Latter Day Sant
Michael Koresky on Paranoid Park
No grand artistic summation or even a proper refining of pet themes and motifs, Paranoid Park finds Gus Van Sant further whittling on the same piece of wood. It must be a nub by this point. Though this fully interiorized portrait of teenage self-identity is brimming with the touches that one would expect of Van Sant at this date in his career—complexly layered soundscapes, camera moseying along close to its protagonist, deceptive achronological narrative—Paranoid Park differs from the recent films that comprise his “Death Trilogy” in that it doesn’t keep an odd distance from its principle character, choosing instead to plunge into the psychological agony of its central teen, Alex (Gabe Nevins). This of course, isn’t to say that Alex is particularly penetrable, as Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s camera seem more intent on caressing his porcelain acne-free youth than digging deep; yet Paranoid Park gives the boy a tangible central dilemma to mull and perhaps overcome. Where Gerry and Elephant kept their cameras at clinical distances from their characters in order to survey how their lives and deaths were complemented and affected by environment, and Last Days, though his most successful confrontation with death’s intimacy, remained a mostly intellectual account of the flesh and blood (but not brain) of its mottled celebrity center, Paranoid Park journeys closer to the pressure points of anxiety, guilt, and frustration. Yet Van Sant’s atmospherics remain too studied for this full immersion to take hold, and the film’s surprising tangential play with genre remains too meagerly circumscribed.
Paranoid Park is most notable for the ways it effectively synthesizes the early and later parts of Van Sant’s film career, melding the angsty male character studies of Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, and the River Phoenix sections of My Own Private Idaho with the heavier formal experimentation of the “Death Trilogy.” And Van Sant’s ever-tightening technical precision here shows how far he’s come: whereas today, Drugstore and Idaho seem like patchwork assemblies of early indie trends (Drugstore’s “trippy” drug scenes and erratic, at times misplaced irony) and narrative spare parts (Idaho was a compendium of three separate story treatments that Van Sant smooshed together during preproduction), Paranoid Park shows a remarkable sense of focus, if not purpose.
Van Sant’s been edging toward abstraction for most of this decade, and while he has many detractors, who see nothing more than cribbed Euro art-film aesthetics, there’s been no denying that he’s carved out a singular niche for himself in American cinema, making films more reliant on the audience’s intellectual engagement with tone, mood, and setting than on narrative. In his current incarnation as the patron saint of minimalist art cinema in the U.S., he’s arguably already hit his artistic high point with Last Days, which gave his wide open visual schematics a moral and mythical weight. Whereas that film’s Kurt Cobain stand-in, Blake, was an outsized legend made human, bony and palpable, Paranoid Park’s Alex is a relatively average 16-year-old skateboarder, his mundane life made tragic, even grandiose, by a horrific accident in which he caused the death of a security guard. Paranoid Park depicts Alex’s mental fall-out after this incident, yet since Van Sant isn’t terribly interested as of late in character motivation or cause-and-effect trajectories, the film never settles for any sort of linear crime-and-punishment structure.
While Alex’s guilt is all encompassing, and ostensibly the subject of the film, it also remains surprisingly peripheral. This is a central Van Sant gambit: to set up a central narrative touchstone and then let it trail off into vapor, giving the viewer the sense that what they’re seeing is more important than what they think they should be seeing. This was most overt (and baffling) about Elephant, which played, often dubiously, with audience’s expectations about the Columbine massacre, not only in its sequence of events but also in people’s preconceptions about the causes and rationales behind the killings, only to meander delicately around the event with literal and figurative detours. Van Sant places a jarringly graphic death scene midway through Paranoid Park, and though its blood spills out over the viewer’s consciousness for the remainder of the film, he refuses to return to it in any blatant manner, instead allowing you to re-evaluate the supposed mundanity of teen life—skateboarding, sex, homework—in light of this rupture.
This is also what justifies Van Sant’s preference for juggling chronology in Paranoid Park, which initially seems arbitrary and retrofitted. Yet a clearer purpose emerges: for a good chunk of its running time, we assume that Alex’s disaffection is simply the visual manifestation of what could be blanket termed “teen angst,” but Van Sant questions our presumptions by revealing the true rumblings beneath Alex’s surface. The security guard’s death takes place early on in the actual sequence of events, but it isn’t depicted until much later; suddenly, Van Sant makes us re-view some of the same scenes—of Alex making odd movements, hanging his head, furiously removing a stained shirt—that now have a tenable backstory. Thus, Van Sant’s intentions are less about reconstituting narrative for its own sake than in making us watch with clearer vision, through repetition and gained empathy.
Yet since Van Sant has little interest in letting Alex’s inner turmoil play out in any conventional manner, his responses to tragedy and guilt remain indefinable still, shrouded behind stasis and immobility. The film’s most memorable sequence is a visual and sonic marvel that finds Alex showering after the terrible deed’s been done. It’s a lovely reinvention of that phoniest of all movie moments—the cleansing shower, where all pain and suffering can be easily evoked by directors stripping their vulnerable actors and having them cover their wet faces in sorrow. Yet here, Doyle and Van Sant locate something near poetic, tender and isolated from the rest of the film: as Alex stands under the spouting water, the camera remains close to his profile, which drops forward, shadowed in a near-silhouette, droplets streaming down his face and hair and pouring to the floor in sensuous slow motion; meanwhile the soundtrack rumbles and pierces with heart-heavy, schizophrenic dissolution.
If Van Sant has an artistic legacy at this point in his career, it’s certainly the rigorous delicacy of his form, and Paranoid Park won’t disappoint those looking for the auteurist signs that seemed to elude him through much of his wayward Nineties films. Yet Paranoid Park also seems a little too comfortable in its own haze, as though properly sated and unwilling to move into more dangerous terrain. A shocking image, George A. Romero-like in its gory, entrailed brutality, momentarily snaps the movie out of its torpor, the most graphic death in an oeuvre strewn with out-of-frame killings. There’s an excess to the shot that at first glance seems most unbecoming to such an elegant composer of pain; yet the more it lingers in the brain, the more one wishes Van Sant would find additional ways to break out of his current mold. Of course, this phase may only be another temporary pit stop en route to another series of aesthetic experiments, the end point of a temperament that may have run its course.