PARANOID PARK (2007, directed by Gus Van Sant, 85 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Early in Gus Van Sant’s hypnotically lulling new film Paranoid Park, the lead character Alex lets you know what you’re in for: “I’m writing this a little out of order,” his narration says, “Sorry. I didn’t do so well in creative writing, but I’ll get it all on paper eventually.”
There is the slenderest thread of a detective story at the center of this skater drama, but with the endlessly dazzling camerawork by superstar cinematographer Christopher Doyle (favorite of Wong Kar Wai) and Rain Kathy Li, Paranoid Park thrills as a sort of giant projected art installation on the theme of teenage discombobulation. Like some sort of sensory submersion therapy, you’ll leave the theater feeling like you’ve been inside the body of a gawky teenage boy.
We’ve barely met the lead character, an unexceptional little mope named Alex (Gabe Nevins), before the film starts drifting off in these extended floating reveries — slow walks through high grass, darkened school hallways and gorgeous slo-mo Super 8 footage of kids levitating on their skateboards. The film briefly snaps back to attention when Alex is interviewed about a murder that happened in the train yard near the sketchy skater hangout the kids call Paranoid Park.
Here I believed that Alex was in some stoner haze, but as the events of that fateful night shift into focus we realize the zoned-out Alex is actually suffering from something akin to post-traumatic stress syndrome. With no one to turn to with his burden (his separating parents are rarely even shown in focus) Alex is left to sleepwalk through his teenage world, distracted by his inability to put together the pieces of whatever happened on that night.
This premise gives cinematographer Doyle license to deliver some of his most audacious work. Working with deep shadows and softened edges, he brings life to Van Sant’s vague dreaminess, suggesting both the distracted dopiness of youth and blurry flashes of distant memory. Van Sant submerges us into this teen world without the ogling arousal of a Larry Clark, but Paranoid Park does have one of the best high school sex scenes of recent memory. Alex admits his ambivalence to a friend before he passively allows his girlfriend to rid herself of her virginity. There’s a fleeting moment of transcendence with her golden hair drifting over the lens and then the moment the act is done she is on her cell phone. “We totally did it!” she crows as poor Alex lies there, humiliated.
Twice, Alex’s restless indecision is scored by songs from doomed-songwriter Elliott Smith. Perhaps that’s too easy a connection for the story, with the story set in Smith’s own Portland, Oregon, yet when Van Sant strips the sound from the teenage break-up scene and replaces it with Nino Rota’s weeping sentimental score from Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits something unique emerges, something that both distances us and pulls us into the center of a teen girl’s overwrought fury.
Throughout the transcendence, the dread and even some of the boring parts, Gus Van Sant has used his recent “long take” style (partially cribbed off of Hungarian director Bela Tarr no doubt) and some keenly cast non-actors to approximate the experience and texture of teenhood and he does it with such finesse that film’s imagery begins to take on the resonance of one’s own memories. It is his most masterfully sustained work since Drugstore Cowboy and for your own sake, see it projected on the big screen while you have the chance. With images this beautiful and subtle, it is like the difference between seeing a painting in a gallery or looking at a reproduction in an art book; it is worth it to see this film where its dimly-lit images will shine the brightest.