The International Writers Magazine: DVD review

George Washington
Directed by David Gordon Green
Dan Schnieder review

'Down this twisted road, please watch over my soul and lift me up so gently so as not to touch the ground'.

George Washington was the first feature film ever made by indy wunderkind director David Gordon Green. It was released in 2000, to generally favorable reviews, and it truly deserved them. It has been recently released on an invaluable Criterion Collection DVD which I recently purchased.

Most critics erred and went in for a facile comparison to filmmaker Terrence Malick, but this film has several things that Malick’s films do not have. Yes, like Malick, Green is fond of lingering poetic shots of seemingly everyday things, but Green’s film is far more concerned with individuals than any of Malick’s four feature films are. Malick’s 1978 Days Of Heaven does have its reach, though, as the black and white still photographs at the end of George Washington homage the black and white stills of that film, just as a young girl’s narration echoes the young female character’s in Days Of Heaven. But, the characters in George Washington are mostly poor North Carolina preteens of an eternal present, not historic artifacts, and they convey a sense of self that is absent in Malick’s films, which mostly deal with issues, not people.

That said, this film is not really a narrative, more of a simple series of linked vignettes that trace a several week period over a summer, which opens with a dreamy panoramic and poetic monologue spoken by a young girl named Nasia (Candace Evanofski), that weaves poetry out of the banal snippets that drift in and out of even the most prosaic minds, such as, ‘I like to go to beautiful places where there’s waterfalls and empty fields.’ This is not immanently poetic, but juxtaposed with the camera work it takes on a heightened, almost ecstatic, state. Some criticize the film by stating real children do not speak that way, but, a) I’ve known them, and a read of Anne Of Green Gables shows they’ve always been around, and b) the poesy is not of the character, but what the character says in relation to her station on life.

The main thread of the film follows the life of George Richardson (Donald Holden), a young black boy born with a genetic condition that renders his skull soft, making him vulnerable to death if hit in the head. Thus, he has to wear an old football helmet for protection. He has recently become the boyfriend of pretty Nasia, who dumped George’s smaller bespectacled friend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) for him, because Buddy was too immature, while George is a dreamer she feels can go places and do great things. The other two main characters are a pretty blond girl with an attitude, named Sonya (Rachael Handy), and Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), the oldest and largest of the kids. Sonya and Vernon dream of better places, and getting there as car thieves. Later in the film, they actually do steal a car, but in driving it away almost get themselves killed. Buddy is even unluckier. After he has found out that George has ‘stolen’ Nasia from him, Buddy resents George, and while playing in the bathroom of an abandoned park, pushes George against the wall. Buddy is hurt, emotionally, but George almost hurts his head against the wall, and in retaliation, pushes the smaller Buddy down to the floor. Buddy falls, but hits his head on a ceramic sink, gets up, then bleeds, suffers, and soon dies while banging a stick against a metal bathroom stall, until the noise of his death rattle stops. Poesy emerges from the prosaic, yet again.

Buddy’s death is clearly an accident, but in a moment reminiscent of another more recent indy film, Mean Creek, the three others- George, Sonya, and Vernon, decide to keep Buddy’s death a secret, and hide the body, yet they do so in a much less affected, and far more realistic way of making the decision than Mean Creek’s teens do. Now, in most films, this act would be the defining moment of the film. Not in this one. There is too much else going on, and reality plods onward, or at least this film’s reality within reality. There are the railroad workers the kids have always hung out with, led by Rico Rice (Paul Schneider), who befriends them all. There are the familial situations that are sketched, including George’s own uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), a man who hates dogs and spends his life seemingly doing nothing but chopping wood. Yes, there is an investigation into the death of Buddy, after he’s presumed missing (Nasia thinks he ran away because she rejected him- another naturalistic assumption from a child), and his body is eventually found, but none of the kids are charged with the death. George, however, reinvents himself as a superhero, replete with cape, and saves an eight year old boy from drowning in the local public swimming pool, putting his own health- due to his cranial condition, at risk. Then, after a few more scenes that sketch George’s life, the film ends. It just sort of fades out as life continues on. In this sense it is reminiscent of realistic dramas like the novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.

What separates this film from others is how it realistically depicts poverty, especially semi-rural poverty. Its scenes of dilapidated buildings and rusty junkyards reminded me of my own urban youth in the Brooklyn and Queens of the late 1960s and early 1970s, although with less people and less violence. About the only other work I can think of that showed such a life was, believe it or not, the old Bill Cosby tv show, Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids. This isn’t Hollywood’s glamorous, drug-induced, hip hop poverty chic, and there is very little swearing in the film. It moves languidly along, dropping in and out of real people’s lives, for all but a few of the actors in the film were amateurs, and improvisation was key to its making. The concerns of the preteens are realistic, as well their dreams. There is a moment, late in the film, where Sonya questions her own goodness to Vernon, stating that she was emotionless when Buddy died. Only in a film like this would you see a child, one who is average in all ways, be so self-aware. Yet, we know that spark is doomed to be extinguished in her. Why? Not because of poverty, but because of boredom. The town is a rusting hulk, and the grownups are clueless. This is the world of the teenager, and has always been. This film captures that fact like no other. Yet, the real poesy of the film surfaces in the crannies between the spoken words. In another scene, after Buddy’s death, George visits his father in prison. He tells him he loves him and finally believes him. We know that there must have been a murder the father committed, but of whom? George’s mother? Now that he has become an accidental killer he understands more of the complexities of the adult world. It also lets us understand his living with his aunt and uncle. But, all of this seeps in osmotically, never directly. His father, behind bars, never even acknowledges his son’s presence nor shriving of him, but it is a moment that will always be with George. This is naturalism, but naturalism made poesy. And there are many more scenes as good as these two.

The title of the film comes from George’s worship of the President of the United States, Damascus’s ax wielding (think cherry tree), and the play off the idea of not telling a lie, which bubbles under the surface of the film. The commentary by Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider has some moments, but even more interesting are the trailer, a Charlie Rose PBS interview with Green, a deleted scene, and an interview with the cast members, recorded by Green, exclusively for The Criterion Collection. Even better are two of Green’s student films, said to be forerunners of this film- Pleasant Grove (with commentary) and Physical Pinball. But the best feature of all is a 1969 short film from cult character actor Clu Gulager, called A Day With The Boys. It is a superb, poetic, and gruesome film, and although Green derives some obvious visual influence from it, thankfully that’s all he took from it.

This film is not a great film, but it shows great potential, just as Malick’s first film, Badlands, showed great potential, but not accomplishment. But it is a special film because it makes its specialness from what is remembered by all people, from their youth. As they go on with life, George and Nasia will likely drift apart, but both will have their own reasons for remembering that long ago summer the film charts, and we viewers will understand why. Green has released several films since this one, and his next two projects, adaptations of two really bad recent books- Brad Land’s ridiculously bad college sodomy memoir Goat, and Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘mystical Negroes’ novel The Secret Lives Of Bees- hopefully do not augur his descent into the Lowest Common Denominator, for this film’s deeply resonant take on real poverty shows an artist of sublime potential. In short: Don’t go Hollywood, Kiddo!

© Dan Schnieder April 2006

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