Stasis, Slowness, and Sight: Reflections on David Gordon Green’s George Washington

george washington film

George Washington
I first watched David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) for an English class I took as an undergrad in 2012. I didn’t bother to write anything on the film for that class (I’d never written on a film at that point and didn’t want to risk getting it wrong), but I did enjoy my professor’s lectures on it. I did also attempt to discuss it once or twice, but nobody I knew seemed to have seen it, and so my engagement with it was cut rather short. And so, for the most part, it faded from my memory. In fact, until I rewatched George Washington yesterday, I’d forgotten most of the details concerning what happens in the film; at that point, all I could remember was that the film affected me and that the feelings it produced in me were hard to shake. Also hard to shake was the notion that I should revisit the film and attempt to write a post on it. So here we are.

For those who are unfamiliar with it, George Washington is the first film directed by David Gordon Green who, for whatever the reason, decided to do a 180 and went on to direct Pineapple ExpressGeorge Washington is set in an isolated, decaying, destitute, and utterly forgotten town in rural NC. The film follows a group of kids one summer. These kids include George (whose skull never developed properly leaving him vulnerable and unable to get his head wet), Nasia (who narrates the film and likes to think of herself as an adult even though she is 12 or 13), Vernon (who just wants to get out of his hometown and is bigger and older than the other kids), Sonya (a scrawny white girl who doesn’t talk much but is always hanging out with Vernon), and Buddy (who has just been dumped by Nasia, has to sing his mother to sleep at night, and often wears an over-sized dinosaur mask). I could summarize the film, but I won’t; George Washington is much more about the impressions it leaves than it about the specific series of events it portrays anyway.

Also, for what it’s worth, watching George Washington makes me really really uncomfortable. Apparently, I like that in films. This movie gets under my skin. It defamiliarizes, it dares you to look away. It’s haunting, strange, and intimate all at once. So there’s that. Time to ramble.

George Washington is beautifully shot. The film is set in a town that is falling apart, but the landscape that surrounds it is made to feel lush and expansive. And yet, even as the film’s setting is made to seem huge (perhaps as any town would to a child), there is something decidedly claustrophobic about the film. Actually, on second thought, “claustrophobic,” isn’t quite the right word. Rather, the film’s rural setting (in which nature seems well on her way to reclaiming those structures that do exist) is markedly and rigidly self-contained.

Not a single shot of this film takes place outside of the town in which the main characters all live and work. In fact, the only images in George Washington that give the viewer any sense that there is a world outside of the timeless and decaying town of the film are a handful of static and and inert images of historical figures (these include a portrait of George Washington and a photograph of George Bush the Elder). The adults in this film never talk about anywhere other than where they are and are never shown exiting the town (that many of them work maintaining a train/railroad is an ironic and cruelly poetic detail).

By the end of the film, it becomes quite clear that it’s self-contained world is not self-contained in a necessarily passive or benign manner. Rather, George Washington‘s (primarily young) characters are very much trapped within it. It’s not that they don’t try to leave. They just can’t. 

Several times in the film, Vernon and Sonya try to steal a car. They never even manage to start one properly until the end of the film. But as soon as they start driving, Sonya flips the car, totals it, and injures both of them. It’s as if some great and invisible force simply will not prevent them the escape that they so desperately long for.

Or, consider the series of shots showing Rico (one of the film’s adult characters) driving around town on this moped. In all of the shots, the camera is positioned in front of Rico. As a result, audiences cannot see where is is going and are given the sense that the very apparatus of the film is obstructing his progress. The shots showing Rico on the moped are quite long, but he never really goes anywhere. Every turn he takes is a right turn; it’s as if he has no choice but to go in circles.

There is the instant in which one of the characters dies (who and how doesn’t matter right now). Almost immediately afterward (while viewers are still utterly shocked by what they have just seen), the film cuts to a long, eerie, and totally unexpected sequence of shots showing large machinery being driven around a landfill. The trash is pushed and piled and lifted, but it never leaves the landfill. Given their placement, these shots seem to be directing viewers to associate the dead character with the trash. He may no longer live in this town, but that doesn’t mean he gets to leave it. Rather, he’ll be added to the metaphorical landfill where he will continue to be moved around by forces beyond his control without ever really going anywhere for the rest of forever. 

Like audiences in a movie theater, the characters in George Washington must make do with the scenery, the settings, and the situations that they are given. 

Just what force or forces prevent Veron, Soyna, and everyone else in the film from leaving their unnamed town is left up for debate. Surely, one could make a case that the impossibility of escape in the film is meant to make some damning or melancholy statement about poverty in America. However, despite the film’s title, I am not inclined to believe that George Washington truly wants to be thought of in political terms.

Slowness and Sight
The overarching immobility of George Washington goes hand-in-hand with a certain slowness that defines the film. It’s not just that the film’s major events seem to be spaced apart; rather, the film carries slowness in all of its parts.

First, there is a certain slowness in the way the film is shot. The camera doesn’t jerk hither and thither, nor does it zoom in and out for no apparent reason. Where there are cuts, they don’t feel quick, and there aren’t many closeups either. Instead, George Washington‘s camera lingers. It gives the subjects it depicts room to breathe, and more importantly, it gives audiences time to see that which is in every single shot. This film also includes a number of markedly lengthy shots in which nothing necessarily happens. With its slowness, the film’s camera work asks and even forces viewers to look where it wants them to. George Washington is a film that wants us to look at that which we typically would not. That said, it is also film that wants us to look at that which we think we know in a new way. Which is to say, that the film’s visual slowness (coupled with its interest in looking) serves to defamiliarize everyday objects by presenting them in a novel manner and by asking viewers to look at them longer than they usually do. 

A certain slowness also marks the way that this film is spoken. Where characters in so many Hollywood films are impossibly articulate and are confident in every word they speak, those in George Washington are quite the opposite. They stutter and correct themselves, they pause and hesitate, they use the wrong words and often do not speak at all. When they do speak, they do so slowly (this especially goes for the philosophical Nasia). The characters in this film do not assault you with their dialogue. Instead, they give you time to consider what they are saying and to notice all that is going on (on their faces, behind them, between them) as they are speaking. This film simply does not have any throwaway lines; the slowness with which much of its dialogue is presented asks viewers to savor and to understand each utterance and to see all that they can of the characters by doing so.
Get George Washington on Blu-ray and DVD

Wrapping Up
David Gordon Green’s George Washington is a slow, tragic, contemplative, and strangely moving film that leaves plenty of room for viewers to do a little interpreting and to decide for themselves what it all “means” or is “about.” For those tired of films filled with impossibly articulate characters that sacrifice just about everything in the name of plot, Green’s debut is sure to come as an unsettling but welcome change of pace.

For whatever reason, feel that I should leave you with a description of one of the film’s more memorable scenes, so picture this: Buddy (small, scrawny) walks back and forth across a ruined, rusted, and forgotten stage. He wears his dinosaur mask (bright green, too big, a little cute, a little scary). He appears to be alone. He delivers a soliloquy in a dramatic fashion that is sure to take viewers by surprise. When the soliloquy is over, Rico (who showed up at some point unknown to viewers) asks, “is that the Bible or Shakespeare?” Buddy says nothing, and viewers are left trying to figure out the answer themselves. The passage is from Job, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when delivered with feeling, the two might as well be the same. What matters is that in the right hands, drama and fiction can be as powerful and as life-altering as religious experience (in fact, they may even supplant it); though it falters in places (which I won’t bother with here), George Washington is a film that believes this with all of its heart. 
Watch George Washington now.

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any of my posts, so feel free to leave a comment below. You are also more than welcome to recommend films for me to watch (or even books for me to read).

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