Sunday, May 1, 2011

David Gordon Green's GEORGE WASHINGTON

David Gordon Green has the kind of career, at least right now with these first six feature film sthat I might want as a director (that is until he makes his Suspiria remake, shrug).  He goes between making personal projects, based around people that he knew or might have known or based on impressions of people and places that is specific yet universal in the same stretch (comparisons may include neo-realist films from Italy in the late 40's, or Mean Streets to a degree), and then crowd-pleasers, such as his work with James Franco and Judd Apatow and those comedy people.  The one that possibly straddles the line- or is to say includes the same dramatic, meditative thrust of the early films with the entertainment value of the later films is Snow Angels, his underrated 2007-2008 movie.

And with his first film, George Washington, he presents his art as that of realizing a place and time and how people live or try to live.  In that sense I could see a correlation with his fellow North Carolina native filmamker, Ramin Bahrani, through the use of real people and real places, and the kind of down and dirty ones that one might find in Chop Shop.  But why compare too much to him, or of course to Terence Malick's style, which would become more pronounced once he actually produced Green's Undertow a few years later.  G.W. presents every character, however flawed or even with just a scene to spare (I'll get to that in a moment) with a level of narrative truth and with a respect to where they come from and how they deal with the general conflicts they are in.  It's about remembrance, which is hard to pull off without being too pretentious, which this film may have dipped into, for better or worse depending on point of view.

The narrative is very loose, though I suspect that my finicky screenwriting professor at grad school would still find the screenplay satisfying (if there was one, I suspect there was improvisation much of the time, or maybe none of the time) because there are the "obstacles" and "conflict" (using quotes based on irritation by his constant insistence on it, I digress).  It's 'about' in general a group of a few kids, most notably George (Donald Holden), who mess around in a hot summer in N.C. and how they deal with the tragedy of one of their friends dying by an accidental slip-fall-on-the-head death.  It's a brutal scene, I should note, and it's one that is meant to stay as much with the audience as with the kids just based on its straightforward graphic quality (not many cuts really).  And as the summer goes on and it becomes more and more difficult to hide what happened, other things happen anyway, such as George becoming a hero of sorts by helping to save another kid from drowning- something that causes him great pain as he has a "soft head"- and another tragedy happens with a flipped over car.

Green does give ample time for this conflict of the dead kid Buddy, but he also has something else in mind with his film which is evoking a mood.  He does this through narration (again through Malick i.e. Days of Heaven, almost transcendent in how it places a mood or a feeling or just a general observation in words) and through how he shoots the places around him: a railroad track, leaves of grass, a broken down lot of junk some place, a building roof-top, and the faces of these kids whose lives change over this summer. 

When characters talk they may talk as you just might hear them in a house talking about a boy or as railroad workers talk about what they're eating for lunch, or about being a "hero" at certain points.  The dialog is natural, and yet there are other times it carries the knowing touch of a piece of literature.  The whole movie has a flavor like of one of those books I might have read back in youth or in high school, only much wiser looking back on youth at such a crucial time - not just because of what happened but how it was felt about it.

And no one feels false here, whether it's the one railroad worker obsessed with health food, or when George goes to visit his father in prison.  It's this scene that had me really glued to the screen, as Green had one character (George) looking at him, and the other (the father) not, just looking down or away as he listened to his son tell him he loved him and understood what he went through (the subtext being, of course, the death of the kid).  I loved how Green had the actors playing off here, knowing so much about life's horrors and with little to do but to try and cling to one another - or, in the father's case, I wasn't sure, but there was still something there.  And as with a film like All the Real Girls there are tiny moments of unexpected but real humor, like how George has his sister do a practice run with the smoke alarm in the house and tells her once she runs out "now go back to sleep, you can do it better."

For those waiting for the usual "something" to happen that comes with a lot of American narrative films it isn't that easy.  There's never a moment that is uninteresting with these characters, but you got to be with the characters and understand where they're coming from and the mood that their in.  It's watching how they interact, simply, and how they keep going on living day to day.  Sound boring?  Maybe it might be to you, or maybe you can take it in based on how alive and available the actors are in their roles, to which they're giving some wonderfully natural performances (again, sometimes in just one scene, like when the mother of the boy shows up at the house to talk about how her nephew saved her son's life, it's a small but very touching moment of recognition of kindness).

While near the end of the film Green almost loses his way with a lot of stuff regarding the 'real' George Washington and what a hero is, it's still engrossing and interesting, coming off of a work of art that takes chances - mixes up meditative shots of the scenery just enough to take it all in like a memory or snap-shot with rough hand-held images of characters walking through a Southern US wasteland without much to do in a hot summer - and asks big questions about how to live.  I expect to revisit this much in my life, because of how it evokes things I can recognize and understand cinematically without having been to wherever the town is.

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