Friday, January 04, 2008

Write It Down and Set It To Music

Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)

Interest in Gus Van Sant’s succession of dreamy, listless, and morally ambiguous films seems to have waned in this country since ‘Elephant’ deservedly won him the Palme D’Or at Cannes. How bizarre that this film was only afforded a release on Boxing Day, surely a time at which nobody attends the cinema, with particularly hopeless distribution (it’s rare that I relent and pay an extortionate £10 to see a film at the Curzon Soho).

‘Paranoid Park’ is, perhaps mercifully, a good deal closer to ‘Elephant’ than Van Sant’s previous film, the overrated ‘Last Days’. ‘Last Days’, inspired by the suicide of Kurt Cobain, seemed to suggest that that tragic event could be attributed purely to boredom and disaffection, as opposed to any more complex malaise or personal torment. ‘Paranoid Park’ is the most subjective of this trilogy of films. Given that his films hardly aspire to be anything else, it’s odd that the word ‘subjective’ has been brandished against Van Sant pejoratively. ‘Paranoid Park’ captures its central character (an uncertain and hesitant teenage boy named Alex) at a period of profound dislocation and discomfort, facing his parents’ awkward divorce and unable to accept responsibility for his role in the particularly gruesome death of a railway security guard. Much like his portrayal of the high school mass-murderers in ‘Elephant’, Van Sant offers no explicit moral judgement or condemnation of Alex here – this is simply not his concern. Van Sant simply portrays Alex’s troubled existence in a fragmentary, but matter-of-fact manner.

I found it rather affecting and convincing, its desolate mood appropriately conveying isolation and estrangement from reality. Alex is an endearing character – neither academic nor especially intelligent (his voiceover is deliberately hesitant and without flow), he speaks in naturalistic language and somehow achieves his own appealingly clumsy poetry. This chimes with the dependable visual poetry of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose photographic language is among the most eloquent in contemporary cinema. The more rough-hewn Super 8 footage of Skateboarders comes from Rain Kathy Li – neatly conveying Van Sant’s obvious affection and understanding of the disaffected teenagers that dominate the Skate Parks of Portland, Oregon.

Even more striking than the rich and rewarding cinematography is the film’s bold and disorientating sound design. The use of wildly contrasting music – from Nino Rota’s famous score for ‘Juliet of the Spirits’ to some thrashing hardcore punk – highlights Alex’s confusion and internal torment. Similarly, the amplification of usually meaningless background noise serves to emphasise a sense of strife and disorder.

That Alex seems blank and empty on the outside has provoked Van Sant’s harshest critics, but there are convincing elements to this, notably his drifting away during science classes, his constantly shifting explanation to a Police Detective, his lack of interest in sex with his energetic but unengaging girlfriend and his burgeoning friendship with another female schoolmate. Surely this is a more complex depiction of adolescent emotions than the usual angry, passive-aggressive, confrontational stereotype?

Van Sant is indulging his preoccupation with disaffected local youth in this film, and some may feel uncomfortable with his near-fetishisation of his lead actor’s angelic features. This does at least serve to contrast his outward innocence and inexperience with the weighty burden of his terrible secret though, and therefore arguably has a justified purpose. Another Van Sant fetish, the shower scene (this must be the only reason he remade Psycho shot for shot), recurs here, although in this instance it’s one of the most powerful and symbolic moments in his cinema, a baptismal moment of quite surprising intensity, again with astonishing sound.

Alex pays a high price for venturing into Paranoid Park itself, a slightly menacing and unfamiliar world in which only the very best skaters go, many of them seemingly from social backgrounds far less comfortable than Alex’s own. Eventually we find out that Alex’s voiceover represents a letter depicting the events that he is encouraged to write by his friend Macy, a remarkably warm and perceptive character. At the end, he appears to burn the pages rather than deliver it to her, but at least his innermost, most disconcerting thoughts have somehow been released.

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