Early on in Paranoid Park we see its adolescent protagonist, Gabe Nevins, from the rear as he walks towards a bench in an overgrown field to sit down and write somethingâ€”a memoir? a letter?â€”that he calls “Paranoid Park”. The first half of the film is told mostly in flashbacks, the images enunciated by Nevins as he attempts to piece together the events of his life surrounding the death of a security guard that, for all we know, he may or may not have been involved in. Mixed into these subjective sequences are objective presentations of the present, in which Nevins wanders, writing.
Mid-way through the film, we see Nevins, who by the way is, like the rest of the cast, a non-professional and perfect for the role, walking out of the aforementioned field, this time from the front. It’s a reversal, Van Sant telling us he’s about to backtrack, and indeed the film does go back to the beginning of Nevin’s story to fill in the holes he’s left as a repressed and in denialâ€”in short, unreliableâ€”narrator. (For example, he glosses right over if not downright ignores the pivotal night in question, when the security guard died. Van Sant amends that, and courageously sets the crucial scene to the least popular part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the choral finale.)
Ostensibly, Paranoid Park is structured as a mystery, but rather than merely seek to answer an unresolved question it aims toward something higherâ€”to reconcile the objective truth to a subjective understanding of it. Essentially, Paranoid Park is an experiment in narrative, two separate but intertwined films that represent a struggle between two opposing narrative strains: the objective image, silently narrated by an omniscient director, and the subjective image, dubiously controlled by the main character. It’s also a movie about skateboarding.
But Lordz of Dogtown it’s not, and anyone going in as a skateboarding aficionado is likely to be as disappointed, if not embittered, as Kurt Cobain enthusiasts were by Last Days. Since his radical reinvention of self with 2002’s Gerry (mind that his preceding film was Finding “You’re the man now, dawg” Forrester) as an IFC Bela Tarr (or so I hear), Gus Van Sant has been trying the patience of unsuspecting audiences with long tracking shots and coiling narratives. Or, to put it another way, a way I’m more sympathetic to, he’s been wowing audiences with pensive films that refuse to supply easy answers to explain complex situations. Paranoid Park may be a bit more psychological than its predecessors, but it remains stylistically in-line. Contrary to what Jake Miller, Nevins’ skater pal, says of the eponymous skate parkâ€””nobody’s ever ready for Paranoid Park”â€”those familiar with Van Sant’s recent oeuvre should feel right at home.
Elephant, Last Days and now Paranoid Park together make a neat little triptych of character studies for Van Sant. All three share a fascination with, above all, people; while Antonioni is famous for his use of les temps morts (literally “dead time”), in which the camera lingers on a setting after the characters have left it, highlighting the oppressiveness of place, Van Sant has turned it on its head and should be known for his use of les temps vivants, staying on his characters even as they uneventfully travel between scenes.
Van Sant, with cinematographer Chris Doyle, a frequent collaborator of Wong Kar-Wai’s, rarely employ deep focus in Paranoid Park; the backgrounds, not coincidentally where the parents often are to be found, are blurred to emphasize Van Sant’s distaste for “context”. As with Elephant and Last Days, he is directly concerned only with the what and not the why. In fact, some of the most gorgeous shots in Paranoid Park are the sequences of Nevins walking through his high school’s corridors, a motif familiar from Elephant where it was no less beautiful, and one sequence in particular that plays out in slow motion, accompanied by an Elliott Smith song (“The White Lady Loves You More”) that has never sounded so beautiful, is downright ravishing. (It’s a nice little nod to the late Smith, a Portland native, who rose to albeit brief popularity off of Van Sant’s questionable exercise in mainstream cinema, Good Will Hunting.) Credit for the aesthetic satisfaction is due also to Doyle who upholds the high standard set by Harris Sevides in Van Sant’s last few films.
At a Q&A after the Paranoid Park screening at the New York Film Festival, Van Sant said he was trying to make a “young adult film,” (after being tactlessly accused by an audience member of making a “hipster horror film”) and Paranoid Park is certainly a subtle and painful portrait of high school life and romance. By the end, the soundtrack is dominated by bouncy Nino Rota tunes that recall certain Gershwin arrangements, and Paranoid Park starts to feel, if only briefly, a lot like a pubescent Manhattan.
On a basic level, it’s about the universal archetype of the confused high school student searching for an identity, and though it’s never explicitly mentioned it could easily be read as a young man’s confusion over his sexuality: Nevins wants to spend all of his time with his skater friend, Miller, or at the titular skate park and certainly not with his girlfriend, played in a pitch perfect performance by Taylor Momsen. He even seems a bit vexed by her desire to have sex, and their lovemaking scene is perhaps the most dispassionate I’ve ever seen. To boot, there is even a suggestive cafeteria scene in which a corn dog might not be just a corn dog.
For all the stress in Nevins’ life, whether over his parents’ looming divorce, the death of the guard, his needy girlfriend or his uncertain sexuality, there’s always a measure of relief in the act of skateboarding. Watching the hooligans ollying at Paranoid Park, a cavernous series of round peaks and valleys, Nevins proves himself wise enough to realize that, “no matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse.” But in the skateboarding interludes, filmed in 8 and 35 mms with a slo-mo reverence, Van Sant uses the skateboarders’ seeming renunciation of the laws of gravity as a symbol of their freedom, albeit only a temporary liberation, momentarily lost in the air and free from terrestrial constraints and concerns. Skateboarding becomes a manifestation of deliverance, except perhaps in the hidden-camera fisheye lens shots that show cops, with black bars for eyes, writing tickets to the real life Portland skaters. All ollies must come down, just as all repressed memories have to be confronted sooner or later.