The Early Films of David Gordon Green

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HEARTBREAK ON THE EDGE OF TOWN

Prior to the narrative missteps of stagnant stoner comedies, medieval make-believe and midnight child-minding misadventure, director David Gordon Green carefully crafted graceful, heartfelt and deeply moving cinema. The young filmmaker’s insular stories shadowed unremarkable individuals through rural small town communities, observing their relationships with one another, allowing seemingly mundane narratives to shudder with emotion before soaring skyward upon a vapour trail of eloquent storytelling—only to drag you back to reality with a dose of gut-wrenching sorrow. Set amidst the backdrop of abandoned factory buildings and down on their luck drinking holes powered on pedal steel and cheap beer, Green’s coming of age dramas projected a rhythmic, hypnotic quality that strongly echoed the films of Terrence Malick, a fellow Texan and admitted influence.

Green’s first two pictures, George Washington and All the Real Girls, contribute to a heartbroken portrait of Americana and its patchwork quilt of contemporary fables and folklore—stitched together from Malick’s hazy afternoons, the regretful avenues of Richard Yates and Frank O’Hara’s NYC, and William Faulkner and Carson McCullers’ southern gothic streams of indecipherable consciousness. Though transposed to a more modern setting, the roots of Green’s early narratives share the same soil, and the emotive nature of such evocative material carries with it much of the same potency.

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These concentrated depictions were, and still are, capable of burrowing deep beneath the surface of the thickest of skins and most vocal, chest-beating machismo. They long for attention and reconsideration like an ex-lover, the one—or maybe the many—that got away. There are no clear-cut good guys or hiss-worthy bad guys, simply individuals living out their lives side by side, moment by moment, chance after chance. Green’s themes of loss and longing provoke a strong reaction due to their universality, recounting events that many of us have experienced. Most importantly, though, Green’s early narratives never strayed toward phoniness, never insulted its audience with the overt optimism of most run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. Instead, his films suck you in, drive you out to the city limits and break your heart—only to piece it back together with a single line of clumsy, drunken dialogue.

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Green’s debut feature-length picture, George Washington, opens with a sleepy trance-like montage of downtrodden rural imagery, tinges and hues of Malick readily apparent. Time moves at a half-step as the oil-stained faces of workmen grimace while stripping down rusty freight-trains, looking as if they might have just leapt from the set of Days of Heaven. The sequence is narrated by the voice of the titular George’s tentative teenage love-interest, Nasia. Her soft tones relay all the hardships of past lives and the youthful promises of immortality that blow through these trees before being swallowed up in the cracked concrete of beat-up playgrounds. She begins:

 “My friend George said he was going to live to be one hundred years old. He said that he was going to be the president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the Fourth of July… he just wanted greatness.”

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In addition to Nasia’s poetic monologue, George Washington discovers itself through Tim Orr’s breathtaking cinematography, sweeping long shots of industrialized prairies and extreme close-ups of torn-up tin roofs that place you in a time warp, or an alternate sepia-toned reality.The hard black outlines of towering smokestacks reach beyond the scorched vegetation below and billow into the pale watercolour yellow sky. All at once everything begins to resemble a Red House Painters album cover; a throwback to a more honest, simple time when individuals were connected to one another by street corner gossip and telephone wires. It’s not hard to imagine Atticus and Scout Finch sitting on a nearby porch, listening in as the innocent narrator tells us how the ‘grown-ups’ “had worked in wars and built machines… it was hard for them to find their peace”. Whiskeytown’s “Jacksonville Skyline” races to mind upon viewing this sequence for the first time: I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness. A sustained synthesiser undercurrent, provided by Green’s long-time musical collaborators Michael Linnen and David Wingo, swells in the background, seamlessly accompanying the industrial orchestra of wheels on track, the stray dogs barking through the factory perimeter fence.

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Nasia finishes her opening monologue by stating “I like to go to beautiful places where there’s waterfalls and empty fields. Just places that are nice and calm and quiet.” These observations and romantic longings, pieced together by a child whose understanding of the individuals around her far outweighs the years she has spent with them, tells you most everything you need to know about George Washington. Allegory and metaphor is are forsaken in favour of truthful admissions and the blind optimism of adolescent minds. There is a narrative here, but it is faint, almost transparent. You already understand why these people live here, why their blood lines and footsteps took them in the directions in which they did. Now you witness the narratives of all these lives, interweaving, colliding.

There is a constant motion to Green’s early work, a sensational and evocative quality that makes you feel like a ghost in the corner of the room, voyeuristically listening in on every conversation, beaming yourself between the claustrophobic interiors of overcrowded lounges filled with squabbling siblings and hypothetical cousins, and messy bedrooms hiding dirty magazines and padlocked diaries. You begin to realise Green’s narratives are cyclical, that these stories have been lived out a thousand times in several different guises, irrespective of creed, colour, or age.

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You witness the passage from young to old as childhood innocence is corroded and covered in rust by hardship and loss. George Washington’s unexpectedly tragic events—and the hard-hitting manner in which they are depicted—are a clear identifier of this. In the aftermath of tragedy suddenly everything feels lost; rain falls from the sky for the first time, the throbbing synth notes turn to forlorn organ melodies, the colour palette shifts from oranges and reds to blues and greys. Nevertheless George Washington isn’t a story about the tragedy, but rather about the children’s realisation of tragedy’s existence, on an otherwise ordinary summer afternoon.

Green’s second feature, All the Real Girls, also closely aligns itself with the theme of capturing those irreplaceable moments of youthful-fantasy-turned-reality, in all their glory and regret, while you still can. All the Real Girls is a startlingly honest depiction of young love between pool table Lothario Paul (Paul Schneider) and his best friend’s little sister, Noel (a blonder, somewhat unrecognisable Zooey Deschanel). Green’s lyrical filmmaking relies here upon the simplicity of his characters and their timeless mill town surroundings. There are no overblown declarations of love across a crowded room, no rain-soaked reunions upon a bustling platform, and most definitely no boomboxes held aloft—just all-consuming, inarticulate infatuation and its accompanying inconsolable loss.

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Following her return from an all-girl boarding school, the virginal Noel’s attention is captured by Paul. We witness them embark upon a story of love without boundaries, stricken and forced into a corner by family ties, small town mentalities and their fear of the unknown. Green identifies All the Real Girls as his attempt to make a movie that “captured a genuine feel of being young and in love and the frustrations of figuring out who you are and where you’re headed”, a movie that can’t be simply defined as comedy or drama but rather “conveys an honest emotion, with a sense of humour and tenderness, that makes you think and challenges you.” The freedom afforded to Schneider, Deschanel and the rest of the cast and crew to collaborate within an improvisational atmosphere gifts the film with an invaluable sense of believability. Deschanel’s charmingly improvised hand gestures and Schneider’s own real life romantic bag of tricks ricochet off one another, causing genuine sparks to fly and blurring the lines between fact and fiction—convincing you that, in some guise or another, these characters actually existed beyond the pages of the script.

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Whether it’s a fuck-buddy comedy or a supposed ‘true-life’ anecdote from The House of Apatow, romantic cinema (whether it fawns upon misguided hometown pride, childhood friendship or simply the girl next door) that is genuinely dramatic and hard-hitting is a true rarity today. I opened this piece by discussing David Gordon Green’s work in the past tense, longing for a return to form as if the header should read ‘In Memoriam’, but ultimately my goal was to discuss his unparalleled depiction of heartbreak in its many unbending forms rather than rant about the obvious fact that the debut album was better than the fifth. We fall in and out of love with one another, our friends, our families, our favourite directors, those musicians whose entire discography we own, yet the experience and pleasure we gained from them never truly leaves us. Maybe we get so angry with the artists that we love because of the vicarious manner in which we live through their work; when they falter or diverge we feel let down, disappointed. We argue that “they don’t understand us anymore”, “they don’t know what we want and need”, and worst of all “they aren’t doing themselves justice.” In arriving at a conclusion to this piece it seems fitting to do so via Frank O’Hara and his stunningly understated elegy of a love lost to time, “Animals”:

 Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days.

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Maybe, sometimes, the journey is worth the heartbreak.

This piece was originally posted at Bright Wall Dark Room. Visit them here, and subscribe to the most eloquent voice in film journalism here.

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