George Washington (2000)
Editor’s Notes: George Washington is now available on Criterion Dual Format Blu-ray/DVD.
It’s a paradoxical body, the filmography of David Gordon Green, a collective that’s oft regarded as something in a near dependable state of decay. Immediately peaking with George Washington or perhaps All the Real Girls, the theory goes, the director slowly fell victim to a clot of expectations and misgivings, eventually coming to favor illusorily safe narrative choices over the somewhat naïve, though no less poignant, rhapsodic lilts that typified his earliest works. The idea here is that vocational experience is supposed to beget formal refinement, which in turn should beget expressional maturation. But this criticism, like many other reductive exercises, is great with fault. Envisioning a strictly linear interpretation of progress, the suggested notion posits a rather capsular view of how artists develop, ignoring, if not outright rejecting, the complexity and dynamicism of the individual. While fiscal burdens and critical pressures may help to curtail some of their more audacious tendencies, a filmmaker is ultimately a multifarious and evolving entity – even, yes, a human being; to decry thematic or ambient shifts in their oeuvre is to assume motive, and moreover, romanticizes the notion of personal stagnancy.
Surrounded by the familiar rhythms and constant deterioration of their city, the children aspire most to experience something of variety in their lives, almost as if they’re rebelling ideologically against their imminent adulthood fates…
This sentiment that has so come to define the works of Green is eerily reflective of the tenor of his first feature, George Washington, a work that examines the impossible escapist yearnings of a gaggle of urban Southern youths. Surrounded by the familiar rhythms and constant deterioration of their city, the children aspire most to experience something of variety in their lives, almost as if they’re rebelling ideologically against their imminent adulthood fates – namely, transitioning into the very same grownups that currently populate their ramshackle area. It’s early in the film that we first glimpse the plans kismet has for the band of young characters, as we witness the breakup of Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) and Nasia (Candace Evanofski) and listen to the pair as they mimic the words and cadence of more of-age interactions. The idea here is not to deny the emotions of young people, trivialize their capacity for expression, or even condemn the two to future divorce; no, what Green seems to be doing is establishing a pattern of learning amongst his characters, one that begins by observation and is perpetuated ad infinitum through parroting. Even in this brief exchange, an air of longing is conveyed, as if the young couple realizes not the gravity their words are typically reserved for. Simply, these are children who want for something different but know only of what they’ve seen. And the adults around them offer little help, as they too are victims of the same social paradigm – they’re kids with the incurable symptom of agedness.
While the more satisfyingly phrenic elements of George Washington can be found in the way it achieves such a complex interactive hierarchy, Green is able to reinforce this structuring with his adroit visual faculties; by oftentimes focusing on small apertures of beauty within an otherwise decaying environment, he’s able to braid the perspectives of children and adults into uniquely singular reality. Thus, as viewers we’re permitted to see entirety of a setting, and are even privy to the combative focal points of the two age groups – while the former sees small pockets of life and wonderment in their world (grass springing from sidewalks, the way sunshine glimmers against rust), the latter sees a larger, more mournful picture (failed industry, infrastructural indifference). The dichotomy of childhood optimism and adulthood actuality has been a popular subject for filmmakers ranging from Ingmar Bergman (Summer with Monika) to Wes Anderson (Rushmore), but rarely has one depicted the imbricating nature of these life stages – or of life in general – with as felt a reverence as Green does here. Extending this theme further is the picture’s title, which fosters the commonalities and overlays that exist throughout all humanity. Just as the work’s emergent protagonist George Richardson (Donald Holden) can be tied to his peers, so too can he, with enough extrapolation, be linked to our first president. This may be, I think, one of the film’s most rewarding takeaways: That by constantly comparing ourselves with others, we mistakenly view our identity as disappointing insular rather than enrichingly symbiotic.
…one of the film’s most rewarding takeaways: That by constantly comparing ourselves with others, we mistakenly view our identity as disappointing insular rather than enrichingly symbiotic.
Imagination eventually becomes George’s vehicle for dealing with his surroundings. As his friends long for escape and cynically opine upon their futures – one boy, Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), wishes for his own planet to live on, while the lone white girl, Sonya (Rachael Handy), laments that she “Ain’t got much to look forward to” – the quasi-titular character carves for himself a new identity, dreaming not only of heroism but the recognition it affords. Whether or not his idealism is of hyperbolic proportion is a moot point, for it gives him temporary reprieve from a morbid world where the only lucrative industry now lies in dismantling the industry of the past; a world where basic human privacy is a luxury of the upper class; and a world where hobbies are something of novelty, the stuff of privilege. Like the director himself, the characters of this, his first film, are the products of countless interactions and processes, all of which contribute to their personality at any given moment. But just because these social currents and cultural catalysts guide the individual toward one outcome doesn’t mean this expectation must necessarily be met; in the end, we can still command our own reality, or at least imagine we do.
An obvious improvement over Criterion’s 2002 DVD release, the Blu-ray presentation of George Washington delivers in the expected areas, bolstering the image’s chromatic tones – particularly in the case of lusher greens and their amber and citrine neighbors – while also adding a tinge of texture and depth to the proceedings. Two shots I recall seem incongruent, as if they were slathered with a pigment smothering baste that tempers the work’s otherwise smoldering visual aura; these instances, however queer, are brief. Perhaps most importantly, Green’s subtle plays with focal depth are well preserved here, allowing viewers to appreciate the under sung nuance of his cinematic language as it seamlessly fuses with the steamy southern imagery. The soundtrack is predictably stable and shoulders the dialogue well, and without drowning out the echoic clamor of the environs’ background.
The innate advantage of Criterion releasing – or in the case of George Washington, rereleasing – newer titles is the potential to harness authorial insight from artists not too temporarily distanced from the time a film was made. And while this particular work has now entered its fourteenth year, the stockpile of supplements grandfathered in from the initial 2002 output still shows its maker as someone intimately close to the picture we see. His two student films offer ganders into his early thematic and stylistic penchants, while his commentary and interviews gift a great deal of insight into some of the more deliberate choices he made, particularly in conserving his first feature’s regional veracity. But given the aforementioned shifts in his artistic tendencies, these extras feel like a bit cold and mummified, as if they’re merely artifacts of a bygone era. While we can appreciate their existence, their capsular nature limits our understanding of the director, nay person, Green’s become.
[notification type=”star”]82/100 ~ GREAT. While the more satisfyingly phrenic elements of George Washington can be found in the way it achieves such a complex interactive hierarchy, Green is able to reinforce this structuring with his adroit visual faculties; by oftentimes focusing on small apertures of beauty within an otherwise decaying environment, he’s able to braid the perspectives of children and adults into uniquely singular reality.[/notification]