Sunday, July 27, 2008

Paranoid Park

I've seen Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007) twice and liked it better the second time, but I still can't embrace it completely. The non-linear narrative has its perks, but the first-person narration seems to me a step backwards in relation to Elephant (2003). And while it makes interesting use of Nina Rota's score for Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965), often the music in the film simply feels like overkill. In the context of American independent cinema, it towers over something like Jason Reitman's Juno (also 2007)--a far less interesting and accomplished film about teenagers--but really that's not saying a whole lot.

Adapted from a youth novel by Blake Nelson (which I haven't read), the story of Paranoid Park is recounted in flashback. The narrative is framed as a written confession authored by the movie's teenage protagonist, Alex, portions of which we hear in voice-over. Effectively, this framing device normalizes the movie's scrambled chronology as a reflection of Alex's thought processes as he writes his confession. In contrast, Elephant has no such framing device to justify its non-linear narrative, which obsessively replays the events leading up to a school shooting from several different perspectives as if the film itself--not the characters or Van Sant--were attempting to master the past by going over it again and again. That said, narrative can never completely exhaust form. Seeing Paranoid Park the second time, I noticed how the film replays certain shots, not to clarify their meaning but to aid the viewer in constructing a timeline of events. Similarly, the documentary footage of skateboarders performing tricks, shot on 16mm, and the film's appropriation of Rota's music both refuse narrative rationalizations.

Writing about the film in an earlier post, I complained that the Rota music appropriated by the film wasn't sufficiently tied to Alex's subjectivity. And while Van Sant and his sound designer, Leslie Shatz, do employ sound subjectively at times during the film (for instance, Alex's argument with himself), I don't think that's their intent here. For one thing, the first time we hear Rota's music in the film is over the first shot, an establishing shot of a bridge behind the opening credits, before we're introduced to Alex. Rather, one might think of Rota's music as a leitmotif that refuses obvious associations. Although this particular motif reaches a climax of sorts with an especially romantic piece from Amarcord (1973) that drowns out the audio of Alex's girlfriend, Jennifer, yelling at him, this motif isn't strictly associated with her character and could continue, theoretically, ad infinitum. Conversely, when Van Sant does employ music subjectively--particularly, a piece by Beethoven at one dramatic moment--the effect is overbearing.

At the end of last year, the consensus among American reviewers (notably, Roger Ebert and A.O Scott) was that, all in all, 2007 was a pretty good year for the movies in general and American cinema in particular. And I'd have to agree; although the critics' prizes mainly went to the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, my own half-dozen favorites were Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, Adam Shankman's Hairspray, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There., Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, and James Gray's We Own the Night. However, with the exception of Haynes', all the films listed above are more remarkable for their content than their style.

Two notable, mainly unheralded exceptions are Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights, in which both directors refined and expanded their signature styles. Thematically, both filmmakers are on familiar ground even if, coincedentally, each is depicting a culture other than their own. However, in both films, the familiar content is enriched by the director's individual style. (Another coincedence is that, while Anderson's film appropriates music by Ravi Shankar from several films by Satyajit Ray, the star of Wong's film is Shankar's daughter, Nora Jones, whose own music appears on the soundtrack.)

Unlike Anderson and Wong, however, Van Sant doesn't have a distinctive style of his own. His early features--Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1990), and presumably Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), which I haven't seen--are distinguished by their focus on marginal characters and Northwestern setting, but they're more off-beat than singular. I can barely recall his first two Hollywood features, To Die For (1995) and Good Will Hunting (1997), they're so impersonal, and I haven't seen Psycho (1998) or Finding Forrester (2000). After making Gerry (2002), Van Sant started citing Béla Tarr as an influence on his work, and while I wouldn't hesitate to call Elephant or Last Days (2005) a masterpiece, neither one is as singular as Tarr's Damnation (1988), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and The Man From London (2007). By imposing rigorous stylistic constraints on himself, Tarr has arrived at a style as distinctive as Bresson's or Ozu's. Paradoxically, in moving away from Tarr's influence, Paranoid Park is even more impersonal.

Still, one must concede that Van Sant's style does enrich some rather thin material. Its subtle repeatitions and musical leitmotifs repay multiple viewings. And even if Van Sant isn't as great a filmmaker as Tarr, at least we won't have to wait seven years for his next film.


  1. I was thinking that another sort of interesting point of the film's chaotic narrative is that it sort of takes it 'the whole way.' I mean, compared to something awful like Memento, which wants desperately to be non-linear, this film does not really satisfy the viewer with a typical conclusion. That is, we dont know if he gets 'caught' or not. But I think this lends to the kind of outsider perspective of the film, and confirming it. We dont know if the police catch the kid, and so the film declares this fact irrelevant. The real importance lies in this teenage boy coming to terms with himself, and therefore outside of the 'system.' Maybe.