Dir. Gus Van Sant
Viewed: From the Couch
There was another Gus Van Sant movie released in 2008 called Paranoid Park. It has Van Sant returning to the streets of Portland and focuses on a Very Big Mistake made by a high school kid and his skateboard. It doesn't quite fall in line with his Bela Tarr phase/"Death" trilogy, there are a few lingering takes but the feel of the movie is a lot less meditative and precise and more loose and French New Wave inspired. In fact, the movie could be taken as a companion piece to Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows.
The story is centered on Alex, a high school kid who likes skating with his friend Jared more than hanging out with his girlfriend. First-time actor Gabe Nevins does plays Alex -- for the most part we're watching a lot of non-actors, but Nevins does a better job than most and conveys the weight Alex carries on his shoulders for most of the film. The film is non-linear for the most part. We're introduced to Alex as he's writing in a journal and in his narration he apologizes that he's writing down the events out of order. There's a detachment Alex has to the rest of the world both before and after the Very Big Mistake -- one simply reflects his age and the other is Alex being pre-occupied with the guilt and paranoia and trying to figure out what, if anything, he should do about it.
There are periodic scenes of kids coasting along and through the air on their skateboards and it makes a beautiful analogy to this ideal frame of mind for Alex. There isn't anything else to think about when you're skating. It's a perfect in-the-moment state of mind. You're not worrying about your parent's getting divorced or girlfriend drama when your at the skate park. When Jared coaxes Alex to visit Paranoid Park, a skate park with a reputation for a more hardcore breed of kids, Alex isn't sure if he's ready, if he's a good enough skater yet. But even sitting on his board and watching the other kids proves to be blissful for him. Alas, Paranoid Park does live up to it's reputation and Alex is wooed by an older skater and the romanticism of jumping a freight train which leads to an unfortunate, deadly encounter with a security guard.
From one of the opening images of Alex's god-awful penmanship, to the way Van Sant keeps parents out of focus or off in the distance of his frames and in the clipped, awkward voice of Alex's narration, Paranoid Park is seeped in the world of a 16 year old. It's an immersion similar to his peer Larry Clark's work in Kids and Wassup Rockers and made all the more effective by the always brilliant, frequently amazing cinematography of Christopher Doyle (can't wait to see what happens in his upcoming collaboration with Jarmusch). His colors always pop a bit more than anyone else and his shadows are always a bit moodier. There's frequent moments in the film where Alex is seeking isolation, often to continue his writing in the journal, and Doyle's work in capturing these sanctuaries are gorgeous.
Some of Van Sant's more adventurous work in Paranoid Park are with the music cues which range from Nino Rota work cribbed from Felini films, to The Revolts to Elliott Smith. And for the most part I think it's wildly successful except for the Smith songs. I love the Nino Rota detours. There are these wonderful moments when the film sometimes literally slows down into these almost POV shots and for a minute we're just basking in whatever feeling the song is feeding us. You can even take your pick whether these are the songs that are going on in Alex's head or the mind of the person he's encountering. When Alex gets in the car with Jared The Revolts kick in and it's a sinister minute as we watch Jared behind the wheel, from the passenger seat, in slow motion and take in his evil grin. When a pretty girl interrupts Alex and Nino Rota begins to swoon, we're caught up in it as well and it's an beautiful, ethereal minute. I'm not 100% for the repurposing of another films music, but when it's done right as Van Sant and Tarantino are capable of, it's downright transcendent. In the case of the Elliott Smith songs, it's a really hard sell for me. His music, for me, is very precise. There isn't much vagary in Elliott Smith's songs so when Van Sant tries to insert "The White Lady Loves You More" into a scene where Alex is walking away from his first run in with the police officer who's investigating the Very Bad Mistake, it just doesn't jell for me. Otherwise, Van Sant's unexpected, even playful, small music experiments work wonders and they service the film and the story much better than the similar trademarked slow-motion, cue song technique that Wes Anderson has pretty much used to death.
Van Sant wisely employs all the tools and techniques at his disposal to create a unique kind of mystery/morality tale. It's a brief story and one that unfolds in it's own peculiar way. It's ending is an open one (as he's been known to do to the frustration of some, I'm sure) but it feels right. It'll leave you wondering what it's all about -- there really isn't any lesson learned and the mystery isn't very mysterious. Slice of life tales usually don't involve cops or severed bodies. But it's an interesting story told in an interesting way. Like Larry Clark, Van Sant is giving you a window into an exclusive world, but he does one better than Clark, he gives you a window into Alex as well and it makes for a fascinating hour and a half. Even with the cops and the death, it feels real in a way that makes it a great achievement. Gus Van Sant had two great successes in 2008 and is on one of the best streaks any filmmaker has achieved.