THE MARCH BEFORE LAST, I started amassing plants. To use the word collecting would be inaccurate. Personal taste, rarity, or the thrill of acquisition had no terms in the matter. At the time, I didn’t care what their names were or where they came from. I inherited them from friends fleeing the city, found them on sidewalks or the discount aisles of small grocery stores. If it was green and growing, it got a spot on the window. The rationale, at first, was simple and perhaps dull: here were things I could safely touch. When I felt restless, I would get up, spray, and dab the dust off each leaf with a rag. I liked the slight shine each wipe exposed. I could have conversations with them like rich old white ladies in greenhouses. I could, it seemed, bring the outdoors inside.
Given these minimal requirements, I started looking into fake plants. As a child, I’d often stood in front of rows of fake food in display cases at Japanese restaurants, arrays of wigs at costume stores. Endless variety in faux, speaking to some kind of anticipation, a minor transformation. But unlike fake food or wigs, fake plants circumnavigate not cost or perishability, but care. And plants demand an odd sort of care. A fake pet would immediately draw comment, but fake plants go unnoticed. If you’re not an office, a hotel, or a corporation looking to cut costs, you get one because you’re looking for decor that won’t die. For some, a plant is aesthetic until it is not. I am no longer a plant killer, someone proclaims on an Amazon review.
In my search, I found that a guy I’d known in college had launched a startup a few years ago, Slightly Browning Fake Plants. Their tagline: “Fake plants look too good. We’re fixing that.” The venture hadn’t lifted off; they sold just one prototype, an orangey Boston fern named the 2 Week Vacation. But they got one thing right: we do tend to fetishize imperfection as some mark, some guarantee of the living. Poor try-hard perfect fakes, they seemed to say. Real ones drooped, oxygenized, browned, inched closer to death. I almost felt for the mass-manufactured plants, with their desperate symmetry, their aspirational sheen. Perhaps people didn’t want to buy a piece of plastic that was trying to look slightly but authentically sad.
“You don’t get to grow a face like mine, I guess, if you don’t know a lot about men’s faces.”
THE “PLANT” IN FILM NOIR is often human. Plants destabilize the ideas of agency and identity, introducing the notion of outside influence. Plants are not their own, as it were. Placed there by a bigger organization—the CIA, the Mafia—the responsibility of their crimes is not wholly their own. Except, of course, the plant’s acquiescence to become a plant in the first place. The plant’s purpose is to blend in and extract information (its little comrade is, of course, the surveillance bug), but it’s called, at times, to act, to mislead. At some point the plant’s actions and identity are called into question.
Plant stories hinge on a “reveal” (the non-shifty becomes shifty—“Is she a spy?”—then non-shifty again) and a potential transformation, in a way that recalls Hobbes’s concept of the artificial person: when a plant’s words and actions are “considered as his own,” as Hobbes would say, “then he is called a Naturall person,” but when one is “representing the words and actions of an other, then he is a Feigned or Artificiall person.” In other words, most noir operates on the belief that an impersonator can somehow return to his own person. But who are they, once we know who they are? What is a self outside outside influence? These questions are often too big for a film to answer; most times the plant gets swept into the gears of a marriage plot, or is killed off.
ROBERT ALTMAN’S The Long Goodbye opens with a cat who will not be fooled. Elliott Gould as ’70s L.A.’s Philip Marlowe awakens to the cat’s hungry cries and offers it cottage cheese and eggs. The cat stares at Gould: Are you kidding me? Gould obligingly drives to the grocery store and asks for Coury, the cat’s favorite brand of food. They’re out of it, and a sales clerk tells him to go with another brand: “All this shit is the same anyway.” Gould chuckles and drawls, “You don’t happen to have a cat by any chance?” The clerk says, sharply: “What do I need a cat for? I got a girl.” Gould goes home, shoves the cat out of the kitchen, takes out an empty can of Coury, and carefully fills it with the generic brand from the store. He then lets the cat in and makes a show of opening the Coury can, filling the bowl. You can imagine how this goes.
Shouldn’t it be possible to care for something without describing it to be just like us?
The Long Goodbye runs on a logic of copies and ill-fitting replacements. On one level, it’s a self-aware nod, the auteur’s hand grasping the baton of a line of Raymond Chandler film adaptations. A security guard appears throughout the film, doing impressions of Barbara Stanwyck and James Stewart. I get it, Altman seems to say: when you think of Marlowe, you picture Bogart, ’40s Hollywood. But that’s not the most satisfying explanation, if simply because there’s just so much play with substitutions within the film. There’s the Mexican cop who pronounces “colonel” as “coroner,” “deceased” as “diseased.” Or the real estate agent, in what would otherwise be a throwaway scene, cataloging items in a house: “Fake bird. Real nest.” At its heart, Altman’s impressions channel the fundamental concepts and tropes of mystery: What is compelling about the fake? Where do you encounter the real? How do we make distinctions between the two?
“When my husband disappears like this, I try to cover for him. Protecting his image, I suppose you can call it.”
THERE ARE NO PLANTS in Altman’s film in the traditional sense—no grand “reveals” of someone who’s not whom they’re supposed to be. Terry—who fakes his own death—appears at the start and reappears at the end, but the film doesn’t dwell on the details of his ploy, just the chain of events that it sets into motion. In place of the familiar conception of the plant, we are given two figures inextricably associated with the environment.
First, the man in the hothouse, the Hemingway-esque writer Roger Wade. For both Altman and Chandler, the hothouse evokes the crises of masculinity and the flaunting of wealth, a stage for flailing men who want to be seen to live large, but no longer can. In The Long Goodbye, Wade drunkenly keels over in the hothouse while reminiscing about his former exploits. By bringing the outdoors inside, he avoids facing the elements and, more important, forces the world to come to him. The greenhouse is a pocket annex of artificial American environment, a space where solitude becomes unnatural. (Think of Harold, the agoraphobic orchid lover in Twin Peaks, begging for Laura to come visit him.) The hothouses’ alternative name, “nurseries,” defines them as sites for the growth of little things. They are hiding places for men who cannot think of anything else besides the fact that they are no longer large.
Then there’s the opposite of the greenhouse man: the private eye, crouching in the bushes. He runs and kneels, rain-lashed and windburned, and, as Fredric Jameson notes about Chandler’s Marlowe, stands nostalgically at the threshold of different social worlds, “looking out of one world, peering vaguely or attentively across into another.” He too uses the plants to hide himself, to become indistinguishable, and is reluctant to emerge. In a way, Marlowe’s private eye is as anxious about being a man of action as the man in the hothouse. Despite Gould’s blasé attitude about most things (his tagline is, “It’s okay with me”), there’s a fear of being part of the skyline and never affecting anything. It’s okay until it isn’t.
In Altman’s film, this anxiety is expressed visually. Altman’s signature is the overlap—typically, the overlapping of conversations just to the brink of noise—but in The Long Goodbye it’s used to the most stunning effect as an image. Who can forget the sight of Marlowe’s reflection on the greenhouse window? Roger and Eileen Wade are inside, having a tense conversation, and as the camera looks in at their argument, Marlowe is simply a figure smoking on the beach. Because of the camera angle, his reflection on the glass blends with the worlds on either side. The concentrated dot of the dark figure smoking on the beach blurs with the shadow of the hothouse man, whose presence spreads thin and large from behind the windowpane. In the shot, then, both have achieved what they want: Wade suffocatingly large, Marlowe obscured by plants. Yet, as their reflections blur together, we see each become what the other most fears: Wade is sheer and opaque, and Marlowe is tiny. Unlike the noir plant—whose fundamental trajectory is that of change, of metamorphosis—both of these men are fundamentally ineffectual and stuck. They are fake plants that haven’t yet realized that they are fake plants. Crucially, neither of these men can see this. Only we can.
HORTI, an online plant shop based in Brooklyn, posts an anti-artificial manifesto on its website:
Houseplants have an archrival and it isn’t root rot or white mold or even your missed waterings. It’s fake plants—those unfortunate byproducts of our human obsession with greenery and the despair we have at taking care of it.
. . . [A]rtificial plants are lifeless, unmoving illusions of something else—always noticeably out of place in their environment because their natural habitat is a factory with molds, dyes and conveyor belts—not the comfort of your home. Faux greenery doesn’t need soil or water or sunlight to survive because it was never alive to begin with. But once they’re potted and placed in a corner, their presence feels like a taxidermied wild animal with glass eyes and empty lungs.
. . . They stand in their pots forever, unblinking and unfeeling—until they eventually get thrown in the garbage.
But do houseplants actually blink and feel? Isn’t the problem that we can’t seem to care for the environment without anthropomorphizing it—without “elevating” the status of a houseplant to that of a human? Shouldn’t it be possible to care for something without describing it to be just like us? Even if artificial plants have a presence similar to taxidermy, it is not the same—fake plants don’t carry the memory of a formerly dead thing, lovingly preserved. Fake plants are different; they never were dead, never will be. Unlike houseplants, which will wither without our care, fake plants speak to things continuing in our absence. And so, I can’t help but enjoy the strange language of the line—lifeless, unmoving illusions of something else—if only because that is literally what the movies are, down to the molds and dyes. Things unabashedly in plastic, giving us the illusion of something else.
Perhaps people didn’t want to buy a piece of plastic that was trying to look slightly but authentically sad.
THE ALLURE OF Gould’s Marlowe onscreen comes quick, in how he makes everything into an ignitable surface. He strikes a match against a plastic room divider at a grocery store, a TV screen at home, a cold windowpane; we see a thin bloom, then the lighted end of a cigarette. Part of the charm of watching him is the routine ease of it—he makes it look like a magic trick. Part of it is the charm of bricolage, or watching disaster movies; a cup that can be a lamp that can be fashioned into a makeshift amplifier. But the main draw in watching him, I think, is that he shows us friction at work. A cut through the air reveals different textures. Some dancers have this ability, of moving limbs and almost lighting the air on fire, without being edged with phosphorous. A hand lowers, and our brain reacts. Our bodies pull forward, feel the movement in our fingers. This, we think, is real, is irreplaceably, kaleidoscopically human—the gesture.
And yet we know that those who can dance can also break. Another character, the gangster Marty Augustine, plays with the concept of use, moves his hands with the logic of equivalences. As his crew is beating up Marlowe for money, Augustine’s lover comes in, telling him, like a scared child, that she heard noises in the dark. After comforting her and telling us how beautiful she is, Augustine drinks from a lukewarm Coke bottle, then smashes it against his lover’s perfect nose. Although the shock of the scene comes from how unexpected it is—the sudden beating of a childlike person, the ordinariness of the instrument—what makes it memorable is its juxtaposition against Marlowe’s louche movements. Where Marlowe strikes against—phosphorous against glass, friction—Marty strikes through. His bottle arcs toward the camera, and for a moment, it looks as though the screen has been smashed from the inside. Isn’t this what you wanted? A movement, spontaneous, un-passive?
This tension—the longing to be an exception to a system of equivalences, the search to find the real amid the fake, the violence of the beautiful fake—is at the heart of Altman’s work, here and elsewhere. In Nashville, his film about the country music industry—that overly reproduced genre—Keith Carradine takes the stage, guitar in hand, and sings a song to “someone kind of special who just might be here tonight.” The camera pans the expressions of four women’s faces as they each think that it just might be about them. Don’t lead me on if there’s nowhere for you to take me, if loving you will have to be a sometime thing, sings the serial playboy, and you viscerally feel his charisma, in spite of yourself. Altman shows the instant allure of this performance that’s special precisely because it is not—that indescribable touch that everyone feels, not just you. Like the exquisite fluidity of Marlowe lighting a cigarette, it makes you think, Does it get more real than this?—despite the man who sings it being the fakest of the fake.
The film then cuts to a girl who’s dreamed of being a country star all her life, but who, by all accounts, is a terrible singer. As an aesthetic experience, her singing is grating, the opposite of Carradine’s. The jeering men before her tell her to strip, and she does, but she keeps on singing. She plays the role so earnestly, so uncomfortably—the impression doesn’t fit—and she shows, in her presence, the terrible violence enacted in Carradine’s beauty, his magic, his allure. The closest to the authentic we have, Altman seems to say, is as naive a reproduction as possible. You get the sense that he trusts only those who can make us feel the cost of the boundary between the real and the fake—the ones we must learn to care for.
The virtue of houseplants for the environment, the argument goes, is that by caring for a small slice of the natural world, by touching it every day and making it your baby, you feel more connected to something bigger, more abstract. Altman, I think, is fundamentally skeptical of this kind of care—care via ownership—for it insists on a strict boundary between the natural and the artificial, of being blindly repelled by the fake, the never alive. His sun-bleached noir directs us to the shape and grain of people who are rarely given light. By doing so, he makes us stare harder at what supports that corrective prism for what we deem as life.
And so we come back to The Long Goodbye and its tune—that somehow is everywhere in the film, in the radio, in a funeral march in Mexico—played by an unnamed man in a dark bar. He plays it wrong, another figure noticeably out of place. Only in its jangling wrongness, in its oddness, in our perception of the absence of the right thing—and the people who try to find it—only there, it seems, can we see the possibility of the true.
Courtesy of Lions Gate Films
Cover image courtesy of MGM Media Licensing.