A whole new sort of entry into his ongoing homage to the city of Portland, Oregon, Gus Van Sant’s boundlessly-brilliant Paranoid Park returns him to the hallways that he last visited in 2003′s haunting post-Columbine art-flick Elephant. Leaving behind what many perceived as the ‘static’ style of filmmaking that populated his three previous works, the Kentucky-born filmmaker now inches closer to creating a new cinematic vernacular, one where the strings are cut from conventional audio and visual structuring to allow for a strikingly effective sense of character and tone.
Rooting around in the audio/visual debris of Park is a story about the schisms that occur in a teenager’s life when he accidentally becomes part of a security guard’s gruesome death but this accidental murder works simply as catalyst for Van Sant. Alex, played by fresh-faced Gabe Nevins, who was infamously cast through MySpace, spends most of the 78-minute runtime remembering bits and pieces of his weekly routine days that are filtered through the tragedy that occurs in the train yards outside Burnside Skate Park, nicknamed Paranoid Park. Writing a letter to his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), deflowering his girlfriend (Taylor Momsen of TV’s Gossip Girl) unwillingly, skateboarding and music-shopping with his friend Jared (Jake Miller): All these actions are repeated, clipped, fractured, and overdubbed in Alex’s frazzled memory and deftly arranged by Van Sant, who serves as editor as well as writer and director.
Though the stable frames that defined the films of Van Sant’s Young Death trilogy (Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days) still show up with prevalence, the switch from his regular cinematographer, the great Harry Savides, to the equally-excellent Chris Doyle and Rain Kathy Li brings out a new hue in Van Sant’s work. (Doyle also shows up in a cameo as Alex’s Uncle.) Interplaying Super 8 footage of skaters and 35mm work, the visual schema takes on the look of a collage with ample help from Leslie Shatz’s unencumbered, ingenious sound design. The songs, everything from Elliott Smith to Ethan Rose’s mesmerizing sound manipulations to a hip-hop track by Portland-based rapper Cool Nutz, are non-diegetic but feel as if they’re lifted directly from Alex’s subconscious rather than mapped out as mirrors to the narrative. When Nino Rota’s score for a Fellini film pops up when Alex breaks up with his girlfriend, it seems to be summoned from some night when he fell asleep on the couch with Turner Classic Movies still on.
Besides many accusations that his editing and general style distances the viewer from Alex’s mindset, Van Sant’s critics have stirred over his use of a cast recruited almost completely from the internet. Nevin’s face, a visage that holds archives of intrigue for any director, becomes the centerpiece of this jagged masterpiece, making it simpler to take notice when his acting, or the acting of his few conversers, seems strained or nervous. Rather than a hindrance, Van Sant has found an ingenious way to bring out the jumpy nature of teenagers in their natural habitat by imposing one with a crisis of conscience reminiscent of Dostoevsky. Van Sant acutely evokes these forms of acting in his young performers, whether attempting to talk faux-intellectual about Iraq, incessantly quoting from Napoleon Dynamite, or asking for a Frappucino from a homegrown coffee shop.
The singularity of vision that ties the film to Van Sant’s three previous films belies his sense of structure, which is in fact more in line with the director’s early masterpiece, My Own Private Idaho. At a moment of visual wonderment, Doyle catching a chorus line of skaters going off the same jump like a perpetual line of sheep jumping over a fence, the image of the house falling from the sky in Idaho immediately came to me. The one facet that separates Paranoid Park from the director’s previous work, besides his mostly unprofessional cast, is the way Van Sant uses all the talents in his arsenal to create not only a poignant semblance of confusion but something that few films have ever attempted to portray: the manic assemblage of teenage life. Larry Clark, take note.
Leaning against a railing is not a crime.