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Roger Ebert was quick to praise George Washington, the rookie film from North Carolina filmmaker David Gordon Green, for its cinematography and evocative quality. Its greatest critical compliment, however, may be that Criterion chose to release the DVD under their banner.

About a Boy

It's greatest compliment may be that Criterion released it under their banner
It’s greatest compliment may be that Criterion released it under their banner

George Washington is about a boy who inadvertently kills one of his friends. Four of them were messing around when one of them slipped and landed on his head. The surviving three friends decide to hide the body rather than report the incident.

But looking only at this major plot point is to miss most of George Washington. Green is more interested in observing the rural setting, the rusting skeleton of industry, the life of the children of poverty, than he is in telling a tense story about an accidental death.

The death is just a wrinkle in what Green is really interested in, which is the day-to-day lives of these kids. If anything, the death is an screenwriter’s experiment in this petri dish, to see how the kids will react. Two of them see the death and say “I’m no good, I’m basically a murderer.” They see their lives ruined with no way out.

George (Donald Holden), on the other hand, saves a boy from drowning the following day. He sees the combination of events and says “I have incredible power which I must use for good.” His life isn’t ruined, it’s fated.

12-Year Old Adults

If there is a single-most interesting concept in George Washington, it lies in how adult these children consider themselves. They are naive. They look like they are playing grownup. Nevertheless, each performance is earnest and weighty; it’s not “cute” how grown up they think they are. In their minds, they are already taking on the weight of the world.

In fact, their friend Nasia (Candace Evanofski) narrates the film. The character Nasia (pronounced disconcertingly like “nausea”) is a 12-year old girl who talks with her family and friends as though she were an adult, about kissing boys and forming relationships. She explains that she broke up with Buddy because “he acts too much like a little kid; I’m looking for a more mature person.”

From the face of a 12-year old, maybe these lines do seem a little “cute” after all. But as a faceless narrator, Nasia has the undeniable weight of an adult. When she narrates, she takes on the ponderous tone of a serious poet describing Life with a capital L.

As narrator, she describes the life of George, whom she believes is destined for greatness. She describes the town and its adults, always dead serious. Her low and deliberate voice is compelling. Her words are vague and inarticulate, and yet they convey emotion and depth and inner turmoil. Here’s how she opens the movie:

”[...] They used to try to find clues to all the mysteries, and mistakes God had made. My friend George said that he was going to live to be a hundred years old. He said, he said that he was going to be president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the fourth of July. [...] The grownups in my town, they were never kids like me and my friends. They had worked in wars and built machines. It was hard for them to find their peace. Don’t you know how that feels?”

Film Alive

I’ve seen George Washington more than twice now and I still don’t quite know what to make of it. That can be taken both as a compliment and as a criticism. It’s a compliment because it means the film can’t be summed up in a sentence. It’s more organic and alive than a pat cookie-cutter film.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to recommend such a film to the mainstream audience. How do you explain what it’s “about” when a friend asks for a quick description? It’s a slice of life. It’s a portrait of a time, a place and a phase in life. It’s like eavesdropping on people you probably didn’t even know existed in America. It’s dramatic and artistic, and almost completely unpretentious.

The most apt comparison I’ve seen is to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a beautifully photographed, quiet portrait of a time and a place. I can imagine someone dismissing these films as boring because they move slowly and don’t look like Hollywood. I also think that anyone willing to give them a try will be moved.

Picture and Sound

Tim Orr’s widescreen cinematography captures light, rust, skin, heat, and humidity. It’s gorgeous to look at without being obviously pretty or idealized. The hulk of a few train cars can be make a stoic landscape. The earth mover at a municipal dump can look like a thrashing, asthmatic beast. And when something as mundane as dialogue is called for, he knows just where to place the camera to make the subjects meld into the landscape.

Criterion, working with a recent 35mm interpositive, preserves the rich colors and texture of the film. Director Green and cinematographer Orr supervised and approved the transfer.

The sound is presented in the original three-channel surround and encoded in Dolby Digital. There is more music than you might expect. Green uses long tones and ambient sounds to set a mood, so the surround sound is an important component.

DVD Extras

In addition to the movie and an okay audio commentary by Green, Orr, and actor Paul Schneider, the Criterion DVD includes:

  • a deleted scene,
  • the theatrical trailer,
  • short films made by Green as a student,
  • a Charlie Rose interview,
  • video interviews with the cast,
  • a short film Green says influenced his budding career.

    I also found three easter eggs on the Cast Reunion screen. There are two clips of Curtis Cotton III (who played Buddy) bragging, and a set of baby pictures of the stars.

    Of the DVD features, the most interesting is the Charlie Rose interview. Green is a surprisingly young-looking man, and given that most of the cast is black, I assumed the director would be too (Green is white). Seeing him in person and hearing him speak about the movie cast George Washington in a completely different light.

    The other extras — the cast interviews, the short films, the deleted scene — will probably be more interesting in 15 years, when Green has become the first director of his generation to make a distinctive name for himself. For now, they feel a bit indulgent, but Criterion is probably right to bet that Green will be a phenomenon in the years to come.