[22 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The romantic effort - literary, cinematic, or otherwise - typically gets a raw deal, and with good reason. The story of boy meeting girl, boy wooing girl, girl accepting boy, boy and girl having fun (and perhaps something more), boy and girl breaking it off and then attempting some kind of reconciliation has been the bread and butter for filmmakers, songwriters, and novelists alike. No matter the twists and turns in the paradigm, the formula stays pretty much the same - and that’s part of the problem. Decades of derivative, similarly styled offerings have taken all the heart out of the genre. Even with the occasional narrative twist, the same old stuff happens to a very familiar group of people. Not in Giuseppe Andrews world, of course. The provocateur of the impoverished has taken the moldy old format and shown all wannabe auteurs how to bring the heart - and the humanity - back to the typical couples skate. In Our Garden is the amazing result.
Daisy is devastated. Her boyfriend recently committed suicide in their “garden” - a loving reference to the beach volleyball court where they first met. Unable to find happiness, she’s lost in a world of borderline insanity. One day, police officer Rick stops by her trailer. He is the one who found her dead lover, and hopes he can make a connection with the grieving gal. Sure enough, they become an item, which irks toupee-wearing Bill to no end. He’s the father of the man who killed himself, and he wants Daisy as well. As the suitors maneuver for her affections, our heroine is confused. She has strong feelings for both of them. Then Rick drops a personal bombshell which violates her ever-present trust issues. As Bill moves in, our former cop turns to the bottle, and then crack cocaine. All he wants is a chance to get back into Daisy’s good graces. But unless something happens to Bill, that seems unlikely.
Leave it to the man who singlehandedly rewrote the rulebook on homemade cinema as art to take one of the most tired, derivative narrative archetypes in all of prose and punk it past the point of recognition. Long rumored to be an unflappable masterpiece, In Our Garden is all that - and much, much more. It’s an elegy to love lost, a sonnet to the simple pleasures of finding someone to share your life with. It’s not afraid of the physical and clearly in touch with the spiritual. With a limited cast that includes the sensational Gayle Wells, the brilliant Bill Nowlin, and the always engaging Walt Dongo, Andrews narrows his scope, the result being something overflowing with universal truths and wholly unique insights. Though his actors frequently do little more than read off intricate litanies to scatology and sin, the words paint painful pictures we usually don’t see in such Moon/June sputum.
For Andrews, the entire process of film is about realism - and not just because he uses the actual residents of a trailer park as his creative company. No, what fuels this fascinating artist is his direct connection to what makes people truly what they are. When Daisy explains what the word “crabs” means to her, we initially balk at the disgusting sexual sleaze. But as the monologue continues, we forget the freak show sentiments and start to see the accurate feelings beneath. Andrews is truly a genius of the written word, his scripts like beat poetry set to the tune of scandalous toilet humor frat rap. He’s dirty, but outwardly so, never avoiding a random call out of body parts and positions to keep his audience engaged and entertained. Then, just as we think he can’t get any more revolting, he twists the material to expose the real human emotions underneath.
It helps that In Our Garden offers three of his best double wide DeNiros. Dongo is always reliable, his hound dog haplessness covered nicely by a desire to be direct and honest. Similarly, Nowlin (even in an obviously inebriated state) spits out his anger in tiny little balls of bristling bile. As the man who helped Andrews become the living legend he is, his presence today is sorely missed. But it’s Ms. Wells who steps up and becomes this film’s levelheaded foundation. Having to carry most of the dialogue herself (especially when her co-stars are too tanked up to talk) and also hampered with carrying the conventional parts of the narrative, she delivers a turn so devastating in its poignancy that it’s hard to believe she is merely mimicking Andrews oddball screenplay. There is real genuineness in her elf-eared effigy, something that many Hollywood romances clearly lack.
By following a recognizable story structure (there is none of the William Burroughs inspired cut and paste editing from previous outings here) and letting the characters develop organically, Andrews turns the maudlin and mushy into something quite meaningful. Even a last act rape-reenactment - a bizarre attempt by Bill to win Daisy’s affections - has a symbolic statement to make. In essence, In Our Garden is about the lasting memories of love lost, love found, and love never meant to be. Daisy is clearly longing for some companionship, but it’s unclear if either Rick or Bill can provide it. They both seem so selfish, so insular in their affections that it’s hard to balance their profane poetics with the truth. It’s only after the inevitable break-up, where Rick descends into a horrific drug-fueled Hell (including a surreal stretch with a couple of friendly dealers) that we can see who truly carried the torch.
By including moments of sexual openness, including full frontal nudity and frank reproductive discussions, In Our Garden becomes a complete deconstruction of the foibles present in interpersonal relationships. It doesn’t shy away from the dealing with all aspects of affairs - the joy and the sorrow, the tenderness and the jealousy. By taking a well honed formula and tweaking its tired tenets, he creates yet another amazing statement in his considered creative canon. For someone so prolific to be so diverse in his talent targets speaks volumes for his continued relevance within the medium. Movies about love are a dime a dozen. In Our Garden takes those sentimentalized coins and actually buys something brave and unique. It’s a great, great film.