Criterion Cuts: “George Washington”

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

After the Seijun Suzuki double feature I figured I’d try to stay out of Japan for a few weeks to give us some cultural recharge time. This isn’t actually that easy, as Japan makes up a bulk of the Criterion offerings (Kurosawa über alles!), but we shall soldier on regardless. Thankfully, there’s plenty to see, and so I turn my attention this week to a much more recent movie.

George Washington (2000)

I went into George Washington knowing nothing about it other than it was written and directed by David Gordon Green, known mostly these days for directing Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter of all things. So you can forgive me for wondering just what the hell this guy was doing with a film in the Criterion Collection; the Collection isn’t really the best arbiter of quality, but they certainly don’t lean heavy into stoner comedies.

George Washington is the story of a group of kids in a small rural North Carolina town one summer. The summer isn’t particularly important, as it could be any summer of childhood, endless and seemingly removed from the normal flow of time. The kids range in age, but they’re all right on the cusp of their teenage years and there’s a heavy sense that this will be the Last Summer for most of them, afterwards they will be too old to feel about it the same way a child does.

To call the movie slice-of-life would seem on its surface to be accurate, but I’m not sure it fully captures what is going on here. The story, such as it is, concerns the children interacting and discovering and struggling: with the rundown life they have, with their own problems and demons and those of the adults around them, and with a tragedy that strikes the group midway through the film.

It’s that tragedy, almost an anticlimax of sorts with how suddenly and how dully it falls upon each of them, that defines the true heart of the film. I feel like speaking of it in specifics would be doing it a gross injustice, as it’s the very sudden and arbitrary nature of it that makes it what it is. But in broader terms, one of the children ends up dying through an accident that the kids feel culpable of, and in their panic they hide the body instead of telling anyone, and try to go about their business.

It is also the story of George, a boy whose skull never properly fused together rendering him apart from the other kids. The film is narrated by his friend Nasia, a twelve year old on the fringes of the main group of kids after she breaks up with one of their number, and on the fringes of George’s awareness. George is the ultimate loner, unable to engage in play and hesitant about engaging the entire world. He looks at it out from underneath a ridiculous helmet he uses to protect his head. The other kids ridicule him as being retarded and stinking (getting his head wet reportedly makes his brain swell, so he carefully dry lathers it from time to time.) George is, ultimately, the protagonist, but we’re never really put inside his head space, left to try to detangle him from the outside.

The secret to enjoying George Washington, I think, is not to look at the story as one of how people really react and are. I came into this expecting something between Kids and The 400 Blows, it feels so grounded in its Southern wasteland that it feels like it would be a similar message or autobiographical film, respectively. But what George Washington offers is something far different.

I think the key to untangling it lies in the use of nonactors for the kids. They’re raw and stilted, delivering lines that are undoubtedly beyond them, both strangely wise and uncomfortably earnest at the same turn. It is, for all its nuance, simply not the language of real people. Certainly not these kids, who almost all fill up each scene talking and talking, about their future and about their guilt and about the rot that seems to blight out their ramshackle town. The exception is George, who cannot or will not speak on the same level, each line falling heavy as thought it costs him great effort to talk about even trivialities. And maybe it does. Again, he is the film’s true mystery.

What George Washington is instead is a tale about morality, not quite the same thing as a morality tale but close enough that we can talk about them in the same breath. The kids that survive the tragedy do so with a stoicism that is refreshingly unromantic in how it views children: they’d much rather avoid trouble than come clean about even something so serious. But over time, all of them begin to wonder at how they reacted and what it says about them. These are not real people, but the metaphor for us to examine how we feel about what is ‘right’ and how we react to that expectation.

In one of the movie’s best scenes, the main girl of the group (who has spent the film being the smallest, quietest, and most arbitrarily destructive component of this circle of friends) asks whether her lack of emotion towards her friend’s death is the sign of something wrong with her. Her whole family, the whole town, feels like it is similarly broken on some fundamental level. Nobody grieves for the dead child aside from his mother. Is this fundamental lack of emotion apathy or actual moral evil? she asks in not-quite-developed terms. The movie, to its credit, doesn’t bother even attempting to answer. It would be trying to solve humanity.

George is another story. The death changes him on some greater level, slowly pulling him out of his exile. When he sees another kid nearly drown in the local swimming pool, he risks his life to pull him out, collapsing and nearly dying in the process. He awakens as a small time town hero, talked about fondly by everyone aside from the friends who were also there and saw him act the same as they did when their friend died. Instead of correcting anyone, he seems to grow to meet the good will, putting on a cape made out of a blanket and claiming that he wants to be a real hero.

And that’s what I feel the core of George Washington is about: not the tragedy, but how most people struggle with it and some rare people prosper because of it. There’s no doubt that he feels a similar level of guilt as the other kids, but while they flounder in it he flourishes with the ambition to become better than it and what the world would expect from him. At the end of the film, Nasia links him to George Washington and George Washington Carver and to other men throughout history, people who rose above themselves to become something greater.

Maybe that’s George’s destiny? A lifetime of Otherness the perfect kindling to propel him above the endless trap all of their lives are? The film ends with Nasia imagining him, now president, sitting and getting his picture taken. It’s point is double-edged, both the perfect example of how the people George left behind are unable to paint ambition onto themselves, and a pointed reminder that how we cope with life is often how we grow and aspire. It isn’t answers, but it is a beautiful mirror for us to ask these questions to, discovering through it how we consider these things.

I’m not sure, after all this talk, that I even like George Washington all that much. It’s a very pretty film, and what it tackles is ambitious in a difficult-to-parse kind of way. It was not what I was expecting from its subject matter, and surprises are always welcome, but I hesitate to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have an interest in art that you have to bring yourself to to gain something out of. It is firmly a part of that challenging tradition of movies (and all creative works) that require the investment of the audience, a machine waiting for you to provide the final gear to make it work, more contemplative than narrative.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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