ROVIN' AND RAVIN' WITH MIKE
Copyright © 2000 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved
Lifeless Proof and a Living George
This week, in a rare double-feature rave, I'm sharing with you two films that illustrate just how much variety a film-reviewer's job can have: Proof of Life, probably seen by more people the weekend it opened than have seen the second, George Washington, all year. That's too bad, because Proof of Life is lifeless, while George Washington is as close to a proof of greatness as I have seen all year. OK, I’ll say it: as close to a proof of greatness in a film as I have ever seen.
Yes, you know about Proof of Life, at least about what was going on behind the scenes, but if you are returning from a long vacation on Mars, Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe became an item, Ryan's husband sued for divorce, and, let's get this over with.
Ryan plays Alice Bowman, whose husband Peter (David Morse), has been hired by an oil company to build a dam in a Latin American country called Tecala (Educador). Peter gets kidnapped and held for ransom by a group of Hollywood's generic third-world terrorists. Enter Terry Thorne (Crowe), professional kidnap and ransom negotiator, who exits just about as quickly when he learns the oil company has canceled its kidnap insurance.
So, we have the setup for a brisk, exciting suspense thriller. The problem is, director Taylor Hackford doesn't deliver. The film is at least half an hour too long. Crowe gives us deadpan lectures on his unusual occupation and on the mysterious kidnappers; we are taught things that the movie never gets around to showing us. When he gets away from the professorial mode, however, Crowe is in his best real-man mode.
The biggest problem with this film is Meg Ryan and her character. The writers have tried to give a little depth to the character with throwaway references to a miscarriage that she had less than a year before. I am something of a Meg Ryan fan: no one does "Meg Ryan" movies, wispy little romantic comedies (You've Got Mail, and quite a favorite of mine, I.Q.), any better. But here, way out of her depth, she projects perhaps the whiniest, most vapid film presence I've ever seen. The whole point of the character of Alice is to provide an opportunity for the chemistry between her and Terry. Frankly, this film leaves us wondering why Terry would bother.
The film only shows its proof of life in its final bit of fast-paced Aussie machismo and derring-do, with a lot of guns, a lot of blood, and guys getting down, dirty, and violent. Well, it is for a good cause, but it would have been a better cause if that level of intensity and commitment could have been sustained throughout the whole duration of this film.
Many film reviewers see themselves as consumer advocates, warning readers about films that should be recalled or else urging them to make it to the megaplex to see something good. I want to do something different now, simply celebrate an amazing film, George Washington, unfortunately, the best little film you'll probably never see. First-timer David Gordon Green has achieved in just under ninety minutes creates a world in which stories of love and hope, hate and despair unfold before us with an innocence and simplicity that I have rarely seen on film.
It's one of many small, independent films that are made every year, only to open in very limited engagements and all too often disappear. Despite the success of last year's Blair Witch Project, the sad truth is, there's just not much of a market for these little, often intensely personal projects. A city can have a dozen twenty-screen megaplexes, and you won't find more than a dozen different films showing among them all. The little mom-and-pop video stores where I used to find amazing, offbeat treasures have disappeared, and the big chain stores don't offer much more variety than the theaters, not much room for this post-modern To Kill a Mockingbird.
It's good to know that there are people like Green still trying. I wish him success. It's strange that "art-house films" used to be films full of sex and violence, but now that those are the staples of the megaplex, this little art-house film is almost squeaky in its innocence. The strongest word I remember hearing in it is “doo-doo." A word of warning, before we go any further. I’m afraid that I am making this film sound like such a pretentious mess that you’ll run from it (not that you have to). But when I think of its most touching moment—two women, one black, one white, sharing a hug, sharing the experience of knowing that the son of one and the more or less son (nephew, actually) of the other, are joined by one saving the other’s life—I know that I am dealing with simple, elemental stuff too good for my pretensions.
The film is set in North Carolina, in the zone in which a shabby urban environment fades into a scruffy rural area. A group of prepubescent kids do more than just endure the hopelessness and poverty. As Faulkner said of us all, they prevail. There is no character named George Washington, but there is George (Donald Holden), who has to keep his head covered to protect his unclosed skull, and who wants to be a hero... and, by the way, has a photo of President George (H.) Bush on his bedroom wall. When he actually becomes a hero by saving another boy's life, he dons a superhero's costume—a cape that might have been a tablecloth, a wrestling team uniform, and a hat made from the skin of a dog. No, it's not ridiculous. George looks every millimeter the part of an African warrior prince on a mythic adventure.
He is just one of the memorable characters in the ensemble. Narrator Nasia (Candace Evanofski) is thirteen going on thirty in terms of her understanding of human relations. But she is left out of the central group, which includes her more or less ex-boyfriend Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), Sonya (Rachael Handy), Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee), and George. The four are talking and playing in a public restroom, where one of them is accidentally killed, and the others make the terrible decision to try to conceal his death.
So, one boy is accidentally killed, one is almost accidentally saved. But, neither event is played for dramatic intensity. Green shows us the moments between the beginning and the end, away from the peaks of experience. In fact, two other very important events—the death of a dog and a failed car theft—are not even shown, like those terrible moments of suicide and blinding that we never see in Greek tragedy. I've never seen any other film in which the line between the conscious (the willed acts of mind that we control) and the unconscious (the unwilled states of mind that control us) is so blurred, because this film transcends the divisions between the willed and unwilled mind in the chambers of the heart. For George and his young friends, unless you take on the heroic quest to do something, your life is made up of things being done to you.
It is as if we are privileged to take on the lives of these characters, who are as innocent, even sweet, as the gang in Peanuts. Although the language they speak is as elegant, even contrived as blank verse, the words come out naturally, smoothly, very much right for the characters but without any of the exaggerations of dialect and obscenity that black characters are saddled with in mainstream productions.
Again, as with Peanuts, we are in a world in which adults don't count for much. While the adults seem as rusty as the junk that fills so much of the town, the kids still seem to hang onto a few clouds of glory. Strangely enough, glory is what this film is all about. “The truth is," one adult says, “we are all fighting for salvation." So, as George undertakes his heroic quest, the challenge is not only to be a hero. It is to be a saint: “The only thing I'm afraid of is God's judgment." I’ll contain my English-teacher instincts that were mightily stirred when one character talked about the dead boy’s mother sharing crackers and sardines (loaves and fishes?).
The film does have its problems. With its studied pointlessness, every moment has to be pointed, and there are several moments that contribute nothing (especially a tedious motorcycle ride). The young non-actors bring a freshness and honesty to their roles, but they are non-actors. I do hope to see Evanofski again in a few years, and I will be waiting to see where Green goes from here, because here, he has created a movie of hope and beauty that touches my heart in a way no other film ever has.
Keep your feet dry and your heart full of noble thoughts, and for you, I'm extending a wish better than for a Merry Christmas—a wish that George Washington will be coming soon to a theater, cable television channel, or video store near you.