Life is not like the movies, especially when it comes to gardening. Looking after plants isn’t considered the stuff of high drama, suspense or action adventure, so the garden, in film, tends to be a setting, a symbol or an idea.
The 1993 version of “The Secret Garden,” for instance, might teach you a bit about renewal pruning. It might inspire you to design an elegant English garden for your yard — or tidy up the messy one you’ve got. But it’s really about healthy growth in children, in an age when outdoor exercise didn’t have to compete with the iPad.
On-screen, the practice of growing things often stands in for a cluster of wholesome qualities — patience, industriousness, the desire to nurture — giving us films like “Greenfingers,” in which a group of prison inmates makes a fine showing at an elite British flower show. In “The Karate Kid,” a sort of Zen bonsai lesson serves as a warm-up to the young hero’s training in martial arts (“Wipe your mind clean of everything but the tree”).
Every Western movie has its noble tiller of the soil, but he’s rarely the lead character. For that you need the determined hunchback in “Jean de Florette,” or the zealous Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath,” fleeing the barren Dust Bowl for the false promise of an agricultural Eden in California. The idea is stretched to parody in the wonderfully twisted “Being There,” in which Peter Sellers plays a sweetly imbecilic gardener. His simple utterances (“There will be growth in the spring”) are taken as economic forecasts by a world that gets its wisdom via the TV sound bite.
For the ultimate irony there’s the finale of “Godfather III.” After a life of horrific violence, Michael Corleone ends up puttering about in his garden, where he, and the trilogy, breathe their last.
I get a big kick out of movies that turn the garden into something utterly bizarre, like the bug’s-eye view of the lawn in “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” or the topiary created by “Edward Scissorhands.” If you’re weary of the stereotypical foundation plantings that march across the suburban houses of America, you cheered to the scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” in which Richard Dreyfuss un-landscapes the family home. Digging and flinging bushes left and right, he replaces them with a large earth-sculpted replica of Devil’s Tower. Does it take an inner command from space aliens to get us to break the mold and try something original? If you liked that bit, check out the one in “Little Shop of Horrors” in which Rick Moranis tries everything to get a languishing houseplant to thrive, then discovers it needs human blood. I’ve had gardenias almost that fussy.
Although surely no foliage was harmed in the making of these films, there’s a danger in taking their horticulture too seriously. I doubt that cinematic gardening consultants earn as much of the budget as pet wranglers and stunt doubles. Consider one of my favorite movies, “Saving Grace,” a hilarious tale in which Brenda Blethyn supports her high-maintenance English manor by growing pot. Her gardener has sited the plants beneath the shrubbery — good for their concealment, but hardly in line with their light requirements. Another great flick, “The Milagro Beanfield War,” pitted New Mexico villagers against corporate greed in their fight to preserve their land and their community. It culminates in the triumphant harvest of the eponymous beanfield, when the plants are about 8 inches high, with not a bean in sight. No matter. It’s still a good story.
Still, some movies should come with a special “D” rating, for “Don’t try this in your garden.” One night my husband and I had rented an enjoyable old film called “A Walk in the Clouds” about a Mexican family in the California wine country. There’s a credible moment in which the hero, Keanu Reeves, picks grapes with Giancarlo Giannini, and one in which the women lift their skirts high and tromp the grapes with their feet.
The most beautiful scene, romantically lit, shows everyone waving moth-like fans up and down between the vineyard rows, to move the air on a night when frost threatens. Then the whole place catches fire, the vines are destroyed, and the plot takes a nosedive into absurdity. Fearing that the mother vine from whence all the others came has been killed too, the farmers march to the top of the hill, and there’s the vine, black and smoldering. Keanu, bare-chested, muscles rippling, yanks it up, roots and all, with a mighty tug.
“IT LIVES!” shout the people.
“IT DID UNTIL YOU PULLED IT UP, YOU MORON,” shout Eliot and I, from our couch.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself, it’s just a movie.