Note: This piece could be said to contain spoilers. At the worst, though, it could be said to presume too much knowledge of the film.
Though David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche has been lauded, and justifiably, for its acting performances, its cinematography, and its mellow, sweet mood, it tells another story, apart from a seemingly minimal tale of two highway workers in late 1980s Texas. This story is about both the meaning of work and the generation that will follow that of the film's two protagonists. Prince Avalanche, in its quiet, blink-and-you'll-miss-it, vaguely Chekhovian way, points forward to a generation of the present, in its 30s and 40s, cast onto its own recognizance by an ailing economy, often self-employed, in a state of simultaneous freefall and perpetual opportunism--and yet, somehow, adapting to its circumstances.
Alvin (Paul Rudd) and his partner Lance (Emile Hirsch) have a job painting stripes on a highway, in a part of Texas ravaged by forest fires, in the summer of 1988. In order for this scenario to have meaning, you would have to think a bit about its context. America, in 1988, depending on (but possibly regardless of) who you talked to, was not a happy place. The economy, though it had experienced a surge in prior years, was about to go into a downturn, and by the time Bill Clinton ran for President in 1992, he would be able to use that economic situation as a stepping stone to get himself elected. The first Gulf War was not far off. By comparison with today's hypersophistication, this was a far simpler time; email, for instance, was only a luxury of select academic institutions, making the ultimate importance of written letters to the lives of this film's characters particularly poignant. The generation of people coming of age at this time would be christened Generation X, so named for their mystification at what to do with themselves, what route to follow, and towards what success. How appropriate, then, that Alvin and his partner have such a tedious, simple, and seemingly endless job, whose boundaries are both certain and uncertain. The stripes are ambiguous, as was the future of the country at this point: which way do the stripes point? Well, in a sense, like all such tasks in literature and film, the stripe-painting points outwards, at a larger situation. (Think, for instance, of the job the prison camp workers have in Life Is Beautiful: moving rocks from one place to another. Or, to make a slightly more obscure reference, consider the job James Spader and Mandy Patinkin have in the wonderful but little-seen The Music of Chance: building a wall, piece by piece, whose purpose is uncertain, under the eye of the millionaire played by Charles Durning. Or the the labor of the hapless victim in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado.") Work for work's sake, in such a circumstance, becomes as blank as it sounds.
And what of our context, the context in which the film is being watched? America is on its way to recovering from the one-two punch of the economic collapse caused by 9/11 followed by the collapse of the banks in 2008. Employment is said to be on the rise, but its rise is slow. So slow, in fact, that many American workers are without a desk; they work for themselves. Happily, in many cases, but always hungrily. Our government refers to these workers as entrepreneurs, but that is not necessarily what they are. Are they self-sufficient? Possibly. Do the trades they practice, ranging from web design to cooking to writing to food delivery, bear certain futures? Possibly. In the event of another drastic economic slide, will these people still have work? Possibly. Will the workers in Prince Avalanche still have jobs after the film ends? Possibly.
Rootlessness is embedded in the story at the film's heart. Alvin is a seemingly rooted, determined, efficient worker; he teaches himself German for self-improvement (and to prepare for a vacation), as well as claiming to be enjoying the solitude and the simplicity of his job for the chance it gives him to contemplate the value of his relationship with Madison, his girlfriend, back home in Garland, a suburb of Dallas, TX. Rudd plays Alvin with a memorably rigid affect; he has quite often been funny but square in his previous films, and this role seems, if anything, a comment on those roles. Lance is far from rooted, seeming to have no plans but to sleep with women at any opportunity. Hirsch brings experience to this role, having been most notably seen in recent years as Alexander Supertramp, the youth who famously took off for Alaska, abandoning his belongings, attempting to live off nature, and failing, in Into the Wild. His character here is far less intelligent than Supertramp, but he has a similar mood of wildness in him. When Alvin's girlfriend leaves him, he realizes his illusions of self-discipline have no value, and he becomes, like his partner, rootless and weightless at heart, letting loose. In one drunken flurry, the two workers paint wildly spiraling lines on the asphalt, rather than strictly measured stripes, and then dump their equipment in a ravine.
The supporting elements here do little to contradict the film's portentousness. The workers periodically meet an elderly man in a pick-up truck who seems to have worked at their job in the past, spouting off, at one point, the number of stripes per mile; invariably, he offers them some of his homemade hooch, which they drink, later in the film, as a way to toast their freedom. He seems one part Falstaff, one part Ancient Mariner, another part Angel of History. Another odd figure, a woman both real and unreal, wanders through the ruins of a house destroyed by the fires. In what may be a dream, Alvin joins her, ultimately pantomiming the acts of coming home and greeting his girlfriend in the house's ruins, as if to suggest that a certain way of life is on its way out: that of the stable home, the solid existence, established during the 1950s and carried on through the 1980s. These figures and scenes are rolled out with great austerity and moment, although Green applies his trademark gentleness to them, as well.
Perhaps it is over-ambitious to read too much into a quiet, quaint, sweet film like this. Perhaps its tale of a relationship between two men is, as has been suggested elsewhere, nothing more than that, an accomplishment in and of itself, a worthy hook on which to hang rhapsodic scenes of the Texas landscape, and in which to deploy the sorts of poetic, offhand lines this director has been known for since All the Real Girls. On the other hand, though, its temporal setting urges a more socially and historically aware reading, as do its symbols, all fairly obvious ones: the monotonous stripes; the highways which, as do all highways, point both ways; the scorched land, from which we can be sure more foliage will grow. One of the film's final images would seem to seal the deal, thematically: that of children dancing, carefree, in the sun, little knowing that as they grow older, they will, like the film's protagonists, struggle to make a path through a scorched economic landscape.
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.