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Poetry in Motion 

With George Washington and now All the Real Girls -- both screening at this week's New Orleans Film Festival -- director David Gordon Green tries to make the South rise again, y'all.

David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls is a movie of moments and emotions, atmosphere and scenery, awkwardness and craft. He has been nominally compared to the similarly elusive Terence Malick, but at the tender age of 28 seems prepared to surpass his elder's sparse output. They both have been given the dubious distinction of being called impressionist directors who strive for a certain cinematic poetry in their work -- Malick with landmark films such as 1973's Badlands and more recently 1998's The Thin Red Line, Green with 2000's George Washington and this year's All the Real Girls.

Like Malick, Green seems to be searching for a truth that lies in between the spoken lines of his characters, using moody music (from fave indie-rock artists such as Will Oldham, Sparklehorse and Mogwai) to coat his scenes with a sense of foreboding. His scripts feel like beat poetry with a Southern drawl as he paints pictures of small-town ennui. (Both films are set in his adopted state of North Carolina, where he attended art school.) His characters can sound utterly real and surreal within a span of seconds; sometimes it resonates, other times it ricochets.

Through it all, Green is quickly establishing himself as one of the most talked-about young directors out there, the indie auteur who works for chump change in return for final cut. Collaborating with co-screenwriter/actor Paul Schneider, Green creates films that have many critics gushing with praise and others scratching their heads.

Regardless, David Gordon Green is quickly becoming a cinematic voice of the South; his passion for the region (and apparently the novel) earned him the nod from producers Steven Soderbergh and Scott Rudin to direct the soon-to-be-filmed version of John Kennedy Toole's iconic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, sometime in the unknown future.

Green is scheduled to present All the Real Girls at this year's New Orleans Film Festival. The film is microcosmic of this year's lineup, which feels more like a "greatest hits" celebration of previous film festivals, most notably last February's Sundance Film Festival. Programming the up-and-coming independent films was an especially dubious task this season, so NOFF artistic director John Desplas took advantage of the independent film-challenged New Orleans market and booked several festival faves.

Three of these movies -- All the Real Girls, Peter Hedges' Pieces of April and Tom McCarthy's The Station Agent -- combined to give their common star, New Orleanian Patricia Clarkson, a Special Jury Performance Prize at Sundance. (All the Real Girls also shared a Sundance Special Jury Prize "for artistic merit and emotional truth.") Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans captured the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at Sundance, while Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark won the Visions Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary won several honors including Best Film at the 2002 SITGES Film Festival, while The Murder of Emmett Till earned director Stanley Nelson an Emmy nomination for best director of a nonfiction program.

Green is also coming to town for post-production sound editing and mixing at Swelltone Labs for his latest film, The Undertow (co-written with Joe Conway), about two brothers in the South trying to guard a family secret after the death of their father. Shot in Savannah, Ga., The Undertow features Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) and Dermot Mulroney (About Schmidt). The film is scheduled for release some time next year.

Green's All the Real Girls -- like George Washington -- is set in a decaying, stuck-in-time North Carolina town whose young inhabitants are barely getting by. Paul (Paul Schneider) is trying to erase his reputation as the one who's gone "down in every girl's history book as the asshole ex-boyfriend," as a friend reminds him. Paul is falling in love with Noel (Zooey Deschanel), the younger sister of his best friend, Tip (Shea Wigham), who doesn't like what he's seeing develop between the two closest people in his life.

Green is at his best when charting the fumbling, bumbling path that first love takes, when partners talk about things light and heavy, trying to stave off foreplay with wordplay or endless snuggles. And it's in those snuggles that Green and Schneider's writing reaches for a quirky poetry that sometimes eludes them. During yet another extended embrace where you can't tell where one person ends and the other begins, Noel tells Paul, "I had a dream that you grew a garden on a trampoline, and I was so happy that I invented peanut butter."

It's all part of a jaunty storytelling rhythm, juxtaposing time-filling banter with dialogue, monologue and imagery rife with portentousness. There's a lot of "let's try this" improv going on here -- in the narrative, the acting and Tim Orr's cinematography -- and the notion that not all of it works or might not even cohere altogether shouldn't detract from the efforts of a director willing to take chances.

"This movie is kind of an alternative to a lot of the movies that are just constantly moving and aggressively beating you over the head with plot points," Green tells Schneider during their commentary for the DVD. "We can sit back and listen for a little bit and look at these people and this place."

In a movie filled with counterpoints, the most tender moment comes when the pair don't have sex, as Paul almost talks his way out of the mood because of his awareness of his checkered romantic past. "I'm gonna go now," he says, realizing the time has passed.

"I think what we were shooting for were those awkward moments, those moments of absolute vulnerability," Green says in his commentary.

Green tries to populate his North Carolina burg with a string of idiosyncratic characters masked as everymen or women, some of whom are utterly hilarious. Even though some of the nicknames seem overly hickish or knowing, the actors come through, particularly Danny McBride as Paul's under-matched romantic rival Bust-Ass. (After unsuccessfully extracting from Noel her "backup" potential boyfriend, Bust-Ass finally quizzes, "Who would you have sex with more: me, or a preacher?")

For whatever quirks he might have in his screenwriting collaborations with Schneider, Green does a remarkable job in getting both Schneider and Deschanel to thoroughly inhabit their characters. Deschanel's Noel is all unwashed hair and bright blue eyes (it's curious that almost every other girl in the film is having a better hair day), which lends to her naturalness. Even if she is discussing the possible invention of peanut butter, Deschanel makes it all seem believable. She's a real, sincere, open book of a charmer, honest with everything including her own naivete, keeping men off balance with a "shhhh" that is both cute and mysterious.

Green splices these moments with transitional images of rusty and rustic Americana: a river stream, a burned-out bus, mountains at sunrise, a two-legged dog.

"Oftentimes it's these long, lingering shots that give actors a lot of breathing room," Schneider says in his DVD commentary. "It lets the actor invest his ideas in the movie."

Schneider's Paul is a poster boy for the ennobled doofus; as his mom (Patricia Clarkson) points out, he's not the brightest bulb in the lamp. He's screwed up a ton, but he's still young enough to seek a new, truer path, and thinks he's found a fresh start in Noel. It doesn't matter that Noel, just out of boarding school and smarter than she is wise, trusts Paul. And Schneider spends much of the film in a limbo of desire and self-doubt. Sometimes his best lines are a stutter. That Noel pulls a surprise on him toward the end of the film just further muddies the waters for an easily confused kid.

Is this just karma coming back to bite Paul in the ass? Or is this just another way of showing how confusing first love can be? Can two young lovers find each other through all that talking and shrugging? The answers are as elusive as Green's lines, perhaps intentionally so.

Which makes Green's selection as the man to help the long-awaited and much-anticipated film version of A Confederacy of Dunces so intriguing. The most celebrated book about New Orleans -- author John Kennedy Toole won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize -- is as known as Green's work is ambiguous. Green reportedly is a huge fan of the work and campaigned Steven Soderbergh and Scott Rudin heavily to get the job. Drew Barrymore, who will provide her production company for the film, reportedly is set to co-star along with Will Ferrell, Mos Def, Olympia Dukakis and Lily Tomlin.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Green will provide his own unique stamp on the film. If his first two movies are any indication, A Confederacy of Dunces will at the very least have a poetry all its own.

David Lee Simmons will interview David Gordon Green at a Mentoring Session at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, at Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, 841 Carondelet St. The New Orleans Film Festival will also screen David Gordon Green's first film, George Washington, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 14, at Canal Place.

HEADLINE: A Festival of Coverage

This year's New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF) includes artists and films previously featured in Gambit Weekly in articles that can be accessed in the archives of our Web site, www.bestofneworleans.

For David Lee Simmons' profile of the most recent winner of the Big Easy Entertainment Awards' Entertainer of the Year, New Orleanian Patricia Clarkson -- featured in three NOFF-screened films, All the Real Girls, Pieces of April and The Station Agent -- click on www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2003-04-15/cover_story.html.

For Simmons' feature on Down by Law, which returns once again for a special screening, click on www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2002-11-26/ae_feat.html.

For former Gambit Weekly music editor Scott Jordan's "Set Break" column on All on a Mardi Gras Day, which also screens at the NOFF, click on www.bestofneworleans.com/dispatch/2003-02-25/setbrk.html.

And finally, for Rick Barton's review of David Gordon Green's 2000 film, George Washington, click on /mov/revarch/gwash.html.

click to enlarge Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and Paul (Paul Schneider) - try to place their trust in each other in David - Gordon Green's All the Real Girls.
  • Noel (Zooey Deschanel) and Paul (Paul Schneider) try to place their trust in each other in David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls.
click to enlarge "All the Real Girls is kind of an alternative - to a lot of the movies that are just constantly - moving and aggressively beating you over the head - with plot points. We can sit back and listen for a - little bit and look at these people and this place." -- - David Gordon Green
  • "All the Real Girls is kind of an alternative to a lot of the movies that are just constantly moving and aggressively beating you over the head with plot points. We can sit back and listen for a little bit and look at these people and this place." -- David Gordon Green
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