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Thursday, May 1st, 2014

David Gordon Green and the Serious Foundations of His Comedies

If, in the year 2007, a reader wanted content on the films of David Gordon Green, a comedy website would hardly have been their first stop. At that time Green and his North Carolina School of the Arts production team had produced four small, subdued, critically-acclaimed indies in George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. It was considered a prolific output from a promising, Roger Ebert-approved, young American auteur primed to follow in the footsteps of indie pioneers like Soderberg and Linklater before him. This is all to say that when Green signed on to direct Pineapple Express, a broad stoner comedy from the Apatow factory, the pairing felt like a strange turn to his festival-circuit devotees.

Of course, what came of it all was one of the funniest big comedies in recent memories imbued with a specific strangeness unique to Green. His follow up comedies, Your Highness and The Sitter were not as well received but even those have a specific voice that can be traced through Green’s earlier characters, particularly given his working relationship developed with Danny McBride while students at NCSOA together. Since The Sitter, Green has returned to his more subdued indie roots, with the recently released Nicolas Cage vehicle Joe and the 2013 film Prince Avalanche, which most closely tows the line between the phases of Green’s career.

I believe that the keys to David Gordon Green’s seemingly esoteric project choices can mostly be found in Prince Avalanche, a sparse but impactful genre-mixer. Casting Paul Rudd in his most dramatic role to date and Emile Hirsch in his most comedic role to date, the film follows two 1980s municipal workers in the highways that wind through the forest fire devastated hills of Bastrop, Texas. Dressed in Mario Brothers inspired blue overalls, Rudd and Hirsch play a sophomoric friendship and rivalry that is one part heartwarming due to their comically close quarters and one part upsetting due to their feigned confidence masking their loneliness. It is a model of early male adulthood seen throughout Green’s work, with Paul Schneider and Danny McBride in All The Real Girls and even James Franco and Seth Rogen in Pineapple Express.

Green’s early work was defined by a Malick-esq (as is too often said of artful filmmakers from Texas) eye for the pace and mood of his natural surroundings. His first film, George Washington, was made in North Carolina near where Green lived, and in addition to strong character work from undiscovered and non-actors, he photographs the industrial poverty with a slow deliberateness that shows a thoughtful interaction with the space his films occupy. Landscape again plays an important role in Prince Avalanche, with Green taking minutes-long interludes from Hirsch and Rudd’s buddy comedy to photograph the charred Texas scenery that serves as the film’s backdrop.

There is a clear style throughline between Prince Avalanche and Green’s early work. His detour into buddy comedy, particularly Pineapple Express, informs the film’s central relationship in a way that makes the comedy acting play stronger as tension relief, and the film’s ultimate emotional reveals hit in a harder, more mature way than they had in Green’s previous dramatic work. It is true that for all its broadness, Pineapple Express has, at its core, a relationship worth exploring, and one that ultimately earns its emotional payoff. Of course it is funny seeing Franco play against type but he gives that character a relatable emotional core that helps ground the film in a way Green's later comedic work lacked. That character ultimately just wants a real friendship but does not know how to get that without weed as a conduit. Similarly, Paul Rudd's insistence on sustaining his escapism in Prince Avalanche stops playing as comedy when it is set against his own loneliness rather than against Hirsch's immaturity.

Green has also worked with an impressive line up of comedic actors even in his more serious work. People like Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Amy Sedaris, Sam Rockwell, all actors who often tow the line between comedic and dramatic work. Green clearly always understood and respected the importance and power of comedy, stating that comedy has a unique ability to portray accessible emotions, saying, “Sometimes it's anger, sometimes it's sadness, and sometimes it's absurdity, these little moments of tenderness beyond just making us laugh.” Additionally, Green is an admitted comedy nerd, saying that his favorite films growing up were 80s comedies he saw in multiplexes in Texas. So while it is clear it was always his dream to direct a goofy comedy of his own (which probably explains Your Highness, about which I have nothing substantive to say), it is also clear that the type of vulnerability he saw in the stars of those films left a mark on him and influenced the types of performances he ultimately came to value as a director.

This is why his work on Prince Avalanche proves that Green's "shocking" career turns should not come as such, he is exploring his interests in human relationships and emotions throughout and happens to also have a filmmaking style and interest inspired by the ethereal style of Terrence Malick. Perhaps his choice to mix all his ingredients into one for a film is what makes Prince Avalanche feel uneven and unfocused at times, and it is important for Green to employ specific elements in his arsenal for specific projects. Either way, it is all there on display in Prince Avalanche, elements of George Washington, All The Real Girls, Pineapple Express, and fine, even Your Highness, serving as proof that Green should not and cannot be shoehorned into a genre and we should welcome any turns his career going forward might take.

Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you'll regret it during Knicks games.