Yes, the theme for the next Flower Show, in 2015, is Hollywood, or the movies, or something related to that. Seems like they haven’t actually come up with a consistent title yet. Nevertheless, it is my favorite subject!
Before I tell you what I am planning on doing (and have been working on, already, for a month), let me put some thoughts down on the connections between gardens and movies. The choice of Hollywood movies might seem like simply a way to attract larger audiences but in fact they have much in common and contribute some similar things to our culture. I want to discuss movies not as an inspiration for a garden design but movies as the same kind of cultural entity as gardens.
As a gardener and as an academic who teaches and publishes about film, I offer these comments:
Plants and movies, gardening and special effects, compost and Action!: if ever there were two things that did not seem to belong together it is the world of gardening and the universe of Hollywood movies. And yet, one of the greatest box office hits of all time, Avatar (2009), is all about a world in which plants, trees, and animals all connect to create a living universe. The threat to the plants and the trees is from greedy industrialist types and the defense of the home-tree, the source of all that is powerful and balanced, is by the native population and an idealistic military veteran. Avatar, and all popular movies, have a great story that connects the audience to bigger themes and ideas: what does it mean to be human, what is our connection to nature, how do we survive in a world filled with evil and greed?
And gardening? The best gardens, like a good movie, tell a story. They pull you through a landscape with the promise of more elements that tie together to suggest possibilities for the future (what will grow and bloom) and laments about the past (what has faded or never appeared). Movies and gardening share one of the defining human qualities, storytelling, and that is what connects them in unexpected ways.
The impulse to narrate, Jonathan Gottschall has explained recently in his best selling book (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, 2013), help us make sense of a complex and contradictory world. We not only absorb endless stories through music, television, movies, books, advertising, sports, and yes, gardening, but we also shape everything we say and do into a narrative format. Try to walk though the garden of a passionate plant lover and see if you only end up hearing just technical details about the plants. It is more likely that you will hear long and elaborate stories about a plant’s origin, its childhood and growth spurts, its fears and triumphs, it’s connection to the gardener’s personal history.
Movies do the same thing. They are first and foremost stories (and to judge them as simply an art form or as a reflection of history is a grave mistake). As stories, movies show us endless possible worlds that we will never inhabit or visit, that are too dangerous or too far-fetched to ever enter. They are like the gardening books and seed catalogs of culture: providing dreams of what could be but which we are never likely to achieve. This is not a failure but the wonderful dynamic of human life: the stories make imagination possible and the exercise of imagination makes gardens, movies, and life grow and provide delight.
There are thousands of movies that specifically involve plants, gardens, greenhouses, seeds, and nature and in these movies we can see these threads between narrative, gardens, and movie viewing even more clearly. One of the most memorable is Being There (1979) in which a simple gardener becomes a political powerhouse through a series of misunderstandings. In Signs (2002), symbols carved into cornfields attract alien invaders. In Field of Dreams (1989), a cornfield is plowed under and made into a magical baseball field. The Astronaut Farmer (2007) showed the power of dreams and as did Green Card (1990) which featured the most envious greenhouse in New York. Wizard of Oz (1939), Alice in Wonderland (2010 and 1951), and The Secret Garden (1993) all utilize magical gardens, plants, or talking flowers to tell their stories.
Monster plants are featured in Little Shop of Horrors (1986), The Thing from Another World (1951), The Happening (2008), and Day of the Triffids (1963). In animated films, gardens and plants have been key components of animated stories. In Wall-E (2008), a plant is the indicator that life on a devastated planet Earth can begin anew. A Bug’s Life (1998) and Antz (1998) both feature a colony of ants in a gigantic plant world. In Wallace and Gromit’s 2005 The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, a gardening competition compels the eccentric action. In Epic (2013), humans are shrunken to enter the plant world. Ice Age (2002), while short on plants, does feature “the last melon” in a hilarious battle. Shrek (2001) lives in a swamp with his sidekick Donkey and have several memorable scenes with flowers and plants. Over the Hedge (2006), Chicken Little (2005), Chicken Run (2000), Toy Story (1995), and Up (2009) all make use of garden scenes and adventures.
Gardens and movies are both places for adventure and imagination, for impossible dreams to come true, and for heartbreaking stories to evolve. Just because one is a bit dirty and the other projected on clean screens does not mean they are so different. Both are ways of telling stories that make us human and that we need to share to confirm our humanity.