I don’t often pick fights, but the usually brilliant Cinetrix has gotten me riled up. Yesterday, she picked on one of my favorite movies of the past few years. It’s the usual litany of complaints that George Washington receives—too slow, plotless, listless, too self-consciously arty. Fine, we disagree, no big deal. But then she goes overboard:
The IMDB reviewer for [David Gordon] Green’s third film, Undertow, called his first two features “Hallmark cards for rural retards.” Strong words, but I’m not sure they’re not also true. Having seen both, it’s hard for me to quash the suspicion that Green is getting by on the strength of his chosen geography. I’m sure rural North Carolina just screams echt authenticity to a bunch of city-dwelling film critics. Oooh, looky! A multiracial cast of poor kids! Here’s the thing: There are plenty of places and people in the South that look just like those in Green’s films. Lucky for him, though, his flicks usually play in art houses and festivals miles away from where anyone might call bullshit.
The assumption here, of course, is that people who disagree with the Cinetrix do so not because of their critical acuity, but because they’re naïve, white city slickers. (The “white” part isn’t said, but it’s clearly implied by the “multicultural cast” bit.) By her druthers, there’s something inherently wrong in how these fawning critics look at Green, something that must come from how and where they live—because if their opinion came from acute critical analysis, they’d clearly agree with her. She’s using a rhetorical chestnut that goes something like this: 1. A lot of film critics liked this movie. 2. I didn’t like this movie at all and, in fact, detested it. 3. And that’s what’s wrong with film criticism today.
So, as a black man living in Jackson, Mississippi (admittedly not the boondocks), who grew up horsing around with a multiracial group of kids, and who’s seen his fair share of the rural South, I’ll try my best to quash the Cinetrix’s suspicion.
(Incidentally, since she’s the one to bait critics with these silly geography politics in the first place, it’s worth noting that the Cinetrix lives deep in the wilds of Boston, Massachusetts.) I was fooled by the Cinetrix’s Boston-centric postings; I’m informed that she lives elsewhere. My apologies.
(Note: Possibly the movie’s most ardent champion was the lilywhite, ahem, Armond White. Here’s his essay on the film for the Criterion edition. Oh, and I’m being sarcastic about the “lilywhite” part. Sorry—couldn’t resist.)
Enough. Here’s what I thought of the movie, hopefully without condescension or contempt for those who disagree with me:
George Washington (2000). Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Curtis Cotton III, and Paul Schneider.
Every setting in George Washington is decayed and empty—hell, the primary employer of the film’s residents seems to be either the local landfill or the local junkyard. The movie’s plot mechanics have atrophied to the point that it consists of nothing but vignettes, told in sequence. The North Carolina town of the movie’s action is falling apart, and the colors are as rusty and weathered as the dilapidated buildings. The young characters, inexperienced in anything other than poverty and quietude, stumble through their lines. Despite everything, this is a film full of life.
David Gordon Green’s pace draws you into the movie’s lives, and his camera lingers on pieces—an old, dirty brown dog; the rusty latch of a train’s sidecar; the almost-alien blue waves of a swimming pool, set against all these browns—that don’t so much add propulsion but, instead, resonance. The casual pace makes it seem as though you’re walking through the town with the filmmaker and his characters, and are comfortable with every detail. Green’s compositions are so masterful, still, and spare that you hold your breath. Like his mentor Terrence Malick, Green drenches the frame with so much natural light and visual openness that you could hang each film still on your wall as an art photograph.
The film’s vignettes seem as amateurish and stammering as the kids, but you quickly realize that this is Green’s point. This is a searching, yearning film, and its effects reflect the lives of the protagonists. Green is more interested in documenting GW’s characters than forcing a narrative upon them, or judging them. It’s not that nothing happens in the movie—there are bursts of raw, accidental violence that make me shudder, and the young characters mature exponentially in the movie’s 90 minutes. And it’s certainly not true that GW is cold. Shot in what appears to be summer, the camera captures intimate moments between kids that are so private that you feel slightly embarrassed for watching.
Rather, it’s that Green is surprisingly agenda-less. The cast is indeed multiracial (though mostly black), and the kids at least treat each other as equals. But this ain’t the Rainbow Coalition. There are quiet fissures between the races, muted but inescapable. An interracial couple conceals their relationship so well that we don’t realize the two are a couple until two-thirds through the movie. (It’s not clear that the other characters realize it at all.) A tragedy occurs halfway through the movie, and its effects on the kids are suggested by Green rather than spelled out. The characters are poor—and just becoming old enough to see their poverty for what it is—but they’re not cookie-cutter representations of the Proletariat or the Noble Negro. Green observes and loves his characters enough to let them fumble around, until they, and not him, can say what they mean.
This makes George Washington sound like a documentary, but Green infuses the movie with the aura and classical beauty of myth. The film revolves around George Richardson (Donald Holden), a weird kid with an even weirder physical condition. The plates of his skull never fused completely, so he has to treat his head very gingerly. (He wears a helmet when he goes out to play.) George rarely speaks and we never really know him. The characters talk about him, play with him, and the narrator (Candace Evanofski) tries to love him and figure out what makes him tick. It doesn’t work. For a protagonist, he’s something of a cipher, a mythical figure. He’s so odd that he looms larger than life but isn’t exactly of life. When he dons a makeshift superhero costume, made from a wrestling uniform intended for a dead boy, it seems just right—he’s a superhero, but one crafted on a human, flawed scale.
Our vision of George Richardson is like America’s vision of George Washington—our eyes see and absorb so much myth and lore about him that it’s tough to observe the real thing. Even when we read a biography of Washington, we feel we know him better than the book—we know the story of the chopped cherry tree, the wooden teeth, the stalwart man atop a boat as it crosses the icy Delaware, etc.
And, as with Washington, we’re so wrapped up in our vision of the American Dream that we can’t differentiate the dream from reality, or to differentiate our version of the Dream from another person’s. (Everyone has a slightly different idea of who George Richardson is and what he means—he’s less a folk hero than the shadow of one.) As naturalistic as George Washington can seem, it’s ultimately dreamlike in its feel, right down to the fact that we really don’t know what time period the movie takes place in.
By casting his meditation on the American Dream with a principally black cast, Green forces us to see the hopes, dreams, and failures of America through African American eyes. We see its aspirations from a view that’s by no means that of an outsider, but one that’s nevertheless askew, and aware of the Dream’s shortcomings. It’s this dual inside/outside quality that I love so much here. George Washington is both an intimately naturalistic look at life and the creation of an American tall tale. Its absurd moments of beauty and ugliness stem from the most banal circumstances. Its aesthetic (and even its music) is artful and avant-garde, but its setting and characters are rural and folkish.
And, for all that happens, it’s a hopeful movie. George Washington brings the American Dream down to earth, but still recognizes that it’s a dream worth having.