Paranoid Park
Director: Gus Van Sant. Cast: Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Lauren McKinney, Jake Miller, Scott Patrick Green, Daniel Liu, John Michael Burrowes, Grace Carter, Jay Williamson. Screenplay: Gus Van Sant (based on the novel by Blake Nelson).

Photo © 2007 IFC Films/MK2 Productions
Since its world premiere at Cannes 2007, I have heard a number of critics extol Paranoid Park as the ranking achievement among Gus Van Sant's recent spate of patient, crystalline, time-capsule films, a quartet that began with Gerry's ineffable trek in 2002, then the Palme d'Or-winning Elephant in 2003, and then the threnody for Kurt Cobain, Last Days, in 2005. Paranoid Park also extends another tetralogy in Van Sant's career, now so distant that we may have lost sight of it amidst his recent redirections, but after Drugstore Cowboy, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and To Die For, the new film, adapted from Blake Nelson's novel, reprises a Van Sant proclivity for reimagining and visualizing marginal or self-consciously subcultural literature. (Part of Van Sant's imputed sin in restaging Psycho, still my favorite of his movies, sprang no doubt from his uppity departure from his implied allegiance to artistic peripheries.) Paranoid Park, then, may imply a kind of double-apotheosis for this enigmatic auteur, finally demonstrating to some viewers—not least Amy Taubin, J. Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, the Cannes jury, and the Cahiers editors—that the poetic outsider realism of the early films and the formal compression of the later ones are, at last, a compatible match. I don't disagree so much as I wonder about the value of such a marriage (strange word for Van Sant). The looping, glassy, almost virtual sense of time in Elephant thrived, I think, from having the morbid intractability of linear time, with its ghastly conclusion, to play off; the "elephant" in the room isn't just the inevitability of violence, but the unavoidability of forward time, even in a world capable of the unreal, multiple, juxtaposed, oddly discontinous realities of youth, of high school, of art. Even more impressive to me was Last Days, a film I admire more and more in retrospect, given how fully a Pacific Northwest filmmaker with early-90s "alternative" credentials must have committed himself to making a Cobain film that wasn't hagiographic, sentimental, reverse-sentimental, or even particularly music-centered. Van Sant's aesthetic experiments—which in Last Days include the daring and foregrounded sound design of Leslie Shatz—assert their priority over any known version of the Cobain star text, but the film has such emotional delicacy and pearly structurations that it feels not like an arrogant or arbitrary imposition of personal obsessions but like a genuinely poetic and fully felt tribute, superficially incongruous but compatible with the spirit of the bellyaching melodist behind, say, "Pennyroyal Tea."

After all the fruitful tensions and unexpected interplays in those two films, Paranoid Park feels to me like the work of a technically precocious but disappointingly literal Van Sant imitator, losing the director's usual penchant for surprising, even willfully contrarian discovery. It's yet another experiment in solipsistic narrative, as though the rendering of purely subjective time and story had not been the project of so many recent films, all the way from corporate Hollywood to the independent festivals. The androgynous beauty of adolescent boys, another Van Sant hallmark which Elephant confronted with the gutsy limit-case of its killers and which Last Days elided with its buggy, wild-child vision of Cobain, gets an unabashed and not particularly illuminating reprise in Paranoid Park, full of airborne skaters and lambent close-ups. Chris Doyle's and Rain Kathy Li's photography has come in for a great deal of praise, and indeed I admire their distillation of colors and inspired use of light—sculptural in what it delineates in a face or a space, but without the plastic severity that "sculptural" might connote. But the end toward which these hermetically striking images work is a not particularly convincing expiation of a not especially persuasive crime by a not particularly involving protagonist, and that's at least two "not particularly"s too many for a film of such ostentatious workmanship to withstand. The impress of Bresson's Pickpocket is enormous here: Gabe Nevins, as the central character Alex, is a shiftless penitent, an odd visual study who still blends with a crowd, a subject of inchoate attractions to women and, more subtly, to men, but an almost inveterate loner-bystander. One of the most revealing things he does in the movie is to park his mother's car on the other side of a bridge from a major skate-park he has driven out to visit. His ostensible reason is to protect the car from in a more sedate neighborhood, but he also reveals just how automatic, even "logical" it is for Alex to hang back from a group he is ostensibly joining—which only makes it more curious when he agrees to spend an evening gallivanting around with an older dropout-drifter he meets at the park, leading (though hardly inevitably, and certainly not purposely) to a semi-offhanded confrontation that ends with a not quite blameless death.

Even in the face of such doted-upon lighting and color processing, such gemlike editing, such carefully choreographed framing and montage, is it too flat to say that this pivotal crisis feels both revolting and flat—overstated but also artificialized by the film, and heavily overdetermined (angle of approach, time of day, two trains running, cosmically orchestrated timing)? Is there room to say that the movie doesn't violate its recipe by sticking so resolutely with Alex's own anxious, broken, stunted sense of what has happened, but that the mix of the ghastly with the inarticulate B–

Cannes Film Festival (2007): 60th Anniversary Prize
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Director (Van Sant; also cited for Milk); Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li)

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