Director David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche is set against the backdrop of a 1988 Texas wildfire, charred woodland making for a haunting and enveloping atmosphere that acts as the perfect stage for a quiet and meditative study on the relationship between the film’s two main characters. Alvin (a mustached Paul Rudd) and Lance (Emile Hirsch, seemingly competing in a Jack Black lookalike contest) are a couple of mismatched road-workers, stuck with each other as the two of them paint new lines on a rural highway. Party-focused Lance tells the straight-laced Alvin that he gets lonely out in the wilderness, but Alvin stays behind when Lance heads to the city for the weekend, saying that he “reaps the rewards of solitude.”
In a revealing scene of Alvin pantomiming his way through a burnt down house, pretending it’s his own while calling out to his wife, the film hints that time alone in the woods gives him a safe place to imagine and keep his hopes intact while not facing some truth waiting for him back home. It is the scene directly before this, however, in which Alvin encounters a woman sifting through the remains of her home, that ties the forest fires of 1988 to the more recent tragedy in Bastrop County, another Texas wildfire destroying an estimated 476 homes. Apparently, Green and his crew encountered the woman, Joyce Payne, doing just what her character does in the movie while scouting the location, and thought to include her in the film. The result is a heartbreaking scene in which Payne tells Alvin that she’s trying to find her pilot’s license, because how else can she prove that all of her wonderful experiences connected to that really happened?
Though the film is much more focused on the lives of Alvin, Lance, and the quiet way their relationship grows and gets them through struggles, the exchange with Mrs. Payne got me thinking about how we judge the sustainability of memory and experience. Not to get overly symbolic, but how much of the value we attribute to relationships and experiences diminishes when a fire, whether that fire is made up of flames or something just as destructive (though perhaps not as physical), leaves them in a state that doesn’t show how beautiful they once were? When those memories can no longer be attached to something that exists in the present, how much of them do we lose? We never forget them, exactly, but the feeling of what they once were to us can become warped and muddled.
Perhaps this is why we have such a need for new experience, why we do not just have one good day and take the rest of our life off. Something about this is very sad, but something about it is also invigorating. The promise of change in my life is always something that gets me moving, even if I’m not unhappy where I am. And sustainability, of course, is not about reliving the same thing over and over, using something for the same purpose; rather one of its principles is finding new ways to use old things, to let things evolve and change and continue to exist in our lives, just in different ways than they once did. And perhaps I am reaching here, making a strained connection, but Prince Avalanche, with its characters finding new life in friendship and (literally) making new marks on aged terrain, has its own bit of human sustainability to share. You can check out the trailer below.