Criterion Sunday 152: George Washington (2000)

I really like this spare, fugue-like elegy for the dispossessed in all its overtly Malickian sensibilities. Perhaps seeing it at a film festival when it was released, before a lot of other filmmakers had jumped on that particular ride (and the one who made this had very much jumped off), was more surprising but there’s still beauty and warmth, in those magic light colours of a place where the South meets the rust belt, and the feeling in the non-professional actors. A really vivid take on the coming of age that does most of its thematic work in little vignettes of community life and almost throwaway dialogue, preferring stretches of contemplative reflection of quiet desuetude.

Criterion Extras: Besides a trailer, there’s also quite a few interesting extras, most notably two student short films by Green, Pleasant Grove (1997) and Physical Pinball (1998). Both share quite a few similarities with George Washington, which lifts the first’s story of a boy with a stray dog who can’t take it home as a little detail for George. While this first one is a sweet slow little film that sets up some ideas that would be progressed by the feature, the second feels more fully rounded. It’s about a father-daughter relationship (both actors would return for the feature), and has a nice sense of how out of his depth the father is after his wife has passed.

Along with these is A Day with the Boys (1969), a short by actor Clu Gulager, a wordless film with a hazy nostalgic tone, all slo-mo running set to plaintive trumpet (very much of its era), jazzed up with all kinds of visual touches. It all turns a bit Lord of the Flies, as I suppose many days with the boys will, but it’s a diverting mood piece.

Aside from this there’s a Charlie Rose interview with a (very young!) David Gordon Green, which covers a few of his influences, not to mention some insights about how he cast and shot the film, though it is quite short. A deleted scene of a town hall meeting imparts a sense of some of Green’s verité reference points, as the camera does quick zooms and pans in the style of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries from the 60s. Finally, there’s a short piece interviewing its child stars a year after release in 2001, as they expound on how it was to make the film, and some of their aspirations.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Gordon Green; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Friday 20 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 7 May 2017).

Stuck in Love. (2012)

God knows, there are probably a hundred reasons to dislike Stuck in Love. You could start, or perhaps you could end, with that full stop in the film’s title. It’s a film about writers, you see, the type of rarefied East Coast milieu you get in, say, Noah Baumbach films or in Wonder Boys (2000), also about a frustrated novelist. It focuses on a family of self-involved artistic types (Greg Kinnear is the father Bill, Nat Wolff and Lily Collins play his son Rusty and daughter Samantha), who are introduced in the first few minutes by having their opening lines written out on screen as they speak them, but each in a different typeface to indicate their generational and aspirational differences. But that full stop also indicates a sort of finality to the protagonist’s feelings that foreshadows the way the film concludes. If this kind of preciousness is already putting you off, the film may not appeal to you, but I found it sort of solipsistically charming.

The film’s opening lines are delivered by high school student Rusty, but when famous writer Bill later finds the same words in his son’s journal, he states confidently that they are words that hook in a reader and should be used to start a story; writer/director Josh Boone is clearly pleased with his script. In all honesty, I liked it too, but perhaps because it feels like a tale of romantic angst drawn from my generation. For example, the music the teenage characters all listen to and identify with is music that the same people would have been listening to in the late-90s (Elliott Smith, Bright Eyes). Boone is around my age, so this self-identification probably accounts for elements both of my enjoyment of the script and also my frustration with some of the plotting and the characters.

A lot of the character arcs are just too neat, for example. Cynical Samantha, embittered by her parents’ divorce and her mother (Jennifer Connelly) shacking up with a younger (less literate) guy, is at university, avoiding relationships and embarking on a series of one-night stands with similarly philistine jocks. She has just had her first, cynical novel published when she meets sweet-natured bassist Lou (played nicely by Logan Lerman), and has her cynicism challenged by his relationship with his dying mother, which opens up the possibility of a rapprochement with her own detested mother. Meanwhile, Rusty has been enjoined by his father to grasp life’s experiences while he can, and so hooks up with party girl Kate, a path which leads him back to the seclusion of his own fantastic imagination. Tastes in authors both high (John Cheever) and somewhat more pulpy (the son is fixated on Stephen King) converge as everyone comes to embrace the best in each other over a Thanksgiving meal. Et cetera, et cetera.

It is perhaps never quite so pat, but at times it does certainly verge on the unabashedly sentimental. However, the world weariness conveyed by Greg Kinnear (who even manages to make his stalking of his ex-wife seem sort of adorable in an infantile way), as well as the perky young actors, keep the film interesting. Best of the bunch for me are Nat Wolff as the introverted Rusty and Logan Lerman as soulful Lou, both essaying a sort of vulnerable perplexity, while Lily Collins as the sister is at least convincingly embittered.

It may not be a masterpiece, but I consistently enjoyed Stuck in Love. At its best it really has a handle on its characters and its milieu, however comfortably and at times off-puttingly self-congratulatory and middle-class it may be.

Director/Writer Josh Boone; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Greg Kinnear, Nat Wolff, Logan Lerman, Lily Collins, Jennifer Connelly; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 14 June 2013.

All the Real Girls (2003)

I started this blog as my cinema-going reviews, but I sometimes rewatch old films (or watch old films anew) at home, and I know it doesn’t quite fit into the ‘at the cinema’ theme, but I thought I’d try revisiting a film of the past. It’s now 10 years since All the Real Girls was released. I saw it in the cinema at the time, when I was roughly the same age as the film’s protagonists, and I accounted it my favourite film of the year when a few months later I made a list. I had very recently moved from New Zealand back to the city of my birth (Edinburgh). I was living in the basement under my aunt’s house, and feeling fairly disconnected: living on savings without a job, between relationships, feeling rather transient. I recount these autobiographical details, because more than most films, I really think such details are relevant to my response to this film. Somewhat like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) — which I may have been too young to really appreciate at the time, though I adore the follow-up Before Sunset (2004) — it is one so wrapped up in itself, in the narcissism of its twentysomething protagonists, that I can quite believe it would entirely pass under the radar of anyone outside that peculiarly self-involved age. In this case, the two people at the centre of the film are Paul (Paul Schneider), a directionless small-town lothario, and Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the sister of his best friend who has just come back to town after many years away; their relationship with one another, in the context of their wider circle of friends, forms the narrative.

And love will protect you
To the edge of the wood
And a monster will get you
And love does no good

— Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “Even If Love”

The film sets its tone from the very first moment with the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song quoted above, all hushed, bleak mournfulness yet with a warmth to its softly-plucked acoustic guitar accompaniment. The film’s emotional terrain is well-matched to Will Oldham’s musical brand of americana, just as it’s matched to the radiant golden-hour cinematography of this autumnal small town (Marshall in North Carolina, though it seems more southern). There’s a gentleness even as lives are dramatically drifting apart. Watching this film, you know there won’t be a shocking twist or a melodramatic reveal, just two people grappling with their feelings and their youthful awkwardness, which makes it the perfect fit for David Gordon Green’s filmmaking style. Like in his first film George Washington (2000), he is strongly drawn towards wanting to mythologise or universalise the film’s events as a sort of poetic sacrament delivered to the viewer; here, more than in the earlier film, the characters seem themselves to be bound up in this. Paul, who has grown up with and is shown hanging out with a close-knit group of male friends, wants to idealise Noel, which makes her actions upsetting to him. His struggle is grappling with his wounded masculine pride, just as he is unsure of his direction in life. Noel, too, is young, younger than Paul, but she’s not willing to be the idealised empty vessel that Paul wants her to be; she too is confused, and figuring out her feelings.

If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s believing in Paul’s backstory. He is made out to have been a bit of a womaniser, having formed fleeting attachments with most of the women in town, and yet even in the flashbacks, he doesn’t convincingly pull this character off. It doesn’t ultimately have a huge bearing on the film, as it’s far more assured when grounded in the moment-to-moment present lives of the characters and the town. Of course there have been plenty of films dealing with emotionally immature men in relationships, but All the Real Girls is much more subtle about it, and it’s in the way the film progresses in its later stages that really mark it out. There are no easy resolutions, and it’s clear that though the two are right for each other, there are many other factors at work.

I’ve moved on in life, and perhaps these characters no longer speak to me in the same way, but the time has allowed me to feel if anything more warmly towards these people I knew 10 years ago, even if I am less wrapped-up in their self-involved drama. The bittersweet feeling at the close of the film seems just a little bit more hopeful, the sense that these two might be able to work things out somehow when they’ve gained a bit more life experience.

Director David Gordon Green; Writers Green and Paul Schneider; Cinematographer Tim Orr; Starring Zooey Deschanel, Paul Schneider; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cameo, Edinburgh, Saturday 2 August 2003 (and on DVD, most recently at home, London, Saturday 30 March 2013).