Gus Van Sant evokes adolescence and sincerity in Paranoid Park

by Beacon Staff • March 19, 2008

Gus Van Sant-the director of such hazy, slow-paced films as Gerry, Last Days and the Palme d'Or winning Elephant-must be the most patient director in contemporary American cinema. With Paranoid Park, his newest tracking-shot-filled experiment in austerity, Van Sant puts his spacey style to effective use by employing multiple devices to document the experience of a psychologically-conflicted high schooler, Alex (Gabe Nevins, whose expressive visage compensates for his clunky line-readings).

Alex-a na've and sullen skater-has gotten into a bit of trouble. After a Saturday night at the titular skateboarding arena, Portland's most dangerous and challenging skateboard rink, he unwittingly becomes involved in the accidental killing of a railroad security guard.

Paranoid Park's power derives from its fundamental understanding that, to a teenager, the ramifications for murder are more psychological than moral. Alex's witnessing of a death he unintentionally caused leads to a particular brand of ennui produced by a mixture of guilt and adolescent insouciance. Alex's silence is salient. He shrugs off friends, family and his prom-queen-primed girlfriend-even the loss off his virginity is depicted as a detached experience.

Van Sant subordinates the plot, which is fragmented in a modernist style, and successfully employs multiple devices to evoke Alex's consciousness. The film is composed of a loose narrative, an eclectic soundtrack and swirling cinematography. These elements complement each other beautifully-truly capturing the muddled mindset of a boy who refuses to be haunted by his actions.

The least inspired technique is the main frame-Alex's journal, which tells the nonlinear sequence of events. Even within this device, however, Van Sant is able to provide an evocative ambience. Alex's prose, which is communicated through a monotonous voiceover, reflects a seventh grade composition; it's filled with jarring syntax, meandering anecdotes and juvenile rhetorical questions, such as "I was screwed. What was I going to do?" Van Sant's intentions are simple and straight-forward, but the atmosphere he creates is piercing.

Music is so prominent, and dialogue is so often trivialized, that Paranoid Park could easily have functioned as a silent film. The musical cues occasionally confound as much as they illuminate-the use of birds chirping as Alex showers off the bit of blood off his body is frivolous and hackneyed, while certain compositional choices (Beethoven, Nino Rota and Elliott Smith) are inspired. Similarly powerful is Christopher Doyle's camerawork, which captures the rolling, dizzying rhythm of skateboarding.

The title, Paranoid Park, may suggest the idea of a generic teen-slasher flick, but make no mistake. Van Sant's film is certainly unsettling, but it's a peculiar brand of horror. It evokes a confused terror that stems from young adulthood and a character's inability to live life once he has taken another during a crucial time of development. Van Sant's filmmaking is fluid-it's Alex that suffers from inertia.