Paranoid Park: The Best Film of 2008 (Thus Far)

review_paranoidpark.jpg Gus Van Sant’s new film, Paranoid Park, is without question the best film of 2008 thus far. And if we consider it a 2007 film (it did qualify as such for the Independent Spirit Awards, for which it won one and was nominated for three), I would have to put it in the top four (certainly just as good as There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There, and No Country for Old Men).

Paranoid Park is one of those films that jolts awake my deep love of cinema (and I know that’s a cliché… but it’s true). I’ve seen six films in the theater over the last seven days, and admittedly such a schedule makes cinemagoing frightfully mundane—even laborious. But as I left Park I felt more alive and entranced by the beauty and possibility of cinema than I have since probably The New World. Like Malick’s film, Park is brimful of moments and sequences that are achingly beautiful.

Like several of Gus Van Zant’s more recent works (Elephant, Last Days), Park is on the experimental/lyrical/avant-garde side of things—which to this critic is definitely a good thing. Van Sant’s more mainstream films (Finding Forrester, To Die For, Goodwill Hunting) display a great mastery of the cinematic form, but the scope of the auteur’s striking talent and vision is only beginning to be fully realized. Paranoid Park is his most accomplished film—I might even dare to call it perfect.

But enough of the glittering generalities and over-the-top superlatives. So why is this film such a big deal? Why did it receive (and totally deserve) the 60th Anniversary prize at Cannes last year? Let me officially begin my review…

Adapted by Van Sant from the novel by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park tells the seemingly simple story of a 16-year-old skateboarder, Alex (non-actor Gabe Nevins), who begins hanging out at a notorious Portland skate park (“Paranoid Park”) and associating with shady characters. One fateful night Alex accidentally kills a security guard, and the film is about how he deals with the (mostly psychological) consequences of this life-altering event.

Like its precursor and companion film, Elephant, Park features a cast of unknown teenage actors—a brilliant move that lends a striking awkwardness and realism to the film. Gabe Nevins is perfect in the lead role—a wide-eyed, innocent teenager who finds himself in the midst of something too horrible to comprehend. The film is told from his perspective, though in a non-linear, “never sure where or when we are” sort of fashion. Like a highschooler recounting his day at school to his mother, Alex gives us scarcely little in the way of sensical verbal narrative—repeating some things multiple times (with slight variations or shifted emphasis), retracting or reframing other things, giving staccato answers to immensely involved questions, etc. His fragmentary, confused perspective and stilted utterances speak many volumes of truth, however.

Unlike the fast-talking characters of other teen movies (Juno!), Nevins and the other adolescent actors in Park speak in the choppy, awkward, believable parlance of net-generation millennials. They talk about obligatory teen stuff (getting laid, making weekend plans), their personal problems (absentee dads, divorcing parents, annoying girlfriends), and even give MTV-style lip service to the problems of the world (Iraq, starving children in Africa, etc). They are the teenagers of today, and Van Sant’s eye captures them more perceptively than any film I’ve seen.

Paranoid Park explores the contemporary teen psyche well—externalizing the confusing and contradictory voices, influences, and narratives that crowd their mediated minds. Nevins’ Alex is never quite present in his interactions with people and lacks a tangible grasp of his own unfolding life. A scene of him driving a car and reacting to various songs playing on the radio (from classical to rap) displays his fluid, impressionable sense of self. Indeed, music is a huge part of the film, as it is in any teenager’s life. There is sort of “iPod shuffle” aesthetic to the soundtrack of Park—an eclectic, seemingly random assemblage of artists (everyone from Elliott Smith to Beethoven) that embodies the alternately angsty, meditative, whimsical, and disturbing mood of the film.

In the end, Paranoid Park is a film about the heavy incomprehensibility of “the self behind the self” (to use a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem). There are multiple levels to this: Obviously Alex languishes under the tension between wanting to unload the terrible information that he holds and yet knowing that he can’t; but he also faces the more unsettling question of how he can live with himself in keeping it forever secret. Can one cordon off the unpleasantries of guilt and memory?

This is a film that astutely captures one young man in his first encounter with the burden of interiority—both as an adolescent in search of an authentic identity (beyond the Facebook self, the cell phone self, the skatepark self, etc) and as a human who must reckon with a reality that upsets the tidy balance of segmentation. All of this is rendered in far more organic and unpretentious ways than my discussion here would suggest. Still, it is complicated, challenging material—definitely not for the recreational filmgoer.

One of the things people will either love or hate about Park is the use of extended lyrical skateboarding sequences. During these audio-visual “interludes” (shot in a more home-video style), cinematographer Christopher Doyle (2046, The Quiet American) delicately follows the acrobatic swerving, flying, and weaving patchwork of teenage skater boys in slow-motion. It’s a remarkable sight to behold. For me, these were the most heartbreakingly profound moments—instances of making the familiar strange, of alienating the material environment while also exposing its truth. These scenes (and the whole movie), remind me of what realist film theorist Siegfried Kracauer believed cinema was most adept at capturing: “the flow of life.” Unlike photography, which can only capture moments and not movement of reality in time, the cinema, Kracauer believed, has the ability to capture reality in motion—an indeterminate glimpse into the open-ended continuum and “flow” of material existence.

Kracauer often referred to “the street” (i.e. shots of large groups of people in motion) as one of the most thrilling applications of cinematic potential. In his seminal work, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Kracauer wrote:

The street in the extended sense of the word is not only the arena of fleeting impressions and chance encounters but a place where the flow of life is bound to assert itself. Again one will have to think mainly of the city street with its ever-moving anonymous crowds… Each [face] has a story, yet the story is not given. Instead, an incessant flow of possibilities and near-intangible meanings appears.

This applies to much of Van Sant’s film, which revels in the very indeterminacy and “near-intangible” meaning which photography and cinema uniquely relay. Indeed, much of Doyle’s photography in Park consists in long shots with purposefully little in the way of explicit meaning, point of view, or plot utility. As in Elephant, there are frequent tracking shots that simply follow Alex around as he walks in the school halls or carries his skateboard down a Portland sidewalk. Other shots linger on complicated faces (not just Alex) that could be thinking any number of things. There is a thrilling editorial restraint to this film, though it is no doubt a source of frustration for some viewers.

Clearly, Paranoid Park is not for everyone (again, a cliché!), but if you have any interest in seeing something truly unique and provocative and beautiful, I urge to go see this film. It comes out in NYC on March 7 and then releases wider as the month goes on.