reverse shot winter 2004
reverse shot presents

Tsai Ming-liang Symposium

Interview with
Tsai Ming-liang

-Goodbye Dragon Inn
-Andrew Tracy

-Nick Pinkerton
-Rebels of the Neon God
-The Hole
-The River
-The Skywalk is Gone
-Vive L'Amour
-What Time Is It There?

-A Whiff of Reality

New York Film Festival
-The Holy Girl
-Tropical Malady
-In The Battlefields
-The World
-Bad Education
-The Big Red One...
-Notre Musique
-Café Lumière
-Vera Drake
-Infernal Affairs

New Releases
-The Assassination of
  Richard Nixon

-The Grudge
-The Machinist

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  Finding David Gordon Green
Neal Block on Undertow
Dir. David Gordon Green, U.S., United Artists

Though Undertow is a departure in narrative technique for director David Gordon Green, it's probably accurate to say that the film can and eventually will act as a thematic culmination of the first part of his career. George Washington conjured up a rural childhood whose basic tenet was independence; All the Real Girls introduced this same sense of isolated innocence into a story of first love. Undertow examines the bond of brotherhood amidst the larger context of the elements that have, for better or worse, defined Green's miniature oeuvre-a reverential view of childhood, an innocent concept of the world outside his characters' prescribed boundaries, and a languor that hangs over every stagnant rural landscape, all mixed with a handful of stagy, twee introspection that can sometimes hit way off mark (and sometimes feel enormously genuine).

If George Washington and All the Real Girls contained elements of fairy-tale structure, Undertow creates an entirely mythologized world, complete with hidden treasure, otherworldly foes, strange creatures, and a happy ending. This all makes Undertow sound pretty exciting, but it isn't. It's an exercise in narrative, and it feels like one. Green's singular devotion to his characters has been traded for a semi-concrete plot, which his earlier films reveled in circumventing. Some directors can create memorable characters and memorable stories for them to inhabit-so far, Green can only do the former. Undertow finds the director straining to create a great and noble tale but along the way losing the hearts of his characters. And yet even while the film fails as a whole, suffering from a lack of the stuff that made Green's first couple movies successful, it's still full of fantastic images and ideas.

Jamie Bell, whose only notable performance as a dancing English schoolboy in Billy Elliot bears no resemblance to his work here, stars as Chris Munn, a teenager living in and out of trouble in rural Georgia. Think of him as a young Paul Williams, but less gregarious and more insular. Chris and his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan), who, as a hobby, snacks on dirt and paint, live with their father, John (Dermot Mulroney), a widower who exiled his family to their isolated homestead after the death of his wife. When John's brother Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up after a years-long absence to claim the mysterious Mexican gold coins that John has hidden in the house, old jealousies and cultivated rage bubble up, resulting in John's murder. The boys bolt, gold coins in tow. Their way to salvation, on the run from Deel, is cluttered with fools and con men and endless threats, with their uncle close behind and only their limited wits to keep him there.


This is a rather complicated plot when compared to the stream-of-consciousness goings on of Green's earlier films. Here he has a schedule to keep. Before the end of the film, Chris must come of age, Deel must be slain, and the bond of brotherhood has to be shown to be the most important in the world. There's little time to explore why Tim eats paint, or what, besides safety and a home, Chris is really looking for. We guess it's friendship or a girlfriend, two things he's never had because of his father's strict adherence to a life of isolation, but we're not allowed that far inside Chris's psyche. Bell's performance, however, is nuanced and thoughtful enough that, by his expressions alone, we can perhaps get a glimpse into what Green doesn't take the time to explore himself.

For most of Undertow, Chris and Tim wander. They often interact with grown-ups, but they exist under their radars, in an alternate universe similar to the one in which modern-day homeless children must live-depleted, ignored, treated without tenderness. They are, in effect, orphaned, with no kin except for an apocryphal grandfather they sometimes discuss. In the last act of the film, Chris and Tim find themselves in an actual orphan's paradise, a shanty-town whose residents are all lost children-homeless, runaways, malcontents. In a way, this is the place that Green's films have been slowly aching towards for the last five years, a self-sufficient community of children, of innocents, living in a self-constructed society. They've stepped out of narrative convention and into the Peter Pan world that Green's been dreaming up. And yet this place is no Eden-theft and duplicity are as prevalent here as in the real world; perhaps this is Green's realization that innocence isn't so innocent, and childhood isn't always a goal to strive towards.

Green's characters sleep in junkyards, they steal medicine to keep themselves alive, they bathe in dirty creeks that bring to mind the leech scene from Stand by Me. And certainly there are times when Undertow feels like a rough draft of that film. The two films both share a keen sense of time and place, with Undertow's depiction of a sweaty Southern Seventies summer rivaling the nostalgia that Rob Reiner depicts of the late Fifties American landscape. But where Stand by Me successfully meshes history and character and myth and storytelling, Undertow can't make them all gel in quite the same way. And so we have history, as represented by Tim Orr's stunning photography of a lost era; the characters of Chris and Tim loosely drawn; mythology being created but not placed in a larger context; and storytelling, which Green seems to have a sense for but not enough practice in. And yet still, despite the flaws, we end up with a film that feels very much like a David Gordon Green movie-for better or worse.

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