Friday, March 21, 2014


Hopefully by now you all have read my thoughts on Prince Avalanche and know that I'm no longer upset with David Gordon Green (he made some poor directing choices in the past, but I've let it go). In fact, after seeing the trailer for his latest feature; Joe, I'm more excited about his work now than I've been since All The Real Girls (2003). I know Nicholas Cage's beard & mustache combo looks like the make-up person walked across the street and bought it from a 99 cent novelty shop, but beyond that, it looks quite good. Almost like a better version of Mud. Coincidentally, both; Mud & Joe co-star Tye Sheridan (Tree Of Life) who is becoming the new poster child/"it kid" for all Terrence Malick-related indie films set in the south...

Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Cage & Nicholas Cage's beard in Joe (2014)
But this write-up isn't about Joe. This is about George Washington and the impact I believe it has had on a particular group of films over the last 10-14 years that I like to call; "The New South". You know, films like; Mud, Take Shelter, New Jerusalem, Ballast, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Undertow, As I Lay Dying, All The Real Girls, etc. You could even throw Upstream Color in to the mix given it's dreamy atmosphere along with director Shane Carruth's southern roots (South Carolina to be exact). Its like you can't read a review on any of these films, including my own, without Terrence Malick's name being dropped at least once. Actually, my girlfriend recently came home in the middle of me watching Upstream Color one day and she asked; "was this directed by that same Tree Of Life To The Wonder guy?"
While I only really like some of the aforementioned works (Ballast, All The Real Girls & Upstream Color) and find the rest to be "ok" (Shotgun Stories), Overrated (Mud), very problematic (Beasts Of The Southern Wild & Ain't Them Bodies Saints) or just plain bad (Take Shelter), they all still show a more complex & poetic side of the American south (I'm excluding recent stuff like Winter's Bone & The Paperboy because they don't share the same poetic style).
A lot of these films share connections with each other. Terrence Malick produced David Gordon Green's Undertow and he's also buddies with Jeff Nichols (which might explain why Malick's actors are appearing in his work a lot these days). Plus, actors like Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham & Tye Sheridan have been used in over half the aforementioned works to date.

I don't normally write about my personal favorite films (minus a few exceptions here & there) out of fear of wasting 2,000+ words to just over-praise something to the point where it becomes embarrassing. But after a recent week-long visit to the south (Augusta, GA & Spartanburg, SC) I felt the urge to do this write-up.
After a few personal conversations with various friends, I came to the realization that north of D.C., the south has a bad rep thanks in part to us Yankees up north. Over the years I've heard some pretty crazy generalizations about the south (mostly having to do with racism) by people who have spent none to very little time there outside of Miami which almost doesn't even count anyway. I'm not gonna sit here and try to say that the racism in the south isn't deeply rooted unlike any other place in this world. History clearly proves this (I mean shit, when something like The Klan was founded down there it's damn near impossible to try and downplay things). But at the same time, I spent five years living in Virginia (the home of the Confederacy's capital) and the most racist things that have ever happened to me (a large young uppity black male) personally in life so far have taken place in my ultra liberal P.C. hometown of Amherst Massachusetts, Milford Connecticut and New York City. I mean seriously, a lot of my friends question how things are in the south as if places like Boston or Howard Beach don't exist in the north.
Outside of the racism stuff, there's also the stereotype of southerners being dumb, unclean, overall wearing country bumpkins (one could actually argue that elements of some of the films I listed earlier as part of the new south genre perpetuate that stereotype, but whatever...). There's a slow simmering poetic ambiance to the American south unlike anywhere else that's finally being shown more on film these days.
Be honest, what cinematic world would you rather live in - the rude & busy world of NYC, the superficial world of L.A., or the relaxed slow moving world of the south? Its understandable if some of you rational thinkers still chose NYC or L.A., but for those of you who always complain about being broke, anxious and/or depressed due to city life - you might wanna consider embracing the beauty that is southern hospitality.

Top: Shotgun Stories (2005) & Ballast (2008)
Bottom: Mud (2012) & Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)
While Malick is definitely the indirect influence for all of this, I like to give direct credit to David Gordon Green and his debut feature George Washington. Green pretty much took the style that Malick reemerged with in 1998 (The Thin Red Line) and took in to another level. Clearly a young 26 year old director, like Green was at the time of GW's debut, wasn't the first to show a different side of the American south in the year 2000, but ever since the heavily Malick-influenced George Washington debuted, more & more films that were similar in tone & atmosphere began to emerge.
And unlike other filmmakers who deny or don't acknowledge being influenced by obvious sources, David Gordon Green is always open about his love for Terrence Malick. On the commentary track for the George Washington DVD, he drops Malick name numerous times.

Characteristics of the "new south" include: Dreamy voiceover narration (Beasts Of The Southern Wild & Ain't Them Bodies Saints, The Tree Of Life), a focus on youth & coming of age, droning scores (Mud George Washington), sunsets, family rivalry & inner-turmoil (Undertow, Ballast & Shotgun Stories) and there has to be at least on scene of a wheat field at dawn. David Gordon Green invented NONE of these thing (especially in film) but I feel like George Washington opened the lid on this new poetic southern cinema we're seeing today.
If I may be so bold to say, I feel like the post-2005 Terrence Malick was influenced by his unofficial "pupil" (Green) post-George Washington. I know that by saying Malick was influenced by David Gordon Green really means that Malick was actually just influenced by himself, but ever since he produced Undertow, he got the courage to go even deeper in to his own style. From The New World to Tree Of Life to To The Wonder, Malick's work has become more daring & experimental.

George Washington does have a clear plot. The story focuses on a group of kids (George, Sonja, Buddy & Vernon) and the accidental death they cause one of their friends after carelessly rough-housing, like most kids do, and the decision they make to essentially cover it up. After that, we see how each of the kids deals with carrying the weight of (accidentally) killing someone.
But all of that comes secondary to the ambiance and overall atmosphere. The conflict in George Washington doesn't even come in to play until the middle of the film. Prior to that, it's pretty much a sprawling & (intentionally) unfocused story about a small southern town where everyone is connected to one another in some way, and all the residents, both; kids & adults, are on the same spiritual level with one another.

it is not about plot, but about memory and regret. It remembers a summer that was not a happy summer, but there will never again be a summer so intensely felt, so alive, so valuable - Roger Ebert

Years ago I watched George Washington with a non-cinephile friend and he was perplexed by a scene in which the characters; Buddy (an 11 year old boy) & Ricky (a 20-something year old adult) are talking about women and giving each other relationship advice. "Is this grown man seriously having a heart-to-heart with this little kid?" my friend asked. But that's part of what I love about this film so much. Green shows kids/youth on the same spiritual level as adults. Like I've said quite a few times already on this blog - it's rare that American filmmakers give children the respect they deserve like being presented as actual human beings with complex emotions. Between the voiceover narration and certain lines of dialogue delivered by the child actors in George Washington, there are quite a few moments that may sound forced & unnatural to the point where we're clearly watching lines written by an adult said by a child who doesn't fully understand the lines of dialogue they're delivering. But there are also other genuine moments where the child actors deliver heartfelt moments of maturity & insecurity.

George Washington has connections to cinema outside of just Terrence Malick. Some of its visual imagery comes directly out of Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep...

Killer Of SheepGeorge Washington
It was also released one year after another Malick-influenced film in the form of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Both Ratcatcher & GW are feature debut's that focus on poor communities, coming of age and a young protagonist keeping quiet about the accidental murderer of a friend (there's even a scene in Ramsay's film that uses some of the music from Badlands). It should be noted that both films are part of the criterion collection too.
I'd be remiss if I didn't bring up Gordon Park's The Learning Tree as a subconscious influence on George Washington as well.

Ratcatcher (1999)
Ratcatcher / Tree Of Life / To The Wonder
I'm sure my sentiment for George Washington has to do partially with where I was at mentally when I first saw it. I happened to catch it playing on the Sundance channel in 2004 which is right around the time Tyler Perry was starting to blow up and embarrassing movies like Soul Plane, The Cookout & White Girls were at an all time high. Furthermore, when filmmakers like Spike Lee tried to criticize the direction that black cinema was headed, he was simply labeled as "a hater" or jealous. Needless to say that "black cinema" wasn't looking too great.
After watching George Washington for the first time, I was surprised that only one other black person I knew had seen it. I felt like it served (and still does serve) as a pretty good alternative to all the modern black cinema that everyone (myself included) has issues with these days. Actually, I feel strange calling this a "black film". Not that its David Gordon Green's fault, but George Washington is another predominately black casted film, made by a white director that's embraced more by white cinephiles & white intellectuals.
However, George Washington could have easily been about race yet it wasn't. All the pieces were there - young white director, predominantly black cast, story set in the south etc. I really appreciate the fact that Green didn't go the predictable route.
On a side note, I will say that it does bum me out that every film mentioned in this write-up so far focuses on the south yet not one is directed, produced or written by a black person. Black folks are just as much a part of the fabric that is the American south as any other race. Its nice that quite a few films focus on black characters in front of the camera but it would also be good to have more southern stories told by black filmmakers as well.

As much as I love George Washington, I'll be the first person to understand if one were to call it pretentious. Its slow, intentionally plotless at times and the voiceover is enough to make you wanna roll your eyes depending on your tolerance for artsy stuff. But it's beauty is undeniable. If you like cinema in the vein of The Spirit Of The Beehive, The Thin Red Line or Walkabout, you'll probably enjoy George Washington.

You have to bring a lot of yourself to this film if you want it to give something back, but the rewards are considerable - Jonathan Rosenbaum


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