Monday, December 22, 2008

Gus's New Groove: "Paranoid Park"

I was a little confused when I first heard about Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, because it sounded like it was done in the same style he used in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Thing is, those movies were always discussed as a trilogy, the "death trilogy," so I was wondering what was up with there now being a fourth. I really, truly think that Elephant and Last Days are great films, but it seemed like Van Sant had took the style as far as it could go. All three films are slow, sparse and even minimalistic, with little dialogue, often shot in long takes where little "action" happens. As much as I love them, I wanted Van Sant to move on... I couldn't imagine the flashy stylist of Drugstore Cowboy making movies like this for the rest of his career.

So I'm pleased to report that Paranoid Park is something new, a kind of blend of the older, flashier, expressionist Van Sant with the newer, slower, more meditative Van Sant. Paranoid Park still has the slow, poetic feel of his last few films, but with a stronger narrative thrust, more dialogue, more music. And the effect is much different.

Elephant and Last Days were, I believe, both films about the unknowability of their subjects. The characters and stories were distant and deliberately unexplained. Elephant was about a Columbine-esque school shooting, but provided no answers for why the killers did what they did. Last Days is about the death of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star, but gives him no dialogue of substance, and even skips over his actual death, just showing his corpse at the end and not even making it clear that it was suicide. The films are about their own lack of insight.

Paranoid Park, though it too deals with death, is a much more intimate film. The pace here allows us to get into the head of the main character, Alex, a quiet teenager who is being eaten apart by guilt for reasons that only gradually become clear. Whereas the "Death Trilogy" films keep the characters at arms length, here Van Sant gives us access to Alex, via a confession he reads as the film's narration. Though slow and meditative like the other films, they created empty external worlds, and this one creates a rich internal life. The long, quiet tracking shots and extended periods without action establish a similarly somber mood to the "Death Trilogy," but also serve to contrast with the internal drama of the film.

After 3 films that were (for lack of a better word) realistic in their depiction of every day life, with a lack of visual flash and a kind of objective regard for the events of the story, Van Sant ended Last Days with a bizarrely expressionist touch: we see what appears to be the soul of the protagonist climbing a ladder up to heaven. And I think that was a sign from Van Sant to his audience that he wasn't going to be so matter-of-fact any more, and was going to throw a little more flash in. Paranoid Park ain't exactly Goodfellas, but it's more expressionist than the "Death Trilogy," where the visuals are more influenced by the emotions of the film.

Actually, even though this film is certainly not everyone's cup of tea, it's a lot more accessible than his last few films. Beyond the fact that there is a stronger narrative with more dialogue here, there's also a unexpected amount of humor and warmth. Even though we're often watching the seemingly innocuous day-to-day moments of the protagonist, there's a certain amount of observational humor, where we laugh because we recognize moments from our daily lives: Alex bobbing his head to some rap music while driving around in his mom's car, Alex's mom's reaction to an obvious but seemingly unimportant lie he tells her. Best of all is a scene, maybe 2 minutes in length, where Alex's little brother quotes and acts out a bunch of scenes from Napoleon Dynamite to him. I mean, we've all been there a million times, but I can't remember ever seeing it in a movie before.

I don't think this is a great film, it lacks the uncompromisingly single-minded vision and message of Elephant and Last Days, but it's still a damn good one. Van Sant captures the lives of outsiders better than anyone else, and like in Elephant shows an affinity for capturing teenage life in all its mundane glory. This is probably too slow of a movie for most teenagers, but I imagine those with artier tastes might really connect with the material.

This year also brought us Van Sant's Milk, which was entertaining and showed that he stills knows how to make a mainstream entertainment, but had a lot of the typical biopic flaws, including trying to cram too much story in to too little time, making some of the movie feel underdeveloped. It displays great filmmaking, but is far from a great film. Paranoid Park falls short of his best work, too, but I think represents the greater achievement. It shows the style he developed in the "Death Trilogy" evolving into something new, something more emotional and expressionistic. And if he keeps working on it, I think he might really turn out something great next time.

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