George Washington: Criterion Collection
March 31, 2014
When George Washington (2000) made the rounds at various film festivals, critics were impressed by David Gordon Green’s directorial feature debut with some comparing him to Terrence Malick. Set in a decaying rural southern United States setting, the film follows the misadventures of several kids over a particularly hot summer. We see them hanging out and playing together in that way that kids do – the day would be spent together without any adults around. Green juxtaposes these idyllic scenes with ones involving the harsh lives various adults lead – working hard for little money.
Like Malick, Green finds poetic beauty in the day-to-day existence of people, complete with disembodied voiceover narration of a girl (much like Days of Heaven) that ruminates about life in a matter-of-factly philosophical way. For most of George Washington, it feels like we are intruding on the private conversations and moments of these characters, as if Green just took the camera around town and filmed actual people. There’s an authenticity to the characters and how they are portrayed, which he juxtaposes with an expansive widescreen aspect ratio and masterful use of slow motion that elevates the daily existence of these characters to something more profound, but without being pretentious about it.
This gives George Washington a very personal feel, coming from Green’s unique perspective that is miles away from how children or the South are depicted in most Hollywood cinema. It also saves the film from being nothing more than a cinematic love letter to Malick. As Armond White’s liner notes point out, this outsider perspective of Green’s may have been shaped by the primary influences of three filmmakers: Charles Burnett (The Killer of Sheep), Terrence Malick (Badlands) and Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool). Green absorbs them and makes George Washington his own.
The entire cast of unknown, unprofessional actors is excellent. They deliver organic performances that enhance the film’s authenticity. They play people that have their own hopes and dreams just like anyone else. One has to admire Green for treating a particular social strata that is usually marginalized, with respect and dignity. George Washington as an auspicious debut for Green who followed it up with the also impressive All the Real Girls (2003) before gradually becoming integrated into the Hollywood machinery with varying degrees of success. Regardless, this film continues to endure and reveals more layers upon repeated viewings. Hopefully Green is still capable of such insight and visual poetry.
The Blu-Ray transfer is significantly sharper and more detailed than the previous DVD incarnation, making this a worthy upgrade for fans of the film.
There is an audio commentary by director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr and actor Paul Schneider. Green wanted to place an emphasis on tone, atmosphere and mood in a way that would make the film look more expensive than it was. He talks about the influence of voiceover narration in Days of Heaven (1978) on his film. Naturally, Orr talks about the mix of a loose, documentary-style with a very controlled one. Schneider chimes in with the occasional observation.
“Pleasant Grove” is a short film Green shot in 1996 while an art student that proved to be the inspirational basis for George Washington. There is an optional commentary track with Green, Orr and Schneider.
“Physical Pinball” is a student short film Green shot in 1998 with two of the actors that would go on to appear in George Washington.
“A Day with the Boys” is a 1969 short film directed by character actor Clu Gulager (The Killers). It was an influence on Green’s film in the sense that both films follow a group of children in a non-judgmental way.
Also included is a deleted scene with optional commentary by Green, Orr and Schneider. They put it in context with the rest of the film and explain its origins as well as how they shot it.
New to this edition is “Cast Reunion,” a collection of interviews Green conducted in 2001 with the young cast. They talk about their experiences making George Washington and how it changed their lives. They all speak quite thoughtfully about their impressions of it.
“David Gordon Green on Charlie Rose” sees the young filmmaker talking about his cinematic influences, the choice of an ambient soundtrack and the enigmatic film title among other things.
Finally, there is a trailer.