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The Many Faces of David Gordon Green

The indie auteur's latest, Snow Angels, may be a snowbound tragedy, but the film's many moments of awkward humor and adolescent yearning reveal its maker's underlying eclecticism.
"It’s about the 45 seconds before you lean in and kiss a girl for the first time," 32-year-old director David Gordon Green says about his latest film, Snow Angels. "When your stomach's doing flip-flops. People who don't know how to express themselves in any way but this awkward manner but then they say, 'Fuck it, I want to try.'"


Those initial fumblings are only a small part of Angels, a film exploring emotional connections: the giddy rush of a first love, and the heartbreak that can ensue when you get older. Adapted from Stewart O’Nan’s novel of the same name, Angels is a bleak relationship drama following three different couples at different stages of love and disillusionment. The film may bear a passing relationship to other snowy midwinter tragedies based on novels by middle-aged men (The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter), but it's distinguished by Green's ear for language and knack for idiosyncratic comedy. Strong camerawork by Tim Orr adds another layer, whether it's trailing away from a conversation between a father and son, leaving the words behind, or pausing to take in ducks on a frozen lake. Gordon also continues to develop his approach to casting, which is distinguished by an interest in drawing out qualities of actors audiences haven't seen before. Kate Beckinsale surprises, bringing authority and authenticity to the role of small-town single mom Annie, while Amy Sedaris is an especially bright spot as Annie's best friend Barb. "She comes from a very soulful place," says Green, remembering that Sedaris brought cupcakes to her casting session.


While Angels' pathos-ridden interactions between adults teeter on the verge of melodrama, some of its truest scenes depict the fledgling romance between teenagers Lila (Juno’s Olivia Thirbly, ably transcending the arty-girl stereotype) and Arthur (newcomer Michael Angarano), who awkwardly bob around each other as they build towards those 45 seconds. Green, who has often drawn praise for his portrayals of young people, based much of their relationship on his own experiences. "When she writes ‘Hey you’ on his hand, some girl wrote that on my butt one time," he says. "But I didn’t want to see his ass. To me, when a girl wrote ‘Hey you’ on my butt, it was simultaneously funny and beautiful. She was leaving town and I wasn’t going to see her for a while and that was sad. But it was the perfect way to say goodbye."


Drinking a Dos Equis at Shay’s Pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from the Harvard Film Archive, where a retrospective of his work has been screening, Green seems more like one of this high school characters than one of the grown-ups. Floppy skater boy hair shining, new braces (for real!) gleaming, he peppers his conversation with titles for nonexistent action moves—One in the Chamber, Obstruction of Justice, and Character Witness, "about a guy who gets paid to lie in court." He's at his most vivid when speaking, in his honeyed Southern drawl, about Lila and Arthur. "I really wanted to access that kind of moment, that connection with somebody that was awkward and funny and comes from all the greatest of intentions, of two people who don’t know how to say 'I really like you.' Until she does. And that’s the steam for her, the running start."


Moments like Lila’s "Hey you" embody the pleasure of Green’s filmmaking. Over the past eight years, he's excelled in portraying real people in specific milieus, paying particular attention to working class life and the travails of adolescence. His 2000 debut, George Washington, available on DVD from Criterion, is filled with haunting images of nature and industrial ruin. His follow-up, the sad, romantic All The Real Girls, features strange, slow scenes of star Paul Schneider secretly dancing behind his paramour Noel (Zooey Deschanel) on a bowling lane, and drunkenly asking an ex, "Have you ever seen a mistake in nature? Have you ever seen an animal make a mistake?" 2004's Undertow, a Southern yarn about boys on the run from a belligerent uncle played by Josh Lucas, contains a visceral trick: in scenes where Lucas' character is fighting, his punches pop off the screen, so the audience feels every blow. These scenes and tableaus linger, elevating the everyday and mundane into something poetic and beautiful. And while Angels is Green's most plot-driven film, there are many quiet scenes marked by his peculiar imprimatur, like the one in which Sam Rockwell, as Annie's hapless, luckless, born-again ex-husband, dances drunkenly in a seedy bar with two wraith-like patrons celebrating a birthday.


Who knows how his elegiac style will translate to his next film, the Seth Rogen stoner comedy The Pineapple Express, but the current online red-band trailer—with its mix of James Franco making stoned dick jokes, beautiful tracking shots of Seth Rogen in a field, and stuff blowing up—suggests that the improv-happy Apatow clique may be a hilarious match for the improv-happy auteur.  


An admitted film nerd, Green reveres the filmmaking of the ‘70s and early 80s as an era when "movies were challenging the audience." He calls the 1983 Jane Alexander vehicle Testament "amazing," insisting, "It will change your life." By contrast, on a recent trip to the multiplex he walked out of three different movies after half an hour: 10,000 B.C., The Bank Job, and Semi-Pro. "I go to the movies more for the DP than the lead actor," he says. "You know if Roger Deakins [the legendary cinematographer who most recently shot The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men] is involved, it’s going to be worth it." However, Green also admits a taste for "total garbage," which he differentiates from "garbage designed as mediocrity." For him, Grindhouse, which "would have been better if they had 1.5 million to make it," falls into the latter category. Good garbage, on the other hand, is the oeuvre of Steven Seagal. In fact, Green recently documented his Seagal love in his introduction to Seagalology: A Study of the Ass Kicking Films of Steven Seagal, a book by Ain’t It Cool writer Vern.


After Express debuts in August, Green has a slate of projects he’s pursuing, including an adaptation of John Grisham’s nonfiction work, The Innocent Man, and a remake of Dario Argento’s gothic classic, Suspiria. He says he’s writing a script for the latter with his sound editor, and his hope is to bring a forgotten elegance to the horror genre. "The mood and emotion of horror movies are lost these days," he says. 


While it’s tempting to pigeonhole Green's talent as strictly an auteur of pretty art films, he appears to be striving for a varied, diverse career in the vein of Jonathan Demme—no easy task. Who knows whether he'll be able to fulfill his ambitions and transcend Hollywood expectations, but the range of projects on his plate bodes well for his future.


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