PRINT March 2008


Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park

Left: Correggio, Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1525, oil on wood, 23 1⁄4 x 17 5⁄12". © 2008/Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris/Art Resource, New York. Right: Gus Van Sant, Paranoid Park, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Alex (Gabe Nevins).

GUS VAN SANT emerges from the moving-camera, long-take minimalism of his “death trilogy”—Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005)—with a lyric, associatively edited portrait of a teenage skateboarder caught in an agonizing crisis of conscience. Paranoid Park, Van Sant’s adaptation of Blake Nelson’s young-adult novel of the same name, follows Alex (Gabe Nevins), a high school student in Portland, Oregon, who accidentally causes the death of a railroad security guard. Alex, receiving his first lesson in riding the rails from an older skater (Scott Green), arguably acts in self-defense, but the circumstances are dicey and the death itself horrific. (The guard falls into the path of an oncoming train.) Alex panics and runs away and then must wrestle with his guilt, his desire to confess, and his fear of the consequences if he does. An empathetic classmate (Lauren McKinney) suggests that he write down whatever is bothering him in the form of a letter, which he could then burn or perhaps send to her. For Alex, fire is the safer—and, for Van Sant, the visually more satisfying—option.

Nelson’s novel is nothing more or less than this very long letter, couched in the first person and the past tense, the events described chronologically. The film is a far more complicated object. Its narrative is structured by Alex’s intermittent reading of the letter in voice-over, but rather than sticking to the chronology, Van Sant, who is the editor as well as the director and writer, leaps around in time, evading, except for a few brief ambiguous images, the traumatic event in the train yard until well past the midpoint of the film, just as the boy might evade confronting it in his mind as he writes.

While the voice-over gives us access to Alex’s subjectivity, Paranoid Park is hardly a first-person film. Indeed, Van Sant goes out of his way to introduce, into what is essentially a collage structure, expressive elements that are almost surely outside the boy’s frame of reference. Portrait painting is a touchstone here. It can’t be accidental that Van Sant cast Nevins, a Portland-area teenager with no acting experience and modest skateboarding skills but whose face bears a striking resemblance to the subject of Correggio’s Portrait of a Young Man, the similarity emphasized by the way Nevins wears his turned-around black baseball cap with the back pulled down over his forehead and his light brown shoulder-length hair fluffed out beneath. Last Days was a portrait film too, but it was burdened by our knowledge of the actual iconic figure on which it was based; it was as if a third term—Kurt Cobain—had inserted itself into the dyad of artist (Van Sant) and model (the actor Michael Pitt).

Despite the fictional narrative of Paranoid Park, the aesthetic problem that Van Sant is grappling with here is precisely that of portraits, whether painted or photographed, in which the subject is anonymous: How does the artist represent the exterior so that it speaks to the mystery of interiority? And whose interiority—the artist’s or the subject’s?

Thus we have a remarkable montage in which we watch Alex through the windshield of his mother’s car as he drives alone around downtown Portland at night. In the first shot, Alex is bouncing around to the rhythms of a rap song that we hear even though we are outside the car. In the second shot, rain is streaming down the windshield, Alex looks as if he might be on the verge of tears, and we hear a few bars of Beethoven’s Ninth (music that would decidedly not be on Alex’s iPod, but perhaps on Van Sant’s). In the third shot, the point of view shifts so that we see the road from Alex’s perspective and hear Cast King’s country song “Outlaw,” which ends with the repeated lyric “die like a man.” Whether the source of the song is diegetic or not is anyone’s guess.

Paranoid Park is an exceptionally delicate, refined, and affecting piece of poetic neorealism. Van Sant takes real kids and real places (Paranoid Park—actually, Portland’s Burnside Skate Park—with its sloping cement walls, darkened pipes, and billboard-covered skyline, is as scary and alluring as in legend) and represents them in ways that defy codes of film realism. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s shadowy nightscapes and the sensuous rhythms of his camera movement suggest that, although Alex could never admit it even to himself, the danger of Paranoid Park is a libidinal lure, and his experience in the railroad yard has undercurrents of a sexual initiation gone very, very wrong. But it is Leslie Shatz’s sound design and the daredevil balance of spontaneity and precision in Van Sant’s editing—the seemingly effortless way images and sounds gather over time—that make Paranoid Park extraordinary. In a film that rests on close-ups of a fifteen-year-old boy’s milky-skinned face, heart-stoppingly poised between childhood and adolescence, one sequence, like the campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho, is unforgettable. It occurs soon after the death of the security guard is finally played out in detail. Alex is in the shower, the camera tight on his face, which is mostly obscured by his hair. As the water beats down, he leans his head on the tiled wall and slowly slides down. The sound of the water merges with the cries of birds, as if the birds on the wallpaper above the tiles had come alive. The pitch and intensity of the sound rises until it becomes a shriek—the shriek that Alex hears in his head but can’t let out and from which he will have to defend himself for the rest of his life. Van Sant, who ten years ago directed a peculiar shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, pays homage to the master of guilt and punishment but, in keeping with the formal freedom of Paranoid Park, graces this fragile protagonist with an open ending.

Paranoid Park opens in New York and Los Angeles on March 7.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.