George Washington

George_washington_george

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.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
This entry was posted in Film. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to George Washington

  1. CAAF says:

    Just to clarify, Cinetrix currently lives in South Carolina. I need to see this movie to see what two bloggers I admire are disagreeing about.

  2. cinetrix says:

    I am reluctant to respond to any post about my writing that begins “I don’t often pick fights, but….” The way I see it, there is no fight, only a difference of opinion: I didn’t like a film that you seem quite protective of. So be more careful of where you sling those of courses and clearlys and accusations of logical fallacy, please.
    As you observe and I acknowledged when I wrote about it, I’m in the minority on this one, and in the paragraph you excerpted, I tried to figure out why that is. Apparently, my attempts to articulate my theories were a little too telegraphed. Allow me to stretch out, then.
    To my mind, the “rural retards” in that admittedly inflammatory quotation are those ignorant of the south and rural life; namely, city dwellers looking for the picaresque, not rural southerners. I included it because I was wondering whether the novelty of the North Carolina setting and the beauty of the cinematography proved so overpowering that urban critics chose to overlook other aspects of the film that I found fatally flawed. Many of the film’s reviewers seemed more eager to advertise that they’d read Faulkner–as though the New South had never happened–and, you know, really got Malick than they were to engage with the film’s myriad problems.
    “Here is a new voice from the hinterland!” is a great hook, but it relies on an assumption of exceptionalism that I find troubling. If the film’s story had been set in a clapped-out urban environment in the rust belt or in a benighted neighborhood in New York or LA, would it have received the same plaudits? Or would it have been seen as yet another “gritty” urban bildungsroman?
    You introduced race into this discussion, as did many reviewers. I was more interested in how reviewers of this film engaged [or didn’t] with class, for which race is often substituted as a code word. What makes these “multicultural kids” so special? Are their stories that different from the kids hanging outside the corner bodega in some city? Is rural poverty more ennobling than its urban equivalent? And since when is black and white multicultural anyway? If Green’s vision is so authentic, where are the dirt poor children of migrant Latino agribusiness laborers? Tiendas of all stripes dot the landscape of the Carolinas now.
    Finally, while it was sweet of CAAF to clear up my current coordinates, that shouldn’t matter, any more than who my people are and where they’re from, particularly on the Internet. My cred is my voice, take it or leave it.

  3. QB says:

    Cinetrix, it’s good to hear from you. Yours is a great voice in the blogosphere, which is why I was surprised that you reduced the voices of other critics to that of “rural retards.” (I realize it’s not your quote, but you ran with it.) Part of the reason I like the movie’s treatment of the kids that it connects their poverty and their lives to their urban counterparts. These kids live in a specific locale that’s well-defined visually and physically, but their experiences resonate beyond the confines of rural North Carolina. The poverty is not “more ennobling than its urban equivalent,” and their actions (or, rather, lack thereof) would be troubling in any context. I think Green is getting at the fact that, regardless of place, race, or economic status, these are American kids, with visions of the American Dream, with hopes and fears that kids all over the country can relate to.
    So I don’t think Green’s trying to be the “new voice from the hinterland” and, in fact, he’s subverting notions of “hinterland” and “flyover country” by showing that the lives in this town are just as resonant and complex as those in any gritty urban bildungsroman. Everything he does here—from the stateliness of the visuals to the odd, vignette-ish narrative structure—is, I think, meant to upend our expectations about what “country folk” look like and think about.
    That includes our expectations about “authenticity.” In my review, along with notes on class, I mention the dreamlike, mythic quality of the movie, and how we’re not always sure that what we’re seeing on the screen is what actually happened. And, instead of using “authentic” soulful twangs from an acoustic guitar or scratchy blues records (the calling cards of instant country credibility in movies), Green deliberately uses ambient, avant-garde music that sounds initially more at home in the Village Vanguard than out in the sticks. I think some critics do try to cast Green as some sort of rural idiot-savant—the Charlie Rose interview on the DVD is Exhibit A—but Green appears to be more interested in talking about the avant-garde and foreign movies he loved as a kid than playacting as a hick.
    Then again, it’s just as possible that these critics are not trying to condescend, or prove to other critics that they’re down with Faulkner and Malick. I, for one, am well aware of the encroachment of the New South, the rise of bilingual highway billboards, the multitude of Mexican restaurants that have sprung up here in the last three years, and the like, but didn’t see the “film’s myriad problems” as problems. That doesn’t mean I had blinders on when watching the movie, or that I was eager to announce my hipster cred to the critical establishment, but only that our opinion of the movie differed.
    And cheers to all that—clashing opinions, film debates, close watching, and more.
    Final note: I love George Washington, but I’m not “quite protective” of the movie just because I tried to articulate how much I like it, and why. It’s not my baby, it doesn’t need me to defend it, and lord knows my protection means nothing at all to anyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s