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Paranoid Park

dir: Gus Van Sant
[img_assist|nid=43|title=I believe that children are the future. Unless we stop them|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=471|height=367]
Gus Van Sant really likes them teenaged boys. No, I’m not going for the obvious gag here, I mean that there really is something he seems to love in terms of capturing, trying to preserve this brief moment in their lives between the adolescent and adult worlds.

Paranoid Park has a really simple story fractured into pieces and told in a manner whose purpose seems to be less the telling of a story and more capturing how Alex, our main character, feels about stuff. That sounds like some deep shit, doesn’t it.

There is something enjoyable about watching a flick about a teenage kid that isn’t about popularity, that isn’t about getting laid, it’s not about the prom and it’s not about some stupid bet usually involving sleeping with one particular girl until the protagonist realises that the girl who truly loves him was the slightly tomboyish but still totally feminine best friend who was alongside all etc etc.

In terms of other flicks Van Sant has made, it’s also refreshing to watch him make a film about teenagers that isn’t about a Columbine-style massacre, about two morons wandering lost in the desert or the last days of a drug-addled rock star.

As for his decision to use non-professional actors, as in, people recruited from a MySpace page, it pays off here. Any awkwardness on the part of teenagers playing teenagers can be put down to the fact that, being teenagers, they’re generally awkward. It doesn’t wreck the believability of it. But the guy playing Alex (Gabe Nevins) gives a great performance, mostly because it’s completely underplayed. He walks around mostly looking like your average blank, easily bored teenager.

And we watch him do a fair amount of walking, eating, reading and a bit of skating.

Paranoid Park is an illegal skatepark created by some hardcore skaters under an overpass that exists as a kind of Shangri-La for the local skatekids like Alex. When he and his equally feckless friend Jared (Jake Miller) work up the courage to finally go there and skate, they get a taste of the outlaw life.

For Alex the park represents something more than just a place to skate, but, as we see from the slivers of past and present that fade in and out, the place is about to symbolise even more for Alex.

The death of a security guard near the park kicks off a homicide investigation, and Alex himself through the writing of a journal, or, more accurately, a confessional letter, seems to know what happened on some fateful night.

Time shifts forward and backward, but for once I feel like there’s a payoff to it all. It is better integrated in terms of telling the story, and works more effectively in terms of helping to tell the story rather than hindering it, compared to Van Sant’s other non-linear monstrosities like Elephant and Last Days.

The cinematography by renowned Australian drunk Christopher Doyle and some other person is quite beautiful, even when it consists of languid, grainy footage of skaters doing their skater thing. It adds to that almost melancholy approach to capturing the lives of young people, which is sometimes a way of mourning for the loss of childhood innocence. The music compliments the proceedings, adding to the nervous, frightened, horrified manner in which life can impact on a hapless teenage boy.

The use of songs by Elliot Smith, I have to say, whilst beautiful and plaintive, are even sadder to hear these days since the poor bastard’s suicide. There are some other sweet atmospheric instrumental pieces, as well as the almost incongruous use of music from Fellini films, which distracted me only because I recognise Nino Rota’s stuff, and I thought it was weird to use it here. Generally music is well-used to run in parallel with what occurs onscreen, and in some instances to deliberately overwhelm it, preventing us from hearing dialogue we don’t need (or want) to hear.

Even though the flicks are completely different, COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, let me just emphasise that, it did remind me of Mysterious Skin, in terms of the evocative, simple imagery and the almost languid, beautiful sorrow imbued in almost every scene. But thankfully there was none of the hideously ugly kiddie-fiddler stuff.

For many of us, at least those of us that made it out of our teenage years alive, it was a time fraught with hormones and stupidity. Depending on how unlucky or how stupid you were, there were these moments where something happened when you did something without thinking about it, then there was the horrible realisation that what occurred, which you never really put that much thought into, was real, and could not be undone. Then the visual image of what you wrought in your unthinkingness becomes engraved upon the valleys and whorls of your grey matter, forevermore.

Alex may or may not have had one of these moments, where an action taken, unplanned and completely unintended, leads to a terrible result. An absolutely horrific result. He reacts in believable ways, like we might expect a teenage boy to react, but we also know that he is not essentially a bad person. Scratch that: if you want to be cynical about it, we get no indications in the movie as told that Alex is a sociopath. We believe, for all intents and purposes, that he knows the difference between right and wrong, and that the events of some fateful night weigh heavily upon him.

This is not post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s fear of being found out, perhaps a combination of all of them. If this were an after-school special, he’d end up “acting out” from guilt, he’s start drinking, doing drugs, having terrible unprotected sex and dying of AIDS.

But this isn’t an after-school special. There’s nothing to preach about, and the film’s not coming from the point of view that there’s anything new we have to learn from the experience of school-age kids fucking things up.

They have their world, and a limited armamentarium of vocabulary and emotional awareness with which to describe it. So the filmmaker’s objective, in this instance, is more about finding the best way to convey to us how it feels for Alex, rather than what it all means. There’s no point having Alex tell us through telling some other character everything that he’s going through using the vocabulary and phrases of someone much older, which is what would be needed to make it interesting or insightful to us. But who really wants that? Some snot-nosed kid talking like he’s reclining on Oprah’s couch? Does that sound interesting to you?

No, I’ll take Van Sant’s masterful take on Blake Nelson’s novel. It’s a beautiful film, and I’m glad I got to see it. Even if it’s not that deep, it did evoke some strong feelings in me, and that is all I ask of cinema: If nothing else, make me feel something apart from contempt and boredom, that’s all a man can ask for.

8 security guards cut in half and dragging their intestine-strewing torsos across a train yard out of 10

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“You’d rather sit here pretending to read about Sports in the Metro section of the newspaper?” – Paranoid Park.

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