Every generation seems to think their scions are morally inferior simply because they lack the same values of their forebears. Beyond the simple logic that said values are relatively defined (otherwise we’d have long been overrun by apocalyptic Neanderthals) this fear and mistrust of the younger generation has always reflected internal insecurities; the Grandpa who shakes his head over the “the kids” and/or “the world today” betrays a fear toward his own dubious claims of righteousness. And so it goes for filmmakers who turn their lens toward a youth culture they probably can’t fathom, regarding their subjects with both fascination and anthropological horror. Larry Clark’s Kids was a film which relied on judgment for effectiveness; either you were disturbed by the acts depicted or you weren’t, in which case the film was an exercise in shallow banality.
I find this to be the dilemma for Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s second plunge into the artful realism he finds in 21st-century youth culture. What Van Sant (who collaborated with Clark in Kids and other projects) tried with Elephant sees greater success here; at least this time he has a main character whose isolation could be as genuine as his own. And Paranoid Park is as technically sound as anything Van Sant, whose varied career has revealed him to be something of a dilettante, has made.
Alex (Gabe Nevins) is a shaggy skater in overlarge clothing, the variant of a creature we’ve all seen somewhere before. His movements are wan and his voice is monotone; we aren’t sure what emotions are playing across his eyes, and it’s easy to believe there aren’t any. Van Sant finds the most evocative expression Alex capable of in the act of skateboarding, a ballet of scrapes and stomps which display grace and clumsiness in equal measure, which the filmmaker regards with tribal fascination. But what seems to be modern disaffection is revealed to be the paralysis inflicted by witnessing the unspeakable. The film’s disjointed narrative, rather than a consciously arty move, is the accurate reflection of a shattered mindset. Alex goes about his days, sharing the everyday insipid with his friends and a romantic relationship with a predetermined lifespan, with sad ambivalence. Maybe it’s just Alex, who comes from a well-to-do but broken home; maybe it’s modernity.
When a police detective (Daniel Liu) visits the school, singling out the skateboarding kids for questioning over the death of a railroad security guard, it’s obvious what has happened and why Alex is so benumbed. Paranoid Park’s use of elliptical narrative, parsed with impressionistic episodes, is one of its strongest features, and the film successfully illustrates like few others the cocktail of fear and horror one might feel after inadvertent manslaughter. The death itself is nightmarishly haunting.
Aesthetically, the film is impressive, owing almost exclusively to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who’s given lilting life to Wong Kar-wai’s canon. Doyle, whether framing still-shots or following the arc of a skateboard, gives natural beauty to Portland’s concrete dunes and the dream-state of adolescence, as does the score, a mixture of Beethoven and Nino Rota. But all of this feels like the beauty of craft, not intent. Van Sant’s film is as morally hollow as his protagonist; like in Elephant, he finds his lack of understanding to be of intrinsic merit. The children he sees (in a manner he calls “realism”) may be the disturbing strata of disaffection he thinks they are, but I’m more convinced it’s Van Sant’s own estrangement toward his subjects that he finds so unsettling.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and wastes his twenties in grad school(s).
Paranoid Park / Phillip Stephens
Film | March 6, 2008 | Comments ()