Van Sant’s narrative prowess will never be favorably compared to that of Wilder, Ford, or Tarantino. His bailiwick is character, particularly those characters who exist on the fringes: users, hustlers, hitchhikers.
I’m a sucker for voice over. It’s how I knew I loved Bergman’s Wild Strawberries not a minute in; it’s why David Gordon Green’s George Washington is still my favorite movie that I’ve only seen one time; it’s why I’m excited about the recently released director’s cut of Terrence Malick’s already overly long The New World. Give me a quasi-poetic narration over what passes as a legitimately poetic image and I’ll forgive a film any number of flaws.
Not that Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park has many flaws to forgive, but let’s just say that he had me right from the S.E. Hinton-like beginning. To be sure, Van Sant’s world is more oneiric than the one that Francis Ford Coppola creates in his underappreciated version of Hinton’s The Outsiders, but when Van Sant begins his movie with a scene of the protagonist frolicking with a dog in the tall grass on the beach, I can’t help but think, “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home”.
The comparison with The Outsiders is apt, as the film version of Paranoid Park is also an adaptation of a young-adult novel, this one by Blake Nelson. As any number of reviews reveals, both the novel and the film aspire to retell Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a young audience, a point that’s more confounding than it is interesting because such artificial inflatedness is wholly unnecessary: this story about a skater whose desire to fit in places him at the scene of a grisly accident (to woefully oversimplify things) is psychologically rich enough and intellectually stimulating enough in its own right that it does not need a 19th century Russian antecedent.
In fact, the only work with which you should be familiar in order to fully appreciate Paranoid Park is the work that Van Sant himself has produced over the past six years: Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005), three movies that represent a remarkably sustained period of experimentation by a director who, arguably, is at the height of his powers.
There was a time when I thought that Van Sant was going to be that exceptional filmmaker whose career could be divided into distinct phases: The indie-darling who was responsible for Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and To Die For (1995) flirted with Hollywood with Good Will Hunting (1997), Psycho (1998), and Finding Forrester (2000) before indulging in the riskier, less commercial fare of recent years. I had heard that Gerry/ Elephant/ Last Days comprised a kind of trilogy—a death trilogy, at the risk of giving too much away—and I assumed that once the trilogy was complete, once he had cleansed his pallet, that Van Sant would move on to something else.
I conjured a portrait of the artist, stifled by three-act Hollywood, who finds inspiration in the permissiveness of the Pacific Northwest. It helps that in my imagination, Portland—where Van Sant lives and where Paranoid Park is set—is just one big artist colony. I envisioned him returning from the wilderness reenergized. The student filmmaking vibe gone. A new maturity in its place. Not that he would abandon those maverick ways (what up McCain/Palin?!), but that he would learn from them, apply them in new and invigorating ways. In short, I expected Steven Soderbergh. What Van Sant has become is closer to David Lynch.
His recent output is certainly of a piece. Thin on plot—the synopsis of Gerry: “two guys get lost in the desert”—and reliant upon photogenic non-actors to carry the narrative—with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck from Gerry here proving the exception rather than the rule—these films couple languishing camera work with long periods of awkward silence to create a tone that becomes the movie’s raison d’etre.
On account of both its topicality and its virtuosity—the movie relates the events that precede a Columbine-like school shooting, events that are all the more harrowing because they are so mundane—Elephant is the masterpiece of the bunch (it won the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival), though the other two feature their own memorable moments: a stubborn shot from the dashboard of a car as Gerry and Gerry extend farther and farther into the desert; Cobain’s proxy putting a song together one instrument at a time as the camera lingers like a peeping tom, to name but two.
For all of the challenges that the movie poses for its audience—and it has its share—Paranoid Park includes no such weird and wonderful signature moments, though the hypnotic scenes of the skaters come close. Believe it or not, the emphasis stays on the narrative—fragmented though it may be—and part of the reason why the film fails to land as strongly as it could is that the mystery on which the story predicates itself is resolved by the 46th minute. I appreciate that Van Sant is more interested in the effect than the event, but the story would have had a little more juice if the structural and the emotional climaxes would have been more entwined.
But Van Sant’s narrative prowess will never be favorably compared to that of Wilder, Ford, or Tarantino. His bailiwick is character, particularly those characters who exist on the fringes: users, hustlers, hitchhikers. Even his star-vehicle work takes as its subject the lives of outcasts: the overeducated Will Hunting, the reclusive William Forrester, the psychopathic Norman Bates.
Paranoid Park continues this parade of liminal figures. After nearly 20 years of making features, Van Sant identifies his collective muse nowhere better than a scene at the school in which a number of students are called from class to the principal’s office. As one walks down the hall, he is joined by two more from an adjacent hallway; then others pop out of classrooms. Some carry their skateboards; some ride them. They all seem to know each other, or at least to recognize that they are like one another, this unkempt bunch, this motley crew. As this gang amassed, not a nuclear family among them, I realized, “These are Van Sant’s people.”
The focus this time is on a boy named Alex, played by another beautiful newcomer (Gabe Nevins), a Portland native who, counting this movie, has exactly one film to his credit. Alex is almost certainly gay, a point that is never acknowledged, though it dictates every fateful choice Alex makes. There’s a paper to be written that compares the disreputable, taboo nature of Paranoid Park itself with Alex’s emerging sexuality, but I’ll leave that for the academics. More germane for our purposes is that Van Sant, yet again, has captured the awkwardness, the confusion, the estrangement from even one’s self, that so cruelly accompanies adolescence. This is a movie populated by teenagers—in spirit, if not necessarily in age—save the detective who clearly knows more than he’s letting on (an exceedingly natural Daniel Liu) and the parents who are represented Peanuts-style: vaguely defined, quasi-authoritative figures that occasionally loom.
The most touching of Alex’s relationships is not with his girlfriend, Jennifer (played by Taylor Momsen, who would later move on to Gossip Girl, a show that Jennifer would surely TiVo when she was cheering); rather, his strongest connection is with Macy (Lauren McKinney), a true kindred spirit, acne and all, who rides a bike and asks about the Iraq war. She’s probably interested in him, but she’ll still be his friend when she realizes, before he does, why they shouldn’t be together. Their exchanges are so honest that when I think back on them, I’m momentarily confused as to whether they occurred in this movie or in American Teen, a documentary that follows a group of Midwestern students during their senior year. It is indeed telling that the work of fiction feels truer than the work of non.
Inherent in this argument, however, is the point that prevents this review from being an outright rave: The movie’s acceptance of a more or less traditional narrative feels like a step in a new direction, but the more experimental elements feel like a step back (or, more kindly, like no step at all). Neither wholly conventional nor wholly independent (for lack of a better term), Paranoid Park feels like a movie that is stuck between its creator’s ambitions.
Next in Van Sant’s queue is Milk, a biopic of Harvey Milk, California’s first openly gay elected official. The movie stars Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, James Franco, and Emile Hirsch (whom, as an aside, Penn directed in the fantastic film version of the equally fantastic book, Into the Wild). I’ve not seen the movie, Milk that is, but with this cast at this time of year, the studio is positioning Van Sant to compete with the Eastwoods, the Nolans, and the Finchers of the world for the top end-of-year honors.
It seems as if, for a spell anyway, Van Sant is ready to return to the mainstream. If this is true, then when the final Wiki article is written, Paranoid Park may be seen as that first step out of a self-imposed exile and back to civilization. It may ultimately be regarded as the first stirring of an artist waking up from a dream.