Thursday, November 07, 2013

I'm way behind #8: Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

I've been a David Gordon Green fan since I took a chance on his first film, George Washington, in 2000. I love the way he composes his shots, I like his offbeat sense of humor, and I like how he's used many of the same crew members on every project, particularly cinematographer Tim Orr. I love the way Orr photographs sunlight. He captures this kind of baked, melancholy, pre-sunset glow that just gets to me. I have a strong emotional response to the light in these films that I can't quite explain.
Green's career so far has been divided into two phases. His first four films (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels) are arty, independently financed dramas taking place in the South (with the exception of Snow Angels' New England in winter setting). These films owe a debt to Terrence Malick, Charles Burnett, early Michael Ritchie, and the photographs of William Eggleston, but they also inhabit a space entirely Green's own. He followed these films with three mainstream Hollywood stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter) that changed perceptions and expectations of Green as a filmmaker. (He also directed several episodes of Eastbound & Down.) This second phase of his career has baffled and/or angered many critics and fans who used to be in Green's corner. While most of these same people enjoyed Pineapple Express (and only an inhuman monster could watch Eastbound & Down without pleasure), they turned on Green intensely when the other two comedies came out in 2011.The usual lines about selling out and tarnishing a legacy were trotted out.
I acknowledge that Your Highness and The Sitter aren't Green at his best, though I am one of the small group of people who enjoys both of them quite a bit, but I don't see evidence of a betrayal or a sellout here. While the genres, audiences, and marketing and distribution budgets have changed, Green's sensibility, Orr's cinematography, and an inventive, '70s-influenced framing of shots remains. Danny McBride, who attended film school with Green in North Carolina and appears in both his artier dramas and his silly comedies, says Green was interested in watching and making all kinds of different films, and that's what he's done. It shouldn't be inconceivable that humans have seemingly contradictory qualities and varied interests, and that the same guy who made a dark tragedy like Snow Angels or a strange, melancholy romance like All the Real Girls could also make a spoof of sword-and-sorcery films with a character wearing a giant minotaur penis around his neck for one-third of the running time. I love that about Green.
Prince Avalanche should go some way toward explaining Green's career to the baffled. I'm the 480th person to point this out, but Prince Avalanche is very much a marriage between the independent art films and the stoner comedies, a fusion of the two phases of Green's career. A loose remake of a recent Icelandic film called Either Way, Prince Avalanche takes place in 1988 in Bastrop, Texas and is about two lonely, lovably dim goofballs, Alvin and Lance, who are painting new lines on the freshly paved and reconstructed highways after a devastating wildfire. A title card at the beginning says the wildfires took place in the 1980s, but this is a convenient stretching of the truth. The wildfires actually happened in 2011, several short months before Prince Avalanche was filmed. The line painters are played by Paul Rudd (Alvin) and Emile Hirsch (Lance), with uniforms modeled after Mario and Luigi. Alvin is married to Lance's older sister. He helped the aimless, not very bright Lance get the job as a favor to his wife, but his marriage is coming apart, and Lance is not too happy about being out in the middle of nowhere with his nerdy brother-in-law. The only other major character is a nameless truck driver played, in his final performance, by the late character actor and stuntman Lance LeGault who lives nearby and shows up periodically to give advice, insult, reminisce, and share his homemade liquor with the men as well as offer up some hilariously bizarre non sequiturs. A fourth character played by Joyce Payne, a local non-actor who lost her home in the fires, was added during filming. She happened to be there looking through the rubble of her property, so Green wrote her into the film.
Prince Avalanche is spare, minimal, and gorgeous, but it's also goofy and playful, and Green finds a bizarre sweet spot between contemplative, meditative stillness and lowbrow comedy. It doesn't all come together. Some of the jokes just hang there, you never quite get a fix on Alvin and Lance, they're a little dumber than they need to be, and Green can sometimes strive a little too hard for pathos. Still, this is nothing like anything else out there right now, and my own puzzlement at how I should be responding to the film kept me engrossed in its strangeness and sweetness. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this movie, and that's usually a good sign for repeat viewings.
Green just finished making an adaptation of my favorite Larry Brown novel, Joe, with Nicolas Cage, Mud's Tye Sheridan, and several non-professional actors from Austin streets and homeless shelters, so my interest in him continues unabated. 

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