George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)

Ages ago, someone suggested that I watch “George Washington”, me being a big Terrence Malick fan, and I can see why: Malick’s films and this first effort from David Gordon Green are pretty similar in their lack of really tangible plot, the use of narration, a pace both languid and introspective, but of course there are differences, to the point that the two filmmakers really have to be considered separately for their own merits, so I’ll try keeping the comparisons to a minimum.  Let me say, though, how appropriate it is that Malick’s greatest film, “Days of Heaven”, and “George Washington” are both 89 minutes long: how appropriate for two films so short in running time yet so expansive in the stories that they tell and the characters that they flesh out.

“Days of Heaven” was an extraordinary film in its ability to portray very grown-up situations like murder and love triangles from the point of view of a child, making it epic in scope due to point of view alone, and “George Washington” similarly sets everything from the point of view of children.  This time around, though, the children we come to identify with aren’t witnessing and judging things out of their realm a la “Days of Heaven”, but rather things that they know all too well: adolescence.  Even after an unspeakable tragedy (which, granted, only a handful of the characters know the truth about), life goes on: from the start, these kids’ lives revolve around adolescent love / crushes, hiding the dog from the mean uncle Damascus (who’s not entirely who he lets on), living life with friends at the pool or the traintracks, and just being a pre-teenager.  Green really takes his sweet time setting up such a natural situation and it’s all for the best: this is really a film about nothing, save a few kids living out the last of their youth, and because they’re doing and speaking about things so ordinary, we identify with them.  We care about Buddy and feel for him after Nasia breaks up with him; we understand Nasia and her obsession with boyfriends; we initially see George from afar, as the enigma with the misshaped skull who’s worried about his dog, only to come to the forefront after the tragedy in a great reversal of character portrayal as not a character, but a young man incredibly conflicted by what’s happened and unsure of his place and responsibility in the world.  I think it’s because of this intense concentration on character development that the tragedy that just suddenly happens without warning is so startling: it’s not a grand, dramatic, slow-mo death scene in a generic melodrama, but just another event in these kids’ lives.  Even afterwards, the film doesn’t change focus to concentrate solely on the aftermath of the incident and the repercussions on those involved – it simply lingers in the background, changing the kids ever-so subtly (though not quite so subtle for the clearly guilt-ridden, wannabe-superhero George).  I was particularly disturbed by the scene in question, because it was right in line with the feel of the rest of the film and just happend…another event within the many events shaping these young peoples’ lives, and it therefore felt real, and devastating.  Life goes on, and so do the kids’ worries about dogs, boyfriends, but clearly the life-altering event has changed them: not in an immediate Hollywood-esque way, but slowly, as a build-up of guilt, feelings of helplessness, and finding oneself.

Up ’til now I’ve been singing the praises of “George Washington’s” realism and naturalism, which is why one of the few problems I have with it is some of the narration.  I hate to compare it to Malick, but I can’t help but notice where I think Green misses where Malick nails it…Linda’s narration in “Days of Heaven” is incredibly introspective and philosophical, and yet it’s precisely the voice of a child, whose naive observations turn out to be incredibly intelligent and thought-provoking.  Much of Nasia’s narration in “George Washington” was just as thought-provoking, but also well-written…almost too well-written, to the point that I just couldn’t believe that a person that age could put thoughts like that together.  Smart, just not appropriate for what we were seeing, I thought.  And yet, there are moments of just as introspective and adult dialogue that fit perfectly – moments like Buddy’s truly Shakespearean soliloquy while wearing the lizard mask, or the guilt-ridden potential car thief Vernon philosophizing with his partner in crime Sonya about wishing for a better life: moments of truly beautiful and introspective words that you wouldn’t expect to come from these people, and probably wouldn’t, but they’re there, and they give the story and these young adults a nearly Shakespearean, mythic quality.  And yet, it’s just a few days in the life, tragic occurrence notwithstanding.  But from their point of view, lessons are learned, and guilt and confusion are displayed either through crime or heroism.  Life simply goes on as things happen, but individual perception make even the quietest, most nondescript events into something much greater.



3 comments so far

  1. Jake Savage on

    I pretty agree except for the fact that I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Days of Heaven as you are. I love Linda Manz’s narration and all but I dunno…perhaps a revisit is in order. Anyway, back to what I originally intended to say: I do agree that Green’s first effort feels a bit too Malick-esque. Anyway, nice review.

  2. Simon M. on

    it’s not necessarily too Malick-esque, it’s just that I couldn’t help but compare it to Malick because so many others have. In a perfect world it’d be judged by its own merits, but sadly this world’s anything but :-\

  3. Kit on

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Kit!!

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