02 July 2014

That Southern Poet Returns

In my most recent column for The Courier News here in Clinton, I have submitted a brief discussion of filmmaker David Gordon Green's career and pitched his latest two movies, returns to his former glory.

Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Danny McBride in Pineapple Express.

You'll find the short version in the paper. This is the long version:

I'm willing to bet that if I polled the metro area, most people would have seen, or at least heard of, one or more of the following works of comedy:

Pineapple Express (2008)
Your Highness (2011)
The Sitter (2011)
HBO’s comedy series Eastbound and Down

Alas, if I polled the same audience, I would wager that only a mere fraction would have even heard of these meditative indie dramas: 

George Washington (2000)
All the Real Girls (2003)
Undertow (2004)
Snow Angels (2007)

Such is the wonder that is the career of David Gordon Green. The man all these works have in common.

Candace Evanofski and Donald Holden in George Washington.

I can't say exactly how I came upon the work of David Gordon Green. At some point around 2005 or so, living in Murfreesboro, a broke, college film buff, I began digging into unknown (to me) areas of the cinema.

I began seeking out the films of lesser-known-in-the-mainstream directors, like, for example, Terrence Malick. See Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012). All great, powerful, challenging films.

I'm thinking at some point during my Malick excursions I ran across George Washington, which plays a bit like it came from the School of Malick. In fact, as lore has it, Green watched Malick's The Thin Red Line repeatedly before he began shooting. George Washington, along with Malick's Days of Heaven, changed things for me a bit. Now, movies were no longer these little bottled up, packaged blasts of entertainment or laughter. Now, movies could simply exist as images of natural beauty with little plot or dialogue. Oh, that they could do that! and still carry the emotions that we movie-lovers crave.

David Gordon Green's first two features are like poems, odes to young love. In George Washington, the lives of a group of poor, mostly black kids in rural North Carolina are forever changed by a simple accidental tragedy. It captures their first real friendships in the hot Southern summer and it does this without any sensationalism or special effects.

In fact, the only special effect anywhere near this movie, or Green's sophomore effort All the Real Girls, is a genius named Tim Orr. As Green's go-to director of photographer throughout his career, Orr has likewise established himself as a true master of the movies.

Zooey Deschanel and Paul Schneider in All the Real Girls

All the Real Girls continues Green's duo of young love's odes. It is the just heartbreaking story of a small town player played by Paul Schneider (another of Green's friends from the North Carolina School of the Arts), who falls for his best friend's younger sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel). I mean this movie hits you like some sort of quiet freight train. It is astounding to find an artist who is so in tune with what it means to be young and in love.

Devon Alan and Jamie Bell in Undertow

Undertow and Snow Angels, the third and fourth in Green's filmography, explored a more violent view of the world. Undertow stars Jamie Bell as a teenager caught up in a long-standing sibling rivalry between his father (Dermot Mulroney) and uncle (Josh Lucas). Snow Angels tells the story of a small town couple (Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell), recently divorced, and what happens when their young daughter goes missing. Mixed in is the budding relationship between two teenagers (Michael Angarano and Oliva Thirlby). Both are beautiful tragedies steeped with Green and Orr's ability to capture natural beauty and human pain and sadness and love.

Sam Rockwell in Snow Angels

So that's it. In seven years, David Gordon Green made four of the best movies of decade.

During that time, he somehow became acquainted with a trio of comedy men...Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, and Judd Apatow.

Now, it is known that David Gordon Green went to school with genius comic actor Danny McBride. In fact, McBride got his start in Green's All the Real Girls and a morbidly black comedy by fellow schoolmate Jody Hill called The Foot Fist Way. (Jody Hill and Danny McBride would go on to make the HBO series Eastbound and Down. Green directed quite a few episodes over its four seasons. I believe the connection to McBride is what brought Green into mainstream comedy.

Anyway, in 2008, in his review of Pineapple Express, Roger Ebert wrote of Green as “that poet of the cinema.” To film buffs like Ebert and me, it was confounding that Green would make this movie. It is an expertly made comedy. His stoner comedies to follow:  not as good.

Where have you gone David Gordon Green? 
Which brings us to 2013....

....where David Gordon Green comes full circle with two small, near perfect little movies.

For me, it has been like coming home.

Two films, each strikingly different from the other, set in small town, Texas. One, a strange buddy comedy called Prince Avalanche. And the other, a dark, brooding study of abuse and violence called Joe.

Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch alone together in Prince Avalanche

Prince Avalanche, available for Instant Watch on Netflix, stars Paul Rudd (his best work) and Emile Hirsch as a pair of road workers painting lines in a remote Texas woodland devastated by wildfires. It is quiet and true and oddly funny.

It starts out with just two guys, walking in the woods at sunrise. They don't speak to each other. They just start working. What comes is an odyssey of sorts. There's an old man who brings by some good hooch every once in awhile. An old woman lamenting about the loss of her home in the wildfire. There are the weekends when Emile Hirsch's Lance goes back to the city to strike out with the ladies. Paul Rudd, with no one to play off, shows a side of himself we've never seen. In one scene, he enters the ruins of a house, walks in, and just plays house. It's just so odd and fun.

At one point, Alvin (Rudd) says to Lance, "There's a difference between loneliness and being alone." Yes. That's it. David Gordon Green returns to his roots with a different and challenging comedy about being alone with yourself and finding it good.

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in Joe

Joe, available at the Redbox, features a performance from Nicolas Cage that is his best in years. He plays the title character, a rough ex-con who befriends an abused, hardworking 15-year-old named Gary (Tye Sheridan, Mud). It is one of the most powerful movies of the year.

This movie is violent. There are beatings and shootings and near rapes and whorehouses and dogfights. What's so astounding about it is how it is, at the same time, so tender and full of real emotion. As Joe, Nicolas Cage simply becomes him. A compassionate man who runs a crew of mostly poor, black workers killing trees to make way for new evergreens. He is known as a tough man, but a man you want to work for.

Green takes his time (unlike so many these days) and truly lets the characters grow on you. My first paragraph about this movies makes it seem like some standard story about an ex-con teaching a boy life lessons. Well, I won't say that doesn't happen, but it happens when you don't expect it and not at all how you would think.

The true revelation of this movie is an "actor" named Gary Poulter, who plays Wade, Gary's evil incarnate, abusive, alcoholic father. Not many actors could pull this off. Knowing this, Green cast this guy. If you were to IMDB him, you would find nothing. He's not an actor but a homeless man Green found on the street on the outskirts of his hometown of Austin, Texas.

That's just another reason to be astounded by and to seek out David Gordon Green's work. It feels good to have him back to his Southern gothic roots. Real good.

The man, the myth, the legend...Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) in HBO's Eastbound and Down.

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