MCN Columnists
Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Skating With Van Sant

Gus Van Sant has become something of a divisive figure in the motion picture industry, especially with his last four films. These films are heavily influenced by Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr, who is famous for making excessively long movies like Satantango that don’t bother with little details like plot or story, sometimes even eschewing dialogue altogether for long stretches of time. There are some people who can’t sit through Van Sant’s recent films – which, while inspired by Bela Tarr’s work, don’t mimic the running times – and find them either too indulgent or too avant-garde. Personally, I find Van Sant’s recent output to be some of the finest American filmmaking that we’ve seen in recent years. His four “death films” – Gerry, Elephant, Last Days, and the soon to be releasedParanoid Park – are the equal of other minimalist masterpieces like Eric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs tales.

Paranoid Park is perhaps the most accessible of Van Sant’s current work, using the style he developed in his past three films but adding more traditional elements to the mix. The story follows a fifteen year old skateboarder – Alex – as he passively makes his way through a series of important events in his life. He is involved in the accidental death of a security guard at a railway yard but doesn’t share his frustrations and concerns with anybody except the journal that he writes in.

The interesting thing about the way Alex acts is the way he doesn’t act at all. When he goes to the titular skate park, he simply watches the more experienced skateboarders doing all sorts of tricks and he talks about how he could sit there all day and night, just watching their boards dance on the cement walls. When the security guard dies, it isn’t because of anything that Alex does; rather it is his inaction that causes the death. It’s a remarkably subtle way of making the point that as much as you might try to hide, you can still cause harm to others.

This point is brought home later in the film when a young lady asks him what he thinks about the war in Iraq. Alex’s answer is typical of the kind of teenage malaise that is so prevalent these days: “I don’t really care.” And, I suppose, that is the point that Van Sant is trying to make with this film, that not caring and being passive can do just as much damage.

Witness the way in which Van Sant frames the conversations between Alex and his parents. We almost never get a clear view of his parents’ faces, blocked either by shadow or by a prop. In a very literal way, Alex’s parents are not in the picture. Is this what makes him so passive? Is this where his lack of heart comes from? It seems as if he just doesn’t want to be bothered with anything, even the positive moments in his life, like the first time he has sex. He dreads this moment, saying at one point, “She was a virgin, which means she’d want to do it at some point and then things would get all serious.” He doesn’t want things to get serious, to get real. He’d rather stay in his own bubble, watching the skaters skate while he sits on the sidelines and he’d rather watch others experience life so that he can be envious of the way that people live.

This is the first film in this series that Van Sant has directed without the aid of his usual cinematographer, Harris Savides. Instead, the brilliant Christopher Doyle comes on board and he plays a lot more with darkness and light and it seems as if there is only blackness and grey in this world. There are some scenes that are so dark that you can barely see anything and it’s a way of getting inside Alex’s head and it adds to the realism of the film, without the use of excess artificial light.

And that is the key to this film and most of Van Sant’s recent films: the lack of artifice. Diablo Cody could learn a thing or two about the way Van Sant has his kids speaks. Instead of trying to invent a new kind of teen-speak like Cody does in Juno, Van Sant speaks the current vernacular fluently. He doesn’t have his actors use any smart-ass, constructed dialogue; rather, he has them speak naturally, with lots of “ums” and “uhs” and lines like, “Her and her friends are just drama.” This is how kids speak to each other, using the bare amount of words to get their point across.

The realism can be jarring in unexpected ways, like the scene in the beginning of the picture where Alex is in a classroom. Rather than having the teacher reciting a lesson that will somehow tie in with the rest of the film, it’s just a rather mundane classroom scene where the teacher is drawing a diagram. Or there is the scene where Alex is talking with a police detective and we see the ease with which Alex (and most teens) can lie to authorities. He’s clearly spent years spinning yarns with a straight face to his parents and knows that the best way to lie is to come up with details. The discussion with the detective turns into a dialogue about Subway sandwiches, which is the nature of conversation; things take left turns and don’t always end up at the desired topic destination.

Paranoid Park is the perfect end to Van Sant’s series of films. Gerry was about two guys lost in the desert, but it ultimately boils down to mercy killing. Elephant is about malicious, indiscriminate killing. Last Days was about killing yourself. And Paranoid Park is about death by indifference or rather, accidental killing. Even without those other three films as a warm-up, it’s clear that Paranoid Park is a masterpiece of minimalist filmmaking and is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. That might sound like faint praise, so let me phrase it this way: I will be astonished if I see a better film this year.

It isn’t just about the verisimilitude that Van Sant brings to these pictures, it’s about the emotions he is able to make you feel with using primarily moving images. It speaks to our most basic of film-watching instincts, the simple pleasures of watching beautiful pictures combined with great music like Elliott Smith’s “The White Lady Loves You More” or “Angeles.” This is one of the great pictures about the trials and tribulations of teenagers and the isolation that they can feel, not knowing if there is anybody out there who can relate to this strange pain that they carry with them and try to hide.

The acting in this film, like in his previous three films, is naturalistic and unforced. Gabe Nevins plays Alex and he’s not a trained actor, just a real kid and he gives a terrific performance mostly because we don’t have any associations with this actor. He is just another kid and that’s all Alex wants to be. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, with special credit to professional actress Taylor Momsen (Gossip Girl) who plays Alex’s girlfriend Jennifer. The connection (or lack of) between the two of them is felt onscreen in only a few short scenes that feel achingly real. It’s heartbreaking and hilarious to watch them consummate their relationship, only to have Jennifer sneak off to the other room to call her friends while Alex remains motionless in bed. For her, sex is something to be achieved so that she can move on to the next hurdle. For Alex, it was something to be feared as a steppingstone to a next step that he’s not sure he’s ready for. And it’s clear that he doesn’t respect Jennifer as a person as much as he respects the big ideas and no-bullshit attitude of the less conventional Macy (Lauren McKinney).

This foursome of films is for people who aren’t happy with mainstream film and would like to see something different. They are also for people who enjoy bringing a bit of themselves to the movies. I often talk about loving films that are interactive experiences and this is one of them, where the filmmakers don’t give you all the tools to put together the pieces. Gus Van Santgives you the puzzle pieces and it’s your job to put them together in a way the fits for you. The mystery of the death in this film is answered, but who Alex is and why he acts the way he does is for you to intuit.

Much like Larry Clark’s recent Wassup Rockers, Paranoid Park is about the camaraderie of outcasts. If enough outcasts are able to band together, then they no longer become outcasts because there is strength in numbers. In both Clark’s film and Van Sant’s film, skateboarding is the connective thread for these outcasts, a way in which they can take out their anger and frustration collectively.

And, like Clark, Van Sant also has a penchant for photographing young, shirtless skinny boys. Some find this to be lascivious, but I find it interesting in the way in which it exposes these characters and has them shed their armor. With heaps of baggy clothing on, it’s easy to forget that we’re watching young kids. As soon as they take off their shirts and expose their frail bodies, it’s a stark reminder that these are just teens.

Early in Paranoid Park, Alex says to his friend, “I don’t know if I’m ready for Paranoid Park.” The big question is what Paranoid Park is supposed to represent and for me, the answer is adulthood. Alex’s family is splitting in half, he is starting to experience a sexual awakening and in the middle of this already traumatic time in every teen’s life comes the most traumatic experience of his life. This is what adulthood is about, trying to contain all of the messes that seem to come at you at the same time. The response that Alex’s friend gives him for that confession is fitting:

“Nobody is ever ready for Paranoid Park.”

– Noah Forrest
March 4, 2008

Noah Forrest is a 24 year old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon