Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)

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Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, is without question the best film of 2008 thus far. And if we consider it a 2007 film (it did qualify as such for the Independent Spirit Awards, for which it won one and was nominated for three), I would have to put it in the top four (certainly just as good as There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There, and No Country for Old Men).

Paranoid Park is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema (and I know that’s a cliché… but it’s true). I’ve seen six films in the theater over the last seven days, and admittedly such a schedule makes cinemagoing frightfully mundane—even laborious. But as I left Park I felt more alive and entranced by the beauty and possibility of cinema than I have since probably The New World. Like Malick’s film, Park is brimful of moments and sequences that are achingly beautiful.

Like several of Gus Van Zant’s more recent works (Elephant, Last Days), Park is on the experimental/lyrical/avant-garde side of things—which to this critic is definitely a good thing. Van Sant’s more mainstream films (Finding Forrester, To Die For, Goodwill Hunting) display a great mastery of the cinematic form, but the scope of the auteur’s striking talent and vision is only beginning to be fully realized. Paranoid Park is his most accomplished film—I might even dare to call it perfect.

But enough of the glittering generalities and over-the-top superlatives. So why is this film such a big deal? Why did it receive (and totally deserve) the 60th Anniversary prize at Cannes last year? Let me officially begin my review…

Adapted by Van Sant from the novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the seemingly simple story of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Alex (non-actor Gabe Nevins), who begins hanging out at a notorious Portland skate park (“Paranoid Park”) and associating with shady characters. One fateful night Alex accidentally kills a security guard, and the film is about how he deals with the (mostly psychological) consequences of this life-altering event.

Like its precursor and companion film, Elephant, Park features a cast of unknown teenage actors—a brilliant move that lends a striking awkwardness and realism to the film. Gabe Nevins is perfect in the lead role—a wide-eyed, innocent teenager who finds himself in the midst of something too horrible to comprehend. The film is told from his perspective, though in a non-linear, “never sure where or when we are” sort of fashion. Like a highschooler recounting his day at school to his mother, Alex gives us scarcely little in the way of sensical verbal narrative—repeating some things multiple times (with slight variations or shifted emphasis), retracting or reframing other things, giving staccato answers to immensely involved questions, etc. His fragmentary, confused perspective and stilted utterances speak many volumes of truth, however.

Unlike the fast-talking characters of other teen movies (Juno!), Nevins and the other adolescent actors in Park speak in the choppy, awkward, believable parlance of net-generation millennials. They talk about obligatory teen stuff (getting laid, making weekend plans), their personal problems (absentee dads, divorcing parents, annoying girlfriends), and even give MTV-style lip service to the problems of the world (Iraq, starving children in Africa, etc). They are the teenagers of today, and Van Sant’s eye captures them more perceptively than any film I’ve seen.

Paranoid Park explores the contemporary teen psyche well—externalizing the confusing and contradictory voices, influences, and narratives that crowd their mediated minds. Nevins’ Alex is never quite present in his interactions with people and lacks a tangible grasp of his own unfolding life. A scene of him driving a car and reacting to various songs playing on the radio (from classical to rap) displays his fluid, impressionable sense of self. Indeed, music is a huge part of the film, as it is in any teenager’s life. There is sort of “iPod shuffle” aesthetic to the soundtrack of Park—an eclectic, seemingly random assemblage of artists (everyone from Elliott Smith to Beethoven) that embodies the alternately angsty, meditative, whimsical, and disturbing mood of the film.

In the end, Paranoid Park is a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem). There are multiple levels to this: Obviously Alex languishes under the tension between wanting to unload the terrible information that he holds and yet knowing that he can’t; but he also faces the more unsettling question of how he can live with himself in keeping it forever secret. Can one cordon off the unpleasantries of guilt and memory?

This is a film that astutely captures one young man in his first encounter with the burden of interiority—both as an adolescent in search of an authentic identity (beyond the Facebook self, the cell phone self, the skatepark self, etc) and as a human who must reckon with a reality that upsets the tidy balance of segmentation. All of this is rendered in far more organic and unpretentious ways than my discussion here would suggest. Still, it is complicated, challenging material—definitely not for the recreational filmgoer.

One of the things people will either love or hate about Park is the use of extended lyrical skateboarding sequences. During these audio-visual “interludes” (shot in a more home-video style), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, The Quiet American) delicately follows the acrobatic swerving, flying, and weaving patchwork of teenage skater boys in slow-motion. It’s a remarkable sight to behold. For me, these were the most heartbreakingly profound moments—instances of making the familiar strange, of alienating the material environment while also exposing its truth. These scenes (and the whole movie), remind me of what realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed cinema was most adept at capturing: “the flow of life.” Unlike photography, which can only capture moments and not movement of reality in time, the cinema, Kracauer believed, has the ability to capture reality in motion—an indeterminate glimpse into the open-ended continuum and “flow” of material existence.

Kracauer often referred to “the street” (i.e. shots of large groups of people in motion) as one of the most thrilling applications of cinematic potential. In his seminal work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Kracauer wrote:

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving anonymous crowds… Each [face] has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow of possibilities and near-intangible meanings appears.

This applies to much of Van Sant’s film, which revels in the very indeterminacy and “near-intangible” meaning which photography and cinema uniquely relay. Indeed, much of Doyle’s photography in Park consists in long shots with purposefully little in the way of explicit meaning, point of view, or plot utility. As in Elephant, there are frequent tracking shots that simply follow Alex around as he walks in the school halls or carries his skateboard down a Portland sidewalk. Other shots linger on complicated faces (not just Alex) that could be thinking any number of things. There is a thrilling editorial restraint to this film, though it is no doubt a source of frustration for some viewers.

Clearly, Paranoid Park is not for everyone (again, a cliché!), but if you have any interest in seeing something truly unique and provocative and beautiful, I urge to go see this film. It comes out in NYC on March 7 and then releases wider as the month goes on.

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14 responses to “Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)

  1. I finally saw Elephant recently (my uncle was the propmaster). Pretty amazing…I’ll have to check this one out.

  2. I am a bigger fan of Last Days than Paranoid Park, but really enjoyed the soundtracking and Super 8 stuff in the latter.

    As far as Kracauer is concerned, I have always thought Van Sant was a perfect foil to Kracauer’s phenomenology. The tracking shots in Paranoid Park, Last Days, and Elephant are all the same. Rather than opening possibilities, providing a space for the “flow of life,” these shots close off all possibility other than death (hence the whole “Death Trilogy” thing). The final tracking shot in Elephant, for example, is pure determinism. It sets the viewer, with the subject of the shot, on a course for death from which nothing else, even the film, emerges. Van Sant’s close focus there in direct distinction to the deep focus Kracauer was so fond of. The end of Elephant robs us of any possibilities other than the credits.

    Same thing happens over and over in Last Days, which in essence is one long tracking shot from which its subject is not permitted any freedom. It is the opposite of A Man Escaped, as we know right from the beginning that the character in this lengthy shot is going to die. And then in Paranoid Park, the same hallway shot is employed a few times. While each one is a pure passage in time, as signified by the different speeds at which Van Sant uses, they lock us in to that naive despair that has overtaken Alex. They close his character off to other emotive potentials. The shots of the actual skaters at Paranoid Park may be the closest Van Sant has come to Kracauer, but even there the additional layers of artifice granted by the super 8, slow motions, lighting, and soundtrack seem more auteur than anything.

    As both a Kracauer and Van Sant fan, I would probably want to apply the redemption of physical reality to the Dardennes or something. Just tossing that out there…

  3. petertchattaway

    Brett, any thoughts on the moral critique of the film made here?

  4. M.Leary-
    Thanks for your great thoughts here. I’m a big Kracauer/Van Sant fan as well (and incidentally, I love the Dardennes and agree that Kracauer applies well to their films)… I do disagree with your reading of Van Sant’s recurring tracking shots as being essentially deterministic, closed-off, etc. These long take, close-focus shots may not be the “flow of life” (as the skateboarding scenes are), but they certainly fit into Kracauer’s notion of film being able to “caress one single object long enough to make us imagine its unlimited aspects.” Rather than feeling excluded or closed off in these scenes (as in the shot of Alex walking to the beach, or in the halls, or in any such shots in Elephant of Last Days), I feel the striking indeterminacy and strangeness of material reality. As Kracauer writes: “Natural objects…have a theoretically unlimited number of psychological and mental correspondences.” Furthermore, I think Kracauer ‘s discussion of the close-up and the presentation of facial texture, etc is totally appropriate to Van Sant. His long, focused shots on his actors’ faces
    expose what Kracauer described as “new and unsuspected formations of matter” where “skin textures are reminiscent of aerial photographs, eyes turn into lakes or volcanic craters. Such images blow up our environment in a double sense: they enlarge it literally; and in doing so, they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before”
    Where Kracauer maybe doesn’t fit so well with Van Sant in general and “Paranoid Park” in particular is the generally interior/mental connotation of the images. Kracauer never felt that anything having to do with the mental continuum was especially cinematic, and certainly as much as Van Sant’s films are about material existence, they are also highly cerebral. Still, for me, “Paranoid Park” is chiefly an encounter of images and materiality in all their indeterminate glory…

  5. Peter-
    Thanks for the link. I think this reading of “Park” is totally reductive and simplistic. The final scene of Alex burning his “confession” letter is in no sense an editorial statement by Van Sant about the relative morality of anything. It is tragic, yes, that the guard is dead. But it is also tragic that Alex is unable to tell anyone about what he knows. The film is less about moral ambivalence as it is about the burden of interiority that we all struggle with: not being able to articulate certain things about ourselves, either to others or to ourselves. I also do not see how the ending is in any way cathartic–which this guy seems to use as a justification of his calling the film “complicit with mass murder.” And it’s not like we know Alex gets away with it… the film leaves it very open-ended.
    I do like the description of Alex as a “Bressonian model,” however.

  6. Fair response, I can dig it.

    “Where Kracauer maybe doesn’t fit so well with Van Sant in general and “Paranoid Park” in particular is the generally interior/mental connotation of the images.”

    That is what I am harping on. I jotted out some more detailed thoughts on the conversation you started here over yonder. As much as I like the Death Trilogy/PP, I am looking forward to a break from morose Van Sant, another Even Cowgirls… or Good Will Hunting.

  7. I would not deny that in a certain sense, my understanding of the film is “reductive.” I morally object to the movie and its treatment of certain subjects (as I acknowledge, combined with my hatred of ELEPHANT) and I don’t see any point in getting past that.

    The final scene of Alex burning his “confession” letter is in no sense an editorial statement by Van Sant…

    I would agree if it hadn’t been for (1) the fact that Alex is told by another character, one that we are cued to see as morally attractive, that writing = catharsis, and (2) the film identifies itself with the writing via the title.

    It is tragic, yes, that the guard is dead. But it is also tragic that Alex is unable to tell anyone about what he knows.

    The parallelism between those two sentences is exactly the attitude that I objected to in the movie.

    The film is less about moral ambivalence as it is about the burden of interiority that we all struggle with: not being able to articulate certain things about ourselves, either to others or to ourselves.

    To an extent yes, except that “moral ambivalence about a killing” is a presupposition of concentrating on the burden of interiority. My description of Alex as a Bressonian model was not intended to be a compliment. I agree with Pauline Kael who said that there is no point in watching people who can’t communicate if we’re not given any insight as to what they might have said if they could. And the fact that this soul-empty protagonist has to carry a homicide can’t help but make the homicide appear trivial. Imagine Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” without the inspector and with a Raskolnikov who says nothing for a sense of how much I loathe this film.

    I also do not see how the ending is in any way cathartic–which this guy seems to use as a justification of his calling the film “complicit with mass murder.”

    I think I answered the first part already, but for the record I only used that last phrase in reference to ELEPHANT. The act with which PARANOID PARK is complicit is negligent manslaughter or somesuch (bad enough … but not mass murder).

    And it’s not like we know Alex gets away with it… the film leaves it very open-ended.

    The film begins with a police investigator who gradually drops out of the movie, like Anna in L’AVVENTURA. How much more explicitly could Van Sant make it that he views the killing or whether Alex gets away with it as unimportant? And yes, this very open-endedness is exactly what I object to about the film … it’s cathartic about this poor too-sensitive lad’s inarticulateness and open-ended about homicide. The *combination* is what’s repulsive.

  8. “I agree with Pauline Kael who said that there is no point in watching people who can’t communicate if we’re not given any insight as to what they might have said if they could.”

    Absolutely. But I wasn’t as bugged by how mercenary the direction Van Sant takes the film could be in light of the way he treats similar themes in the Death Trilogy. Zizek is always harping on the difference between apathetic and active nihilism in Nietszche, and in Elephant there is equal condemnation of both – the culture that produced the shooters and the shooters themselves. I guess I found the same thing happening in Paranoid Park, just because the kid burns the letter doesn’t mean he actually obtains catharsis. Similar to Blake in Last Days, the one who lives in Gerry, and the shooters in Elephant. There is no catharsis, just death and the effect it has on others.

  9. Great review, I loved the film very much as well. My fave Van Sant film is still “My Own Private Idaho.”

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  14. To be honest I watched this in class, and it nearly put me to sleep aha

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