Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"There Has To Be Something Else Out There": Paranoid Park (2007)

Save for his forays into mainstream mediocrity with movies like Finding Forrester, Good Will Hunting, and his shot-by-shot remake of Psycho, Gus Van Sant is regarded as one of the more interesting and provocative directors in American film. His career of late, which has included the so-called “death trilogy” of Gerry, Last Days, and Elephant, has established him as a director with something to say-- an artist interested in exploring “big” subjects like school shootings or the enigmatic life of a legendary musician. Beyond anything else, Van Sant is known as a director who gets his audience involved in tough subjects. With this in mind, it’s strange that Paranoid Park, perhaps the best-reviewed film of his career, evokes such a non-reaction, has so little on its mind, and eventually elicits nothing more than an indifferent shrug when its over. While watching the movie I felt like I could identify with Alex, the disaffected, ever-boy teen protagonist at the center of the story, if only because I felt as alienated from and disinterested in his life as he does.

Oddly enough, this does not mean that Paranoid Park is a boring movie to watch, a criticism that is easily (and not altogether unfairly) leveled at Van Sant’s recent work. His fluidity and sensitivity as a director is on display in every frame of the film, and from the start he draws you into the world of Alex, a Portland high school student and skateboarder. Alex is dealing with problems that a lot of kids his age face-- parental divorce, a girlfriend who wants to get serious, the need for acceptance from his peers-- and he walks around with the same vapid, bored expression that can be spotted on the faces of teens in shopping malls and skate parks across the country. But Alex, as he explains himself in an elliptical, inarticulate narration, is troubled by a bigger problem-- one that involves the grisly murder of a security officer in a train yard, and has the police showing up at his high school to question he and his fellow skateboarders.

I’ve frequently heard Van Sant’s style of late compared to Italian Neorealism, the school of cinema in the 50s that sought to portray ordinary life in an unaltered, unadorned fashion (think De Sica's The Bicycle Thief). Some critics have called Paranoid Park, with it’s unprofessional actors (Van Sant found lead actor Gabe Nevins and others on MySpace) and long takes, the heir to this style, but they’re off the mark. After all, people in normal life don’t get involved in murders that often, and a director who wants to shoot in an unadorned style doesn’t hire Christopher Doyle, longtime collaborator of Wong Kar Wai, as his cinematographer. In actuality, Van Sant seems to have hit on a newer, more original approach here, one that attempts to approximate as closely as possible the feeling of being inside a character’s head. Van Sant and Doyle, along with Rain Li, who provides a number of excellent skate scenes, fill the film with an abundance of stylistic “noise”-- from cutaways to super-8 footage of skaters in sewer pipes, to inexplicable soundtrack shifts from Billy Swan to Beethoven, and bizarre sound effects and synchronicities in the audio track-- that helps to show the rambling and panicked dialogue going on in Alex’s troubled mind.

It’s a stylistic achievement, and because it works so well the filmmakers are able to string the viewer along on a thin story and character for longer than they have any right to. But after the first half of the film I started wanting more from Alex than his inarticulate stuttering and blank expression. Van Sant undoubtedly directed Nevins to act this way in order to add a level of universality to the character, to turn Alex into a blank slate for the audience to project onto, but at a certain point a little expression, a little spark of personality here and there, would’ve done wonders for the film.

If this alienation were confined to the character I might have been able to get by it, but Van Sant insists on including the same level of nebulousness and universality to his theme and story as well. What we end up getting by the end of Paranoid Park feels like half a story: kid accidentally kills cop, is troubled by it, and... the end. We never get a real conflict, a real theme, or a resolution. What we get is a rigid character study of the most uninteresting character imaginable. Look, I’m no cinematic puritan. By no means do I demand to be presented with a 3-act structure and a theme at every movie I see. But I do demand that I be involved, if not in the character than at least in the things that happen to them. So I could have enjoyed Paranoid Park as some kind of modern-day Crime and Punishment (which many critics have compared it to), or as a Camus-esque study of randomness and chance a la The Stranger-- but we never get enough evidence from the story to make either such leap. The best explanation I can give is that Alex-- whose father is absent from the home-- is desperate for male attention to the point that he’ll blow off his girlfriend or commit a crime in an attempt to be accepted as one of the guys, and that kind of pseudo-psychology is about the least interesting path the film could’ve taken. At one point in the story Alex tells his friend Macy, an intelligent young girl who is the most interesting character in the film, that he feels like there’s another world beyond everyday life, that “there has to be something else out there.” That’s the way I felt, too, and I wish Van Sant had something more to show me beyond banal surfaces and his own technical skill.

Still, as problematic as Paranoid Park’s story and character are, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t intriguing to watch. Van Sant’s technical skill is considerable, and if you’re into that kind of thing it might get you through the movie-- it’s only when you think about it afterward that everything falls apart. The style on display here is exquisite, and leaves you wondering where a guy with such considerable talent will go next (the first step seems to be a move back toward the mainstream with Sean Penn in the Oscar frontrunner Milk). Still, I can’t imagine it is much more than Van Sant’s skill at weaving together image and sound that has made Paranoid Park so well-received. It is strange to see how he has evolved as a filmmaker over the last several years. Once, I would’ve considered him a director who made thematically interesting but ultimately dull films. Paranoid Park is not dull by any means, but when it ends it leaves you with woefully little to think about.

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