Saturday, September 18, 2010

George Washington (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 1/14/06 w/ Additional Edits, New Content and New Conclusion.



When people think of the American South, they will either think of Gone with the Wind or Deliverance depending on one's taste. Yet the South is filled with images that are either romantic or very desolate in whatever area it is. Still, it's part of what makes America interesting. While areas like New Orleans, Atlanta, and parts of Florida bring out interesting locations, the South has places where stories our told. In more recent years, those places do bring out more interesting stories whether its Patty Jenkins' serial-killer tale Monster or Shainee Gabel's dreamy haze of A Love Song for Bobby Long. Then, there is one director from the South who is not only considered to be one of the most gifted of his generation but has put his own, unique spin on the American South in an Arkansas-born, North Carolina native named David Gordon Green.

Born in 1975, David Gordon Green lived in the South all of his life while being aware that Hollywood wasn't making stories about the South in its realistic way. For the young filmmaker, he cites several influences into his work that included the Southern films of the 70s, Robert Altman, and the stripped-down, Dogme 95 style of Harmony Korine. Another director Green was inspired by was the brilliant, reclusive Terrence Malick for his unconventional style of narrative and visual storytelling for films like Days of Heaven and Badlands. In 2000, after a couple of short films, Green released his debut feature. A coming-of-age tale about young, rural, and mostly black children in the South dealing with death and the moral aftermath entitled George Washington.

Written & directed by David Gordon Green, George Washington is tale of a young boy who vies to become someone important through the perspective of a young girl he befriends. Taking the same elliptical approach of Malick, Green brings a realistic yet dreamy feel of the American South from its impoverished areas to the beauty that surrounds it. With an ensemble cast that is filled with unknowns like Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Rachel Handy, Damien Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III along with future Green regulars Paul Schneider and Eddie Rouse. George Washington is a brilliant, poetic masterpiece from one of American cinema's most promising director.

It's a hot moment in the summer as a 13-year old girl named Nasia (Candace Evanofski) is breaking up with her boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because he's immature. She turns to Buddy's friend George Richardson (Donald Holden) for companionship despite the fact that he's odd due to the fact that his skull is sensitive to water and he has to wear a helmet at all times. Often hanging out with their friends including the big, tough Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and the only white kid in the group, a girl named Sonya (Rachel Handy) who has an affinity for theft. At the railroad station where George's uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse) just got fired from, they meet a bunch of adults they know including the boss' son Rico (Paul Schneider).

One day when Nasia is hanging out with family including cousin Denise (Ebony Jones) when Vernon asks her why she broke up with Buddy. She gives him her answer while Buddy meets George one day in church as they chose to remain cool about the whole thing. During a trip to the local swimming pool, George meets a young white boy named Tyler (Christian Gustoitis) who is sporting a neck brace. George also found a ratty dog in the street that had no owner as he chose to keep it but hide from his uncle who hates animals. With his father (Alan Thompson) in jail, George lives with his Aunt Ruth (Janet Taylor) and his sister Whitney (Derricka Rolle) in a home that is often broken down while Damascus makes his living chopping wood. Then one day when George hangs out with Vernon, Buddy, and Sonya in abandoned, park where they stop in a wet bathroom. The gang simply starts playing when Buddy accidentally pushes George into a wall which hit his helmet. George continues the pushing game when things go terribly wrong.

George, Vernon, and Sonya watch in dismay knowing what had happened as they know if their family knew, they would be in trouble. George felt the guiltiest while Vernon understood that it was an accident. George in the next days would ponder his life including his own aspirations to become someone important where he would talk to Nasia about those ambitions and their surroundings. Then one day, George finds Tyler drowning in the pool and at the risk of his own health, he saves the boy by diving into the pool. While his head did swell, George managed to be OK as he finds himself thinking of the idea that he could be a superhero. While Rico and his buddies Augie (Scott Clackum) and Euless (Jonathan Davidson) find George's ambitions to be silly, they cheer him on as Rico helps him with conducting traffic. Vernon meanwhile, is anguished with guilt and sadness as Sonya is now his only friend though she admits, she has hard time trying to feel.

With Vernon and Sonya being questioned by authorities, they turn to crime while Nasia wonders why George hasn't talked to anyone. George begins to take his idea of being a hero seriously until he has to confront with reality while remaining hopeful for himself and his friends.

The idea of a coming-of-age film is about the transition from childhood to adulthood and in Green's approach, he picks a moment in time when that transition comes. While the film has no real plot, it's not about plot but more about how young children are changed by a single incident in their life. Taking a narrative approach that is similar to the works of Terrence Malick, notably 1978's Days of Heaven, the film is told from the perspective of a young girl who recalls the things she sees and hears. The story is really about children growing up and becoming aware of adulthood while looking at their own surroundings while one of them becomes more drawn to his aspirations into becoming a superhero.

Green's writing is filled with the narrative voice-over that Malick is known for but he takes it from Nasia's approach where she sees things from her breakup with Buddy to the oddball world of George. While the film moves slowly, it's only to build a momentum of what is to come in this incident that changes the film's tone. It doesn't exactly start off innocently since Green introduces the audience to the rural world they live in and the people they're surrounded by. Especially the young men who work at the railroad station who sees the kids as equals since they all live in this downtrodden, shabby area that they live in. This provides not just the authenticity in the world they live in but the way they speak since it's very rural to the point where they're either talking about real things or just rambling.

In the directing, Green goes for a variety of style ranging from Malick's wandering, epic scale to the shaky, intimacy of Harmony Korine. There's moments where the film does resemble a bit of Malick's 1998 film The Thin Red Line in the way the characters walk from a landscape to the railroad station. Green goes for a full-on observant while letting the actors basically act natural where everything feels real, especially in the locations they're in. It's a true Southern film from the broken down corner stand that is next to old stores to the shabby, unpainted houses of the neighborhoods. Using the camera to create a dreamy yet authentic look of the South is purely one of the most beautiful films seen while Green's intentions as a storyteller is to just go for it in what is happening.

Helping Green in capturing his vision is longtime cinematographer Tim Orr whose lush coloring brings a true look to a hot summer in the South. Using the yellow-sun as a light to convey the hot summer of North Carolina, the film does have that similar, poetic quality of Malick's film but in a more rural, intimate setting. Orr's camera work brings out the desolate yet enchanting world of the American South that mixes its starkness and beauty. Helping Orr in the visual department is longtime Green collaborator, production designer Richard Wright along with art director Mike Chapman in choosing the locations and housing for the film where they create everything from the dirty corners filled with garbage to the broken homes that the kids live in where everything isn't clean. Even the clothing from costume designer Michael Tully also work in bringing the authenticity the look of the film.

Longtime editors Zene Baker and Steve Gonzales do great work in bringing out the elliptical approach of the film where though it seems slow in its 89-minute running time, it gives the film a nice momentum. Their use of dissolves, fade-out, and jump cuts brings style to the film as it help Green convey his unconventional style of directing. Finally, there's the music that features a quirky yet haunting score by the Dynamite Brothers team of Michael Linnen and David Wingo which features a lot of music of the South that isn't hip-hop but more acoustic, country-inspired drench atmosphere along with elements of ambient and melodic rock music. The score of the Dynamite Brothers brings out that true feel of the South that is a great alternative to that world of Crunk.

Finally, there's the film's superb ensemble cast that includes some fine, small performances from Janet Taylor, Jonathan Davidson, Alan Thompson, Scott Clackum, Beau Nix as Rico's father, Joyce Mahaffey as Tyler's mom, Derricka Rolle, Ebony Jones, and Christian Gustoitis. Longtime Green collaborator Paul Schneider does wonderful work as Rico, one of the few adult friends the kids have who they can talk to while bringing some encouragement to George. Eddie Rouse is also great as George's irksome uncle who might seem crazy and strict at first only to reveal why he's bothered by animals.

Now we come to the richer ensemble of the young children in the film. Rachel Handy is excellent as the lone white girl who has a fondness for theft while having troubles in dealing with the fact that she is somewhat emotionless. It's a fine performance for a young girl who is filled with confusion. Damien Jewan Lee is excellent as the tough-minded Vernon who is willing to do anything to protect his friends but once he is forced to deal with an incident, a sensitivity is shown as Lee possesses all of those complicated emotions into growing up. Curtis Cotton III is excellent as Buddy, a kid who strives to be cool and have all the things a kid could want while dealing with the heartbreak of his relationship with Nasia. Candace Evanofski is great as the mature and innocent Nasia who also brings a worldly view of things, especially in her rich narration that encompasses a young girl who sees things with an indifference while realizing that she's growing up. Finally, there's Donald Holden who is great as the awkward, strange George who isn't sure about anything only to realize what he wants to do while being a dreamer. It's great work from all of those kids who aren't professional actors as they all bring a natural, realistic quality into their performances.

When the film was released through several film festival circuits in 2000 including Atlanta and Toronto, the film was filled with a lot of buzz from those festivals. In Atlanta, the film won the top prize while critics were widely praising the film for its unique take on the South. One of those critics who would later champion the young David Gordon Green is famed Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert who praised the director for his vision. The film even caught the attention of the legendary but reclusive filmmaker Terrence Malick who would later take Green as his protegee. While the film also garnered a limited release in theaters, it helped create buzz for David Gordon Green as the film received nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards for its young ensemble cast and first-film nods for Green.

***Additional DVD Content & Conclusion Written on 9/18/10***

The 2002 Criterion Collection DVD presents the film with new digital transfer supervised by David Gordon Green that is enhanced for 16x9 televisions under the 2:35:1 aspect ratio for widescreen.  The transfer is truly gorgeous as it complements the dreamy cinematography of Tim Orr.  Included in the DVD is a full-length commentary track by Green, Orr, and actor Paul Schneider.  The commentary track has the men discuss some of the film’s technical aspects, the performances, and inspiration behind the film.  The most notable inspiration for the film is definitely the work of Terrence Malick.  Green admits to using the character of Nasia in the similar vein of the Linda Manz character in Days of Heaven.  Green also talks about The Thin Red Line where he and Orr sneaked to the premiere to see the film.  Green talks about Malick’s editing style which also served as an inspiration.

Green also talked about using non-actors instead of professional in order to get a natural feel.  While a lot of the performances were rehearsed and scripted, Green did allow actors to improvise naturally for a realistic feel.  Even as Schneider talks about the improvisation for a scene where he was looking for chili dogs in his pant suits which wasn’t scripted.  Orr mostly talks about the technical aspects of the photography and how he and Green wanted the film to look like something where it didn’t come from a certain period in film.  Even with the use of music.  The commentary overall is mostly loose with the Green, Orr, and Schneider talking to each other with Schneider providing some of the funnier moments as it is definitely a fun, insightful commentary to listen to.

An eight-minute deleted scene is presented with commentary by Green, Orr, and Schneider is about a town meeting discussing issues in the community that is led by Rico Rice with George at the meeting.  The commentary reveals that the scene was meant to increase George’s desire to be more heroic.  Yet, one of the reasons Green cut the scene due to some topical issues discussed in the scene.  Schneider talked about the fact that Donald Holden didn’t want to wear the wrestling uniform during the scene because his relatives were in that scene.  Schneider convinced him and they just did it before Schneider had to go back to his other job, where he worked.

The second big special feature is a 2001 video interview with the young cast in the film.  The 13-minute feature with the cast as all the actors talk about the film, working with David Gordon Green, and how they were different from their characters.  It’s an enjoyable piece where the actors seem relaxed in the interviews while reflecting on how great the film is and how it sort of changed them.  Even as it ends with Curtis Cotton III saying he’s better than Denzel Washington.  Along with the film’s theatrical trailer comes a big interview piece with David Gordon Green from the Charlie Rose show.

The 14-and-a-half minute interview has Green discussing about his background, the film, and his desire to make films.  Green talks about that he was the kid who was more into art films like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout rather than Star Wars.  A lot of the conversation features Green talking about his cast, the film, and future plans which included a romantic film, that would eventually become his second film All the Real Girls.  Also included in the DVD are two early short films Green made during his tenure at the North Carolina School of the Arts.  The first of which is Pleasant Grove.  The 15-minute short is really a precursor of sorts to George Washington in relation to the story about George and his dog.  The short features Paul Schneider and Eddie Rouse along with a commentary track by David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider.

Green discusses about the short and how it would be the inspiration for George Washington while Tim talks about his own background despite the fact that he didn‘t shoot Pleasant Grove.  Even though the short is shot on video, it is a wonderful short that does set the stage for George Washington.  The second short Physical Pinball, that stars Eddie Rouse and Candace Evanofski, is about a father realizing that his tomboy daughter is becoming a girl.  Featuring cameos from Paul Schneider and Green cohort Ben Best.  It’s a wonderful coming-of-age short where a man tries to deal with his daughter becoming a girl.  Even in the awkwardness of buying tampons for her as there’s a sweetness to it along with a beautiful feel to the film’s grainy look.

The third and final short that appears in the DVD is a 1969 short called A Day with the Boys by Clu Gulager that features cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs.  The short tells the story about a group of boys playing throughout the day while they later invite a middle-aged man into playing with them where everything seems fine until something bad happens.  It’s a wonderful short featuring Kovacs’ lush cinematography as the short is said to be an inspiration to George Washington.  Green’s comments on the short has him saying it was the direction, compositions, and uses of freeze-frame editing that drew him and cinematographer Tim Orr to use these similar compositions for their film.

Also in the DVD is a booklet that features a statement by David Gordon Green about the film and its intentions.  Also in the booklet is an essay from the controversial film critic Armond White that explores a lot of the film’s themes, images, and beauty.  The Criterion DVD is truly one of the finest in its collection in displaying a formidable talent in David Gordon Green early in his career.

George Washington is a masterpiece filled with wondrous images and profound themes on death and innocence.  Helmed by David Gordon Green’s superb vision along with an amazing ensemble cast.  It’s a film that truly recalls the beauty of the decaying South as well as the soul within a child.  Fans of Green work will no doubt cite this as is finest film to date as it would permeate to his other films in the years to come.  Yet, George Washington is truly one of the best debut films ever made from the always intriguing David Gordon Green.

David Gordon Green Films: All the Real Girls - Undertow - Snow Angels - Pineapple Express - (Your Highness) - (The Sitter) - (Prince Avalanche) - Joe (2013 film) - (Manglehorn)

© thevoid99 2010

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