Youth Without Youth
Gus Van Sant's Latest Follows Another Search For Personal Truth
The modern horror and war movie have neutralized the cinematic depiction of extreme bodily trauma. This is not to imply that audiences are inure to the blood in Hostel 2 or We Were Soldiers, just that when the extremes have been so pushed, shock isn't what it used to be. About halfway through Gus Van Sant's new, wondrous Paranoid Park, though, an event and single shot of such blunt violence passes by on the screen and, for once, that tightness in the belly and tingling at the back of the neck returns. What you see produces a palpably visceral response. But you also soon realize it's not what you're seeing that's making the mouth salivate with fear--it's the emotional and psychological weight surrounding the event that is. The event recasts a great deal of everything you've seen so far, and it provides all the information needed to explain why the teenaged Alex (Gabe Nevins) looks like he has no idea what is going on in his life.
That Van Sant doesn't hinge Paranoid Park solely on this violent act in the way that Michael Haneke bent Caché around its bloodletting highlights how sophisticated Van Sant's filmmaking is here. Park is ethereally nonlinear, doing little more than following newcomer Nevins and trying to interpret the world through his eyes, and the movie doesn't really answer any of its central questions in any traditional storytelling fashion. But those conventional movie oversights can't prevent Park from being one of the most acutely sensitive and fascinatingly prescient examinations of a young American's pulsating inner life in some time.
It's difficult to think of another director in the modern era who has created such rich and resonant works after flatly rejecting both conventional studio financing and traditional narrative storytelling as Van Sant has in the past decade. His Columbia-produced 2000 Finding Forrester, a male weepie in the Good Will Hunting mode, was the last time he worked with both big-name studios and straight-ahead storytelling. Since Gerry and, specifically, Elephant and Last Days, Van Sant has returned to the prismatic, intimate storytelling that marked both My Own Private Idaho and especially Mala Noche in his early career. But where both of those felt like a young artist following a wild streak to find his own path, Park finds a director in total command of his filmic space, one that is episodic in temperament, poetic in its sparse but precise use of ideas and imagery, and unremittingly original. You can spot the influences that guided Van Sant there--from the pop music providing commentary and mood in Kenneth Anger's shorts to Andy Warhol's exploitation of naturalism's artifice, from Pier Paolo Pasolini's recognition of the transcendental power of the familiar to the meditative repetitions of Bela Tarr--but with Park, Van Sant has forged a hypnotic visual language all his own.
Park is, at its fragmented core, a murder mystery: A guard was killed at train tracks near a Portland, Ore., skateboard park that Alex, his friend Jared (Jake Miller), and other high-school skaters and locals call Paranoid Park. A detective comes to Alex's school to question all the skaters about the park, just to find out if any of them were there the night the guard was killed and to determine if they have any information about it. Alex was there, and knows something, and he's trying to get it all down in a handwritten story called "Paranoid Park," an idea planted in his head by his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), with whom he starts hanging out after breaking up with his girlfriend.
The plot points on this story line arrive in neither chronological order nor with any sort of discernible causal relationships, until about half way through, after which almost everything starts to come into sharp focus. The murder mystery, though, is almost an afterthought--but not a mere plot device, as that would be morally bankrupt. Van Sant is searching for something else, and finds it in Alex's everyday world--where skateboarders fly through the air like heavenly bodies, where students roam high-school hallways like banana republic despots, where every encounter with an nonpeer is merely a hurdle to be navigated and survived. Paranoid Park tries--and persuasively succeeds--to find that blinding fear moment when a kid is forced to become an adult, and seeks to articulate it not in the words or themes of mature fabulist narrative, but in the overwhelmingly sensory experience of sounds and images clashing across the screen. Male Noche, My Own Private Idaho, and Elephant suggested that Van Sant had a gift for portraying disaffected youth, but Paranoid Park offers sterling proof that he's one of cinema's most gifted chroniclers of adolescent confusion ever.