He’s Just a Fast-Food Knight
One of the most useful ideas which spins off philosopher and cognitive scientist Margaret Boden’s categorisation of human creativity into the ‘P-creative’ and the ‘H-creative’, is that it asks us to value the P-creative far more than we might otherwise. P-creativity (the ‘P’ stands for ‘Psychological’) is the meat and potatoes of creative thinking. It’s the process each of us non-Leonardos and non-Newtons goes through in life. Our thinking is creative only within the context of our own lives. Pretty much every creative thing we might do, and every creative thing we might think, has been done before, or thought before, a gazillion times, and will be again a gazillion times. These things are — so says Boden — still creative because we couldn’t have done them, or thought them, before that point. Something in our lives or our thought processes changed, and we were suddenly able to tweak the rules we’d been using so far, and by so doing access conceptual spaces that are new to us. P-creativity is interesting primarily because it tell us something about what it’s like to be human. P-creativity is growing.
H-creativity (the ‘H’ stands for ‘Historical’) on the other hand, isn’t about what it means to be human. It’s about what it means to be one particular human – Leonardo, say, or Einstein. The sort of human who is capable of doing something, or thinking something, for the very first time among all humanity. It’s what we tend to think of — and to value — as truly creative. We scorn P-creativity as unoriginal, hackneyed, cliched. But we shouldn’t. By doing so we scorn what it’s like to be human.
Though Zach Braff’s hugely enjoyable Garden State might have some terrific jokes, it doesn’t have an ounce of H-creativity. There’s nothing in it that’s truly creative or original. But that’s okay. It’s actually a film about P-creativity, on at least two separate levels.
Braff’s thinly-autobiographical character, Andrew, travels home to New Jersey after a number of years away in LA, following his paraplegic mother’s accidental (though perhaps not) death by drowning. He eschews the cocktail of anti-depressants and other deadening medication that he’d been on since he was a small child, and gradually the colours and feelings and sights and sounds and people from his home come seeping, then flooding, back into his life. He’s then forced to confront a whole load of growing up very quickly. It’s a bit like one of those wonderfully cheesy moments at the end of a film in which some character’s aging is wilfully arrested, only to catch up on him during the denoument with a great whoosh of special effects. Andrew is forced to grow very quickly, and we watch him progress through the P-creativity that’s what growing up consists of. Stuff he couldn’t have known, or understood, until that moment. Cue a great deal — especially in the second half of the film — of slightly self-important and wow-heavy-man dialogue, but, well, that’s what growing up feels like. It’s largely the process of mistakenly thinking that our own tedious P-creativity is actually H-creative, and then becoming embarrassingly aware that, no, it’s just plain old P. Everyone else has already been there, done that, got the T-shirt.
That P-creative naivety infuses Braff as a film-maker too. He’s (way) young, and there’s going to be a confidence and precision about his work some time soon, but it’s not there yet. Garden State is full of ideas, and brimming with talent, but it’s a first album from a band that hasn’t quite decided what its sound is yet, and there’s no unity to the music. So what we see is Braff discovering techniques that are new to him, mixing and matching them with an enthusiasm and innocence that provides the film’s freshness. It’s a film made with a P-creative verve, about a kid who’s discovering what life’s like. And being P-creative — going through the same old rites of passage and naive missteps — is what it’s like, both as a film-maker and as a human being. Because life is new to us, and that’s the whole point.