I feel like I need to clean myself in some heretofore unknown way. Paranoid Park (TIFF review here) has left me feeling compromised and uncomfortable, not because it's intended to produce that effect, but because, I suspect, it's a false and bankrupt piece of filmmaking; at the very best, it's the work of someone who is deeply lost. I'm starting to think Gus van Sant belongs on a list with Elvis, Britney Spears, Tom Cruise, and Whitney Houston, as an American artist deformed and deranged by all the attention he has received, confused about himself beyond any redemption; if people were only more demanding of cinema, more perceptive, surely this would be transparently obvious. I begin to understand why Last Days stands out as his best film in recent years, since one suspects he could identify quite easily with Kurt Cobain, at this point in his career.
My reaction has nothing to do with the subject matter of the film. I greatly admire the novel on which Paranoid Park is based. I'd read it as a sort of homework, since I had no opportunity to preview the film and wanted to possibly be able to write about it. The book, by Blake Nelson, tells a very moving story, written with the directness, simplicity of language, and emotional integrity of our own Chris Walter, though with slightly less sex-drugs-and-profanity, since it's aimed at the Young Adult market. It involves a teenaged preppy skateboarder in Portland who defends himself against a thuggish railway security guard, and accidentally causes - or contributes to - his death. The boy is traumatized, wracked with guilt; he wants to tell someone, but the adults around him are either too caught up in their own confused dramas, or too inclined to mistrust skaters and assume the worst about them, for him to be able to unburden himself. His silently carrying the memory of this event forces him into a new understanding of life, and changes his relationship with the people around him; these transformations make up the bulk of the narrative, and are, more or less, its subject. Issues of class are also touched on: another skater implicated in the death, a street kid who had been hitching a train with the narrator, is forced into hiding, and his friends - also on the streets - are convinced, when the cops come around asking questions, that the middle-class kid narked on them, a subplot completely eliminated from van Sant's telling of the tale. It's a worthwhile book; it captures the deep sensitivity of the young, and how difficult it is for them to forge connections between their complex inner experience and the intimidating, condescending, and judgmental "adult world" that surrounds them. I would gladly recommend it to any teen reader, would give it to my kids if I had any; Nelson impresses me considerably, and adults will dig his book too.
I'm not sure who, exactly, the film of Paranoid Park is aimed at, but I think kids, for one, will be too smart to buy into it. Moviegoers might be easier to fool: at first, when you see Christopher Doyle's grainy home-movie footage of skaters, you feel excited, thinking that the film will harken back to Mala Noche and Drugstore Cowboy, which both used home movie footage to excellent effect. (I frankly forget if My Own Private Idaho does or not; it's been a long time). Van Sant's first two films remain my favourites, and everyone is encouraged to go see Mala Noche when it screens at the Cinematheque later this month; it's an interesting, important film, and tells a story about characters you will care about, and come to understand, and it contains complex and thought-provoking narratives about homosexuality, class, and social hierarchy in general. And it's pretty to look at, even if it was shot on a shoestring.
Unfortunately, any similarities between van Sant's earlier work and Paranoid Park disappear quite quickly into the film. The grainy footage of skaters skating - Doyle's skating scenes are one of the only consistent pleasures in the film - is soon replaced by a lengthy, Bela-Tarr-influenced tracking shot of one skater kid walking down a hallway in highschool that could be an outtake from van Sant's earlier Elephant -- except that this young actor, Gabe Nevins, is even more expressionless than the kids in that film. This is the first huge question the film raises: why does van Sant hide all the churning emotion of the text behind this blank-faced prettyboy's vacuous, unblinking gaze? Why did he even choose him at all (casting him off Myspace, in what seems a rather obvious publicity-seeking gimmick)? It's probably not the kid's fault that he can't act, or that, at the least, he completely fails to convey any of the inner turmoil he describes; one wonders if van Sant even informed him what emotions he was supposed to be showing at given junctures, or if he just had him walk around directionless and stunned. Nevins' voice-over narration is so sapped of feeling and so dumbed-down from the already pretty straightforward source material that it almost seems to suggest that this is van Sant's opinion of kids - that they're pretty to look at, shallow, and inarticulate; it's an injustice to the novel's rich main character, to Blake Nelson's sensitive handling of youth - and quite an insult to skaters, on top of that!
There are bizarre stylistic choices made throughout the film, too: the music veers from entirely appropriate minimalist glitch electronica and moody Elliot Smith songs to bizarre and arbitrary-seeming carnivalesque passages from Nino (I shit you not) Rota, which mystified me, seeming to undercut the text, even to mock it. There are also various shots of Nevins which are very obviously intended to fetishize his beauty - to queer the camera eye and look at him with desire - but this too seems irrelevant to the material at hand and devoid of carefully thought-out purpose, feeling more like a gimmick designed to do nothing more than trigger reactions and to raise questions about what van Sant intends. I'm glad that van Sant is approaching queer themes again (and am still curious about his Harvey Milk movie), but there is only a very slight homoerotic element to the book, which you might not even notice. Paranoid Park (the film) nearly drools over Nevins at times, foregrounding what at most should be a hinted subtext and confusing and misdirecting the audience: is Alex - the Nevins character - gay? Is Jared gay? Is Scratch gay? No: the DIRECTOR is gay, and he can't let the film stand without making sure we know. I cared too much about the story van Sant was supposedly telling to not be annoyed at such irrelevancies.
Van Sant's tendency to call attention to his own directorial choices in framing Nevins is in keeping with the overall strategy of his film, which calls attention to itself as art object at every turn, using slow motion, repetition of images, jagged, non-sequential restructurings of perfectly linear source material, and so forth to aestheticize the experience to the nth degree, as if the point of the work of art is to be a work of art and to get noticed as such, not to speak to the community in any way, to have a theme, to have (gasp) a moral purpose, or (God forbid) to tell a story. It may be pointing at the moon, but it wants you to look at its finger. Even if we completely forget the source novel and view Paranoid Park on its own terms - it's a gamey, confused experience, and, like Todd Solondz's horrible, empty Palindromes, at least some of its bizarre choices seem to have been made simply so the press will have puzzles to play with. "Oooh, Mr. van Sant - why did you cast the film off Myspace? Why the charged glances between Alex and Scratch? What's the meaning of the Nino Rota music? Why did you scramble around the sequence of events? Why the repeated closeup of Alex writing the words 'Paranoid Park?' What are you trying to say about young people?"
Gus van Sant is trying to say nothing whatsoever about young people, I am quite convinced. He likes to look at them. Maybe he wishes he still was one. He doesn't really understand them, though he'd like to think he does, because he'd like them to like him. He'd really like MOVIE CRITICS to like him, too, and to take him seriously as an artist.
I can't help but conclude that THAT is the purpose of Paranoid Park. It's not even art for art's sake - it's art for the artist's sake. But what the fuck do I care about Gus van Sant?
Those who are curious about the film can see it at the Vancity tonight, as a post-festival encore. Compared to the above, the writeup clearly demonstrates how different people's takes on a film can be. Maybe if you go in with much lower hopes than I had, you'll enjoy the film more - who knows?
(Thanks to Simone and Frank, two fellow film buffs who, in different ways, influenced this review)