It’s not a new point to discuss David Gordon Green’s sellout hackwork middle career stage, but his recent “return to his roots” phase is fresher still and only recently of this Earth; thus, it provides a far more welcome object of inquiry. The hackwork phase has been written about on end, and while I happen to think Pineapple Express is a fairly nuanced redirecting of Green’s trademark hush for the purposes of a stoner comedy, there’s nothing more to be said about his duo of 2011 misfires. Far more interesting are his recent efforts, epitomized by his 2013 release Joe. Many have taken to considering it a return to form, and while the film is strong and textured in many exciting ways, I cannot join the train. Owing more to post-Green works like Winter’s Bone, his recent films retain the social realism of his earlier works but run dangerously close to recreating the trees at the expense of the forest. The honest characters and hard-hitting drama mostly follow through, but the poetic post-Malick haze and thoughtful melancholy of Green’s abstracted reflection of everyday human activity has been lost to time.
Green’s hunger, his go-for-broke personal take on anything presented before him, his willingness to subscribe to a style of filmmaking unknown to the current state of American film, has washed away. He doesn’t so much seem to have something to prove anymore, and his footsteps are treading the already mushy, downtrodden mud of modern American social realism. While his newer films are very strong in their own right, what he has lost is the realization that in fiction, in film’s unique ability to abstract and find non-real visual beauty, it can produce something more truthful and real than any fly-on-the-wall realism ever can. If one begs for proof, one needs look no further than Green himself, fifteen years younger and hungrier, when he released his first film: 2000’s quiet sigh of sweltering Southern drama, George Washington.
Green doesn’t quite find his passion in studying what he knows (his middle class upbringings don’t correspond with his largely poverty-stricken characters), but the long-suffering Appalachia he calls home is never far from his heart. Even in a film replete with characters like George Washington, Green is drawn to hard-won spaces and empty air so as to fill it with sweat and steam, finding the bitter dearth of struggling Appalachian towns to be the sort of places where life brews at its most tired, and most lived. He fills the screen with emptiness weighing down on his wearisome characters, lost amidst this doldrums of the distraught, lost regions of America. His handling of small-town community finds rural people tentatively fawning over a young male as a hero, but Green’s style is not to tackle the subject through the realist bent of exploring how such respect would infiltrate and permeate a town. Instead he focuses on the ethereal atmospherics of the idea of a child accepting his new-found hero status and wandering through life unsure of what a hero means or why he ought to be one. He doesn’t even have a conception of his town as a community; he only knows his friends, who sometimes seem lost to him.
If Green and cinematographer Tim Orr glide over the town, they do so with a palpable sense of mysticism and abstraction, never giving us a proper sense of the location’s geography and replacing this with the much more satisfying use of each location as a tone piece or prop-of-the-mind, a place that represents a feeling or idea in and of itself more than a true location. Green’s film is about the idea of children understanding community, and realizing that a world outside their friendship group exists, more than it is about how that community actually relates to them. We don’t ever see this town, which is never named nor photographed in any meaningful physical sense. Houses appear occasionally, but there is no real sense that anyone populates the location except Green’s characters and an ever-present malaise wafting around them. It is a work about mystical place as it exists in the eyes of a lost child, not so much connecting locations into a concrete whole but identifying them individually and disconnecting them from physical space in favor of what that single location reflects or represents to them.
Yet he doesn’t lose himself in depression. What separates George Washington from Green’s recent Joe (and many of his films), is a sense of honest everyday jubilation and childlike rambunctiousness, a feeling of living on the spur of the moment and finding happiness, or at least contentedness, in the little moments that emerge out of surviving an aimless, day-to-day life with little ebb or flow. His story of a group of black and white children living their lives over the course a hot summer in rural North Carolina doesn’t drown in sadness; instead it moves between the highs and lows of everyday life, mostly centering the typical and emphasizing the off-hand conversations and unexpectedly expected workaday melancholy in the minor key. Adults appear, but Green de-emphasizes their presence in favor of a lost summer where children run their own lives. Watching the children lose themselves to the spur of the moment, Green seems most comfortable in stringing together small moments until we lose a sense of time and everything appears to exist in the present.
When tragedy strikes, and Green eventually settles on a young boy named George Washington who is involved in both a death and a heroic life saving, his tone is not to overemphasize or resort to hysterics. He adopts the private, plaintive confusion of his childhood characters, unsure of the world and forever sitting by in disjointed confusion. His camera observes with an airy quality, emphasizing long, unbroken takes and a poetic narration by a young girl named Nasia to convey not per-se information but the characters’ overpowering subjectivity. Along with rampant soft lighting, the narration filters the everyday actions of the children through a mythic aura distanced off from us as a location and time we can never truly know fully. His North Carolina has the quality of biblical fantasy layered over reality, of a time and place both concretely day-to-day and abstractly elevated.
Tethered to Green’s highly naturalistic, realist eye for stumbling onto the sorts of conversations that movies are wont to hide away, his low-key ear raises the lives of his characters up into cinematic heaven. He uses cinematic imagery to locate a special place that recollects the lost-and-found tempo of childhood life, the memories and hidden moments of youth found only in an endless summer. Technically George Washington is a “that one summer” film, but few films, perhaps no film, understands the non-narrative pace and essence of moving through the limbo of small-town summer boredom and just getting by, in both the real world and in the mind. It doesn’t thrust us into a put-upon narrative; it sits back and stews for a while, in the way so many children find time to stew and imagine during a hot summer where one morning bleeds into the next and reality trickles into fantasy (only for fantasy to trickle back down again with hard things to say about the painful realities of human life). Few works have as much to say, filmically, about how time functions and how children simply exist in life, coping with discovering the world by pushing it aside and existing not so much within it but on top of it. Would that more young directors (and not those disingenuously directing YA action films) claim to worship under the hand of Malick.