Thursday, March 27, 2008

Paranoid Park

Any mention of a Gus Van Sant film is nearly always accompanied by comments of being about disaffected or alienated male youth. While this is invariably both true and unavoidable, such superficial descriptions don’t really do Paranoid Park justice. Van Sant’s latest film is a profoundly intimate, moving and insightful meditation on the inner world of a youth in crisis.

Alex (Gave Nevins) is sixteen and, aside from navigating the usual hurdles of adolescence, school, girls and life in general, his parents have recently undergone a messy separation. His escape is to hang out with his buddy Jared (Jake Miller), and together they discover Portland’s tough Eastside Skate Park. Known to the locals as Paranoid Park, it was built by the skaters themselves, and is a magnet for all kinds of dropouts.

Alex is a fairly normal kid but everything changes one evening when he goes to Paranoid Park alone and is involved in the death of a security guard. He keeps this toxic secret to himself, but gradually reveals all in his diary.

Of Van Sant’s films, Paranoid Park (winner of the 2007 Cannes 60th Anniversary Prize and based on a short novel by Blake Nelson) is aesthetically most similar to Elephant. It defies a linear narrative, circling around the central facts which reflects Alex’s state of shock and inability to come to terms with what has happened.

Other stylistic devices convey Alex’s fractured state of mind, such as the use of a varied range of eclectic music. Similarly effective is the use of slow motion, creating a dreamy ambience that complements the music at times, or contrasts at others, the music.

The film opens to the sounds of an ambient French track that matches the imagery of skaters floating through space, defying gravity. In fact, Paranoid Park is a French production and while the story and participants are clearly American, the film really has qualities reminiscent of French cinema. It reminded me of L’année suivante (The Year After), which recently screened at the French Film Festival. Van Sant seems to be revered by the French, perhaps more than by his own country. His work has stark similarities to my favourite type of French cinema.

The depiction of grownups from a teenage perspective is fascinating. When in frame, they either have their backs to us, or cinematographer Chris Doyle’s use of long lenses to strictly control focus means we mostly see them as a blur. They are not absent, but don’t figure prominently in Alex’s world. This is also subtly accentuated in conversations. “It’s not like she cares”, moans Alex about his mother when questioned about his movements.

We do, however, clearly see Detective Richard Liu (real-life detective, Daniel Liu). His strong presence shakes Alex’s out of his dreamy inner world and gives us a more grounded reference point within the story. His quiet intensity as he faces off with Alex at a crucial moment is as emotionally powerful as anything I have ever experienced on screen. This is when the true impact of Alex’s ordeal, as well as Van Sant’s genuine empathy for his characters is fully revealed.

In Paranoid Park, youth are disconnected from adults, but also parents are unable to engage with their children. Alex is in his own world that seems impenetrable to his parents, and they seem to struggle with words he can relate to. When Alex’s father (Jay 'Smay' Williamson, reportedly one of the actual founders of Paranoid Park) talks about inevitable divorce, his words have little interest to Alex.

Cast with mostly non-professionals, much has been made of Van Sant’s casting call via MySpace, though apparently none of the main actors were found in this way. Van Sant has used improvisation with the actors, resulting in dialogue full of authenticity, light-years from the slick depictions of youth in contemporary cinema. His characters, both adults and youths, sometimes struggle with their words. The performances were terrific.

In fact, I find it hard to fault the film in any way. The cinematography is stunningly natural, the music is entrancing and the story is compelling. Technically, the most impressive aspect is careful construction of the story through editing (by Van Sant himself).

Starting with Gerry, this film caps off four consecutive films Van Sant has made in a minimalist style he is making his own. All four of them are concerned with youth and death. In Gerry, one Gerry kills the other; in Elephant, two youths kill a number of fellow students; and in Last Days, Blake, a pseudo Kurt Cobain, takes his own life. In Paranoid Park we have a death, though not of a youth. Life, death and what occurs between, these are all compacted within the framework of a Van Sant film. The films are not about death, but death is an event that provokes other dramatic elements. For me, Paranoid Park is the most touching of all his films, at least as good as Elephant and as good as anything I’ve seen in the last year.

I include below some useful links, including Jake Wilson’s review in The Age. Not only does Jake share my enthusiasm for Paranoid Park, but he has eloquently and clearly articulated what I intuitively perceived of the film.

Official website / Q&A with Gus Van Sant / Jake Wilson’s review / Gus Van Sant interview / The Evening Class question for GVS / TimeOut interview / EyeWeekly interview / Taylor Momsen interview / Making of Paranoid Park video / Various trailers and interviews


Kamikaze Camel said...

I saw this on Thursday and while I liked it very much, it has stayed in the forefront of my mind and won't leave. Just the images of somebody flying through the air or the looks that Gabe gives. All stunning.

My favourite part was actually the screenplay. This is a script that really gets the way teenagers are. I remember my dad and I having a near identical conversation about my parents' divorce and I was equally as blase. "everyone's parents get divorced" - isn't that a great line? The way Alex responds to his parents in mere one or two word sentances. The recurring "umms" and "aahs" and the way his narration sounds like he is actually reading from a script. Because teenage life has become so similar that it's like they hand out a script and they all just play their part.

Paul Martin said...

I'm glad you liked it, Glenn. I would have thought this film was a little too esoteric for you, and I don't mean that in a negative way. I'm just basing it on comments you've made about other films I've loved and you haven't.

Do you think maybe you have a predisposition because it's Gus Van Sant? Did you detect any gay themes in the film? I plan to post on this subject sometime soon.

I was the same age as Alex when my parents divorced. Interestingly, both Gabe Nevins (Alex) and the girl who played Macy are younger than their characters. Nevins is only 15 and the girl was 13 (but played a 14yo). I agree that these kids portrayed teenagers really honestly. That was a great line, and it's something I discussed with my friends at that age.

Paul Martin said...

And I thought Gabe looked just gorgeous. I'm not being self-indulgent here, but he reminded me of me at that age. And like Gabe, the it was the girls who chased me. I also felt uncomfortable and fearful.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Gabe Nevins has one of the most fascinating faces I've seen on screen in a long time. Compelling. Even if he's not the greatest actor in the world, his role didn't call for him to be and, well, he was a more realistic teenager than, say, Ellen Page in Juno (a performance and movie I liked quite a bit). In both what was written and how it was performed.

I can be quite the contrarian (read: hypocritcal). But I always respond to movies of this nature and I actually liked these characters, I wanted to get into their world and I wanted to experience their world. Unlike some of the movies we've had disagreements about in the past where they could be as realistic and thoughtprovoking as Paranoid Park was, but in which I just did not care about the characters or what they were going through (Em4Jay is a perfect example).

Still, Van Sant's "disaffected youth" subgenre is a favourite of mine. Whether it's the fact that he's gay so he grew up in these years with a hightened sense of "angst" and "outsiderdom" (<-i just made that word up) and it's just something I respond to very strongly. And considering almost every teenager today has is an outsider to somebody else I think he has so much relevence.

I was thankful Van Sant didn't feel the need to include any queer themes into the movie (outside of the obvious) like he did with Elephant (a better film in my eye, I might add). He easily could have given Alex a scene where he looks at the skater with lust, but he didn't and I appreciated that. Just goes further on about what I said above about all teenagers having angst. Not just gay teenagers.

(wow, so long!)

Kamikaze Camel said...

sorry about the really poor grammar! Rereading over my last post I can see where I was typing one thought and just blended it with another with no cohesion. I hope you can make it all out.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Oh, the "Uncle Tommy" bit was the furthest Van Sant got to queering up the movie. I forgot to mention that. Or, that's what I got from it ("Uncle Tommy" is dads boyfriend - which explains why he would suspect Alex's mother as the one who rang him at 4 in the morning).

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, of course there's no comparison with Juno. Juno was a hyper-stylised character, whereas Alex's character was meant to be authentic, and he was. So in that respect, he did an excellent job. How Gabe Nevins would perform in a Juno-type role is another matter.

I think it was Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director who, like Kiarostami, uses a lot of non-professionals. He said anyone can act, a director just has to find the right person. So I think Van Sant assembled the right people. In fact, Margaret Pomeranz on At The Movies, recently quoted that casting is 90% of making a film.

Nevins' face is fascinating, in particular the eyes. There's a real innocence to his features, so when the brutal central truth is revealled, I just want to take this poor kid and embrace him.

As I mention in my opening paragraph, I don't really see this film as being about disaffected youth. It's a human story, about a youth who could be anyone. It could be you, it could be me.

While not gay myself, I relate to gay people and gay issues, because I also felt myself an outsider. I was a staunch individualist and idiosyncratic. I had gay friends and friends who were also 'outsiders'. Even to this day, people suspect I might be gay because I don't conform to what is expected of a male in society. And I'm just talking about the clothes I wear, and my use of colour.

Elephant - Paranoid Park, which is the better film? I came out of PP the first time in awe, but I felt it was flawed and not as good as Elephant. The second time, I saw that what I saw as flaws weren't flaws, just my lack of understanding of what Van Sant was trying to convey. After a third screening, the film blew me away. It has improved for me on successive viewings, and each time I know I could easily go back and see it again. It's different to his other films with its sort of fluid narrative, and mostly its different because of how personal it is (many of his films have a cold distance, including Elephant).

I can't decide which is better, though I think PP Is at least Elephant's equal. They're both very different films. I can't wait to get the DVD which I've preordered on Amazon (it gets a release about April 24).

Van Sant has revealled that Uncle Tommy is gay, so clearly there is a subtle though unexplored gay issue. Unexplored because it's not a film overtly dealing with gay issues, but perhaps planted by Van Sant to demonstrate how ubiquitous issues like these can be in everyday lives. So, if Tommy is an uncle, is he related to Alex's dad? Or is 'Uncle' just a generic term that's used for adults? This was the case in my childhood when relationships seemed more formal, and is still the case in many overseas cultures. Alex's dad says he's going away with Uncle Tommy, so to me that's highly suggestive that Alex's dad is gay, and that's probably why the divorce is happening.

I think you misread the bit about the 4am phone call. The call was ascertained as having come from Jared's place, where Alex was spending the night.

BTW, I hadn't noticed any problems with your grammar.

Kamikaze Camel said...

Oh yeah, i forgot "Uncle Tommy" mentioned Jared's last night. But why, still, would "Uncle Tommy" call his boyfriend's exwife and ask her if she knew anyone by that name? Even if that character is merely an uncle and not the lover of Alex's father, then why would he call Alex's mother? Why would he call the exwife of his brother? Something didn't seem right there so that's why I think there's more to it. I didn't know Van Sant has actually said that about the Tommy character though.

Paul Martin said...

Glenn, my understanding is Alex's dad recognised Jared's number and assumed Alex had tried to call him, so was following up on it. I wouldn't read anything else into it other than that. I'd react the same if it were me.

The Uncle Tommy being gay was something I read from an interview with Van Sant online somewhere (probably one of the links I provided).

Tony said...

For me, any mention of a Gus Van Sant film is nearly always accompanied by comments about the remake of Psycho.

Maya said...

Paul, as ever, thanks for linking me in to your aggregate of resources. And thanks also for your upfront gay-affirmative stance. So much of my own strength in life as a gay male has come from the help and support and encouragement of my straight friends. Here's to a more tolerant world.

Paul Martin said...

Michael, I've done introspective research about gender at different times in my life. First when I a teenager and had a gay friend who introduced me to gay culture. My exploring of my sexuality at that age enabled me to know with conviction of my own sexual orientation, though I don't think in terms of gay and straight. But of course, I'm sure you understand that. That's what the rainbow is all about - sexuality is not a gay/straight divide, but rather a multitude of varieties.

Another phase of exploration came in my thirties when I was trying to reconcile social attitudes. I was struggling with the masculinity that was developing in my one and a half son as well as other social issues like why the sports section of the news ignores major achievements by women. I ended up reading a heap of books, the most significant being Warren Farrell's The Myth of Male Power. I won't go into the flaws of the book, but it was mega-helpful for me getting an understanding of gender.

Homophobia is one of the scourges of modern society. It is ubiquitous and almost invisible, largely because people consider it in literall terms: fear of homosexuality. In actuality, it filters into virtually every aspect of male-male interaction. Males of all ages fear being tagged as 'gay' and there's this unspoken code that males adhere to in order to be seen to conform to what it is to be male. I don't always conform to that code and thus for some my sexuality is 'questionable'.

Yet, that whole thing is tiring. I'm not going to change the world, so I don't flaunt it. But I'm not going to be a defeatist either. It's a balance. Like wearing (in a corporate environment) colourful shirts and ties. Or something colourful on casual day.

Ivan Sen, when introducing Beneath Clouds a number of years ago (and I highly recommend this to you, Michael, as a little jewel of an Australian film), responded to a question about his film's racial issues as saying it's not political. He went on to say words that have stuck with me. There's two types of people in this world - tolerant and intolerant. A person who is racist is usually misogynist, homophobic, etc.