Some films move beyond entertainment and open the door to some great thinking and conversation.
Garden State is that kind of movie. On the way home we had already begun talking about leading a film study of this movie in our community group at church.
I liked the movie on its own merits. The actors (especially Zach Braff and Natalie Portman) are outstanding – their characters have authenticity that a lot of movies lack. They just seem very real. You might know these people, they may live in your neighborhood.
The movie is also pretty funny at times. One disclaimer however: Those of you who are turned off by rough language may want to take a pass or wait for a TV-edited version. There is some profanity (it’s not as bad as many films, but definitely present), and there is some other unwholesome content (like drug use).
Ultimately, though, I think the movie is worth seeing. It might even be a rather profound treatment of the human condition.
Garden State is a film that is essentially an exposition of Existentialism.
Existential philosophy is rather recent (last 150 years or so) and is a response to and result of the cold emptiness of Naturalism (the belief that matter is all that exists, the universe is a closed box, etc.).
The film opens with a scene where Andrew Largeman, the protagonist played by Zach Braff, is on an airplane that is crashing. Everybody around him is panicking and crying and generally freaking out, but Andrew sits placidly staring straight forward. He is aware of what is going on around him, but does not seem to care. He calmly raises his hand to adjust the air circulation as the plane is going down. Of course he is dreaming, but the metaphor is clear. What’s happening doesn’t matter. He cannot do anything about the impending crash, but he can try to make himself comfortable until it happens.
Life is meaningless
The whole first half of the film shows the meaninglessness and emptiness of life for everyone in the movie. It is shallow and pointless. So really the movie begins with Nihilism. The Nihilist, you see, has followed Naturalism to its logical conclusion in realizing that without the transcendent there is no real meaning to existence. In other words, there is nothing deeper or bigger than the matter of the universe; there is no organizing principle (or Person) to endow the universe or any particular conglomeration of matter in it (like a human being) with any kind of meaning or value. (Neither is there any morality or anything of the sort). You don’t ultimately matter and what you do doesn’t really mean anything; you just are. And one day you won’t be.
Now this is pretty depressing stuff, and you can tell that Andrew Largeman is going through the motions of life but does not care anymore. He has the same blank stare throughout most of the early part of the film. Now I said this film was about Existentialism, not Nihilism, and here’s why.
Avoiding the Abyss
There is a fairly well known image in such philosophy of an infinite abyss – an image of the universe, of life, of whatever. Most people inherently know its there, ready to swallow them up. In fact, they are drowning in it. They know, deep inside, that life is ultimately devoid of purpose and hope, but they refuse to admit it.
They try to hide from that reality; they distract themselves with all kinds of things, they fill up their time with trivial pursuits and diversions in order to avoid ultimate questions and ultimate reality. Surely you can see how this characterizes so much of our culture.
In Garden State, we see some people distract themselves with drugs and alcohol, others use and prescribe medication to kill the pain, some distract themselves with vanity, some just seem to waste away. Largeman’s mother apparently commits suicide (not giving anything away here, he gets the news at the film’s beginning). His father pines away for a chance for everyone to just be happy.
Incidentally, in this inner dread and knowledge of the abyss we find a parallel in Reformed theology. John Calvin talked about the fact that every man has within himself knowledge of his Creator, having been made in his image. He calls this the “sensus divinitatus,” the sense of the divine. Yet because of sin and depravity, he seeks to suppress it and kill it because he hates God and wants to avoid owning up to Him.
So, this sense of inner dread and suppression of “known” reality exists in both Existential and Christian thinking, though obviously they point to completely opposite ultimate realities.
The Existential Hero – the Super Man
The existentialist is the man who decides to shake himself loose from this kind of meaningless half-life. According to James Sire, the goal of existentialism is “to transcend nihilism.” While of course this is, for the existentialist, impossible to accomplish in the “objective” world, it can happen in subjective experience. In other words, you can’t do anything about the world and the pointless nature of your life because ultimately it really doesn’t matter, but you can create your own meaning in your life.
For the existentialist, the courageous man is the man who stares straight into the abyss and defies it. He shakes his fist at it and screams against it. “I will create meaning in the midst of meaninglessness! I will dare to value and feel like this life matters even when it doesn’t!” Or something along those lines.
In the film, this comes across in a very, very clear way. While others continue meandering through a junkyard (or a quarry?) and turn away from the abyss, Largeman climbs atop something and stares down into it and screams.
The metaphor is, frankly, too over the top. It could stand to be more subtle here, but the filmmakers apparently want to make sure we get it. The message is crystal clear.
(It’s worth noting, in discussing this scene, that we learn that many want to cover the abyss with a big shopping mall? For our culture, that’s a very common way to hide and gloss over it – to cover it with vain and silly distractions like shopping or sports.)
Andrew Largeman has become the super man.
Having achieved this breakthrough, Largeman confronts his father, who just wants them to be happy. He challenges his dad to own up to the fact that they may not ever be happy. They may just be OK, and that’s OK.
He decides to stop taking the medication his father prescribes for him because he wants to feel again, even if it hurts sometimes. (He desires to lead the subjective life, the existentialist might say.) He wants to create meaning in his life.
At the end of the film, you see a montage of various characters alone in their meaningless existence. It is pathetic. Until Largeman steps out and decides to create meaning NOW, to take control of his life and make it into something.
And here, incidentally, is where the character’s name comes from: Large Man. He is the large man, the super man, the overcoming man who boldly confronts reality and waves his meager fist at it defiantly.
Existentialism and the Bible
The really interesting thing, for me, about Existentialism is that it is mostly right.
Without the hope of God in Christ, without the meaning, purpose, and transcendence that God brings us, the existentialist is exactly right. Life is devoid of meaning. There is a gnawing sense that something isn’t right, that there ought to be more. Instead of resigning ourselves to create our meaning, though, the biblical answer is to embrace the real and eternal life that our Creator has offered us in Christ (the realsuper man).
That, unfortunately, is what Andrew Largeman does not get. He does not have to make up his own value or story to give meaning to life; he can turn to find that value real and present in Jesus Christ, and live significantly by living in and by the story of Jesus.
Perhaps he missed it because nobody was there to tell him.