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In Prince Avalanche, the Apatow Crew Goes Existential

Here’s a humble wig-out, a curio that could endure beyond its creators’ more demonstrably successful works—and for decades will certainly confound audiences who think they’re streaming/torrenting/eye-jacking some broad Paul Rudd comedy they had forgotten about. Prince Avalanche director David Gordon Green gives star Rudd more chances to charm than he’s had in the last few Judd Apatow joints, and the actor, here sporting a twitchy burr of a mustache, stirs laughs by appearance alone. As a workin’ man laying the yellow lines on the roads in a dead but huge Texas state park in 1988, Rudd wears crisp overalls, seems weirdly proud of his tool belt and goggles, and looks for all the world like the star of some pre-Depression two-reeler, one of those calm-seeming but hilariously desperate everylugs whose new jobs always result in expert humiliation.

He does fall down, amusingly, but Prince Avalanche isn’t that kind of comedy. Just what kind it is is, in some ways, its story’s central mystery: Two men, Rudd’s Alvin and the much younger Lance (Emile Hirsch, tender in coarseness), lay paint, camp in the woods, and discover with us just who they are—and what kind of world they live in. It’s a schlubby, existential, black-box-theater character study, steeped in warm silences and anxious boys’ talk, sugared up with sublime shots of fire-ravaged forest and wild streams percolating with raindrops. One sequence of Rudd taking a swim in that rain is as gorgeous as anything I’ve seen onscreen in the last few years; the real miracle is that it turns up in a big-hearted, small-scoped film in which men crab at each other over farts and control of the radio.

There is a story. Rudd’s Alvin is pledged to Lance’s sister, to whom he pens letters puffed up with all the self-importance absent from cinematographer Tim Orr’s camerawork. Lance heads home on the weekends to “party” with any woman he can sweet-talk into bed, but Alvin sacks out on a hammock in the park, more eager for Emersonian transcendence than the pleasures of the flesh—or even other people. As the film goes on, deepening in its urgency and strangeness, we slowly realize: Alvin should be going into town, too, to see Lance’s sister. From there, Rudd and Green peel back this guy’s pretensions, his niceness, his everything, often in prickly, elusive scenes that are the opposite of on-the-nose; they’re off-the-face. Meanwhile, his small blowups with Lance kaboom into explosions, as blowups between comedy leads must. The guys spill into goofball violence and heal through even more reckless drunkenness. A couple other characters wander the park, too, dispensing wisdom and maybe not quite literally existing. It’s that kind of movie.

Green made a dazzling debut with George Washington, also shot by Orr, a sumptuous indie whatsit of rural poverty, awkward kid romance, and knotted Faulknerian dialogue—a film that still haunts me, on occasion, though I haven’t seen it since 2000. A few years later, Green directed the likable stoner comedy Pineapple Express and its weaksauce imitators, Your Highness and The Sitter. Prince Avalanche reconciles Green’s twin modes into a whole no other director could have, deeply felt and light as laughter.

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David Gordon Green Moves to the Mainstream?

Has David Gordon Green gone pop? The question hovers over BAMCinématek’s retrospective, which culminates in a preview of Pineapple Express, a “stoner-action-comedy” from the Apatow family, and the first script Green’s directed that he didn’t write.

More accurately, Green’s gone pragmatic: “The passion projects, they’re necessary for me to make, regardless of if anyone wants to show up at the box office or get behind them and market them,” he says. “[But] there’s an actual business, an industry that needs to be respected if not catered to.”

Recall that the film that broke a then-25-year-old Green, 2000’s George Washington, was the antithesis of a careerist calling card, shooed from Sundance’s doorstep. From the filament of a young-adult-fiction plot device shines a racially mixed cast of nonprofessionals, mostly children. Their voiceovers and monologues, in which the kids yearn toward true love and civics-class ideals, give the compartmentalized scenes a melic unity.

Here, Green and stalwart cinematographer Tim Orr establish their signature visual vocabulary, taking pages from William Eggleston’s Guide, rendering train yards and gutted Studebakers widescreen-epic. “Rustic” may be a real-estate cliché, but when we’re acclimated to accept Ontario as a stand-in for every American landscape, it’s invaluable to discover the dead ends of George Washington‘s North Carolina towns.

Green’s All the Real Girls (2003—great title) traced the contours of first love as Paul (co-screenwriter Paul Schneider), a Podunk pussyhound, moves in on Noel (Zooey Deschanel), a virgin with saintly sad eyes back from the boarding-school cloisters. Paul’s self-consciousness justifies Green’s deliberately awkward scene-setting (canoodling in the middle of a bowling lane etc.); Paul wants every moment with Noel to be different from anything before—their first kiss is the film’s coda; he kisses her palm instead of her mouth. As Paul learns, unconventionality doesn’t always work out—the film contains a handful of scenes that should make anyone want to charge the projection booth with corrective scissors and splicing tape. These first movies finally “work” only as much as a viewer can accept them as innocent rather than unctuous—in this case, good faith gives better than resistance. Sync up with Real Girls and it’ll ransack the mental attic where unhappy youthful memories are stowed away; it gets me so blue I can’t even tell you.

Undertow (2004) was Green’s first attempt to use his atmospheric sensitivity as a means rather than an end—his Southern-fried thriller. It’s cluttered with allusion: to Malick (producer here), to that old-time religion and Macon Country Line, to Charles Laughton’s nonpareil Night of the Hunter, which it screens alongside at BAM. The movie’s grisliness resonates, but the rigged-together peripheral scenes forming the film’s on-the-road section don’t build to any cumulative effect, with non sequitur small talk frequently upstaged by flora. After some years grounded on unrealized projects—prominently, a Confederacy of Dunces adaptation—there was Snow Angels, Green’s relocation to the frost-blanked North, released earlier this year. Its tale of interlocking small-town love affairs, rendered with curlicue camerawork, was sentenced to death-by- indifference, labeled an oh-so-last-season study in suburban soul-sickness. Maybe, if its triptych of relationships was intended to signify universal truths—but as a movie about humans rather than archetypes, it’s potent stuff. Audiences passed it by on their way to Juno.

For Green, it’s a familiar feeling: “To watch those movies not thrive and barely make a ripple within the industry is pretty frustrating.” And so: Pineapple Express, concerning two habitual koosh huffers who misstep into a drug war. More of Superbad‘s Cult of the Best Bro and Seth Rogen’s scene-stampeding blue comedy is cause for alarm, but this is the best movie (as opposed to an arrangement of scenes) to ever come from Camp Apatow, steeped in the textures of Valley lowlife, with beautiful work from James Franco and Danny McBride, who looks like a Birmingham grocery bagger and exhales pure comedy. The concussive brawl between three guys all having their first fist fight is the action set-piece to beat this summer.Would Green rather be Michael Ritchie now than Terry Malick? “I’m doing a lot of things that are all over the place . . . so I don’t get kind of bogged down in what could otherwise be a pretty depressing angle of the industry.” Upcoming is a remake of Suspiria (“The way that horror is going, I think we’re losing sight of the artistry and the complexity and the kind of strange, surreal, emotional element”), a John Grisham true-crime adaptation, and “a cartoon TV series.” (“That doesn’t include all the weirdo projects— little, bizarre, personal, intimate portraits and things that I try to develop on the side.”)

Is it a triumph for Hollywood cynicism when Green, who made his rep with a movie where kids and adults commiserate over dreams, now scores laffs off grown-ups peddling weed to grade-schoolers? Before hoisting the “Sellout” effigy, let’s show good faith once more. How much stagnancy in the multiplex (and arthouse) comes from our best and brightest sticking to the ghetto of indie cred when they could be working? Green’s a smart producer now (he backed last year’s superlative Shotgun Stories), a proven hustler, and committed to giving back to vernacular American film culture. I’ll only say: Godspeed.

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Southern Exposure

“If you told me four years ago that we’d be making a film with Terrence Malick, I’d say you were crazy,” says cinematographer Tim Orr, who in 1999 was composing the Malick-esque images of David Gordon Green’s poetic debut, George Washington. Now he and Green—who both graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1998—are prepping for a spring start date on The Undertoe, based on a story by Malick (produced by Malick and Ed Pressman) that Orr describes as a Night of the Hunter-like fable about a couple of kids on the run. Orr calls the Badlands/The Thin Red Line director “our primary influence and favorite filmmaker ever. It’s pretty awesome.”

At Sundance 2003, the 35-year-old DP’s amber tones and delicate frames appeared in two of the most attractive American indies of the festival: All the Real Girls, his second CinemaScope collaboration with Green (opening this Friday) and Peter Sollett’s charmer Raising Victor Vargas (opening March 28, after kicking off the New Directors/New Films series).

Orr doesn’t believe that independent means grainy. “A lot of low-budget movies seem to be void of any look,” says Orr, who shot George Washington and Real Girls in widescreen 35mm with the Moviecam Super America (“It’s like a tank,” says Green). “Even with not much time or money, you can do a good job visually if you find the right locations.”

For Orr, who received a political science degree from Appalachian State University before discovering cinema, the right location is often his native North Carolina, imagined as a Southern wasteland littered with industrial detritus and abandoned railroads—”junk in decay,” as he admiringly puts it. “A lot of films set in the South can become very false, so what you have to do is drive down a dirt road for two hours and find some abandoned pool from the ’70s that’s overgrown with kudzu.”

Orr brings the same nostalgic hues and humane specificity to the Lower East Side in Vargas. However, the smaller 16mm gauge, claustrophobic apartments, and handheld improvisation is in sharp contrast to his work with Green. “It was a real challenge working in hot, tight, and sweaty environments where you’re almost standing on your head to get some of the shots,” says Orr. “But Pete wanted it to be very rough, very documentary-style, to keep the performances as natural as possible.”

Now Orr’s looking forward to The Undertoe, where he and Green are considering another type of bygone aesthetic: “We’re thinking The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” he says. And in the fall, Green and Orr will likely team up again for the long-delayed film version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces for Miramax. “David wants me,” says Orr, “but I am still subject to approval.”



Related Article:

J. Hoberman’s review of All the Real Girls