Note: this is the first of several pieces I will doing that explore the previous work of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Director.
Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park
Gus Van Sant’s nomination this year for Milk is richly deserved, and not just for the energy and vision that he brought to that project, but for the smaller, micro-budget flicks that he has poured so much of his heart and soul into for the past seven or so years.
Paranoid Park is one of those films, and it is a reminder that Van Sant is not just a guy who can navigate the studio waters while still finding a way to get his vision across, but is someone who can make so much out of so very, very little.
For me, movies like Paranoid Park are a breath of fresh air. Independent film has become so standardized over the past few years, filled with so many textures and tropes that movies like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite have taught us to expect, that it’s hard to find a quiet indie that isn’t so up it’s own ass about how hip and cool it is.
Paranoid Park is not hip or cool, but is intimate and soulful, and it shows Van Sant continuing to master his understanding of teenage tragedy that he began with Elephant a few years back. While that film used disjointed chronology to explore the many effects of a Columbine-like shooting in a middle American high school, Paranoid Park uses it to portray the trauma of a lonely kid slowly coming to grips with a terrible crime he was involved with, and what he should do to atone for it.
The kid is Alex Tremain (Gabe Nevins), a skateboarding high schooler navigating his teenage world of problems. His parents are moving toward divorce. His girlfriend is one of those talkative prom queen types whom Alex tells us in voiceover is still a virgin, and will probably want to remedy this in the near future. Alex seems largely detached from most of his problems, seeking refuge instead in the world of skating, which Van Sant depicts in slow motion 8mm video, grinding a skater’s run down to the lyrical quality of ballet. The technique is effective, as we see the dreamlike state Alex succumbs to while observing skateboarding, a state we can’t help but be swept away in as well.
Alex’s life soon takes a complicated turn. A security guard is killed in a train yard not far from Paranoid Park, a skate park that Alex has been frequenting. We know that he was at the park on the night in question and wound up in the train yard, but was he involved in the crime? Van Sant slowly unravels the night’s events, originating certain moments early in the film and doubling back to show them in a new context, until all of the information is revealed.
Alex narrates the film with readings from his own journal, which he begins keeping as he wrestles with his involvement in the crime. His narration has a dry, disconnected flow to it, as if it is being spoken by someone who is not fully in their own story. The casting of Nevins is key in accomplishing this; IMDB tells me it is his first film, which is not surprising considering Van Sant’s penchant for casting largely non-professional actors and unknowns in much of his indie work. It is easy to understand the appeal, as Nevins is completely correct for the role. He was sixteen when they shot the film but, with his open face and shaggy hair, looks like he could be younger. This makes his casting spot-on; he seems even less capable of really understanding the horror of the crime or what to do about it.
I won’t spoil how the film unfolds, except to say that Van Sant does a tremendous job of portraying Alex’s guilt and trauma. Too often in movies slow motion is used because the filmmaker has no other ideas, but Van Sant uses it for a purpose. Check out the scene of Alex in the shower and the way the camera holds as the water rushes down over him, encasing his face in his shaggy hair and grinding time down to the point of almost standing still. He also makes great use of the single camera take in the film; while he followed his characters in Elephant with long, continuous shots to create the illusion of real time, he uses them here to accent small moments that lighten the tone of an otherwise mournful film. Watch for the single take of Alex listening to his little brother recite a movie to him, or the scene when the skateboarding kids get called to the principal’s office and slowly emerge from classroom doors and walk toward the camera.
Milk is clearly a huge achievement for Van Sant, but his heart seems to lie with these micro-budget projects. Some times they are great, with Paranoid Park and Elephant as examples, and some times terribly self-indulgent, with Last Days as the ultimate example. Regardless, they seem to represent a special challenge each time out, with Paranoid Park resonating as a great example of what can be done when a great director strips a project down to its barest essentials and tries to tell a compelling story. I just think it’s a shame that Milk and Good Will Hunting are the only films that Van Sant seems to be synonymous with to mainstream audiences. It would be nice to see some of his smaller fare get more attention when awards season comes around.