David Gordon Green’s dreamy feature debut renowned for its swath of Terrence Malick affectations feels even more warm and inviting fourteen years later. The consciously lazy narrative of a group of rural Texan kids, black and white, co-habitating happily, and growing up impervious to the pretty bleak squalor around them, is the functional foundation for Green’s lush tonal aesthetic. Essentially the film is made up of small moments of infectious and hypnotising beauty, moments and scenes which don’t always coalesce together fluidly, but collectively whet our palette through its nostalgic filter of childlike naivete.
George Washington (2000) dir. David Gordon Green
Starring: Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damian Jewan Lee, Paul Schneider, Eddie Rouse
By Alan Bacchus
The whiff of a plot revolves around a group of four or five kids who speak to each other like their adults but with a dissociative randomness of 10-year-olds. Early on Nasia (Evanofski), an overly mature 9 year old, breaks up with her boyfriend Vernon (Lee) with dialogue straight out of a weepy romantic melodrama. Her voice over is self-consciously poetic with non-sensical ruminations like “I like to go to beautiful places where there's waterfalls and empty fields. Just places that are nice and calm and quiet.” And yet, we never feel pretention in these statements, but part of the strange ambition of Green to bottle up the fogginess of our own memories of childhood.
At one point one of the children is killed accidentally, but Green barely even stops to lay the weight of this moment on the kids. In any other film, this would become a narrative-changing plot point, but here the kids simply move on. Even though Nasia speaks about the character of George wanting to become President of the United States one day, the title of the picture itself, George Washington, is meaningless, perhaps a conscious red herring of the director to misdirect us, or misguide us. And yet, we’re never bothered by this, another strangely effective part of Green’s unconventional vision.
What a triumph of casting and directing, finding such honest and utterly natural performances from a group of largely unprofessional actors or at least fresh-faced newbie screen players. There isn’t a false note in the picture, a remarkable achievement for such a young director.
Part and parcel to Green’s vision is his collaboration with cinematography Tim Orr – a shared DP/Director title card which references the shared title card of Orson Welles/Gregg Toland on Citizen Kane. Like Welles’ hubris, Green seems be aware of the magic he’s managed to conjure with his film. Orr’s cinematography is out in front of all other elements of the film. The opening sequence in ultra-slow-mo highlights nothing except the beauty of his characters’ random meaningless activities, and the golden magic hour sunlight beautifies Green’s run down locales, creating a conscious visual dichotomy within the compositions.
Sequences like the introductory scenes exist for the sheer purpose of its cinematic joie de vivre. The final moments of the film, which show the fall out of the characters from the discovery of Vernon’s death, are played out like the ending of Badlands if performed as a play by Jason Schwarzman’s Max Fischer character in Rushmore and are simultaneously silly, heart-warming and triumphant. It’s impossible to put one’s finger completely on why this all works so magically, but it does.
I would have argued George Washington to be one of the most remarkable first features I’ve ever seen. Green’s cinematic point of view almost fully formed is executed with supreme confidence – a youthful enthusiasm which resembles the bold first feature of Paul Thomas Anderson a few years prior. Unfortunately, with the exception of the equally wonderful second film All the Real Girls, Green’s filmography has seen lesser returns. Is it even fathomable that the spark of creativity for Green blossomed at age 24 or 25, and fizzled out before he even reached 30. I hope not.
George Washington is available on Blu Ray by the Criterion Collection