PARANOID PARK A-
USA France (85 mi) 2007 d: Gus van Sant
An impressionistic portrait of a moody, self-absorbed teenage male who remains disinterested and aloof from just about every connecting social fabric of society, not the least of which includes girls and sex, absent parents who are separated and heading for divorce, a school that offers little incentive, and a mall in town where kids meet that’s pretty much just like any other mall, so instead he immerses himself in skateboard culture, filled with other outsider kids who are as bored as he is with nothing better to do. The sense of alienation in this film is palpable and artistically expressed, from slowing down the speed of the film as a character walks in slow motion through school hallways, but even more through an inventive sound design that includes odd electronic sounds, like an updated Antonioni RED DESERT (1964), and the unmistakable sounds of Fellini’s musical nonpareil Nino Rota. Abstract to the core, van Sant adapted Blake Nelson’s novel, reducing it to mere fragments in a reconstructed kaleidoscope mosaic, while also directing and editing the film. Shot in Portland, Oregon by Wong Kar-wai stalwart Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, the opening shot of a bridge at dusk is held steady as car lights zoom past like colorful laser beams of light before providing a collage of grainy video imagery of skateboarders moving in and out of view, like a darkened blur of moving shadows. The voice of Gabe Nevins as Alex reads a voiceover letter in halting fashion, something he’s written in his notebook to try to make sense of a situation he can’t comprehend.
Much of the film revolves around Alex’s face, youthful, innocent, open like a book but completely unreadable, remaining detached throughout, while the camera follows him wherever he goes, occasionally accompanied by his internal thoughts from his notebook, but more often from a unique sound design configured by Leslie Shatz, who has worked with van Sant since GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997). Told out of sequence, Alex is called out of class and questioned by a police detective who is investigating a rail yard death near Paranoid Park, an undulating design of rolling curves and rising walls underneath a highway overpass where adolescent boys congregate with skateboards, a kind of free form improvisational expression created in a grungy part of town by the kids themselves, described by Alex as: “They’d built the Park illegally, all by themselves. Train hoppers, guitar punks, skate drunks, throwaway kids. No matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse.” Alex recalls his whereabouts on a certain Saturday night to the detective with a natural high school specificity, what food he ate, how it was prepared, how much it cost, but due to his fractured state of mind, one suspects he is leaving something out. We meet his high strung girl friend Jennifer, Taylor Momsen, through a phone call where he’d rather hang out with his buddy Jared (Jake Miller) than be with her, where even this partial glimpse reveals plenty about the tangential state of their affairs. Later in the company of his buddies he can be overheard calling her a drama queen. Little if any emotion is ever expressed by the boys who all but dominate this film, as Jennifer is a discardable part in his life while Macy, Lauren McKinney, who he meets at Paranoid Park, is more of a tomboy who fits in as one of the guys.
What happened that Saturday night is the key to the film, alluded to frequently though not necessarily in any coherent order throughout the film, as Alex gets separated from Jared and meets Macy and a few other guys at Paranoid Park, including an older boy named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green) who offers him a beer and a ride on a freight train. The idea of hopping a freight appeals to him and despite what the filmmaker decides to show us, an accidental death bordering on the surreal, it’s all ambiguously unclear what actually happened due to the hazy state of Alex’s mind. Following right on the heels of this sequence is another of Jennifer losing her virginity to Alex at a party, where Alex couldn’t be less interested, but of course she’s thrilled to run off and tell her girl friends. Later, depicted like a scene from the silent film era as mouths move but no words are heard, Alex breaks up with her in front of her cheerleader girl friends dressed in uniform after school, seen standing out of focus in the background, all told with the zany music of Nino Rota running through his mind. This second scene suggests more happened at the first, but is being repressed due to the blunt emotional trauma, which is a lot for one kid to endure alone. Both were likely sexual encounters gone wrong. There’s a fascinating way to bring all this together, as all the skateboarders in school are called in to see the detective, where in a slow motion shot in the hallway, more keep being added to the frame in a humorous montage of their scruffy, free spirited approach to life. It becomes emblematic, like a poster shot for the movie, as there’s something alluring yet completely under the surface about the appeal Paranoid Park has on these disconnected young boys. All captured in a poetic reconfiguration, using sound, music, lightness and dark, van Sant keeps devising new strategies to fascinate his audience with cinematic ideas and thoughts whose narrative surface is barely there, yet whose haunting power and influence lies within.