George Washington

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 December

 

 

George Washington dies, 1799

On this day in 1799, George Washington died. George Washington was the first president of the USA, a commander in chief of the army in the war of independence and was also one of the Founding Fathers, the group who signed the Declaration of Independence, launched the new country into a revolutionary war, and then drafted the Constitution. His presidency was marked by attempts to promote the federal government and national institutions, to get taxation on a fair basis, to avoid wars in foreign lands, to pay down the national debt and to use the power of the state to protect and enlarge civil liberty – though he also used the state’s military might to close down the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Washington was keenly aware that, as first president, what he did would set a precedent. It was Washington who suggest the simple title “Mr President”. It was Washington who chose where the new country’s new capital should be built, and who dictated what sort of pomp and ceremony the new country should use (very little, he deemed). Washington did not belong to any formal political party and did not believe there was a place for them inside government. He had become president in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and when he left office in 1797 he retired to quiet domesticity, only to be called back to military service the following year, as the US geared up for possible war against France. He died having caught a chill while out inspecting his plantation in wintry weather, his situation being made much worse by the letting of nearly half of his blood by doctors. In his last will he freed all his slaves.

 

 

 

George Washington (2000, dir: David Gordon Green)

David Gordon Green went on to direct not particularly successful studio fodder such as the Your Highness, the hybrid of the epic and comic that was epic only in terms of its failure, comic only in its expectations of success. And it had started so well with George Washington, a tiny drama that finds beauty in the everyday – railroad tracks, busted municipal buildings, old clapboard houses. It stars a cast of unknowns as the rural, feral kids of North Carolina who are wise beyond their years, boys and girls making out they’re men and women who are hanging out, killing time a day at a time in the last summer before they hit puberty. Into this effectively drawn cast of characters – some white, most black, all poor – Green tosses the grenade of a death, which happens so casually it’s almost as if it didn’t, and then stands back to watch how this event affects them all. I say stands back, but Green and his cinematographer Tim Orr have clearly worked like dogs to get the look of this film right – most of the 25-year-old director’s budget went on lenses, apparently – and to squeeze the most naturalistic performances possible out of his gifted cast of modern-day Tom Sawyers and Huckleberry Finns. Scott Tobias at the AV Club – now at The Dissolve – suggests George Washington has the naturalism of Harmony Korine with the visual flair of Terrence Malick. And that’s about bang on, though Malick never worked with a budget this tiny, I bet. And could Korine better the relaxed nature of the performances? What the film has to say about the hopes of a nation founded by a namesake of one of the characters, in the context of all this wasted human potential, that’s just left hanging in the breeze.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The performances
  • The debut by a gifted film-maker
  • Tim Orr’s cinematography
  • The antidote to the sort of kids who’ve been through the Mickey Mouse Club

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

George Washington – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “George Washington”

  1. "I like to go to beautiful places where there’s waterfalls and empty fields"… Nasia

    George Washington is a meandering, moody, and hypnotic look at a group of black children, ages 9 to 14, during one summer in North Carolina. This was my second viewing and it remained a deeply satisfying experience. Though at times self-conscious, George Washington brings to mind Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven with its voice-over narration, languid, dreamy tone, and gorgeous cinematography.

    The youngsters are shown talking and playing aimlessly among the squalid junkyards and abandoned buildings of their neighborhood. They do not talk much about their hopes for the future but focus on their families and their girl friends and boy friends. The dialogue is partly improvised and, like Days of Heaven, allows the characters to speak in a manner that is slightly more poetic and contemplative than the average teenager.

    The narrator, Nasia (Candace Evanofski), is a 12-year-old who has just broken up with her 13-year-old boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) because, in her view, he’s too young and immature. She’s more attracted to Buddy’s friend George (Donald Holden), a quiet and serious boy who always wears a helmet to protect his soft skull. They hang out with their friends, a mismatched pair of amateur car thieves named Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy), and also with Rico (Paul Schneider), a local railroad worker. Buddy shares his sadness with Rico who comforts him with his own story of lost love.

    When an unexpected tragedy occurs, each of them must look closer at themselves and struggle to make an emotional connection with the events. They come to their realizations at different moments throughout the film and slowly begin to change in different ways. George, for one, after saving a drowning boy in a swimming pool becomes a neighborhood hero. Those realizations, however, do not provide an instantaneous fix and Green does not provide a forced happy ending.

    Green has said, "One of the reasons I made this movie is because movies talk down to kids, put them as a cute little kid with a box of cereal and a witty joke," says Green. "You watch movies like Kindergarten Cop and it’s like, ‘Oh, a kid said something about sex. Isn’t that funny?’ It’s just annoying and it makes me sad for their parents."

    George Washington presents a view of teens that is not condescending but shows each character as a person of dignity and worth. It uniquely captures the confusion of adolescence, the need to belong, to believe life is or can be important, and the universal longing for love. Green has looked into the squalor and found beauty. Like a poem of Walt Whitman, he has expressed the divine in the commonplace.

  2. George Washington is the kind of film I instantly respond to for the simple reason that it is pure, perfect cinema. This is what FILM can do when free of the constraints of popular movie-making. When it ended it made me think of that old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words." Well what happens when that picture moves? You get George Washington. I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone reading this by needless plot exposition that I find so annoying in most professional reviews. But the film does center around a small American town, and a group of poor children during the long, hot summer months. This film has absolutely wonderful cinematography, better than most big budget Hollywood films, and the mood it sets is alternately playful, melancholy, surreal, and poignant. Many times I was reminded of my own childhood; scenes play out in a very organic way and the actors, mostly children, are all wonderful. Before I saw this film I had heard that one of the director’s influences was Terrence Malick, a filmmaker I love dearly, and George Washington reminded me a lot of Malick’s "Days of Heaven." He uses voiceover in much the same way Malick did in that film…alternating between narration, random thoughts, and character exposition. The voiceover use in this film, as in Days of Heaven, is spoken the way someone might hear their own thoughts. Watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean. Although the movie is about children, it’s not really "for" kids, but I would venture to say that any kid from about age 12 and up would be all the richer for seeing this movie. However in this age of short attention spans, and video game editing I don’t hold out much hope that many kids would appreciate a film like this. But for adults, especially lovers of the cinema, this should be required viewing. It’s up to us support these kinds of movies so we can see more of them in the future. I saw this for free on the independent film channel, but I plan on buying the DVD anyway…George Washington is a film I will be proud to add to my collection. I loved it.

  3. When I first saw "George Washington" at the L.A. Independent Film Festival, I remarked to a colleague that I wasn’t sure if the film was "brilliant," or if it was "a student film." He remarked, in kind, that "it was a brilliant student film." At the time, I agreed. But after repeated viewings of "George Washington," I think I am starting to encounter its sheer sublime brilliance… and in retrospect, it is one of the most beautifully realized films I’ve ever seen. As a Southerner, I can’t recall a film that has better captured the mood of the rural South. The film’s languid pacing–set amidst its plush backdrop of swimming pools, the rusted steel of dilapidated factories, children playing in the sun, immense greenery, and diverse ethnic culture–continually transports me back to the South that I experienced growing up. Its operatic photography mixes a complex cinematic chemistry that, for me, feels more and more like a documentary in tone the more I watch it. Yet for all the film’s structural "looseness," there is that one story strand that seems to always hit from an unforeseen angle, which softly jerks you back to the story just as you start to think the film is losing focus. The film’s pace seems centered on this hypnotic lulling style: the narrative rope slackens almost to the point of no return, until all of a sudden that rope is pulled taut by its sheer weight. Other reviews here accurately describe what "George Washington" is about, so I will defer to them for story description. Unfortunately, in many descriptions here, people (mistakenly) see "randomness" in the film’s structure. But the story’s elements are just so beautifully and intricately weaved that one can actually leave the film truly wondering if there was any structure to it at all. This is absolutely not a "by chance" occurance. It is the mystifying brilliance of this classical tale: the languid pacing almost fosters Southern-style "forgetfulness" to the point that the story seems to forget about itself and fold inward. All the stories fall into each other so smoothly that it’s easy to forget and begin wondering "what happened?" But this style is in fact the film’s structure, and is absolutely the intended hypnotic effect, which is so reflective of the mood of Southern culture (if I am allowed to state this so broadly). I’ve now seen the film about ten times, and I can confidently state that "George Washington"’s immense subtlety in this regard should not be overlooked. There are many examples of backstory that David Gordon-Green (the writer/director) leaves just underneath the surface, waiting to be found. For example, in the relatively minor scene where George visits his imprisoned father, it’s amazing to consider just how much that simple scene reveals of George’s strange circumstances. Without being obvious and saying directly to the viewer "x happened, now y occurs," we are all of a sudden introduced to George’s complex emotional world. We are given an image (but not an explanation) as to why he now lives with Damascus. What’s the backstory here? Did George’s father murder his mother? We are told nothing directly. But after the incident with Buddy, George is able to come to some sort of terms with his father–who remains silent, smoking a cigarette behind bars. George tells his father that he once didn’t believe him, but now believes him… and loves him. The film’s central theme–that of George becoming a hero–is most exemplified in this moment… and is in my estimation the biggest character building moment of the film. In a quick two minute scene (which, action-wise, is relatively forgettable), we all of a sudden encounter George as a growing adolescent in a very complex adult world: as guilty, as scared, as proud, as strong, as knowing, as forgiving. It’s as though his conscience were born in that moment of inner conflict, and provides the measure for his becoming a hero later in the film. (As a wise man once told me, one can only become a hero by being, at some point, the opposite of a hero.) I think the typical response that George’s heroism is ironic in the film should be discredited by the depth of his character. Far from ironic, he is simply a hero who begins to grasp the price of heroism. "George Washington" is rife with little gems like this. So many subtleties abound here, like Nasia’s fascinating narration told from the future perfect tense (revealed only once in a phrase halfway through the film)–told as though the story were some sort of Southern archetypal memory. Or Damascus’ pre-text for quitting his job, so subtley inserted in the beginning that you forget about it by the time you realize what his phobias are. Or even George’s breathtaking "admission," as indicated in the interrogation office through a jerk-reaction sniff that seems to come two paces too late. How much is revealed in that small action! "George Washington" is one of the most artful and intricately directed films I’ve ever seen. It is the kind of film that, like its story, will never crack the (canonical) surface because of its deep subtleties… but which, because of that, is what will always make it shine.

  4. After only writing a few reviews, I promised myself I would not give a film a perfect score too easily, but I cannnot resist. George Washington is truly astonishing and touching piece of cinema. Some people have called one of the best films of the new decade. This is definitely not too far from the truth. As the summary had said it is told very deceptively but we do not know the director has up his sleeve both plot wise and emotionally.

    One of the best things about this film is its realism. David Gordon Green captured the essence of how kids today speak. Often we find in the usual "tween" movies that the young kids speak perfect English, always have good posture, speak with a clear voice, and have a wide vocabulary. I sound like one of my teachers. In the real world, this is not how kids actually talk and Mr. Green should be commended for bringing this to the masses.

    As many people know, this film has great cinematography and the location is an area rarely seen in movies today. It even rivals Malick’s. The opening scenes in particular have great cinematography. They are a hook to the viewers that enchants them to keep watching. The sub-satisfactory location is turned into a beautiful not quite urban or rural town of mystery and intrigue.

    Yes, I will say it. This film is very moving. I know I will sound like a sap but it is moving in the true sense of the word. It is never overly sentimental or sappy. It feels so genuine. Few films recently have been so affecting on this level. The film has a very provocative take on redemption I like how the director used amateurs to add even more realism to the movie. The acting was pretty good, too. Stay clear if this movie if you do not have a good attention span (most reviewers are complaining about this). It is drawn out but oh so rewarding. Highly recommended.

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