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A Southerner in the Snow

Filmmaker David Gordon Green tries his hand up north.




Interviewed by Charlie Rose at the start of his career, David Gordon Green explained that he got into filmmaking because he wanted to travel. The remark seems ironic now, given that he's become one of America's most accomplished young filmmakers by staying close to home. George Washington, named the best debut film of 2000 by the New York Film Critics Circle, was shot in Winston-Salem, where Green studied filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts. His second feature, All the Real Girls (2003), was shot in Asheville and Marshall, each about a two-hour drive from Winston-Salem, and his third, Undertow (2004), ranged no farther afield than Savannah, Georgia. Those three movies have established Green as a uniquely southern voice; in an increasingly transient and rapidly homogenizing nation, his movies are rooted in a profound and often magical sense of place.

Nowhere is this more true than in George Washington, a loose-limbed tale that, in its simple humanity, erases the line between black and white, adult and child. In the DVD commentary Green explains that he wanted to establish "how the people communicate with each other and how they communicate with the land around them," and there's a strong sense of the characters as part of the landscape. He and cinematographer Tim Orr had a field day with the wild terrain of Winston-Salem, aptly described by Green as a combination of "industrial decay and natural beauty": train yards overgrown with weeds, collapsing cinder block covered with brilliantly colored graffiti, mechanical cranes swinging clawfuls of garbage against a limitless blue sky. A father and son converse in a yard cluttered with sectioned tree trunks, and a boy declaims from the stage of a derelict school auditorium, a sapling growing out of the floor in front of him. The whole movie seems to take place in some strange, self-contained world.

Green, who grew up in Texas, has attributed his sensibility to the school, a creative hothouse far removed from the career tracks of New York and Los Angeles. But his films also owe a debt to the regionalism of filmmaking in the 70s, when local landscapes figured strongly in the work of directors as varied as John Waters in Baltimore, George A. Romero in Pittsburgh, Charles Burnett in South Central LA, and Martin Scorsese inNew York's Little Italy. Even more influential for Green was Terrence Malick, a fellow Texan who powerfully poeticized the central western states in Badlands and Days of Heaven. Burnett, Scorsese, and Malick seemed particularly interested in characters trying to come to terms with their environment, which made them who they were but also locked them into situations or behavior they wanted to leave behind. This is true of Paul, the hero of All the Real Girls; known all over town as a heartless lothario, he's forced to contend with his own reputation when he falls in love with his best friend's younger sister. The town's estimation of him, and the trap it represents, is summed up by an old girlfriend when she dresses him down in a tavern: "Guys like you, you don't quit and you never leave. You're gonna be here forever."

Critics have described Green's movies as southern gothic, and with Undertow the director seemed to be listening to them: the first half, with its family secrets buried under the kudzu, plays like a William Faulkner novel, and the second, in which two brothers flee their murderous uncle, is like The Night of the Hunter transplanted to the malevolent greenery of Deliverance. In all his movies Green tries to make the time period as vague as the location is precise, and that's especially true here: aside from the rusty 70s-era cars and a punk-rock chick who materializes near the end, Undertow could be taking place in the ramshackle ruins of the Depression. Coproduced by Malick, it's an impressive exercise in naturalistic cinema. But rewatching Green's first three features consecutively, I was struck by how fresh George Washington and All the Real Girls still seemed, whereas Undertow felt naggingly derivative.

All of this makes Snow Angels a real departure for Green: based on the 1994 novel by Stewart O'Nan, it marks the first time Green's adapted someone else's work as well as the first time he's shot a feature in the north. Green was commissioned to write the script, and he took over as director when the producers' first choice dropped out. Though he retained a small nucleus of trusted collaborators, including Orr, the rest of the cast and crew were new to him. And while the scenes in his earlier movies tended to grow out of the locations, the setting here was less integral: the novel takes place in western Pennsylvania, but Green chose to shoot in Nova Scotia, where he figured he could count on a plentiful supply of the snow that figures so heavily in the story. (The weather didn't cooperate, so he had to import 80 dump trucks of snow from Newfoundland.)

Still, one can easily imagine what attracted Green to the project. Butler, the small town north of Pittsburgh where O'Nan set his story, doesn't seem much different in character from the southern towns in Green's early films: as in any small community, the people all know each other, and when tragedy strikes, it touches them all. O'Nan cuts back and forth between two narratives: in one a young waitress, living with her mother and raising a three-year-old daughter, is harassed by her unstable, born-again husband; in the other a teenage boy struggles with his parents' separation as he experiences first love with an oddball classmate. The link between the two stories is casual—the waitress once babysat the boy—but it's enough to support O'Nan's graceful counterpoint as he ponders the nature of love relationships at three different stages of life.

Green demonstrates his usual sensitivity to the details of small-town America—like the Chinese restaurant where neither the owner, the waiters, nor the customers are Chinese. One location provides a subtle connection between the two story lines: outside the local mall the erratic husband lets his little daughter enjoy the coin-operated rides, and later the young lovers are passing the same rides when they awkwardly encounter the boy's father with a new girlfriend. Green's favorite visual motif is the series of landscape shots separated by quick fades to black, and in Snow Angels he exploits it to fine rhetorical effect by using the same sequence at the beginning and the end, suggesting that even after a tragedy the town's rhythms continue. There's even a lightly self-referential scene in which the teen's girlfriend shows him a collection of photographic studies she's taken around town. "These are all here?" asks the boy, who's lived there all his life. To which she replies, "You're not very observant."

Despite these touches, however, Snow Angels has a workmanlike quality. The performances are never less than genuine, and the movie hurtles onward to a harrowing and heartbreaking conclusion. But Green's best movies haven't hurtled—they've sauntered, lazy with the heat and with humidity, as unexpected insights sprouted through cracks in the sidewalk. He's always favored improvisation among his actors, and though there are some choice instances of it here—particularly from the amazing Sam Rockwell, who plays the deranged husband—the movie is so heavily plotted these moments barely have room to breathe. Snow Angels is a powerful drama, but if I didn't know Green had directed it I probably wouldn't have guessed. Such are the drawbacks of travel: the more you adjust to new people, the more you might wonder where your old self has gone.v

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