Has David Gordon Green gone pop? The question hovers over BAMCinématek’s retrospective, which culminates in a preview of Pineapple Express, a “stoner-action-comedy” from the Apatow family, and the first script Green’s directed that he didn’t write.
More accurately, Green’s gone pragmatic: “The passion projects, they’re necessary for me to make, regardless of if anyone wants to show up at the box office or get behind them and market them,” he says. “[But] there’s an actual business, an industry that needs to be respected if not catered to.”
Recall that the film that broke a then-25-year-old Green, 2000’s George Washington, was the antithesis of a careerist calling card, shooed from Sundance’s doorstep. From the filament of a young-adult-fiction plot device shines a racially mixed cast of nonprofessionals, mostly children. Their voiceovers and monologues, in which the kids yearn toward true love and civics-class ideals, give the compartmentalized scenes a melic unity.
Here, Green and stalwart cinematographer Tim Orr establish their signature visual vocabulary, taking pages from William Eggleston’s Guide, rendering train yards and gutted Studebakers widescreen-epic. “Rustic” may be a real-estate cliché, but when we’re acclimated to accept Ontario as a stand-in for every American landscape, it’s invaluable to discover the dead ends of George Washington‘s North Carolina towns.
Green’s All the Real Girls (2003—great title) traced the contours of first love as Paul (co-screenwriter Paul Schneider), a Podunk pussyhound, moves in on Noel (Zooey Deschanel), a virgin with saintly sad eyes back from the boarding-school cloisters. Paul’s self-consciousness justifies Green’s deliberately awkward scene-setting (canoodling in the middle of a bowling lane etc.); Paul wants every moment with Noel to be different from anything before—their first kiss is the film’s coda; he kisses her palm instead of her mouth. As Paul learns, unconventionality doesn’t always work out—the film contains a handful of scenes that should make anyone want to charge the projection booth with corrective scissors and splicing tape. These first movies finally “work” only as much as a viewer can accept them as innocent rather than unctuous—in this case, good faith gives better than resistance. Sync up with Real Girls and it’ll ransack the mental attic where unhappy youthful memories are stowed away; it gets me so blue I can’t even tell you.
Undertow (2004) was Green’s first attempt to use his atmospheric sensitivity as a means rather than an end—his Southern-fried thriller. It’s cluttered with allusion: to Malick (producer here), to that old-time religion and Macon Country Line, to Charles Laughton’s nonpareil Night of the Hunter, which it screens alongside at BAM. The movie’s grisliness resonates, but the rigged-together peripheral scenes forming the film’s on-the-road section don’t build to any cumulative effect, with non sequitur small talk frequently upstaged by flora. After some years grounded on unrealized projects—prominently, a Confederacy of Dunces adaptation—there was Snow Angels, Green’s relocation to the frost-blanked North, released earlier this year. Its tale of interlocking small-town love affairs, rendered with curlicue camerawork, was sentenced to death-by- indifference, labeled an oh-so-last-season study in suburban soul-sickness. Maybe, if its triptych of relationships was intended to signify universal truths—but as a movie about humans rather than archetypes, it’s potent stuff. Audiences passed it by on their way to Juno.
For Green, it’s a familiar feeling: “To watch those movies not thrive and barely make a ripple within the industry is pretty frustrating.” And so: Pineapple Express, concerning two habitual koosh huffers who misstep into a drug war. More of Superbad‘s Cult of the Best Bro and Seth Rogen’s scene-stampeding blue comedy is cause for alarm, but this is the best movie (as opposed to an arrangement of scenes) to ever come from Camp Apatow, steeped in the textures of Valley lowlife, with beautiful work from James Franco and Danny McBride, who looks like a Birmingham grocery bagger and exhales pure comedy. The concussive brawl between three guys all having their first fist fight is the action set-piece to beat this summer.Would Green rather be Michael Ritchie now than Terry Malick? “I’m doing a lot of things that are all over the place . . . so I don’t get kind of bogged down in what could otherwise be a pretty depressing angle of the industry.” Upcoming is a remake of Suspiria (“The way that horror is going, I think we’re losing sight of the artistry and the complexity and the kind of strange, surreal, emotional element”), a John Grisham true-crime adaptation, and “a cartoon TV series.” (“That doesn’t include all the weirdo projects— little, bizarre, personal, intimate portraits and things that I try to develop on the side.”)
Is it a triumph for Hollywood cynicism when Green, who made his rep with a movie where kids and adults commiserate over dreams, now scores laffs off grown-ups peddling weed to grade-schoolers? Before hoisting the “Sellout” effigy, let’s show good faith once more. How much stagnancy in the multiplex (and arthouse) comes from our best and brightest sticking to the ghetto of indie cred when they could be working? Green’s a smart producer now (he backed last year’s superlative Shotgun Stories), a proven hustler, and committed to giving back to vernacular American film culture. I’ll only say: Godspeed.