George Washington Review

“When Lumiere first made movies he was making films about people riding horses, or climbing trees, just capturing life. It was about the poetry of life.”

The above quote was made by Harmony Korine for a Time Out interview. The reason was the release of his debut film Gummo (1997), an attempt to capture the same essences he saw in the Lumiere brothers’ works as well as being a film which shares many connections with, and could also be seen as the flipside to, David Gordon Green’s feature debut George Washington. Many of theses connections are superficial, such as their cryptic titles (though Green’s first choice was the even more enigmatic Duh Da, Nuh Na), but, importantly, they share this “just capturing life” ethos and focus on young children in devastated Southern areas - Gummo begins just after a massive tornado; one of George Washington’s lead characters describes the place as looking like “two tornadoes came through here”. And plotwise there is no plot: Gummo consists of a number of what are essentially snapshots, a technique not dissimilar to Korine’s approach to his first “novel”, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots; George Washington on the other hand may feature the unexpected death of one of its leads and a car crash, but is far more concerned with mood and simple truths and it traces its child protagonists over a few days in July.

The prime difference, and what makes these two films seem often worlds apart, is their respective creators’ influences. Whereas Korine finds inspiration in the films of Werner Herzog and British TV director Alan Clarke (Scum, Made in Britain, Elephant) - directors of tough, challenging works - Green settles for Terrence Malick (incidentally, Days of Heaven star Linda Manz appeared in Gummo, though one suspects this had more to do with Korine’s appreciation of Dennis Hopper’s proto-punk Out of the Blue than any of Malick’s limited oeuvre), Charles Burnett, Haskell Wexler’s documentary and docu-drama works and Sesame Street documentaries narrated by children. These altogether softer, more tender reference points account for George Washington containing none of Gummo’s abjection or nihilism, instead it attains an elegiac, reverential tone. (Compare the breezy post-rock stylings that Green includes on the soundtrack to the confrontational thrash metal which Korine favours for the most pointed expression of this difference.) As Green concludes on his commentary, George Washington is “...optimistic...I think that’s really new, ’cos the late nineties were all about laughing at horrible things.”

Whilst Green is undoubtedly correct in this assertion, it is often the case that George Washington is never more than the sum of its parts. Green claims to be going for a timeless feel with the children being seen without the corporation logos or hip hop accompaniment that would figure in a mainstream production, yet because he wears his influences so blatantly on his sleeve, specifically the look of those films made between 1968 and 1978 (roughly Medium Cool to Days of Heaven), his film can’t help but immediately feel as though it is taking place within that timeframe. Moreover, without the political nature of Wexler’s works in particular, the film throws itself open to criticisms of aestheticising - and therefore glamorising - its poverty stricken environment (lead character George shares a bed with his sister, and both live with their aunt and uncle owing to their father’s imprisonment). After all there is no true reasoning behind this other than to make the film as pretty as possible. When a director such as Pier Paolo Pasolini produced Accatone and Mamma Roma and made his images so much more powerful by juxtaposing them with the music of Bach and Vivaldi respectively, there was a definite purpose behind it, one that strongly tied to the director’s Christian Marxist beliefs. Here, however, the pretty pictures never seem more than fan boy posturing (“Look Terrence I can make a film just like you!”) and as such George Washington is never too far removed from the empty-headed post-Tarantino Pulp Fiction-alikes that constantly haunt our screen (“Look Quentin I can make a film just like you!”). That said, a certain muted congratulations is in order to director of photography Tim Orr for achieving his Wexler-like images on such a small budget.

Returning to Gummo for a moment, George Washington also shares that film’s loosely improvised approach and decision to employ a largely non-professional cast. Again Green sees this as an attempt to capture realism, but once more is hampered by problems. The most immediate of these is the self-consciousness that some of the child performers possess (despite Green’s commentary claims to the contrary) which when juxtaposed with their moments of improvisation produces the very opposite of what Green requires. As such scenes that should be affecting - those which gauge the children’s reaction to death, for example - come across instead as oddly distancing; the concentration of the audience being on the actors’ awkwardness rather than their characters‘ feelings.

The other problem that this throws up occurs when the actors abandon the improvisation and return to Green’s script. Again taking his lead from Malick, the writer/director’s attempt here is to recreate the child-adult wisdom of Badlands’ and Days of Heaven’s voice-overs. Yet rather than attain the results that Sissy Spacek and Linda Manz achieved, respectively, in those two works, here we are often treated to words that you could never imagine coming from a child’s lips. Compare the dialogue here to that found in, for example, Y tu mama tambien or the Korean film Take Care of My Cat and even then it appears too mature for these films’ older late-teens/early-twenties characters (conversely they often resort to a far more believable childish vernacular). To make matters worse this difficulty constantly draws attention to itself as the characters continually berate each other for being “too young” or “too much like a child”.

This aspect also disappoints insofar as the child actors make a refreshing alternative to the more commonplace stage school-trained, professional-since-the-age-of-three types, but more often than not seem utterly handcuffed by Green’s dialogue and techniques. (Interestingly, Gummo avoided this problem by going for a more overt documentary style, in doing so eschewing anything self-consciously poetic as well as the ’scope photography found here and instead favouring cheap film stocks and the occasional use of video). The only times that the actors do appear truly comfortable is when they are not tied down by the dialogue and just simply “are” on screen. The George character, playing by Donald Holden, is served best by this, though tellingly Green reveals in his commentary that such instances were never intended this way.

Indeed, it is during these unintentional moments that George Washington comes alive. A throwaway moment such a child puffing away on a cigarette seems more connected to youth than any of Green’s more contrived attempts (interestingly, this is the only vice we see; oddly none of the kids even swear, again making it the antithesis of Korine’s effort). Likewise, the dialogue free death scene and that in which Paul Schneider (one of the few adults in the film and perhaps the only stand-out performance) simply rides his bike around town speak volumes without any sign of direction. On other occasions it is the sheer oddness of a scene that makes it work so well: when George and Schneider’s character Rico are energetically directing traffic in slow motion for absolutely no discernible reason; or when one character turns to another stating “I hope you live forever”. During this instances the film inhabits its own world to such a degree that it could almost be science fiction. Certainly, there is a purposeful avoidance of the Southern Gothic cliches - which only work when truly over the top, as in Philip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin or Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer - which the filmmakers could easily have resorted to.

Importantly, there are enough of these moments - happy accidents or not - to populate the brief 86 minute running time and make George Washington watchable to say the least. Indeed, there are also enough of them to make David Gordon Green a director to watch once he can escape the shadows of his heroes (at one point during the commentary he eulogises on Malick’s The Thin Red Line for fifteen minutes - not a typical talk track occurrence) and more fully develop his own voice. Certainly, this feature marks a step up from the short films that also find a place on the disc and one hopes that the progression can continue (his second feature All the Real Girls would suggest that this is taking place, albeit slowly). As such George Washington isn’t the great debut that many critics over-hyped it as - oddly for a BFI disc, the sleeve is covered in hyperbole - but one that should hopefully lead somewhere.

The Disc

As with a number of BFI releases, this disc has to compete with a Criterion edition. Sadly, it’s the lesser of the two, but for those who are only able to play region 2 discs it offers much to impress. With regards to the presentation, the original stereo soundtrack and 2.35:1 ratio are adhered, and both remain clean throughout. The latter is perhaps a little on the soft side, though it is difficult to ascertain as to whether this was director of photography Tim Orr’s intention. The major let-down here is that, unlike the Criterion edition, the film is rendered non-anamorphically.

As for special features, almost everything here is worthwhile. The audio commentary, featurette, deleted scene and two short films all add up to giving an impression of who David Gordon Green is and what his intentions are. The featurette is interesting as, to the best of my knowledge, it was not featured on Criterion’s release, plus it eschews the typical EPK fluff in favour of a student made effort. The piece follows Green and actor Paul Schneider as they take the film to the Berlin Film Festival and encounter various journalists and audience members. It’s a refreshing piece and one that let’s us see a side of the filmmakers that an ordinary interview wouldn’t allow for. Sadly, interview material was included on the Criterion edition that doesn’t find its way here in the form of a Charlie Rose interview with Green and a cast reunion featurette. Having not seen either I can’t comment on their quality, though given the high standards of the other extras, it is likely they would have warranted an inclusion. Also missing is a short film, A Day With the Boys, from 1969 that proved influential on George Washington’s making.

The remaining extras - save for the BFI weblink and sleeve notes by Jack Sargeant - are identical on both releases. The centrepiece is the audio commentary by Green, Schneider and Orr. They’re a trio who have known each other for many years and it tells producing a nicely relaxed discussion of the film. Indeed, such is the general mood that they that don’t offer the typical scene-by-scene breakdown but rather reminisce on the film’s production and discuss the multitude of influences (including the aforementioned lengthy eulogy to Malick). Moreover, they keep up their initial momentum and keep talking throughout the film meaning that longuers never set in.

Just as interesting are the two short films, one of which, Pleasant Grove, also comes with optional commentary, this time by Green and Orr. Neither work is especially great, demonstrating their origins as student works, but they do prove instructive in demonstrating how Green’s style has evolved and, in many ways, stayed the same. Indeed, the influence on George Washington is immense, with some of the cast members also being present here as well as various lines of dialogue and situations.

An optional commentary, this time by Green, Schneider and Orr, also pops up on the deleted scene. It’s a lengthy piece, totalling 11 minutes, but one that demonstrates how Green approaches his actors. It’s largely improvised, and as such largely inconsequential (hence its absence in the final cut), but certainly worth a look. Indeed, as with all the pieces, the insight it gives into the making of the film is truly worthwhile making the extras assembled here, for all the Criterion omissions, little short of exemplary.

As with the main feature, all extras - including commentaries - come with English subtitles where applicable.

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