Writer-director David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls is ostensibly set in a small mill town in North Carolina, but it mostly takes place inside a woozy world derived from old movies about young romance. The aim, apparently, was to make a film that for once showed what it’s really like to be a kid in love; but Green, who is still in his twenties, lacks the psychological insight to bring it off. The film seems simultaneously heartfelt and processed. Green recycles hoary clichés by poeticizing them and setting them in a kind of timeless present; his characters emit such lines as “I like it when you smile” and “I don’t want it to be like it’s been with the others” and “I never want to be that close again,” but they are spoken against a lyrically photographed backdrop of rural anomie. Green is fortunate to have as his cinematographer Tim Orr, who also shot Green’s first feature, George Washington. There’s a ravishing aliveness to the spacious imagery; at least the clichés have room to roam free. Twenty-two-year-old Paul (Paul Schneider) is the going-nowhere town stud, and Noel (Zooey Deschanel) is the 18-year-old sister of his belligerent best friend, Tip (Shea Wingham). Noel has recently returned home after years at a boarding school, and her friskiness and emotional directness are befuddlingly attractive to Paul. They nuzzle and whisper a lot, and when things go awry, there’s plenty of hollering too. But throughout it all, Noel wants Paul to know that he has her heart.
He doesn’t seem to have much else, though. His confusions never develop into anything interesting. It doesn’t help that Green gives woebegone Paul a sideline as a clown who entertains sick children; this Pagliacci stuff passed its expiration date ages ago. We learn that Paul has to take chances in order to grow, that he has to help himself because others can’t do it for him, and so on. You half expect to discover that Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley has hung up a shingle in town. Schneider isn’t the young Matt Dillon type one would expect in the role—he doesn’t look like a guy who’s been plowing the field since he was 13—and at first I expected this miscasting to pay off in some surprising way. But Schneider doesn’t have the ballast or the hurt expressiveness that would provide a match for Deschanel, who is the best reason for seeing the movie. Breaking through the torpor, she actually manages to create a character. When Noel lies in bed with Paul and talks about herself, you can see how this cloistered girl has been aching to share her feelings; she welcomes the messiness of emotional involvement because, for her, that’s what living is all about and she’s eager to get started. She’s a prodigy in the game of life.
For years, Hollywood has recycled the worn-out tropes of old-movie romance and melodrama, but it’s only fairly recently that the so-called independent scene has indulged those same tropes—and gotten points for it. The retrograde stylistics of a movie like Far From Heaven, to take the latest example, are acclaimed by critics as avant-garde; it’s a way of having your cliché and eating it, too. What’s discomforting about All the Real Girls is that these young filmmakers, who clearly are talented, fall back on the dewiest conventions and then expect to be congratulated for doing something more “real” than the studio kitschmeisters. It’s not more real; it’s just lower-budgeted and deficient in famous faces.
Gus Van Sant has a famous face in Gerry —Matt Damon’s—and a budget that probably wouldn’t pay for a canapé on a Jerry Bruckheimer lunch break. Van Sant has been zigzagging back and forth between avant-garde and kitsch for some time now; he began his career with the great, micro-financed experimentalism of Mala Noche and went on to husk corn in films like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. His shot-for-shot “remake” of Psycho was a film-school-style escapade of unsurpassed pointlessness. (To give you an idea of how bad the movie was: Nobody who saw it was afraid to take a shower afterward.)
Gerry is about two friends, played by Damon and Casey Affleck, who get hopelessly lost on a mountain hike that takes them through vast, Beckett-like expanses of drear. It’s all very existential and gnomic, with pretty shots of shining, murderous deserts and cloud banks roiling in fast motion. Van Sant states in the film’s press notes that he wanted to get away from the whole MTV way of looking at things and “try to go back to the beginning of the cinema as if there had been no industrial revolution.” But after an hour or so of this mumbly mood piece, you’ll be itching for some industry. I know we’re supposed to take the plight of the hikers as a metaphor for the lostness of our souls, or some such, but do they really need to be so completely clueless? A wee Boy Scout would have done far better in the wilds. It’s tough to think Waiting for Godot when what you’re watching is closer to Dumb & Dumber.
In 1972, 18-year-old Mark Moskowitz, who has since become an acclaimed director of political spots and commercials, picked up The Stones of Summer, a well-reviewed book by first-time author Dow Mossman, and couldn’t get into it. Twenty-five years later, he tried again, loved the book, and subsequently discovered that Mossman had vanished without publishing another word. With a diligence that only a true book nut can appreciate—there are Mark Moskowitzes crowding the narrow aisles of every used-book store in the country—he set out to discover what happened to Mossman. His film Stone Reader, at Film Forum, is a marvelous literary thriller that gets at the way books can stay with people forever. Moskowitz interviews a standout crew of commentators, including Robert Gottlieb, who talks about editing Catch-22; Frank Conroy, who presides over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Mossman once toiled on his novel; the literary critic John Seelye, who could pass for an old salt on the Pequod; and, most poignantly, Leslie Fiedler, who died two weeks ago, in what may well have been his last filmed appearance. They all look lit up by a love of literature.
Fiedler was especially intrigued by the spooky phenomenon of the one-shot novelist, and so is almost everyone else in the movie. (Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird is practically the film’s mascot.) The silences of gifted writers have many causes, but what’s clear in Stone Reader is the plain fact that novel-writing is a soul-churning experience not to be entered into lightly. It’s possible to make too much out of all this tortuousness; after all, lousy novels are probably just as agonizing to produce as great ones. Moskowitz understands this, but he also says at one point, “Reading is the only thing that keeps me sane.” He subscribes to the cult of the novel, and I suspect that most people who will love this movie do, too. The Stones of Summer sounds like a terrific book, and I hope this film will get it re-issued by one of those rare enterprising souls in a publishing business increasingly inimical to risk.
All the Real Girls
Directed by David Gordon-Green; starring Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel.
Directed by Gus Van Sant; starring Matt Damon and Casey Affleck.
Directed by Mark Moskowitz.