Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paranoid Park: Gus Van Sant's meditative storytelling


"Paranoid Park" (IFC films, Mk2, 85 min, R) is Gus Van Sant ‘s latest impressionistic meditation. (I understand that the film is offered on demand as well as in a platform release.) The story centers around an attractive but socially naïve skateboarder Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) who accidentally gets involved in the accidental death of a railroad security guard when he and a friend Jared (Jake Miller) are “playing” trying to catch a freight train in the yards near downtown Portland, OR. In fact, the death is quite graphic: the guard is cut in half, but actually crawls away. That is in the “middle” of the film, but the rest of the film is a series of impressions in somewhat arbitrary order, set up to leave an “impression”. Much of the activity centers around the skateboarders’ “Paranoid Park” near the railroad tracks, where the kids challenge each other – but none of them have the intensity of a Shaun White – and I kept wondering what the presence of a charismatic athlete like Shaun White (or Zac Efron for that matter) would do to this little film. Either superstar would shred it, in fact. The teenagers act and look innocent, much less capable than the grown young men that by age 20 or so can really become icons, sometimes by “acting” as kids. Much of the skateboarding is shot in Super 8. The detective Lu (Daniel Liu) comes to their high school to investigate, and constantly reassures them that none are suspects. (The behavior of the police reminds me of their ambiguous behavior in the classic 1945 film "Mildred Pierce"; I don't know if that's what Van Sant intended.) There’s one scene in an administrator’s area where the substitute teacher sign-in list shows, an interesting detail. That’s what makes Van Sant’s films: the little observations and details that add up to utter tragedy. The background music is interesting: choral portions from Beethoven’s Ninth play during the railroad scene, but much of the score comes from Nino Rota’s music for “Juliet and the Spirits”, much of which sounds familiar but has the interesting and complicated meters imposed on lilting melodies, giving a folk dance effect. I note also the opening shot of the movie, a cantilever bridge over the Willamette River in Portland. I think I drove over it in a rent car in 1996, and I think I saw some of the same scenery in “Untraceable.” The Burnside Ave. and Park area looked familiar, as I met with people there in 1996 when researching my book on gays in the military.

Van Sant’s 2003 film "Elephant" (HBO/Fine Line), about two students (played by Alex Frost and Eric Duelen) who instigate a Columbine-like horror on a high school, also presents itself in random, out of sequence fashion, without dramatic build-up to justify the material. The grainy video look adds to its unreal nature. The premise of the film (as well as some of the really cruel dialogue toward the end) may seem pointless and offensive to some – it is really even more disturbing than the real events in the 1990s that motivate the film. I saw it in the large auditorium in the Avalon in Washington DC.

In some earlier films, however, Van Sant had more structure to his narrative. “Gerry” (2002, Miramax) really succeeds as a meditation of two young men, at the prime of their lives (with heavyweight "superstar" actors Matt Damon and Casey Affleck [I think a better actor than Ben -- as in "Gone Baby Gone" which Ben directed]) fatally lost in the desert, as their approaching demise by heat and thirst becomes unbearable to watch. And we all know “Good Will Hunting,” (Miramax, 1997) which Matt Damon and Ben Affleck write (mostly Matt – he says the original is still on his home hard drive in NYC). I have not seen Van Sant’s recreation shot-by-shot of Psycho, the point of which would escape me. I love the original black and white Hitchcock classic (1960). Of course, we shouldn't forget "My Own Private Idaho" (1991), which was a "must see" then in the indie world, where Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix (tragically short life) play hustlers in a story that parallels and invokes Shakespeare's "Henry IV", and explores the idea of "going straight" to qualify for a will (mandatory marriage has been tried in the movies from other directors, as with Gary Sinyor's "The Bachelor").

It's possible to imagine "Paranoid Park" resequenced to be more linear. The film "Keane" (2004, Magnolia) directed by Lodge Kerrigan, was repackaged and trimmed by Steven Soderbergh and makes more "sense" in sequence/

At this point, let me add that Van Sant's experimental storytelling style could work with some of my material. I've actually tried this in a script called "Make the A-List" where a young law student and aspiring actor's (an intentionally attractive twenty-something protagonist) has his own career and life altered by interaction with the events in the life of a much older gay man (based on me), and the flashback events make an embedded story that is more effective when told episodically. So Van Sant's latest films do give me ideas. (I have "Last Days" in the rental queue, will discuss later.)

For discussion of "Lords of Dogtown" (2005, Tri-Star, dir. Catherine Hardwicke) and "Dogtown and Z-Boys", see my other site, here.

March 24:

I thought I would mention a screenwriting blog that I just found, "Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog," here.

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