Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Paranoid Park (2007) A Film by Gus Van Sant

Paranoid Park is the film from Gus Van Sant that directly follows his venture into conceptual art (Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, in that order). The film has left me with extremely mixed feelings, and I'm driven to say that it is a film that uncomfortably bridges the aesthetic and narrative gap between Last Days and his latest Harvey Milk biopic. I have seen the film praised as a beautiful conjunction of the disparate talents Van Sant has shown in his career, from the rather conventional Hollywood narratives to the bold minimalist work. Conversely, this is the reason why I feel the film is his weakest showing in recent memory, leaning closer and more contrivedly to his existential trilogy while also awkwardly lumping in some hackneyed elements.

In keeping with his propensity towards relatively hip but nonetheless confused adolescents, Van Sant penetrates the character of Alex, a high school skateboarder with separated parents, a girlfriend he doesn't connect with, and an unsettling secret he nervously holds inside of him. Through MySpace, Van Sant discovered the bulk of his on-screen performers, Gabe Nevins being one of them in the role of Alex. Ironically canceling out the method of non-actors in the first place, Paranoid Park gains little semblance of truth throughout its duration. While Nevins does intend to play a character of withheld emotions, disconnection, and social anxiety, this is confused with wooden line-reading. Often times scenes that could be genuinely affecting are spoiled by Nevins' horrendous performance in the lead. Moreover, the friends around him - or the "skateboarding community" as a detective who investigates the death of a railroad attendant, the stem of Alex's turmoil, puts it - are stiff and simply embarrassing to watch. As a high school student (thankfully, just about finished), I can spot out such implausibility; the denizens of Paranoid Park speak with a severe lack of inflection that is certainly a harsh exaggeration of these types of students. The dialogue can be convincing but the acting immediately makes it artificial.

This breed of uncertainty extends to Van Sant's storytelling. Certainly I applaud his denial of convention, his ability to flow freely around the heart of his film while never losing complete control, but Paranoid Park is just a bit too jumbled. Both the soundtrack and the cinematography touch upon a broad arch of influences and sentiments; the spectrum of Elliot Smith ballads and Nina Rota excerpts to "Books"-esque experimental drones does not sit easily over the proceedings - especially given their spontaneous and brief interjections - and Chris Doyle's understated, casual images collide with grainy, slow-motion skateboarding footage. Although the latter often is a pleasing collision rather than a grating one, Van Sant's impressionistic flow does not frequently manage this. While there are many stirring scenes, like the close-up on Alex's soaking head in the shower to the mash-up of a sine wave and the exemplified natural sound of the running water (as usual, some of Van Sant's strongest scenes are saved for the shower), there is rarely a coherent or textured rhythm from sequence to sequence. All we see is the material for a potentially stimulating study of alienated adolescence.

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