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David Gordon Green
Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damian Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III, Rachael Handy, Paul Schneider
David Gordon Green

Not Rated.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Surround 2.0

Runtime: 90 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 3/12/2002

• Audio Commentary With Writer/Director David Gordon Green, Cinematographer Tim Orr, and Actor Paul Schneider
• Deleted Scene With Commentary
• Original Theatrical Trailer
• ďPleasant GroveĒ Short Film
• ďPhysical PinballĒ Short Film
• ďA Day With the BoysĒ Short Film
• Charlie Rose Interview With David Gordon Green
• Exclusive New Video Interviews With the Cast


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George Washington: Criterion Collection (2000)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

My informal poll indicates that the title of David Gordon Greenís 2000 film George Washington confused the audience. Based on a sample that included myself and Mike Mittleman, 100 percent of the movie-going public believed this flick would offer a biography of the United Statesí first president.

Though logical, that impression was incorrect, as I quickly discovered when the DVD arrived on my doorstep. The picture of the young black male on the cover first clued me in, and then I read this description on the back case: ďOver the course of one hot summer, a group of children in the rural South is forced to confront a tangle of difficult choices in a decaying world.Ē Unless this required them to chop down a cherry tree, it felt tough to find a connection to the father of our country.

If you want to find a connection between the title and the flick, youíll fail. Although the DVDís booklet tries desperately - and pretentiously - to connect the movie to the president, Green essentially acknowledges its lack of meaning during his commentary. As he reveals there, much of Washington is quite random and without much depth; he indicates that much of what we see and what the characters do occurs because he thought itíd look cool.

If you want to find a coherent and compelling film, youíll also fail. Also from the DVDís case: ďAn ambitiously constructed, sensuously photographed meditation on adolescence, the first feature film by director David Gordon Green features breakout performances from an award-winning ensemble cast.Ē Whether others agree with those statements, I donít know. Ambitiously constructed? Perhaps. Sensuously photographed? Well, it does offer some lovely cinematography, but I donít know if Iíd actually call it sensuous. ďBreakout performances from an award-winning ensemble castĒ? I discovered that the kids of Washington did claim a prize at the Newport International Film Festival. What the case doesnít tell us is that their only competition came from a pack of cigarettes and a stale jelly donut.

But Iíll find time to gripe about the acting later. Right now there are many more important things to criticize in regard to George Washington. Many folks remember the scene from American Beauty in which Ricky shoots the videotape of the bag blowing in the wind. Imagine that Ricky grows up and makes a 90-minute widescreen version of the flying bag and youíll have an idea what kind of film to expect from George Washington.

While the DVDís case makes it sound like you can expect some sort of actual plot from Washington, that doesnít occur. Essentially the flick follows a small group of pubescent black kids during the summer. We meet Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) who just got dumped by Nasia (Candace Evanofski); the latter also acts as our narrator. Buddyís friends with burly youngster Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and fragile George (Donald Holden). No, the latterís last name isnít Washington; itís Richardson, and he suffers from a disorder that renders his skull extremely soft, which means that he has to worry terribly about head injuries.

Anyway, these kids meander through the summer doing not much of anything until a play fight ends in tragedy. Buddy bangs his head and soon dies. (Yes, Green actively wants to mess with our minds by using head trauma to kill someone other than the kid with the soft skull; itís his idea of clever filmmaking.) The others hide the body and move on with their lives. George saves a young boy from drowning and receives citations as a hero, something he takes to heart; he quickly decides to don tights and a cape.

And what happens from there? Not a damned thing. Actually, almost nothing occurs before that point either. My outline makes it sound as though George Washington actually has a plot, but the reality couldnít be farther from that. Washington offers the worst kind of rambling, self-indulgent filmmaking.

On the positive side, I will acknowledge that Washington provides a sumptuous visual experience. Cinematographer Tim Orr lends the film a warm, golden tone and makes things look terrific at all times. The film shows rich, nicely composed images and presents a nice and vivid picture.

Unfortunately, itís all style and no substance. Green takes his cues from loose and fluid filmmakers like Terence Malick, which means he values tone and atmosphere over plot and clarity. Iíve only seen one Malick film - 1998ís The Thin Red Line - and it didnít impress me, mainly because I felt it favored the visuals over the story too strongly. However, Line comes across as the tightest flick ever made in comparison with the rambling and nearly incoherent Washington.

Most of Washington exists just for its own sake. By that I mean the movie actively tries to be loose and non-linear. It wants to be experiential rather that lucid, as director Green openly favors looks over intelligence. As he notes on the DVDís audio commentary, Green selects many elements just for their visuals and often pays little attention to any form of logic.

Someone needs to tell Green that itís possible to look good and still make some sense. Washington simply shows a director who wallows in his own excesses. Green badly wants to make a movie thatís different, and I admire his desire to do something unusual. However, ďdifferentĒ doesnít mean ďbetterĒ. During Washington, it feels as though Green actively avoids filmmaking conventions not for any true purpose; he does so simply to be atypical.

It doesnít work. The movie ambles along with little reason and goes absolutely nowhere. The extremely poor acting doesnít help. Washington provides mainly a cast of amateurs, most of whom are kids. They seem very stiff and awkward from start to finish. Not a single one of them can deliver a natural or believable performance, as they all appear flat and unrealistic.

The adults donít fare any better. Most of them ham up the screen with self-conscious goofiness, while others seem just as wooden as the kids. How in the world anyone thought this crew should win an acting award seems beyond me; these are some of the clumsiest and most stilted performances Iíve seen. The vague and lifeless characters didnít help; thereís little about them to make any of the personalities compelling or interesting.

Washington is a deeply polarizing film. Iíve read a number of opinions and folks either seem to love it or hate it. Obviously I fall into the latter camp. George Washington shows the worst excesses of the independent filmmaking camp. When a director favors style over substance for a fast and flashy flick, the cineastes slam the results as superficial and shallow. However, when a director creates a visual movie that has virtually nothing else going for it, the film buffs fall over themselves to praise the work as daring and deep.

That might be true of some movies, but it definitely wasnít accurate in regard to George Washington. The movie offered fine cinematography but little else. It seemed like a glorified promo reel for the filmmakers and Iím sure it could get them some work making commercials. However, otherwise it was pretentious, self-indulgent and rambling, as its creators showed no talent for telling a coherent and involving story.

The DVD Grades: Picture A / Audio B- / Bonus A-

George Washington appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite its low-budget origins, the film looked absolutely terrific and betrayed almost no concerns.

Sharpness appeared excellent at all times. The movie consistently seemed crisp and detailed. I saw no issues related to softness or fuzziness, as the image remained distinct from start to finish. Jagged edges and moirť effects caused no concerns, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement. Print flaws were virtually non-existent. I witnessed a speckle here or there, but these remained very minor.

Colors offered a strong point for Washington. The movie displayed a warm, golden look most of the time that came across with excellent clarity and richness. The hues were consistently vivid and vibrant and they made the movie look absolutely terrific. Black levels appeared deep and dense, while shadow detail was clear and appropriately heavy. Overall, George Washington provided a sumptuous visual experience that always looked fantastic.

While not up to the level of the picture, the Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of George Washington worked fine for the material. The soundfield largely remained oriented in the front channels. In that realm, the forward spectrum showed reasonably good stereo imaging for the music and displayed decent general ambience for effects. There wasnít a lot of unique audio from the sides throughout the film, but the mix displayed a nice sense of environment. The surrounds worked along the same lines; they reinforced the overall tone of the flick with moderate use of music and effects from the rear, but they didnít provide much in the way of distinct audio.

Sound quality seemed good as a whole. Dialogue was distinct and natural, and speech showed no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects were accurate and clean, without any distortion. Those elements also demonstrated good bass when appropriate, such as for the exaggerated thumps heard in some scenes. Music offered nice fidelity and depth as well, with clear highs and tight low-end. The track wasnít anything special, but it seemed solid for the material.

The Criterion Collection release of George Washington packs a very solid roster of supplements. We begin with an audio commentary that includes writer/director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider. All three were apparently recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. I say ďapparentlyĒ because although itís clear they usually sat together, the piece seemed to show some edits that made it come across as though a few segments featured them separately.

In any case, much of the commentary clearly came from group sessions, though not surprisingly, Green dominated the piece. Despite my disdain for the film itself, I found this track to offer a fairly compelling experience. Green nicely discussed his inspirations for the film and what he wanted to do with it. He also covered various technical and practical issues, while the others kicked in some helpful tidbits as well. Green and company were unable to change my negative opinion about George Washington - indeed, some of their statements confirmed my suspicions in regard to some elements - but I appreciated the attempt to clarify their intentions.

The other extras on the DVD split into two different domains. Within ďFinding CluesĒ we discover some films that predate George Washington. First up is Pleasant Grove, Greenís 1996 student film that functioned essentially as a demo reel for Washington. The videotaped feature runs for 14 minutes and 55 seconds and it basically acts like a shorter version of the main flick. Actually, it only offers a few of Washingtonís elements; we see just one kid - named Garland, he strongly resembles George - and a few adults.

However, some of Groveís scenes were lifted without much change for use in the later film, and it features the same languid pacing and tone. It might make sense to watch Grove before you see Washington, as I believe the latter would be more compelling when viewed second. As much as I disliked Washington, it looks much better compared to the woefully amateurish and awkward Grove. Man, I thought the acting was bad in the former flick; I donít know if Iíve ever seen performances as weak as those in Grove!

Pleasant Grove can be viewed with or without commentary from Green, Orr and Schneider. Again, Green dominated, but Orr added some remarks about how he got into cinematography, and Schneider provided some insightful statements about his own work. Green related how he came to make the flick and his own film school processes. Itís another nice track.

Another Green short appears in the form of Physical Pinball. Made in 1998, this 20-minute and 25-second film features Candace Evanofski and Eddie Rouse from Washington. Unlike the freeform Washington and Grove, Pinball actually attempts a minor narrative. Evanofski plays a tomboy who gets her first period, and her Dad (Rouse) has to deal with these changes. Itís nothing much more than what youíd find on an Afterschool Special, but itís significantly more interesting than Greenís other works.

Apparently Clu Gulagerís 1969 short A Day With the Boys served as an inspiration for Washington, and that 17-minute and 55-second short appears here in its entirety. The film focuses on a wordless period in which we watch some young boys romp around and apparently kill and bury a businessman. Itís trippy in a Sixties way and seems almost as pointless as Washington; itís another example of style over substance, and I didnít care for it. Green adds some text notes about the film as well.

When we move on to the ďMysteries MadeĒ section, we find other pieces that relate to George Washington. This includes one deleted scene. An eight-minute and 20-second clip, this snippet shows Rico as he organizes a meeting of concerned citizens. Essentially this shows one long take of a bunch of stupid people who try to solve problems despite their lack of intelligence. How dumb are these folks? Rico the moron seems like the brightest of the bunch. Itís actually funny as a satire of well intentioned but clueless sorts, but it wouldnít have fit within the final film; it focuses too much on the adults and seems a little too ďon the noseĒ.

The deleted scene can be viewed with or without commentary from Green, Orr and Schneider. This is a spotty track that didnít fill the entire clip, but it delivers enough useful information to merit a listen. We hear some remarks about the shoot and find out why it didnít make the cut; clearly they recognized how poorly it melded with the rest of the movie. Itís a short but interesting discussion.

In the Cast Reunion section, we find 12 minutes and 45 seconds of interviews with the young actors of Washington. Conducted on September 15, 2001 by David Gordon Green, we hear from Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damien Lee, Curtis Cotton and Rachael Handy. They donít give us a lot of insight, but itís interesting to see the real personalities of the kids, especially since some of them seem very different from their characters. And Cotton comes across as a kid with a seriously budding ego as he tells us about his natural acting talent and lets us know heís better than Denzel Washington. If he seemed to be joking, thisíd be entertaining, but I think the kidís serious. I guess thatís youth for you!

After this we get a Charlie Rose Interview with Green. This clip lasts for 14 minutes and 35 seconds. Although itís a solid little discussion, a lot of the material appears elsewhere on the DVD, so much of the chat becomes redundant. If you donít have the time for the full commentary, the Rose piece acts as a substitute, but otherwise it doesnít add much new information.

Finally, we get the movieís theatrical trailer as well as a booklet with some text information. Green provides a ďDirectorís StatementĒ while we also find absurdly pretentious comments from film critic Armond White. He stretches desperately to locate meaning in nothingness, and he fails miserably.

Actually, most of the reviews of George Washington seem to do the same thing. Iíve checked out a number of them that seriously reach to create characterizations and narrative that donít exist. Washington exists just as a self-indulgent film exercise, and all attempts to pretend otherwise appear destined to misfire. The DVD looks absolutely terrific, and it offers solid sound and a very nice roster of extras as well. If you havenít seen George Washington, I canít steer you toward it; I thought the film was lovely to look at but totally worthless otherwise. However, if you know that you like the flick, this DVD should make you very happy.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.9444 Stars Number of Votes: 36
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