart some funds for his second movie he had become a rich media guy. When Garden State came out he was scrappy, but in 2013 he was the kind of entrenched figure against whom the scrappy guy scraps. And in the years since Garden State our tastes in indie cinema had changed a bit. They had become a bit more sophisticated (if still susceptible to bald-faced emotional manipulation). When Braff showed up with the same kind of fucking twee whimsy he had a decade ago, and then asked people to help pay for it… well, this is how backlashes are born.
What Zach Braff makes is essentially whitesploitation films, movies aimed directly at the suburban lizard brains of slightly disaffected honkies who will never know true trouble, just the nagging sense that things should be easier for them than they already are. And in the decade since Garden State we’ve kind of outgrown that. We’ve started calling this stuff ‘White People Problems’ and ‘First World Problems,’ and we’ve realized it’s pretty fucking gauche to go on and on about them. Sure, you can still make these movies (and Fox Searchlight might even distribute them for you), but we all understand that they’re $14 million faux-indies that are guaranteed a nice placement at Sundance and that let actors feel okay about taking big paychecks for superhero movies. And we all understand that you pay for these things the way movies are always paid for, not using the funding model for people who are outside of the system, people who face actual adversity when trying to get their vision accomplished. People who, basically, don't have nine seasons of sitcom royalties.
Braff’s further sin was that he admitted he didn’t even need the money (and not personally. No one should ever self-finance a movie, no matter what their residual checks look like). He could get his movie made in the standard system - he just couldn’t get it made the way he wanted to get it made. So he needed you, his Shins-bumping fanbase, to help him out. Zach Braff basically didn’t want to take notes from a studio, and he asked other people to put up the money so he didn’t have to take those notes. Martin Scorsese works within this system, but not Zach Braff.
This is privilege. This is the face of privilege. It’s what people are backlashing against, basically. Yeah, his art is saccharine fluff aimed at people who think smart watches and Google Glass are cool ideas, but who cares. There’s a lot of that out there. Most of the mid-level indie crap out there fits that definition. No, what makes Braff special, and what has earned him this backlash, is his insistence that his brand of saccharine fluff cannot be altered by others, that it must be taken pure, and that he’d like others to pony up for it.
Braff basically made himself the face of crowdsourcing entitlement. He’s not alone: this week there was a woman who crowdfunded three thousand dollars to go to Comic-Con because she was sad and had recently lost her job. One of the reasons she gave for needing to go was that she had an invite to a Mythbusters party. She raised the money in an afternoon, and last I checked was way, way over her goal. They’re sides of the same coin, people who probably could do this stuff another way but have chosen not to because they’re special and they deserve special treatment. They’re entitled to your help.
I’m sure Zach Braff is a nice guy (well, I’m not sure, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt).A lot of the backlash has taken on a personal tenor, which is too bad, although you look at this guy’s face and he just radiates smugness, so it’s hard not to kind of get personal. And in many ways Braff has made it personal, positioning himself as a representation of a generation or two. Zach Braff briefly represented an aspect of a generation in 2004, and he’s doing it again in 2014. But now it’s the ‘crowdfund my bills’ aspect of this generation, the people who digitally panhandle because what do you expect, them to go without the stuff they want?
What do you expect, a talent like Zach Braff to make his movie within the funding structure to which he has easy and immediate access? By the way, Braff's movie, made to his vision, is currently at 32% on Rotten Tomatoes.
* and yes, all movies are by definition manipulative. But some are more cynically so than others. Some earn your emotional reactions, some conspire to drag them out of you.