Directed by David Gordon Green, USA, 1998, 21 minutes
Source: George Washington, Criterion Collection 152
Like most collegians, I saw Pineapple Express last month with high expectations. Unlike those who were pumped because of promises of bong hits and car chases (okay, I was slightly excited), I was more so interested in seeing how a mainstream comedy would turn out when directed by an independent-minded individual known far more for drama than laughs. The director, David Gordon Green, has made five feature films this decade alone, and is nearly as critically revered as similar-aged peers like Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, although he has flown under the radar compared to the aforementioned Andersons. He first garnered attention for his handling of African-American children in the rural South with George Washington, which was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, a rarity for a debut feature. His 2003 work All The Real Girls is, in my opinion, one of the most overlooked films of the decade, and he has since shot two indie dramas, Undertow and Snow Angels that have received mostly critical acclaim, especially for what many would deem unflashy independent features.
The plot has a very loose structure, similar to George Washington, that seems to focus much more on scattered moments in life rather than a cohesive narrative. The film highlights young Penelope, who has just had her first period, and her widower father Skillman, who not only is coping with the loss of his wife but also his daughter growing up. Skillfully, Green doesn't explicitly reference the first loss, because although it's evident that the father and daughter are all each other have, the only reference to the deceased mother is when Skillman reminisces about how "Momma had some ugly feet." The father uses his daughter's age and gaming talents to hustle locals at pinball, unaware that his daughter is losing interest in these escapades. Instead, she is beginning to center her attention around her budding womanhood, and there's an awkward episode involving buying tampons at the grocery store that sums up the gap between Skillman and Penelope subtly but sublimely. By the end of the short, Penelope has told her father that she's "not his little boy anymore," and Skillman is left to watch his daughter grow up through the window of a schoolbus in the junkyard beside their house.
David Gordon Green is most often compared to maverick director Terrence Malick, due to his emphasis of visuals over story and usage of setting as its own character, but this film has less reliance on setting then his Southern small-town based features. However, there are lines of dialogue that are similar to the trademark "poetic commoner" speak in Malick's films, like when Skillman tells his daughter that "God doesn't like characters running around who too perfect." The opening scene of the film is in a junkyard overrun by young children, who play and fight amongst dilapidated homes and trashed cars, something that not only calls to mind poor children playing with their apocalyptic environment in Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, but also the lower class imagery in George Washington. When Skillman asks his daughter if she wrestled today, it encompasses the world these characters live in far better than any excessive lines of expository dialogue.
And yet, it's still a student film, with some moments that show off what a 23-year-old Green had in his bag of cinematic tricks. At times, it's a graphical editing match that's a little too contrived, and the cinematography isn't as refined or notable as his features, but these are tiny instances of amateur filmmaking. On the whole though, it's amazing how confident Green is with his idiosyncratic method of storytelling, in which a scene of Penelope getting her nails done for the first time by her cousin is a beautiful rite of passage, not so far off from a bat mitzvah or first kiss.
As a student filmmaker myself, I find myself writing stories about people my age, not only because I lack creativity but also because it seems much easier to cut my teeth directing actors my age than children or those of the Baby Boomer/Sisterhood of the Traveling Pantsuit generation. However, Green eschewed this common tendency and worked with younger actors not only in George Washington but also in his student shorts. Even more impressive, the performances he attains from his young actors never feel like a forced caricature of what an adult thinks a kid acts like. This rare ability to capture innocence so well is what makes George Washington so compelling, but it was first on display in Physical Pinball, such as when Penelope tells her cousin that when she starts dating, "probably in the year 2000," she wants her boyfriend to treat her well.
With his body of work, one could call David Gordon Green an auteur, as his features are wholly his own and not just a reflection of his influences. Seeing Physical Pinball supports this idea, as the groundwork for his style is laid down in twenty minutes, even if it isn't perfected yet. Interestingly enough, even the atypical Pineapple Express has some origins here, as the film features moments of humor and flashy style that don't seem so out of place anymore in his body of work. Sadly, there are no bong hits involved.
Physical Pinball is available —shock!— not on youtube or google video, but here, at NYMag.com. The Criterion edition of George Washington also features this short, as well as his George Washington-inspiring short Pleasant Grove.