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Arts & Culture

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park follows stylistically in the footsteps of Van Sant's recent Elephant and Last Days . All three films share a fascination with the slacker/teen culture, and all three eschew a conventional, linear narrative structure. These films deliver slow, moody excursions that will drive some people up the walls with boredom yet if you're willing to adjust your expectations these films also contain hypnotic beauty.

The wisp of a story in Paranoid Park involves sixteen-year-old Alex (Gabe Nevins) and the death of a railway security guard. It's not that a death is a trivial event but rather that the manner of storytelling places minimal importance on the plot (and the chronological order of things) and instead focuses on mood. Alex seems to know something or to be connected in some way with the death but he doesn't know how to come to terms with that. Since the film moves back and forth in time, it's unclear what the connection is until late in the film. The events unfold as Alex writes in a journal and tries to piece things together for both himself and the audience. Along the way he hangs out with some friends, loses his virginity, and makes a life-altering visit to the elaborate yet improvised skate venue known as Paranoid Park.

Gabe Nevins as Alex in Paranoid Park (IFC Films)


Gus Van Sant used to make films with more driving narrative arcs. Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho (which used Shakespeare as its source material), and To Die For all worked within more traditional narratives but with a dreamy lyricism subverting the conventions. Then came Good Will Hunting , a very mainstream effort, and a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho . Both these films represented very tightly structured exercises. There would be one more Hollywood film, Finding Forrester, and then it seemed like Van Sant had simply had enough of those narrative formats. It appeared that he just wanted to bust out of anything structured. So that's when Van Sant's filmmaking entered into this current surreal drug haze chronicling the youth/grunge scene, often in or around his home town of Portland.

Van Sants' most recent films try to transcend the conventions of movie storytelling to find something new and different. But the results are mixed. Van Sant reveals an undeniable flair for creating mesmerizing images and for connecting with his young characters. For Paranoid Park , he found most of his non-professional actors on MySpace (where the film still maintains a non-traditional website), and these kids act like real kids, not like Hollywood teens. After Alex and his cheerleader girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) have sex for the first time, Jennifer runs to the bathroom to grab her cell phone and immediately tell her friends "we totally did it." That scene plays out with complete credibility. Then when Alex decides to break up with Jennifer, Van Sant shoots from a distance and doesn't let us hear the dialogue because we know exactly what's being said (you don't have to be able to read lips to know what Jennifer is telling him). Again, it plays believably and provides an accurate window on what teen life can be like.

Paranoid Park (IFC Films)

Similarly, Van Sant captures the skate world with a sense of authenticity. Skating is something like having the Right Stuff, it's not something that you really talk a lot about, you just do it. So Van Sant just shows us hallucinatory, slow motion sequences of kids skating. Some footage is shot in 35mm by the great Christopher Doyle ( In the Mood for Love, 2046 ) and other footage is grainy super 8 shot by Rain Kathy Li. The mix of formats may explain why Van Sant goes with the boxier old school aspect ratio for the entire film. The skating in Paranoid Park has a more ethereal quality than the more pumped imagery of Dogtown and Z Boys . Van Sant leans more toward the style that film used in a sequence cut to Pink Floyd. Surprisingly in his film, Van Sant uses music from Fellini's composer Nino Rota for some of these skate montages adding an even more surreal edge to the visuals by avoiding the kind of grunge music you might expect these kids to be listening to.


If you are planning to shoot a visual poem, there is no one better to have on hand than Doyle (who has done his best, most improvisational work with Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai). Doyle knows how to find seduction and romance anywhere. Working with Van Sant, Doyle finds beauty in these kids and their disconnect from the rest of the world. Doyle sometimes shoots these kids as if they were models for some high end skate magazine, only there's no distracting self-consciousness to the kids. Even the death, which is depicted in an exceedingly graphic manner, takes on a strange, surreal quality. But maybe the gruesomeness of the guard's death should have been more rooted in reality and provide a jolt to the film and the characters. Doyle's flair for moody images complements Van Sant's approach but never challenges it, and maybe Van Sant needed a little bit of a contrast in styles to liven up his film. Even at a slim 85 minutes, Paranoid Park feels too long.

With the exception of the detective investigating the crime, adults are pretty much absent or barely visible on the periphery of the film. All the acting on the part of the young performers has a naturalistic feel, as if we caught them unaware. Nevins doesn't sound like a Hollywood teen actor trying to sound like a real teenager. He just is a real teenager. When he reads what Alex has written, the words (adapted from Blake's novel by Van Sant) and his diction reflect the way teenagers today write and speak. This film is a sharp contrast to the kind of smart, sassy dialogue you hear among the high schoolers in something like Drillbit Taylor. Van Sant's film also feels more natural than the self-conscious and contrived indie film from Larry Clark, Wassup Rockers?

With Paranoid Park (rated R for some disturbing images, language and sexual content), Van Sant continues to make films for a smaller and smaller circle of people. The fact that the film was co-financed by the French should signal that it's definitely aiming for the art house and not the mall. Although I can't say I left the theater satisfied by what I saw, I felt hypnotized by the images and by the accuracy with which Van Sant recorded a certain aspect of teen life. I just felt that a film that got so many details right, should have added up to more in the end. This film is definitely not for everyone and you have to be in the right kind of laidback mood to enjoy the trip.

Companion viewing: Drugstore Cowboy (still my favorite Van Sant film), To Die For, Dogtown and Z Boys, The River's Edge