I'm not a Gus Van Sant fan, but I have to admit "Paranoid Park" got under my skin: it's a fascinating film. His adaptation of the novel by Blake Nelson (both GVS and Nelson are from Oregon and their oeuvre is centered around American Teenland) allows GVS to do a sort of small-scale contemporary American version of "Crime and Punishment". As in Dostoyevsky, GVS uses a gruesome killing (deliberate in Dostoyevsky, accidental here) as a motif to expose the nature and process of guilt, (self-) punishment, youth, conventions, repressed emotions, social and moral malaise in his society. Gus Van Aschenba... uh, I mean Gus Van Sant's fascination with teen boys is taken to the hilt in "Paranoid Park", as he follows his unfathomable Tadzio-Raskolnikov: the introspective, sexually ambiguous and emotionally muted skateboarder named Alex, played by Gabe Nevins, whose blank Botticelli face and blasé demeanor hide his character's soul-searching turmoil. The swooning, voyeuristic camera follows Alex so closely and so insistently that it seems it's trying to penetrate and discover, under those expressionless features and monotone voice, the complex feelings that Alex is struggling to understand and keep under control, especially after tragedy strikes when he kills a security guard in a terrible railway accident. The "thriller" plot is cleverly built, but of lesser importance; it's Alex's existential/moral crisis and GVS's concern with "America's misfit kids" that really matter in "Paranoid Park". The serpentine camera dances around the skateboarders in slow motion, à la Wong Kar-Wai, observing their beautiful air arabesques and their gravity-challenging leaps that seem to reach for cleaner oxygen, above ground-stuck conformity and ordinariness. The adrenaline-addicted skateboarders of Paranoid Park live in a sort of adolescent purgatory, where time also seems to loop; "growing-up" (which includes the possibility of going to war) is postponed, and it's no wonder we see some "over-aged" teens there, like the older guy who takes Alex to the ill-fated freight train ride. But "Paranoid Park" is more than a sympathetic portrait of a certain American youth (the kind that we don't often see in American movies). It's also a free-spirited aesthetic exploration, visually (contrasting film textures; focus/out-of-focus shots; marked impressionistic style; the trademark but still hypnotizing slow-motion shots of cameraman's Christopher Doyle); rhythmically (witty editing, and we can thank all our gods it's only 85 minutes long), and aurally (GVS uses a VERY eclectic soundtrack -- classical music, folk, rock, hip hop, French concrete music and a lot of Nino Rota -- like a teen zapping his iPod). I was especially puzzled at GVS's extensive use of Rota's score for Fellini's "Juliet of the Spirits". At first, sight and sound didn't seem to match at all; but then it's true that both Alex and Giulietta are closed-in, dissatisfied, emotionally repressed misfits trying to cope with their loneliness and malaise by learning to confront and accept their personal ghosts -- though, by the end of their journey, we may fear for their mental sanity. Another fascinating aspect of "Paranoid Park" is that GVS shows mature fair-play about his traumatic failure with the "Psycho" remake (also photographed by Doyle). Most obviously with two scenes that directly revisit "Psycho": the car-driving scene in rainy weather with non-stop music on the soundtrack -- a sign of the upcoming ominous events; and the magnificent shower scene, this time in extreme close- up and extreme slow-motion, with running water flowing through Alex's long hair forming a translucent, medusa-like image of mesmerizing beauty, electrified by a crescendo effect of (apparently) rattling waterdrop sounds mixed with loud bird chirps (remember bird sounds also inspired the legendary Bernard Herrmann's staccato shower murder theme in "Psycho", as Norman Bates was a bird taxidermist). There's even the same shot of Alex slowly gliding down against the wall in the shower, as Marion Crane in Hitchcock's classic. Both in "Psycho" and in "Paranoid Park", the shower scenes are a body/soul-cleansing ritual, the climax of each film and a turning point for the protagonists: for Marion Crane it's unexpected death (punishment); for Alex it's the decision to keep silent about his crime (self-punishment). As in "Psycho", there is the observation of guilt underneath "innocent" appearance (Alex, Marion Crane and Norman Bates look perfectly innocent), and repressed sexuality (both Alex and Norman are sexually numb though aware they're attractive to women). And as in "Psycho", there's the unfailing intuition of a detective, here played by Daniel Liu, who looks like an Asian Martin Balsam, and whose eyes are so different one from the other -- one is lidless, accusatory, fixed; the other is heavy-lidded, world-weary, understanding --that when he stares at Alex he seems to figure out both sides of the boy. The main weakness in the film is GVS's portrayal of females. It's obvious Alex couldn't care less about his hysterical cheer-leading girlfriend determined to get rid of her virginity, but did she have to be portrayed as an insufferable bore? And did Lauren McKinney, who plays the girl secretly in love with Alex, have to be so unflatteringly photographed? (compare her cruel close-ups with the slow-motion parade of gorgeous skateboarding ephebes at the school). And need I say Alex's mother (as in "Psycho") is only seen out of focus, far in the distance or from behind? (this time around we DO get to see the face and body of a father in a GVS film -- and, man, it's a scary vision). Even if "Paranoid Park" isn't your cup of tea, one has to admit GVS is a rarity among established contemporary American filmmakers: he has, through the years, been brave enough to stick to his thematic obsessions (young male beauty, the loneliness of non-conformism, the failure of the American dream and the traditional family, the complexity that lies under the apparent numbness and superficiality of American teens), and put them in films that -- while certainly not for all tastes -- get more fascinating as they get more personal and self-revelatory by refusing to be "big".
Crime / Drama / Mystery
Crime / Drama / Mystery
A teenage skateboarder's life begins to fray after he is involved in the accidental death of a security guard.
October 12, 2020