David Gordon Green’s George Washington tells the very common story of young children slowly making their way to adulthood yet it’s as much concerned with this uncomfortable transition as it is with a Deep South overrun by poverty and the falseness of racial interaction. Green’s portrait of the South, though, is anything but hostile. Utopian without the naïveté, George Washington posits the possibility of a racially harmonious South. The film’s meditative score is predicated on drawn-out chords that delicately and sinuously fuse with Tim Orr’s breathtaking cinematography. Where Monster’s Ball bridged racial gaps by having a beautiful black woman take her clothes for her white master, George Washington silently crosses its bridge with a simple hug. A gangly white boy nearly drowns in the city pool only to be rescued by George Richardson (Donald Holden), a dreamer whose cranial bones have yet to fully form. While the interaction between the young white boy’s mother and George’s aunt suggests an unspoken discomfort, Green seems more overtly concerned with the historical awareness of his African-American characters. Nasia (Candace Evanofski) breaks up with Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) so she can pursue George, whose fragile fontanel evocatively suggests a superhero’s Achilles’ heel. And like the most tragic of superheroes, George’s ability to do good (here, a kind of atonement ritual) is predicated on guilt. George may wear a cape like any other boy who dreams of flying yet he goes further inside himself. It’s here that the film’s title needs mentioning. By never addressing George Washington in the film, Gordon incorporates the president into the film’s delicate mythic landscape. Washington is important because he was the first president, he helped rebuild a nation after its Revolution and, on a more fairy tale level, he liked to chop down cherry trees. Gordon evocatively incorporates George Richardson into the spiritual soul of his mythic America via an evocative montage of photographs. George Washington is the closest thing we have to William Faulkner on screen, a deeply spiritual experience that acknowledges one’s need to discover and connect with our national ancestry.
Tim Orr's cinematography and humble lighting of skin for George Washington is miraculous enough to suggest the work of a higher being. The film's multi-cultural themes may not exist if it were not for the creamy, symbiotic relationship Orr conjures between flesh and Green's dilapidated South. Criterion wonderfully preserves the luscious elegance of Orr's Cinemascope palette. Though not as full as its images, the film's sound still conveys the haunting drawn-out chords of Michael Linnen and David Wingo's original music.
Criterion Collection has fashioned their DVD release of George Washington as a discovery process of sorts. A section called Finding Clues contains two short films by Green and a 1969 short film by character actor Clu Gulager titled A Day with the Boys, a ghoulish study of adult naïveté and the aimlessness of bored youth. Green's Pleasant Grove is the labored yet noble template for George Washington, presented here with priceless commentary by the director. More so than on the actual film's commentary track, Green addresses his unique perspective on childhood, his fascination with improvisation and naturalism, and, most notably, the influence of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep on his very young career. (Note to Criterion: Burnett's Sheep is itching to be rescued from obscurity.) Also available here is the film's original theatrical trailer and an introspective video interview with the film's young cast.
It almost seems silly now to think that George Washington, last year’s little-film-that-could, was actually rejected by the Sundance Film Festival. The festival has never had a film this good and Criterion has made sure that we never forget it.