Sunday, April 6, 2008

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007) is one of the most formally adventurous American films of recent memory, employing a radically subjective sound mix, hypnotic slow motion effects and non-linear editing to tell a story that's actually pretty banal. Van Sant adapted the script from a youth novel by Blake Nelson (which I haven't read), and apart from one extremely graphic image, it feels in some ways more like a movie for teenage boys than one about them.

As in Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005), the narrative loops obsessively around a central traumatic incident--here, the accidental death of a security guard--but for the first time, this reflects the protagonist's subjectivity rather than the director's. The film begins with Alex (Gabe Nevins) writing down the film's title in his diary, and what follows for the next eighty minutes is his stream of consciousness as he tries to get it all down on paper.

The film's title refers to an illegally built skate park where Alex and his friend, Jared (Jake Miller), sometimes go. One fateful Saturday night, Alex goes by himself and meets an older kid, Scratch (Scott Green), who takes him down to the train yards. When they're spotted by a security guard, Alex hits him with his skateboard, knocking the security guard in the path of an oncoming train.

Alex may be the most angst-ridden movie teenager this side of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Apart from second degree manslaughter, his parents are going through a divorce, and he's dating a bitchy cheerleader, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), who's eager to lose her virginity. "Eventually she's going to want to do it, and then things will get all serious."

Of course, there's nothing surprising about teenagers who are confused about sex, or who can't talk to their parents about their problems, or about a couple getting a divorce, and Van Sant takes these things as a given rather than interrogating them. We don't even learn why Alex's parents splitting up in the first place. The anonymous treatment of both his parents and a detective (Daniel Liu), who visits his school after the accident, reflects Alex's inability to relate to adults without providing any insight into its cause.

The best thing about the movie is the highly unnaturalistic sound mix by Van Sant's usual collaborator, Leslie Shatz. Following the accident, Alex debates within himself what to do next, with his diagetic monologue occupying the middle field while non-diagetic voices on the right and the left offer competing suggestions. When he takes a shower that night, the noise of the shower head is unnaturally loud (I think mixed with the sound of a train), while the ambient audio consists of unexplained bird calls.

I'm not so sure about all of Van Sant's choices. There are so many slow motion shots and 16mm montages of skateboarders attempting tricks that the film begins to feel needlessly mannered. Although none of the characters are cinephiles--perhaps least of all Alex--Van Sant makes frequent use of Nina Rota's score from Juliet of the Spirits (1965). I suppose it doesn't matter whether or not Alex has seen Fellini's film so long as the music suits the emotion of the scene, but does it?

I'll have to see it again to be sure, but my first impression leads me to believe that Paranoid Park is not one of Gus Van Sant's great films. Despite Van Sant's intelligence behind the camera, it's a story that's surprisingly hermetic. I haven't seen Van Sant's Psycho (1998), but the defense sometimes given in highbrow film circles is that it's an exercise in pure form. Maybe he was attempting something similar here. Beats me.


  1. Between this and his Youth/Death trilogy, I think I'd have to agree with Sicinski's statement that I prefer Van Sant riffing on other auteurs rather than a straight-up shot of him. I have come to admire the film on reflection, but as you imply, so much of it feels like a self-conscious attempt at moving toward a style that's entirely his own (especially when considering his previous three films), at the expense of really getting inside his characters' headspace. Still... the scenes from after the security guard's death are some of the most resonant and haunting filmmaking I've seen in ages, and enough to make the film altogether commendable.

    On another note, I'm suprised you don't make mention of Alex's references to Iraq, which I thought were most intriguing: it's almost as if Van Sant is addressing his own insularity as a filmmaker through Alex's awkward attempts at relating to a broader social context. Then again, his next film is a Harvey Milk biopic, so I guess we'll just wait and see if/how he grows...

  2. I think if anything the movie is too deep inside the character's headspace. And even looking back to Last Days (which J. Hoberman estimated had exactly three close-ups), the non-diagetic audio is as subjective as it gets--or at least, so I thought until I saw Paranoid Park.

    In Elephant, Van Sant threw out various sociological explanations for Columbine as red herrings (violent video games, homophobia, bulemia) in order to show that there was no explanation, and all that Van Sant or anyone else can do is go over that day again and again and again as if trying to master the past by restaging it--which is exactly what happened in the news coverage.

    Here, the protagonist's trauma, which he's attemtping to master in a similar fashion, is far too specific to resonate in the same way that Elephant did. If there's a connection with the Iraq war, more intelligent minds than I will have to unpack it.