Forget about the digital-video revolution for a moment. Twenty-five-year-old writer-director David Gordon Green shot his radically styled, modestly budgeted debut feature George Washington in 35mm Cinemascope--because, as he puts it, "Film is beautiful and it's epic, and it's a medium that seems to be dying." As it happens, Green's poetic, near-plotless drama itself observes a fading way of life, set amid what the filmmaker calls "the decomposing ruins of industry" in old railroad towns of the rural South, and among a racially mixed group of culturally open-minded teens.
"I wanted to redesign people's interpretation of the South," the well-scrubbed Green explained in a coffee-shop interview during the New York Film Festival last fall. "I wanted to take kids seriously, for once, to recognize their philosophies and beliefs and their sense of humor. And on top of that, I wanted to make a film with black characters, not from an urban hip-hop point of view, but in an atmospheric, ambient, meditative style, which is rare."
Drawn from Green's own experiences growing up in south Texas, George Washington takes an aptly laid-back approach to the adolescent sport of just hanging out. Observed in documentary fashion amid an industrial junkyard mise en scène, a 12-year-old girl (Candace Evanoski) hands her boyfriend (Curtis Cotton III) his walking papers; another mismatched pair of young lovers (Damian Jewan Lee, Rachael Handy) schemes to steal cars; and George (Donald Holden), whose dangerously soft skull requires the constant protection of a football helmet, saves a boy from drowning and dons a superhero costume to celebrate. Like the movie's more famous namesake, George wants to be president of the United States--and he cannot tell a lie.
Despite elements of neorealism (does any setting evoke "vérité" more than a junkyard?), the key to Green's film lies in its defiance not of cinematic codes so much as our own prejudices. The kids of George Washington engage in conversations one might expect of Ivy League creative-writing students rather than teens of color from low-income families in the South. And that sense of negated expectations, in turn, provokes our reflection upon how it is that we feel qualified to consider Green's film inauthentic. Does our underestimation of these kids derive from personal experience? From Hollywood movies? From the news? From our imaginations?
Whatever the case, credit Green with doing more to challenge perceptions of race, class, age, and region than any American director in years. And yet if George Washington stands far apart from the "indie" pack, it owes greatly to the filmmaker's charismatic cast of nonprofessional unknowns, whom he discovered in barber shops, on beaches, and at churches and teen centers in the rural South. Allowing these young, first-time actors to improvise dialogue (how's that for authenticity?), Green shot most scenes in just one or two takes, which helped to keep the movie's final cost at one-fourth that of his friends' digital-video productions. In the end, both the rural Southern environment and the medium of film are made to seem like realms of utopian possibility.
"I think people feel refreshed to see a positive environment developed within a community of economic and physical depression," says Green, who takes inspiration from both Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett. "As a director, one of my jobs is to create a place where I would want to spend an hour and a half. So why not create it while I have the power to do it? I mean, I can't play God and I can't be the president of the United States. But I can use the camera to give you a glimpse of this world you've never seen."
George Washington starts Friday, February 16 at U Film Society; (612) 627-4431.