If the industry conditions that were once sufficiently malleable for visionary American independents to thrive have all but vanished, does that make David Gordon Green our last hope? Having released five features in the last eight years, the skinny kid from Little Rock has proven more productive than Wes Anderson—who has stars, scope, narrative cohesion, pop sensibility and, well, Disney, on his side—and is now inching up on Richard Linklater, who’s benefited from a one-for-me, one-for-them strategy with regards to balancing a slate of personal and more overtly commercially viable projects. And it now seems that Green might be tearing a page from Linklater’s book, with Pineapple Express, the latest from the house of Superbad mastermind Judd Apatow, storming into theatres next week to compete with the final rounds of big summer movie.
The question looming over Pineapple Express is whether or not Green’s distinctive—oft-labeled “regional”—sensibility, with its insistent innocence and pronounced idiosyncrasies, can be reconciled with what promises to be a rousing “stoner action comedy.” It’s a sensibility that announces itself even in Green’s student films, especially the instantly endearing ‘Physical Pinball’ (1998), in which Penelope (Candace Evanofski) looks to her widower father (Eddie Rouse) for guidance after getting her first period. With its abundant tenderness, sense of place, attention to atmosphere and playful use of Southern jive vernacular, the film feels like some miraculously inspired ABC Afterschool Special directed by Charles Burnett, with Evanofski and Rouse—with those bruised, Benicio Del Toro eyes of his—feeling so utterly authentic its as though they simply rose up from the rural North Carolina earth like a heat shimmer.
When we next see them, in Green’s feature debut George Washington (2000), that sense of milieu, of the organic merging of people, landscape and industry, expands, unfurls and breathes deep. It’s both meditative and serene and rippling with funky humour and warmth, drifting through its multiracial community of kids and adults who work and play, more or less harmoniously, within the intermingling scrap yards, fecund woods and train tracks. Evanofski’s Nasia spends the first scene breaking up with Buddy (Curtis Cotton) because he’s too immature. She’s 13, he’s 12. “Did you think we were going to be together forever?” she asks. “Can I kiss you one last time?” Buddy counters, his plea dangling so fragile in the night air between them. Green envelops the scene with stillness, treats it without the slightest hint of condescension to the transitory emotions of pubescence. Rouse’s Damascus is likewise immensely present before Green’s camera, even while giving a trembling monologue worthy of an inaugural AA meeting about getting humped by a dog.
The peak sounds of labour echo, while a watery piano refrain permeates. A glimpsed journal reads “We are all friends.” A kid in a lizard mask delivers a soliloquy to an auditorium reclaimed by weeds. People ride motorbikes, eat lunch, and hug. One child rescues another from drowning and becomes a traffic-directing superhero. A man and a boy stand around discussing the boy’s sick mom and the colour of healthy pee, and crucially, the camera, as coaxed by Green and his marvelous cinematographer Tim Orr, never breaks away or gets in tight, just holds back in a wide shot, letting the scene play out through body language. This is still one of my favourite movies of our young century.
Though still gorgeous, charming, even startlingly sweet, All the Real Girls (03), Green’s love story, begins to reveal limitations. The kids have grown into adults—strangely, none are black now. An air of youth growing up and going nowhere blankets the landscape as palpably as Green and Orr’s permanent magic hour, which kisses everything with honey, rust and autumnal glow. The particular sadness of this world is best embodied in Tip (Shea Wingham), whose nickname likely stems from his pompadour, a vestige of classical teen rebellion, while he sports that most telltale accoutrement of resignation and despair: the fannypack.
The story focuses on local pussyhound Paul (co-writer Paul Schneider) and Tip’s little sister Noel (Zooey Deschanel), back from private school and a sort of beguiling alien in this place with her orbular eyes and lack of accent. Their romance is meant to give us some sweep, yet somehow the film feels more alive when listening in on some pretty brilliant diner conversation or hinting at the Oedipal overtones of Paul’s relationship with his single mom (Patricia Clarkson). The scene where Paul and Noel’s initial bliss is broken by a confession of infidelity does indeed achieve moments of genuine, aching emotional truth, but its route to truth feels too much like drama class improv, with Schneider really acting hard, while, combined with Deschanel’s inarticulate commitment anxiety (homework for The Happening, it turns out), the ever-hushed musical score is so soothingly beautiful that it takes a bite of the urgency, keeping the collective pulse at an al-too reasonable level. I could probably re-watch All the Real Girls over and over again, but I can’t say it isn’t overlong.
Undertow (04) was a first stab at something more marketable, or at least studio financing-friendly, while reacquainting Green with the actors who undoubtedly make his best collaborators: kids. As a fast-paced thriller, this “Deliverance, with kids”—Green’s description—is unsurprisingly wobbly, with its deranged, greedy uncle on the heels of runaway nephews motor never quite reaching full throttle. But as an homage to Night of the Hunter and an opportunity to soak up more Southern reverie, like watching a tyke eat paint or the closing reunion with grandparents, its aged surprisingly well. More problematic is Snow Angels (07), a tale of divorced parents (Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale) that has yet to hit many theatres outside of the major centres. It starts wonderfully, with a marching band playing ‘Sledgehammer’ and more hints of awkward young love, before sinking into a sort of hysterical murk as the story—from Stuart O’Nan’s novel—settles into the deep, way-deep darkness and loss that lies at its heart.
Being a comedy populated with capable comic talents—Seth Rogen, James Franco—it seems perfectly likely that Pineapple Express may be just the bridge the still very green Green, now all of 33, needs to imbue his adult characters with the same nuance he’s brought to kids. What is surely a well-structured script should also offer Green the sort of challenge he needs, one that asks him to use atmosphere as a means rather than an end. In any event, along with Green’s promised remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, there’s every reason to look forward to this marriage of outsider art and multiplex chops. God knows we need something to actually pull their increasingly divided audiences together.