Dir/scr: Gus Van Sant. US-Fr. 2007. 85mins.
Gus Van Sant is such a consummate filmmaker, so in love with the visual and aural texture of the medium, that it's difficult at first to pinpoint the niggling problem with Paranoid Park, his most experimental feature to date.
It's not that Van Sant offers style over substance, because Van Sant more than anyone teaches us that, in the right hands, style is substance. But still, there's something over-tricksy about the timeslips, the contrapuntal sound design, the deliberately wooden acting of his latest slacker oeuvre that is not justified by the dramatically slight central story - that of a teen skateboarder in Van Sant's hometown of Portland, Oregon, who accidentally kills a railway security guard.
At the same time, though, the films offers cineastes an intriguing, original, inventive eighty-five minutes that channels the cinematic dreamtime like a Derek Jarman (or indeed Gus Van Sant) short - something that is enhanced by the artfully unpolished photography of Chris Doyle (who also plays a cameo role) and the film's boxy, primordial 1:33 ratio.
Paranoid Park looks to be more of a niche product than previous Cannes competition entries Elephant or even Last Days, and it's unlikely to see the Van Sant audience demographic getting much younger on this one, despite the teen theme and the skate park footage, given the unapologetically auteur-ish approach to the material. The European arthouse is the film's main market, and it's no coincidence that the film was produced by France's MK2.
The main plotline might have been taken from one of those quality US soaps that mix the occasional piquant crime scenario in with the day-to-day domestic sparring. In fact it's lifted from a 'young adult' novel by a fellow Portlander, Blake Nelson.
All that really happens - at least in Van Sant's version - is this: one Saturday night, teen skater Alex (Nevins) goes alone to Paranoid Park, a hardcore skatepark that is both metaphorically and literally on the wrong side of the tracks. Taken down to those same tracks by an older skate-hobo to ride the freight trains, Alex instinctively lashes out with his skateboard when a private security guard tries to apprehend them.
The guard falls and is sliced in two by an oncoming train (we later see the accident and its aftermath in grisly detail). Torn between the urge to confess and fear of the consequences, Alex opts to say nothing about the accident.
Switching back and forth between the before and the after, the film tracks the lead-up to this fateful train-hop and its aftermath in segments that gradually build up a picture of Alex and his world: the skater friends he hangs out with, his pretty girlfriend Jennifer (Momsen) who needs Alex more than he needs her; his ordinarily messed-up home life, with parents who are in the midst of a divorce and a 13-year-old brother who throws up when he gets stressed.
Details that most conventional scripts would take time over are presented laconically, almost dismissively: we see Alex's mother twice and his father just once - and then he's mostly out of focus.
Film time dilates to dwell on seemingly less important moments, as when Alex walks through sand dunes to the sea to write his diary (filmed from behind, a la Elephant). And there is plenty of mobile skater footage, shot on the boarder's favourite medium, Super 8.
There's a poetry in many of these sequences - especially a magical shot of skaters riding a jump, one after the other, that has something of the detached formal beauty of a nature documentary. Slow-mo moments are rife, as in Chris Doyle's work for Wong Kar Wai around the time of In The Mood For Love; these swim deliberately against the film's dramatic impetus, suggesting that the truth is outside any easy reading of this story as some sort of Crime & Punishment parable.
The sound texture goes beyond even the dislocation of image and soundtrack that Van Sant had already played with in Last Days, though here it's the music as much as the sound effects that sets up a weird and edgy counterpoint.
Nino Rota's soundtracks for Fellini's Juliet Of The Spirits and Amarcord are used as jaunty counterpoint to scenes of anguished solitude or as a lush, possibly ironic commentary on Alex's break-up with Jennifer, which happens with the dialogue turned off; pop songs and country and western ballads have a similar disjunctive function.
Perhaps it's this desire to shake the audience out of Hollywood complacency that led the director to use amateur actors - gathered through a casting call on My Space - for the main teen roles. Gabe Nevins, who plays Alex, has a fresh-faced impassivity that works well, leaching all melodrama out of his predicament; but the stilted acting of some of his peers seems a pointlessly sophisticated trope if it's deliberate, and pure bad casting if it isn't.
And it's this feeling that lingers at the end of what is nevertheless an original and even memorable addition to Van Sant's filmography: the suspicion that this Holden-Caulfield-meets-Raskolnikov yarn is too slight, at least on a dramatic level, to support the impressionistic deconstruction that Van Sant subjects it to.
Rain Kathy Li
Gus Van Sant