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The Old New Gus Van Sant: Paranoid Park

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(IFC Films)

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Paranoid Park
Directed by Gus Van Sant
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

A slowly tracking camera follows an inarticulate, dumb-pretty teenager down the halls of his high school, scored to Elliott Smith. Of the many moments in Gus Van Sant’s new movie that give whisper to the fact of his present coasting status, this collision of Elephant’s content and form and Good Will Hunting’s soundtrack is the loudest. Like Scorsese’s third recycling of “Gimme Shelter” in The Departed, it feels lazy, though at least the latter made symmetric sense. Compare it to Fassbinder, who was variously able to apply Leonard Cohen to appropriate or interestingly inappropriate effect, or Wes Anderson, whose reuse of the Kinks shows sensitivity to both the band’s and his own growth. Neither “The White Lady Loves You More” nor “Angeles” add anything, explicitly or by contrast, to Van Sant’s sketch of a skateboarder turned accidental murderer.

The small quibble speaks to a larger grievance over the director’s frustrating stasis. The question is: Why declare three consecutive movies about death, shot in the same ponderous style, a “trilogy,” and then make another about the same thing in the same way, especially when the last (Last Days) seemed to take the trilogy’s fixations about as far as possible? It would be greedy to expect, every five years, a shift as drastic and provocative as his own from Finding Forrester to Gerry, but with its perfectly content existence as a remake of recent achievements, Paranoid Park is essentially his (the new Van Sant’s) Finding Forrester, as absurd as that might sound. We can hope that someday it will be similarly looked back on as an okay interim between fertile stretches.

Paranoid Park bolsters the sense that, no matter how interesting they have been, Van Sant has been “getting away” with something in his past few movies. A making-of clip on the Gerry DVD shows Matt Damon and the director giggling while retaking another endless tracking shot, and you wonder if he isn’t still just taking a piss for the stunt of it. Aided by some of the best sound designers and (especially) cinematographers in the business (the great Wong Kar-Wai lensman Chris Doyle shot this, as he did Van Sant’s Psycho), he’s largely earned praise or mild baffled admiration in many dozens of reviews all containing variations on terms such as dreamlike, hypnotic and, the worst, “tone poem.” And those are accurate: Gerry up through this current version are all lovely on the surface, staged and framed with respect for the audience’s visual-mental patience. What’s underneath? Every major character in these movies is near-idiotic, even by high school or drug casualty standards. That might be part of “the point,” and it certainly lessens the burden of Van Sant the screenwriter. But Paranoid Park’s 78 minutes offer no further payoff to all of this time devoted to gorgeously captured teens and mute burnouts. If he’s still trying to emulate Bela Tarr (only an explicit goal in his Gerry), Van Sant is falling short by continuing to fixate on mannequins instead of people.

Newcomer Gabe Nevins’ Alex is a closed book. Vacantly moon-eyed, his gaze reveals nothing. His fumbling journal confession, told in voiceover, and scant scraps of dialogue (“I think… there’s different levels of stuff”) are no window. His firecracker-shrill girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) is understandably exasperated by his aloofness, even after he takes her virginity during a perfunctorily businesslike sex scene. His cynical friend Macy (the fun Lauren McKinney) routinely attempts to shake Alex out of his shell, trying to rap about Iraq and receiving only “I hate reading newspapers about the war” in return. The detective in charge of solving the murder of the security guard tries with little luck to pry under Alex’s expressionless visage. Van Sant can’t either, and doesn’t care to; he lets Alex skate by on his quintessentially high school sense of unwarranted self-mystique.

Not that a pat explanation would be preferable — Alex’s nothingness is interesting in its way. He’s cold-blooded, and a killer, but not a cold-blooded killer. It was an accident, and he would rather not have done it, but he doesn’t lose any sleep over it. He even seems to forget that the incident took place (until seeing something on the local news) by forming a mental block. But even that mechanism implies more sophistication of responsibility and guilt than Alex seems capable of. Seen as a symbol, he’s an exaggerated example of man’s detachment from his own wrongdoing against others, a shopworn observation (I suppose) worth repeating. He is not given enough shading to be more than a symbol or cipher, although a scene between Alex and his clueless father (who asks his son, whose only interest is skateboarding, if he still skateboards) attempts to crayon in some of the blank quadrants.

Van Sant never satisfyingly conveys the idea that for Alex and his droogs, skateboarding, especially at the vaunted Paranoid Park, is both a hiatus from reality and in fact the only real world they care about. If Alex could not grasp his deed because it took place in the unreal world (along with sex with his ditzy gf and dull war reporting), it would lend an escapist, Terabithia-like romanticism to his single-minded passion. But in place of exploring Alex’s dedication to skateboarding (or friendships, only grazed here), Van Sant substitutes grainy slow-motion Super 8 films of anonymous Portland skaters. Beautiful on their own (especially one shot following two skaters through a huge hollow pipe), the interludes say nothing about Alex, or anything beyond “here is some moody footage of skaters.”

Nobody is disappointed when Joel Schumacher excretes another one. We are only frustrated with Van Sant’s creative layovers because he’s previously shown himself capable of such beguiling jukes. Too brief and good-looking to actively dislike, Paranoid Park is still uninspiringly repetitive. If you’re going to play the same riff over and over again, at least lower it an octave, throw in a distortion pedal, go acoustic, add strings, or something.

 

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