On Art and Policy

This is a parable, on the subject of music and movies and critics and expectations and politics, and maybe about seeing the glass half full.

I went to college with a young man I grew to detest. This may be a failure on my part, not his. We had a long acquaintance and over the course of years his personality and persona grated on me. He was an earnestly painful fan of the painfully earnest kind of art that aims for transcendence and arrives at pretension. To him it was the aiming that mattered, the daring, and not the doing. He really believed in things without having seen them. Our mutual good-will and affability could take us only so far.

I largely don’t believe things a priori. I believe however well-intentioned and manifestly brilliant a thought experiment is, it has failed to consider or account for everything. This belief is well supported by the historical evidence. One can look at this negatively, as a Hayekian knowledge problem, but I see it as a positive commentary on the creativity inherent in humanity. Like single drops of water wearing down mountains on the way to the sea, the sheer volume of individual choices made every day leads inevitably, if tumultuously, towards something resembling ‘progress’.

So when this young man raved about Vanilla Sky I was mostly silent. I liked that movie too, but for vastly different reasons. I enjoyed the discussion of self-determination and self-denial; he loved the sense of helpless beauty. He loved writing short stories about sad and feckless people receiving grace through pity, when I thought they all needed, in some order, a strong drink and a hard job. He over-used ‘deserve’ and objected to my talk of ‘earn’. When he raved about Garden State, I was hopefully skeptical.

I’m not sure what other people think about Garden State. It has almost 165,000 fans on Facebook, and an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. It has undeniable beauty in some shots, and I don’t mean only the ones with Natalie Portman. It’s also obvious that in some critical circles, Garden State is a byword for lazy, simplistic, formulaic, and regrettably popular. A.V. Club writer Steven Hayden thinks the movie effectively killed one of his favorite songs, and bands:

Now I can’t play “New Slang” without thinking of three scenes from Garden State that conjure a seething hatred in my belly normally reserved for improv comedy troupes and people who insist that Bob Dylan covered Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower.” They are:

1. The scene where Natalie Portman says, “You know what I do when I feel completely unoriginal? I make a noise or do something no one has ever done before, and then I can feel completely unique again.” Then she makes a noise and does something with her arms. Surprisingly, a sniper’s bullet doesn’t pierce her brain immediately afterward.

2. The scene where Zach Braff is finally able to cry over mistakenly causing his mother’s paralysis as a child, and Portman saves his tear in a little jar. Inexplicably, a two-ton anvil doesn’t immediately fall from the sky and crush them into oblivion.

3. The scene where Braff, Portman, and Peter Sarsgaard yell into a big gorge while standing in the rain like a bunch of catharsis-seeking fucking imbeciles.

There are dozens of examples where hearing a song in a movie enhanced my love of that song. But hearing “New Slang” in Garden State is the only instance I can think of where a movie irrevocably ruined a piece of music I loved.

Steven is writing a series called “Song and Vision”, and the New Slang/Garden State entry is fascinating. He talks about the breakup of The Shins, who’s second album, Oh, Inverted World is outstanding. I love “New Slang”. It’s easy, jangly guitar is soothing and grating; it promises peace, but won’t promise it will be easy. Later, Steven writes of The Shins’ breakup:

It was as if [lead singer] Mercer could no longer pretend that he was making music just for himself, and was obsessed with living up to the ridiculously lofty claims of an imaginary nitwit invented by the guy from ScrubsWincing The Night Away ended up sounding simultaneously over-thought and inconsequential, “a lovely and well-executed album and—for the first time in the band’s career—nothing more,” in the words of Pitchfork’s Matt LeMay.

He blames Zach Braff for all this, and he may be right. But Braff wasn’t intentionally making a shitty movie. Everything suggests he was making the kind of serious-yet-silly movie my old friend would obviously be drawn too. In that sense, Steven and my friend are similar. He wants The Shins to realize their manifest destiny, and their failure has colored his appreciation for one of the best songs of the 2000’s. The flop of Garden State is a blemish he can’t ignore. He should. Hayek wrote on our commitment to ideals:

Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.

The objective facts are that Mercer stopped making great music, and made music that was merely decent. Steven’s probably correct in that Mercer moved to making music to live up to some ridiculous but earnest ideal instead of his own subjective standards.

I take that as proof that subjectivity is more important that the kind of serious good intentions too which we often fall prey. Stephen, like my old friend, seems to see it as a failing of the market, instead of a failing of an ideal. Instead of lamenting the great songs The Shins never wrote, Steven should celebrate the one(s) they did. I can still listen to “New Slang” and feel the same excited apprehension, the same relaxing exhilarating raw jolt.

And that’s why I had to leave my old friend behind. He was never going to face facts.

Postscripts-

1) I asked two close friends “how would you react if a man told you he loved Garden State?” Their reactions:

“Mmm. Well, I AM glad you survived testicular cancer but I’m afraid I have to end this convo and talk to this thing I just found on the floor…”

and

“To pat him on the shoulder and tell him not the let the mean ol’ world get him down. Because I would presume he has no direction in life. And sighs a lot on the inside.”

2) I also enjoy improv comedy if done well. I think people who confuse the Dylan and Hendrix versions should be killed for the good of the species.

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5 Responses to On Art and Policy

  1. Peter says:

    Isn’t this what Zach Braff is most famous for? Great soundtrack albums attached to completely unwatchable movies. I’ve never even seen “The Last Kiss,” but the soundtrack is great!

  2. Aaron says:

    I’ve never seen it either. I get my dose of decent Braff-soundtrack songs from “Scrubs”. Had Colin Hay songs on quite a lot!

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