By Bryan Newbury
November 18, 2009
Recently, The New York Times ran a piece speculating upon what our thankfully nearly late decade should be dubbed. Among other ghastly appellations were The Era of Misplaced Anxiety and The Decade of Overshoot, to say nothing of the North going South and The Decade of Disruptions. Watching The Garden while looking back at the aughts, one is tempted to leap to hyperboles of wickedness so pernicious that he might be accused of striking at least a passing resemblance to the Yahwist.
The past decade has been nothing if not a paean to fiendishness. Attempts to define it and label it fall short not for lack of nuance; rather, these years burden the sensibilities with iniquities every bit as vile as they are complete that they bewilder the observer beyond reason. If one is inclined to bemoan the violations of American empire against its subjects and enemies, he is bound to recognize the equally dreadful thoughts and actions of the victims. As Wall Street speculated away the wealth of many nations, it did so with the consent of its victims, who were hoping for a share in the Sachs spoils. This decade has been an age without victims… all have come well short of the glory, or so says the reporting.
The Garden goes further than any documentary of the decade in defining an age where everything good has suffered from the rot of unthinking avarice. The story is simple enough and much to familiar in narrative arc. To be as succinct as possible, there once was a community garden in South Central Los Angeles tended by its (largely Latino) residents with nearly transcendental results. The plot was purchased by the city from a developer, whose irredeemably black soul shall be dealt with presently, following the riots of 1992. As time went on, the land was observed to have a great value in graft by an unscrupulous city councilwoman and erstwhile community activist. The land was sold back to the contemptible fellow in an extralegal process with the help of the corrupt councilwoman and the clout of the nefarious activist in order to line their pockets.
It would be a pedestrian tale were it not for the fact that the South Central Farmers had done something that is all too rare in our age: they made something beautiful and good.
To recount the abhorrent acts of venality and violence that occur would do a disservice to a film that should be seen by all. It is difficult to watch at times and equally difficult to describe without resorting to sloganeering reminiscent of the Paris commune. What transpires is a depiction of solid, honest people – even when they are at their worst, even as they battle amongst themselves – being thrown to the rapacious hydra that has become fully evolved in our America: the three devouring heads of corporatism, cronyism and complacency.
The corporatism is easy enough to understand. Ralph Horowitz is a grasping bastard bereft of a soul that sells high and buys low (truth be told, sells same buys same, but with the passing of time the depiction fits, as does the rhyme) and eventually refuses to sell higher still because of his contempt for humanity. In short, a businessman.
Juanita Tate and Jan Perry were likely human at one time. Perry became involved in institutional politics, which inevitably corrupts. If there is doubt on that, research what your Congresspeople have received in contributions from insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists within the last few years. Tate saw her golden ticket and punched it after years of activism. The examples of Tate and Perry set against that of Horowitz clearly illustrate a growing cognitive dissonance in popular thought. Business is irreparably amoral and government is irrevocably unethical. Meanwhile, business and government present themselves as adversaries. Business creates wealth which government taxes and government manages to regulate while business prevaricates. This becomes pure theatre when both aspire to similar aims. So, is it complacency when the victims of business protest the government charged with protecting them and their counterparts wail about those same agents advancing their cause?
In many ways, yes. Even as we inveigh against self-important celebrities sticking their noses in issues of public policy, we ignore every plight that doesn’t draw a camera. (The Garden is replete with celebrity appearances, from Danny Glover and Darryl Hannah to Joan Baez and Willie Nelson.) It is only natural to be consumed with outrage as the film draws to a close, but how often are we speechless witnesses to crimes such as these? What use is any of it if, to borrow from Phil Ochs, it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends?
It is nearly impossible to encapsulate the topics orbiting around the basic story told by The Garden. To give an honest and in depth accounting of the racial issues would require more space than is available here. When the spectre of antisemitsm is raised in regard to Mr. Horowitz to a bemused group of Mexican Americans who are in jeopardy of losing something great they’ve created, when we see African Americans on both sides of the fight, when we see those African Americans endeavoring to steer the issue into a brown on black battle (one area among many that Dan Stormer distinguishes himself as both ethical and intelligent) and when we see the LAPD exercise their trademark brutality on the South Central Farmers it defies definition. It seems to simply be, which might be the ultimate indictment on us, our decade, our species.
The Garden is a morality tale equally simple and multi-faceted where evil prevails. It reminds this reviewer of a Woody Guthrie statement that new and better curse words are required to describe certain people. It is a ballad depicting the conflict between verdancy and decency with the bankrupt ideology of mammon, the clash of humanity and saurian predation. Hopefully, it is the coda to a decade marred with needless acquisitiveness and an instructive document informing us of how we’ve gone wrong. In any event, it is as useful an interpretation of where we are and how we got there as the medium is likely to give us.
Written & Directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy
2008, Color, 80 minutes