Saturday, July 11, 2009

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant hit big last year with his static yet ultimately moving portrait of gay rights martyr Harvey Milk, his most successful film since Good Will Hunting. But he also released another film, one made back in 2007 and fitting into his artier side. Paranoid Park is the latest of his works concerned disaffected youth, and I imagine it will jar anyone who might stumble across it coming off of Milk.

Its protagonist, Alex (Gabe Nevins), spends the film documenting his accidental manslaughter in a journal. The victim was a security guard who tried to chase him and his buddy Scratch off a train, so Alex hit him with a skateboard, causing the guard to fall into the path of an oncoming train. On the way home, he throws his skateboard off a bridge into Williamette River and tries to forget anything ever happened. Then the cops find the skateboard and start interviewing the known skaters at the high school.

Alex, dictating the story to us via his thoughts, tells his story out of order. "I never did well in Creative Writing," he sheepishly admits to the audience. That's nice, because no one can ever collects in the proper order. Ask anyone who writes: even these pathetic reviews are re-arranged, trimmed, cut altogether and restarted from scratch every time I sit down at my computer. It makes his recollections feel more realistic, touching upon important issues but also spiralling into asides and tangents that flesh out Van Sant's vision of Portland.

This vision results in some beautiful, if unoriginal by art-school standards, photography that fuses Van Sant's experimental side with the stately shots of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who's lent his talents to Wong Kar-wai and Zang Yimou. Backgrounds shift from vivid and colorful to cold and bleak, while lighting occasionally blinds in its intensity. Objects often appear out of focus, yet Doyle even manages to shoot blurs with clarity. I cannot for the life of me figure out why this wasn't nominated for Best Cinematography (well, other than the fact that Academy voters never watch half the films that paid critics do, nor do they even watch all of the ultimate nominees).

Nevins captures the essence of Alex perfectly. He slumps around with his hair in his face, which parts to reveal a dead-eyed stare. Yet there is pain in those eyes, misery and fear, which make you read deeper into his monotone dialogue. The world around him is cold, and so he attempts to project coldness, but this film wouldn't work without an emotional core, and he provides it without ever laying it on too thickly. Sadly, he's the only one cut out for the task, as the actors who surround him play at indifference but only sound stilted. Worst of all is Alex's girlfriend, played by Taylor Momsen, who sucks the life out of an already drab, arty movie every time she appears on-screen.

Another big problem is the soundtrack, which is haphazardly chosen and drowns out the dialogue in too many areas. Leaping from Elliot Smith to Nino Rota in the course of a film is certainly possible, but it's just incongruous to keep switching between what Alex might listen to and old Fellini scores. Non-diegetic dialogue and sound effects also abound, but they distract rather than deepen.

There weren't many films released that year that could even hold a candle to Paranoid Park when it comes to cinematography: only Slumdog Millionaire and The Dark Knight come to mind. But its intentionally emotionless delivery gives you little to care about when Nevins isn't on-screen or even when he has to share it with others, and the poor mixing of the soundtrack will only further remove the audience from the film. Nevertheless, its story is a worthy addition to Van Sant's repertoire of social outcast movies, including such gems as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.

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