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Paranoid Park has been seemingly lost in the shuffle as far as Gus Van Sant 2008 projects go, with Milk garnering the awards buzz and cultural capital–a return to mainstream filmmaking for Van Sant (that still allows for some of his vintage lyrical flourishes) equipped with a timely political message (thanks to the rise of Obama and the fall of gay marriage equality in California). But while Milk soaks up the attention and leaves the lasting social impact due to its narrative, Paranoid Park is Van Sant’s true cinematic masterpiece of 2008 (and possibly of his career to-date), lasting long in the memory and gaining deep resonance with each subsequent viewing.

That last sentence is perhaps not entirely applicable to his oeuvre this decade, which has memorably seen him shake off the mainstream stories of Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester for the abstract, nonlinear Varda/Tarkovsky/Tarr-isms of his “Death Trilogy” (sometimes dismissively called his “Inertia Trilogy”) of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Paranoid Park continues in the vein of this trilogy, managing somehow to serve as a summation of this period of his work (as well as perhaps a summation of his entire filmography) while also eclipsing it.

While I enjoyed Elephant (it was my favorite film of that year), its seeming blase emptiness has seen it fade in memory, and many of the stylistic choices Van Sant made in that film are utilized to a far more impressive and moving end in Paranoid Park. To be sure, there’s not much inertia in the force of this film, glacial pace aside. There is, however, death.

As in Elephant, here Van Sant employs nonprofessional teenage actors to gain a sense of verismilitude of performance, mainly in the guise of Portland native Gabe Nevins as skateboarder Alex. The film, based upon Blake Nelson’s novel of the same name, is structured around a letter that Alex writes to his friend Macy (a smirking Lauren McKinney), describing his involvement in the involuntary manslaughter of a security guard.

The film’s narrative is structured in a manner that skates (no pun intended) around this plot point, though it is already foremost in Alex’s mind as the film starts, capturing him writing the letter in his journal, the words “Paranoid Park” scrawled in pencil on the front page. The brilliance of Van Sant’s construction of narrative and editing is to make the audience aware of the death while keeping us at-bay from Alex’s cognizance of it, so that when the grisly scene does come, it is so jarring in its violence that it causes a rupture in the placid pace and tone of the film that the viewer is as haunted as Alex is for the duration of the film. And while Nevins is a nonprofessional, his lack of craft seems to work in his favor, as the paranoia and guilt of the situation manifests itself in stoic teenage nonchalance, halting vocalization, and an opaque emotional expressiveness that feels messily incoherent, which to my mind is a perfect tone for this character struggling to keep his secret. To me, this works because of Van Sant’s juggled timeline, and the repetition of certain shots at the end of the film echo back to the beginning, only now we have experienced what Alex has and can read gravity on his seemingly blank face, noticing a bit lip or a fearful look in his eye that earlier we would have mistaken as inexpression.

In many ways I find Van Sant a spiritual brother to the novelist Dennis Cooper, who has also crafted nonlinear stories where the sum is greater than its parts–most notably in Period and My Loose Thread. Both Van Sant and Cooper have made careers on examining the sensuality of violence and the violence of sex within and among adolescent males. Both men have created countless protagonists that both critique and fetishize teenage masculiity, beautifully imperfect boys whose lack of eloquence masks the turmoil existing in their psyches at that exact intersection where sexuality and danger meet. Though exoticized, these are searing portrayals of adolescence lacking the sentimentality and melodrama of most media and cultural depictions of teenagers. It seems unfair to criticize Van Sant, as many have, for focusing so studiously on the blank faces of androgynous adolescent males; after all, we don’t take Woody Allen (or, at least, didn’t until Soon-Yi came along) to task for doing the same with luminous young women, nor do we have an issue with Charlie Kaufman’s stable of Impossible Bitches. Van Sant engages with Laura Mulvey’s critique of the male gaze while also upending it, focusing that gaze instead on the gender responsible for it, creating a queered subtext that is, frankly, cinematically revolutionary. In Gabe Nevins, Van Sant has finally found his perfect adolescent muse, capturing his hulking shoulders and long limbs while contrasting it to the too-smallness of his head framed by wispy, shaggy brown hair. There are shots here that Van Sant captures which are reminsicent of portraiture, a disconcerting mix of Carravagio and Ryan McGinley.

What elevates the film into a pure cinematic experience is Van Sant’s mixture of visuals and sound. Leslie Shatz should be lauded for her sound design–the scraping of the pencil as Alex writes the film’s title, the rolling of skateboard wheels down a deserted hallway, every perfectly teenage grunt and moan and sigh. And Christopher Doyle (who, along with Van Sant’s usual cinematographer Harris Savides, has the best eye in the business) and Rain Kathy Li create sumptuous visuals, alternating from tremendously expressive formalism to tracking shots to standard skate video Super 8 style. The best description for this film that I can come up with is “luscious”; there is tremendous depth of field and texture in every shot, one example being when Alex sits on a bench at the beach, long strands of grass vivid in the foreground as they bisect his corporeality rendered soft and blurred at the edges. The film is full of bravura moments: an endless line of skaters caught in mid-flight at their peak like grungy Icaruses, ending with one who can’t quite hold onto his board as he descends; Alex listening to the radio, his expressions shifting as the music changes from hip-hop to classical to Cast King’s “Outlaw” (with its refrain of “die like a man”); Alex and his girlfriend (Gossip Girl‘s Taylor Momsen, whose resemblance to Avril Lavigne made “Sk8r Boi” pop into my head whenever she was onscreen) as they lose their virginity, Alex the very picture of lassitude as her blonde hair sweeps across his face; and the greatest one: Alex takes a shower after the security guard’s death, hair obscuring his face as it gets wet while the lighting gets dark. As the shot progresses, the shower takes on the sound of a rain forest–rushing water and squawking birds–and, while realizing the gravity of his situation, Alex covers his face with his hands as the lighting is bright and luminous again, and the camera frames his head near wallpaper of birds on branches.

Narratively and sociologically there are many issues to unpack in Paranoid Park (Amy Taubin, for one, sees the allure of the skate park and its denizens as homerotic), but ultimately what I’m left with is the mastery of Van Sant, Shatz, and Doyle and Li. With Paranoid Park, they’ve made the purest contemporary argument for cinema as poetry that I’ve seen, the kind of film I wish was more abundant. It’s the kind of movie that reaffirms everything I’ve ever loved about that seemingly frivolous confluence of image and sound that very rarely manages to elevate into something like art.


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