Wednesday, May 21, 2008

varieties of american space: richard wright

[This post is not part of Film Club proper, but is part of the Production Design Blog-A-Thon, running through May 25. Please consider joining us with your own post on the topic.]

I know I promised to do a post on Aline Bonetto, but before I leave the US for sunny France I wanted to do an appreciation of one more person who has an eye for uniquely American types of spaces, specifically, production designer Richard Wright (no relationship to the American novelist).

Richard Wright's work has mostly been with director David Gordon Green, in a partnership lasting four films: George Washington, All The Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. This partnership, incidentally, seems to be coming to an end as both Wright and Green branch out: Green is taking a turn in the Apatow machine with Pineapple Express (forthcoming), and Wright has been bringing his hardscrabble Americana aesthetic to acclaimed indie features like Great World of Sound (2007) and Chop Shop (2008).

The future doesn't really matter either way for our purpose here today, which is to look at the first product of the Green / Wright partnership, George Washington. Production design is crucial to George Washington for the same reason it's crucial to Punch-Drunk Love: because the film is deeply concerned with space. Specifically, American varieties of space:

Space is explicitly discussed in a few different ways in George Washington before it reaches the ten-minute mark. "This place is falling apart faster than we can do anything about it," complains one character, while another remarks in dreamy voice-over "I like to go to beautiful places, where there's waterfalls and empty fields, just places that are nice, and calm, and quiet."

The film might initially seem to be privelging the position of the complainer, because while we don't see any empty fields or waterfalls in the film, we see no shortage of what we might be considered ruin:

But ultimately, the film instructs us that both of these characters are missing the point somewhat, and that in a post-industrial America the available places of "nice, calm, quiet" are not waterfalls or empty fields, but are precisely the places that have effectively "fallen apart." Almost the entire film happens in these sorts of spaces, and Wright's eye for designing them is flawless:

These types of spaces are, almost always, sources of comfort (the final screenshot in that sequence is an exception); sites where play, exploration, and a kind of culture can occur.

In my own creative work and personal life I have often found that these spaces yield similar sorts of pleasures, but outside of Wright's production design I can't think of a time when I've felt that feeling reliably translated to the screen. Production Designer Richard Wright, we salute you!


Jamie said...

This post reminds me--

I took part in a roundtable interview with David Gordon Green a few years back in conjunction with "All the Real Girls." Naturally, everyone wanted to discuss "George Washington," which I hadn't seen at that time. So it was a wonderful, awkward afternoon of me sitting there, listening to conversations about a movie I HADN'T seen, when the movie we were SUPPOSED to be discussing fell to the side. My only contribution was that Green forgot his cigarettes, so he and I shared from my pack during the interview.

Long story short, I did manage to watch "George Washington," and it was unlike any film I had seen at that time, but alas, I watched it a month too late.

jpb said...

OK, that is a hilarious story. The perils of the press junket!

It's worth noting here that All The Real Girls is a pretty great movie, too.