Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Mayonaise is sick.

The narration of Paranoid Park, a letter written by 16-year-old skater Alex (Gabe Nevins) attempting to understand his involvement in the accidental death of a security guard - has a halting, awkward quality, as Alex confesses that he's not a very good creative writer. Nevins, like most of the cast, is an acting neophyte cast through MySpace, yet Paranoid Park is more than a Warholian stunt. Alex's tentative voice is at the core of Gus Van Sant's film, filtered as it is through a haze of adolescent confusion. While Paranoid Park has many stylistic similarities to Van Sant's recent death trilogy, it also represents a bracing departure for the filmmaker. While the earlier films share a rigid sense of composition and a detached, almost clinical perspective, Paranoid Park finds Van Sant once again inhabiting the delicate uncertainties of his protagonist's world.

While a violent death is at the center of the film, Paranoid Park bypasses thriller conventions in favor of a quiet close-up of one teen's discassociation from his own reality. Alex is an average kid - he eats at Subway, hangs out at the mall, borrows his mom's car on the weekend and hopes he'll be a good enough skater to hang out at the titular skatepark. His parents are divorcing, but this fact doesn't seem to be affecting him as much as they assume; he's not particularly happy or unhappy, seemingly unable to relate to his own life not in a pathological sense but in a way consistent with his age. Van Sant is at his best when dealing with essentially passive protagonists, and his subjective approach places Paranoid Park closer to his masterpiece My Own Private Idaho than any of his other films. Aided immensely by Christopher Doyle's fragile images and the nervous, echoey soundscapes designed by Leslie Shatz, Van Sant's newfound affinity for narrative inertia finds its clearest focus yet in portraying the moment just before adulthood when everything remains indefinite.

While Paranoid Park is, in this sense, a coming-of-age story (and it is adapted from a novel by popular young-adult lit writer Blake Nelson), it avoids both the nostalgia and writerly compartmentalizing of teenage emotion typical of the genre. A well-meaning cop (Daniel Liu) attempting to learn more about the "skateboarding community" is met with confused snickers by a classroom of potential witnesses for whom concepts like community are completely alien (Van Sant defies this kind of categorizing with the soundtrack, which has room for both Elliot Smith and Nino Rota). While Alex frequents Paranoid Park, he doesn't think he's good enough to skate there - his detachment is not just a form of rebellion, it's a detachment from even desirable experience. When Alex loses his virginity, the moment is kept out of focus; we never know how Alex feels about his girlfriend because he doesn't know. The familiar begins to take on an air of unreality, and it is with this in mind that the central death scene comes into focus. The scene has been repeatedly described as a metaphor first homosexual experience, but there isn't much to support this reading other than the knowledge of Van Sant's sexual orientation; more importantly, it's the first real moment in Alex's life, one that he not only cannot ignore but is partly responsible for. The gory aftermath of Alex's accident has a painterly quality, remarkably still, as it will remain in his memory - a jarring first step into adulthood.

It's interesting to note that some reviews of the film refer to this central moment as an accident while others call it murder. Van Sant avoids moralizing in one way or the other, instead choosing understanding. This has always been true of his films, but here he achieves an emotional directness that suggests new, exciting possibilities. In moments like the one where Alex, after fleeing the scene of the crime, hangs his head in the shower, water droplets rolling off his face as a cacaphony of birds overwhelms the soundtrack, have a simple sort of cinematic purity. It's clear in Paranoid Park that Van Sant has achieved something he's been working towards for years - this is pure film, a collage of small visual gestures that are at once contemporary and timeless, capturing something as ephemeral as the sight of skateboarders suspended in midair, frozen, as if they'll never return to earth.

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