originally published in the middlebury campus
This first paragraph is going to be a bit pretentious, but bear with me. Movie titles are an important forum from which audiences can gleam information about a film; the story, a genre, or simply a mood can be pulled out of the title. It helps audiences know what they’re getting into. Every now and then, however, a film comes along whose title says more about the film’s themes than its plot; a title that retroactively seems to tell audience more about the film than reading a dozen reviews. Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is just such a title, at once saying nothing about the film, but also evoking the youthful isolation, guilt and paranoia that are the film’s core themes. It’s a subtle feature of the film, but then again the strongest features of Paranoid Park is its amazing subtlety and the quiet grace with which it tries to capture the interior of the characters that populate it’s setting.
Paranoid Park tells the story of Alex (Gabe Nevins, who gives a fantastic performance), a young skateboarder whose father has moved out and whose mother is slightly carefree when it comes to keeping tabs on her son, who gravitates toward the “throw-away kids” that hang out at a local skate park, from whose name the film’s title is derived. Hanging out there one night he is invited by an elder statesman (of sorts) to hop a boxcar to grab some beer. It is here that Alex has an encounter with a railroad security guard which set the events of the film in motion. I’m relaying this narrative information as if it is temporally sequential. It isn’t. Van Sant scatters these bits of information throughout the film, whose temporality is jumbled and includes several scenes which are shown twice. Alex’s culpability in the death of this security guard is hopelessly ambiguous. I’ve seen the film twice and I’m still not sure whether he was responsible or not. To a fairly significant degree, though, his guilt or innocence is unimportant; what is important here, like in Van Sant’s Elephant, is how young people deal with death and other societal pressures. If that sounds dismissive I don’t mean for it to, because these themes fit Van Sant like a glove and play to his strengths as a director.
Gus Van Sant is a director whose heart has always been in formal experimentation and narrative complexities. His interest is less in realism and more in the (occasionally) hallucinatory realm of a character’s psyche, and that side of Van Sant’s personality is on full display here, perhaps more so than in any of his films since My Own Private Idaho. He mixes mediums, shooting the preponderance of the film on 35 mm, but splicing in skateboard footage that was shot on Super-8 film. These bits of spliced in skateboard footage provide the most interesting formal experiment in the film, as they appear to be placed in the film for no rhyme or reason, but they simply exist, coming to the surface as if they are part of the unconsciousness inherent in all members of the skateboarding subculture that Van Sant captures so well. This desire to capture the interior of his characters provides Van Sant with an opportunity for further experimentation, using sound design, soundscapes, and source music (which runs the gamut from Beethoven to Nino Rota to Elliott Smith) as an opportunity to try and ensnare the guilt and/or disaffection of Alex and his friends. The sound design combined with Van Sant’s always interesting imagery creates a dream-like atmosphere that reaches Lynch-ian proportions. When we are finally shown the encounter with the railroad security guard it is one of the most genuinely shocking moments I’ve seen in quite some time, but it is also oddly alien, as if the audience is allowed to drift through this dream world for most of the film, and when confronted with something as grisly as the security guard’s death it feels less like narrative information being provided to the audience and more like one more moment spent in Alex’s jumbled and guilt-ridden unconscious.
Van Sant provided movie going audiences with two films in 2008. The first was this under recognized gem; the other was the overblown and overrated Milk. Where Paranoid Park is subtly affecting, Milk telegraphs its emotional peaks and valleys. Where Paranoid Park focuses on capturing the interior of its protagonist, Milk has no time or interest in exploring Harvey Milk beyond reducing him to his achievements. In a way the aims of the two films are so different that comparing them does neither justice, but they are both the works of the same filmmaker and they are worlds apart. One is a fantastic film of youthful alienation that eschews Hollywood formula in favor of something different. The other is mechanical mediocrity. It’s a bummer most people saw the other.