If two of them are dead
Paranoid Park, Dir: Gus Van Sant, Now Playing
Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is triumphant throughout. Every shot is a masterpiece. The screenplay improves on an already tremendous book. The casting is phenomenal. The sound design is haunting, humorous, and never cute. Any of these is cause enough to see the film (especially the cinematography and editing), but there’s more. The film manages to dissociate words from meaning, truth, and beauty without naively asserting that images conjure these abstractions.
Gus Van Sant, while remaining faithful in voice to Blake Nelson’s 2006 young adult novel, has turned his adaptation into one of the most sophisticated and well-received avant garde American films. The Van Sant/Nelson collaboration highlights the best of both genres by juxtaposing the disarming candor of young adult writing with the elliptical quality of Van Sant’s filmmaking, and invigorates a tension between the inherently narrative quality of storytelling and inescapably elliptical nature of experience remembered. And denied.
Van Sant has for the last decade been favoring high school stories to explore his own seduction with alienation (and teenage boys) and a more generalized lure of the abyss. In Paranoid Park everyone exists in his own void. The characters are alone with their mistakes, though they muddle into them with help. The fabric of society can stretch around one security guard gruesomely killed and one abandoned boy struggling to find words and feelings to grapple with his culpability in the killing. But the city muddles through because it never stops to soothe or comprehend either devastation.
Faced with an act far greater than himself, Alex (Gabe Nevins), at the suggestion of his sassy, savvy crush Macy (Lauren McKinnon), writes a letter explaining his story as best as he can figure it. His guilt, his fears for his disintegrating family and his own dark impulses are unfathomable to him. As such, the epistolary device becomes its own threat (one of the paramount questions of Paranoid Park: if a book gets written in the first act must it get read in the third?)
The keen yet fumbling voice within the letter frees Van Sant to use the camera in an entirely non-linear way. The lens obsessively focuses on a boy holding himself at emotional absolute zero; he, in turn, obsessively focuses on a group of seemingly transcendent skateboarders.
The crisp treatment of Alex in isolation is inverted in the portrayal of the blurry yet broken relationships that pepper his life. Jennifer, his adamant girlfriend, a picture-perfect wet dream of a cheerleader on a bad boy kick, is played for full effect by Taylor Momsen (Gossip Girl’s youngest ingenue). Van Sant fails to navigate the space of the cheerleader. In Elephant, too, the depiction of the in-crowd tripped him up. The small triumphs of high school are as far beyond him as the small tragedies are wholly of him. When Alex abandons Jennifer after taking her virginity, Van Sant covers her reaction with an extended excerpt from Nino Rota’s score to Juliet of the Spirit. It is the one moment in the film where the music is used not to explain what is incomprehensible to Alex, but to Van Sant himself. Likewise, when Alex and Jennifer have sex, outdoor and indoor noise merge, making the act gossip rather than experience. But if Van Sant fails when faced with the common parts of adolescence, he unflinchingly invokes the sublime.
The sublime, by definition, can “impart no knowledge about reality.” Which is why for all its technical proficiency, narrative innovation, and emotional evocation, Paranoid Park resists summary. The film breaks down form but retains coherency. Most things which fail in most movies succeed in Paranoid Park. Language exists primarily in voice-over, and when employed, most often speaks to its own failures and ellipses. When called upon to actually tell his father of his mistake, Alex hangs up before he can speak. When asked what he ate for dinner, or confronted by anyone about anything, he lies, and people behave as though they believe the most embarrassing falsehoods. He gives his parents, teachers, and friends the same loving courtesy. While liars, they’re all very earnest. When he tries, in a private journal, to make sense of how he winds up killing a railroad bull in a malicious accident, all he comes up with is “nobody is ever ready for Paranoid Park.” His private thoughts provide both a counterpoint to the narrative which emerges from Alex’s conversations (which are entirely a narrative of falsehood) and to the visual narrative that explores the feelings his thoughts can’t grasp.
The tragedies large and small that remain on the periphery of Alex’s narrative (the war in Iraq, his parents’ divorce) invite him in even as the tragedy around which he centers his self-awareness recedes. Wounds all bleed into one another, keeping everyone closer to each other’s pain than they want, but also obscuring where any individual responsibility ends. Why should Alex care about Iraq when he killed a man? What is causing everyone to be immune to the emotional vacuum that is taking Alex? Alex is both abandoned and refusing to connect, but Van Sant has long eschewed causality in storytelling, so we can’t say which came first. He also eschews foils.
The choice to cast Portland skate pioneer Jay ‘Smay’ Williamson as Alex’s father brings home the universality of Alex’s alienation. His problems can’t possibly be the fault of his lame parents; Alex has the coolest fucking dad in the world. But he can no more help his parents through their bitter divorce than they can help him deal with the weight of having killed a man. He will carry this alone forever.
Nor is the police officer presented as a villain, though teenagers revile him. When all the known skaters in the high school are called to the principal’s office to meet the cop, the gathering feels like a focus group. When Alex is called back for another meeting, alone, their banter is more psychoanalysis than interrogation. Still, Alex and his friends declare all authority to be hostile, griping,“The only reason grownups do anything is for money.”
It’s an anachronistic view of teen delinquency, and self-consciously so. High school is presented as cheerleading, group dates at the ice rink, and posturing walks down the hallway to the strains of Billy Swan’s rockabilly classic “I Can Help.” None of the boys uses a cell phone, or owns a car. Science class consists of transparency machines and protozoa slides.
The joyless presentation of youth is adult. Paranoid Park never invites the audience into intimacy with Alex. Instead, it offers Van Sant’s own peculiarly paternalistic form of voyeurism. In an extended sequence where Alex, driving his mother’s car, puts on a number of different faces while an incoherent range of music plays, both the music and the frame appear to be coming from outside the windscreen. All we can access is our interpretation of his mood, cued in by an adult’s vision of what tunes might match which mask. More tellingly, the audience barely sees Alex skateboard. He likes to skate in private, he says, ‘cause he’s not very good. We only see him watching skateboarding. The most beautiful sequence in the film shows a series of masterful skaters carving arcs high within a massive drainage pipe. Never, for all of Alex’s belief in the transcendence of this artsport, does he go anywhere with it. The skaters themselves remain bound to the sewers, and no one escapes the waste of their lives.
In the last two minutes of the film, Paranoid Park careens into a more straightforward coming of age film. It is off putting, but right. Van Sant wraps up Alex’s story for Alex, not for us. As the youth gains perspective on his guilt, his world moves from Fellini soundtracks to outlaw country. Van Sant won’t make sense of Alex’s world forever.
Sarahjane Blum apparently has something nice to say for once in her life.