Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Oct 03, 2007 4:25 am 
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What's most important?

The film publicity lays it out about Paranoid Park with a synopsis that goes like this: "Alex, a teenage skateboarder, accidentally kills a security guard in the vicinity of Paranoid Park, Portland’s tough skate park. He decides to say nothing." This does little justice to Van Sant's complicated, understated, beautiful film.

But in action terms indeed that's all that happens. You could almost call this a police non-procedural. The story isn't told in the simple order suggested by the synopsis. The audience only gradually learns what Alex (Gabe Nevins) got involved in, and as the synopsis says, he never tells anybody (though viewers get to see it). He alludes vaguely to something bad that’s happened when talking to Macy (Lauren McKinney), a smart, ironic girl who seems to move in on Alex as Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), who wants to be his girlfriend, moves out (he breaks up with Jennifer after they’ve had sex). Macy suggests that to get it off his chest Alex can write a letter or diary about whatever happened—then, if he likes, just burn it. Through following Alex’s various writing sessions, Van Sant weaves in the story of that event he can’t talk about, doesn’t know what to do about, and can’t stop thinking about.

His best friend Jared (Jake Miller) thinks Alex is crazy to give up “free sex” by breaking up with Jennifer; but he does. Maybe what has happened to Alex puts having sex into perspective for him But even before that going to Paranoid Park with Jared was more interesting to Alex at this stage than Jennifer. Paranoid Park is an awesome place to skateboard. It’s also scary: scary because it’s a bad part of town, and there are tough older guys who hang out there; and also challenging for Alex because he doesn’t think he’s good enough to skate in public. But it calls to him even when Jared can’t go there with him. He goes alone one night, and that’s when he talks to some of the older guys and afterwards the bad stuff happens.

The story about the death of the security guard by the railroad tracks comes up on the TV news. It looked accidental, but then a possibility of homicide appeared. Because the train tracks where the death occurred are near Paranoid Park, Detective Richard Lu (Dan Liu) shows up at Alex’s high school and all the skateboarders are summoned to talk to him. He interviews Alex separately later (but that’s seen before). Detective Lu is very good at talking to the boys. He’s completely non-threatening, but he does his job. However, it seems likely that as one kid says, he’s just being a cop, but doesn’t really know anything. Anyway, this story isn’t about the crime investigation; it’s just about Alex.

Alex’s and his little brother’s father has moved out and their parents are getting divorced, not an easy thing to deal with. What’s most important in Alex’s life right now? His involvement in accidental homicide? His parents’ divorce? A girl who want to have sex with him before he’s ready? Paranoid Park—a test of skateboarding manhood? The movie shows all these things competing for attention in Alex’s world.

Teenage boys tend to be somewhat opaque. The movie is true to that. Certainly Alex never shows others any sign of anxiety. He’s cool as a cucumber, but without being hard. (His face is gentle, almost pretty.) He’s simply a teenage boy. Van Sant, working swiftly and intuitively from Blake Nelson’s novel of the same name, set in Portland like the film, gets that right. Some of the dialogue is hilariously authentic teenage talk. After Jennifer and Alex have had sex, she's immediately offscreen on her cell phone to her best girlfriend saying, “We did it, we totally did it. It was awesome!” You could laugh so hard you’d cry. But the movie creeps up on you, it’s so understated. There is a lot of use of music. When Alex drives his mother’s car to the skate park alone that evening (he looks like a child behind the wheel) different music plays from rap to Beethoven’s Ninth, and Alex’s expressions change with each change of sound as if to express a boy’s sudden shifts of mood. The editing is swift and poetic, lyrical and beautiful.

Paranoid Park has a gruesome moment, but as should be clear by now, it’s generally notable for its subtlety and restraint (as was even Elephant, considering).

Van Sant follows the format of his last three films, Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days, and draws his actors mostly from Portland high schools as he did for Elephant. This time the cinematography is by Christopher Doyle. Doyle is associated with the spectacular blurry kinetic effects of Wong Kar Wai films, but he’s worked with static shots, and with other directors. His skill pays off in beautiful visuals throughout, the gift for flowing movement shown in the recurrent skateboarding sequences--which don’t go so much for showy runs as for cool, idiosyncratic moments. This quartet of new films from Van Sant, each quite distinctive from the other but possessed of a unifying stylistic harmony, restore his previously wavering reputation and mark him out unquestionably as one of American's more prominent cinematic auteurs of these times. And Paranoid Park is the most accessible of the four.

It's also the more interior as a psychological study (cryptic though it may be)—and the least attention-getting of these films. Gerry (which few have seen) is notable for its amazing real-time effects as it explores the horror of getting lost in the desert. Elephant leads up to a Columbine-style school massacre and is the opposite of Paranoid Park, because it’s very much a multi-viewpoint event film. Last Days is a dreamy mood piece about a doomed rock star fading into isolation and madness, à la Kurt Cobain. Paranoid Park has a terrible event at its center like those two preceding films, but approaches the event crab-wise. It’s all in the style. This story could have become a TV movie-of-the-week, perhaps, with a breathless moralistic finale. Van Sant’s distinctive touch is both in the elegantly offhand tale-telling and in the quiet finish. In a sense it’s a movie about forgiveness.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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