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THE SCREENER: David Gordon Green

southern film

On Loving and Losing Your Favorite Director

Many years ago, I worked at a Blockbuster before the Internet, postal service, and vending machines took it all away. I made it my mission to find and watch every important film. Important—a vague term, I know. It started with friend’s recommendations: Donnie Darko, Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting. Once that well ran dry, I turned to a website our staff used to look up movie synopses when customers would ask us “what was the film with the guy who ran for some reason?” “Forrest Gump,” we would say, thanks to the Internet Movie Database (or IMDb for short).

There was, and is, a list on that site of the Top 250 movies according to user voting. All films are given scores out of 10. Cinematic classics like the first two Godfather films (9.2 and 9.0), Shawshank Redemption (9.2), and 12 Angry Men (8.9) top the list, and more contemporary fare, like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (8.7) and even this year’s The Avengers (8.3) and Moonrise Kingdom (8.1), is peppered throughout. Due to the respect the list was getting in online film-buff forums, I thought I’d try to see as many films on that list as possible, knocking out maybe two or three films a day (mostly during nights in college).

I had made it pretty far when I was unceremoniously let go from the ailing rental giant nearly three years ago—with about thirty or so films on the list yet to be seen—but one thing that stuck with me is that number rating system. My judgment of a film, before hearing anything about it, is always to jump on IMDb and check out how many stars it has earned. The Top 250 lists only films with eight stars or above—but that would be too restrictive—so I lowered my standard to watching anything, sight unseen, with at least a seven-star rating. It doesn’t matter the cast, director, screenwriter, genre, or plot: If it has seven stars, I’ll give it a chance. Most of my all-time favorite films got a seven or above—save some guilty pleasures like Drop Dead Fred or The Room. It’s rare, though, that I justify loving a film that has less than seven stars on IMDb.

2004’s Undertow by David Gordon Green stands at a 6.7—three decimal points away from my standard, but that doesn’t matter anymore. That film transcends any peer-review website. I discovered the film the old school way: through a friend’s recommendation. I had never heard of Green before, let alone that Little Rock was his birthplace, so nothing about the film (including the unremarkable, brooding DVD case) stood out to me as a must-see. Nevertheless, I took it home and watched it. Once the film was over and the menu popped up with Philip Glass’s hauntingly repetitive score, I hit play again, then watched all the special features, trying to learn everything I could about this film and who made it. (I was pretty floored when I learned the lead Jamie Bell was from England, not Georgia, like his character Chris Munn.)

A lot of what I picked up on from the film was the poetic lyricism, a term that describes what I like about Terrence Malick’s work (he was a producer on Undertow): beautiful nature shots, naturalistic acting, and lulling, penetrative music. And something else stood out about the film. To get the attention of his girlfriend, played by pre-vampire Kristen Stewart, Bell’s character hurls a rock at her bedroom window. That moment is replayed three or four times with various filters of color saturation and contrast and finally a film-negative effect (see video above). I did a double take at my screen and made sure I hadn’t hit anything on the remote. It was fascinating. I was less enchanted by the many zoom shots by Green’s longtime collaborator, Tim Orr, or the out-of-nowhere freeze frames recalling television shows of the ’70s and ’80s, like Dukes of Hazzard. But there was something about that repetition of frames with successive filters that excited me. I think I remember Spike Lee doing a similar effect in some of his films.

Later I would make my way through Green’s entire catalog. I started with All the Real Girls, which I believe to be his best effort to date—his debut film George Washington comes in at a close second. Green encourages improvisation, and aside from the always-stellar cinematography, the performances in his films are electrifying. Paul Schneider’s character in Girls is one of the few boy-meets-girl types that is fully realized and a marvel to watch.

Green has gone on the record about not bringing scripts to set and letting actors work through scenes armed only with a premeditated back story. This technique didn’t quite connect in his later film Snow Angels, starring Kate Beckinsale, however. Snow Angels wasn’t that bad, and is maybe the most mainstream of his dramas, but I found the casting a bit off the mark. Sam Rockwell was great, but everyone else looked like an understudy.

Snow Angels got me a bit worried about where this (now) Austin-based film director—whom I had come to idolize—was going. With a cast of A- and B-listers, I feared he would go complete-Hollywood, but the film grossed less than $500,000; I figured I wouldn’t have to worry about him selling out. Then Pineapple Express happened in 2008. 

On paper, David Gordon Green meeting Seth Rogen sounds like the best thing ever, but to me the stoner comedy was another sign that I was losing my favorite indie-film director. Pineapple Express was a funny movie with some fantastic over-the-top performances and site-gags, mostly from All The Real Girls alumnus Danny McBride, who would go on to star in Green’s production of HBO’s Eastbound and Down. So maybe I was looking at this all wrong. If Green could use Hollywood’s money and talent to make a smart, offbeat comedy, then who am I to hate on it?

Years later we get Your Highness. Not the much-buzzed-about Suspiria remake, but another stoner comedy set in the middle ages. After seeing the abysmal trailer and reading bad review after bad review, I denied myself the privilege of seeing it on the big screen and instead opted to watch it on HBO after it left theaters. The film was just as bad as I imagined. Fart jokes, dick jokes, gay jokes. It was like seventh grade with a thirty million dollar budget.

Now, Green didn’t write the screenplay to this film like most of his other films, so maybe it’s not his fault, but he doesn’t really use scripts, right? I’m confused. Is the same director who had me getting goose bumps from a swing-set scene between two children now forcing me to watch a fantasy creature take hits from a bong? What would cinematographer Tim Orr say? Wait, he shot Your Highness?!?! I feel sick. 

I thought maybe it was just a fluke. Directors Richard Linklater and Steven Soderbergh have made a few so-so big-budget flicks to fund their indie films. Maybe that was his game.

In 2011, the same year as Your Highness, Green released The Sitter, starring Jonah Hill. I went to see the film in theaters, praying for a miracle and hoping that I was wrong—but I wasn’t. The Sitter is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It was painfully unfunny and had no trace of David Gordon Green. Anyone could have directed that film.

So was it a paycheck movie? Was it a lost bet? Was it a chance to work with his friend Jonah Hill? You might be thinking that I’m going to mention the film’s IMDb score and bring this story full circle by saying it got 7.1 stars out of 10 (making my standard moot), but it didn’t. It currently has 5.6 stars, and I think that’s generous. All I can say is that it’s disheartening that Green hasn’t made a decent art-house film in over five years.

What do you do when a favorite author or musician takes a different direction or can’t churn out quality product anymore? You find someone else to enjoy in the meantime—and hope that no one judges your work so harshly.

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