David Gordon Green carved out a beautiful filmography in the American independent scene throughout early and mid 2000s. His films were understated masterclasses of tone that balanced narrative complexity against visual poetic simplicity. Then his career took an unexpected and inexplicable detour to silly and stupid blockbuster action-comedy via ‘Pineapple Express’ starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, followed by ‘Your Highness’ and ‘The Sitter’. It left those of us who admired and respected his work scratching our heads and wondering, “whatever happened to David Gordon Green?” How could one of the most sensitive, serious, and contemplative American directors of our time plunge into an abyss of inanity? I must admit I have only seen ‘Pineapple Express’, but I have heard nothing but less than flattering things about the other two. When it came out, I figured, ok, he is going to reinvent the genre and put his unique fingerprints all over the film in some amazing way. It was the only rationalization I could accept, and so I went to see the movie. Dead wrong. It couldn’t have been much more conventional. It wasn’t terrible for what it was I suppose, but it was terrible for this person I had admired for so long.
Of course, none of my assertions are fair to Mr. Gordon Green. He is an artist, he is entitled to make whatever he wants. Even if the only reason he went down this path was because he got to know all of these genuinely funny people in his new crew and just enjoyed hanging out and creating with them. After all, didn’t I say in my last post how wonderful it is during the creative process to be able to do it with friends for the pure joy of it? He has not only the right, but the responsibility to go in whatever direction his artistic impulses take him. And I quietly held the hope that there was a greater purpose to this seeming flight of fancy that would pay off in the long run. Maybe there wasn’t, maybe I am just imposing this ideal onto the events because I want it to be true. But if it is true, then the result is his new film, ‘Prince Avalanche’, and his foray into comedy was worth the journey.
I believe now that there were two things that intrigued David Gordon Green as an artist about exploring absurdist comedy. All of his earlier films were very serious, and if there is one complaint some had about him, it was that he could come across as overly self-serious. So I think perhaps he wanted to learn comedy in a way, something he had never really done before, to grow as an artist. Now, unfortunately, his straight comedy films show him to not be hugely adept at comedy in a traditional or mainstream way. However, the second thing I believe he wanted to explore is the current culture of adult immaturity. We have reached a point in American history where comfort and leisure are king and concern over literal survival is at an all-time low in this country. People in America, men especially, are able to shirk the traditional idea of responsibility and live a life of indulgence, apathy, vacuity, and immaturity if they so choose. In rebellion to the mandate of uber-capitalism and a cultural mythos that seems more and more empty by the day, people are choosing to act out in manners most of us would deem anywhere from trivial to self-destructive. Stoners, drinkers, ragers, and layabouts; playing video games, reading comics, living with parents, and living online; not working, working meaningless jobs, hanging with friends, and screwing around. There is a growing population of adults that occupy some or many of these categories proudly, displaying apathy or disdain towards a culture that has left them feeling excluded, abused, or disheartened. This is the community I believe he was diving into with his comedy ventures.
The questions remains, what can be gained from such a journey? What is there of meaning and value to be found in such a world? Well I believe I already hinted at it by looking for clues to the underlying cause of the rise in this population. And this is the space ‘Prince Avalanche’ chooses to live in and get comfortable. It is about two road maintenance workers living out of a tent in the woods as they paint lane lines and set mile markers along a lonely stretch of road in the Texas backcountry. Paul Rudd is Alvin, the straight-laced, hard-working, committed relationship guy trying to do right by his girlfriend and her daughter. Emile Hirsch is Lance, the brother of his girlfriend, a dim-witted, apathetic, misogynistic man-boy living for fun and sex. Neither one of them really wants to be working together, and both of them feel like they are missing out on something by being there. The difference is that Alvin ascribes a noble quest fantasy to his station, whereas Lance just views it as a meaningless impediment to enjoying life. In a way, Paul represents David Gordon Green’s early work as a filmmaker, and Emile represents his comedy trilogy. And in this film, they come together in an attempt to learn from each other something deeper about life.
‘Prince Avalanche’ melds the naturalistic beauty and searching lens of Green’s early films with the absurdist bent and narrative meandering of his comedies. The result is something strange and new that is difficult to get a firm grasp on. Is there deep meaning? Is there meaning in a lack of meaning? Is there a destination? Is it a journey? Is it funny? Is it sad? Can it be all of these things at once? And that is the great triumph here, I think. The film is at home in paradox, showing us that it is ok to be in the unknown. Niels Bohr said that the opposite of a great truth is another great truth. The world is mysterious, and if we look at our lives in an open and honest way, we see opposites existing together in perfect harmony, without contradiction, all the time. That is just life. Alvin and Lance are opposites, yet they are both sabotaging their lives and their happiness in their own ways. Alvin needs a little Lance, and Lance needs a little Alvin. So the bond they form is perfectly natural and healing, as is the fighting and headbutting they engage in along the way. Their job as road workers is a perfect metaphor for the culture of stunted adults being explored. A road is one of the most universally recognizable symbols of our path in life. And here they are, spending every day out on this road working, but never going anywhere. But by coming together, perhaps they can head out on that road in search of a new adventure, a new life.