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Paranoid Park

At the center of “Paranoid Park” is a fatal mistake. Skater kid Alex (Gabe Nevins) accidentally kills a security guard late one night in a train yard. The film swirls around this mistake for 85 minutes. As Alex tries to decide what to do, and as he is questioned by detectives who come closer and closer to knowing the truth, it might be tempting to approach “Paranoid Park” like it were an episode of “CSI” or some such show. Will they find the skateboard? Should he burn his bloody clothes? Director Gus Van Sant effectively deconstructs this expectation, mostly by cutting the movie to bits, then reassembling the bits in no particular order.Eventually, the accident, or murder, doesn’t feel like the center of the movie any more; it feels, instead, like an excuse for making a movie about an isolated skater kid who is a kind of Everyteen.

What really matters to Van Sant, it seems, is Alex’s inability to communicate with anyone at all. He is dying to tell someone about what has happened, but who is he to tell? His mother probes a little, but she is far too easy to lie to, and accepts the obvious lies far too easily. He tries to call his father, but they haven’t talked in far too long. Teachers aren’t even considered. He doesn’t even like his girlfriend that much; he’s clearly no more than a step on the social ladder to her, and even his best friend seems all too willing to trade him in for something better, should the opportunity arise. In the midst of all these strangers, one person–a girl named Macy–thinks it’s a little strange that he’s reading the Metro page of the newspaper at nine in the morning when she runs into him at the mall. He tells her just enough for her to suggest that he write it all down, and voila–voiceover. You hope Alex runs into Macy more often.

As befits a movie about a struggle to communicate, much of “Paranoid Park” is wordless. Van Sant has made great use of these spaces; the soundtrack is strange, mesmerizing, seemingly random and often broken and staticky. It borrows aurally what “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was doing visually. Conversations drift in and out, words turn into blurbs and then back into words. Elliott Smith, the patron saint and ghostly voice of Portland (where Paranoid Park is set and filmed) is often heard. There are also a surprising number of clips from Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits;” in some way I’m not yet grasping, that film must be a sister to this one. The film is periodically cut with footage of skaters, shot in grainy Super 8, the medium of skate films.

If you’ve seen any of Gus Van Sant’s last few films (Last Days, Elephant, Gerry) you will not be surprised that “Paranoid Park” is spacy, wandering, more interested in tone and atmosphere than plot or characterization.  Even so, it paints an intriguing and memorable picture of teenage life. In a way, it’s a coming of age film, and handles all the requisite material–innocence and the loss of it, sex, politics, school, friends, parents, and the uncertain future. And it does so in such a way that every other film to ever handle this material suddenly feels bloated and overwrought.   

Recommended

  • to fans of the past few Gus Van Sant movies
  • if you’re in a contemplative mood, and want a movie that won’t crash in on that.
  • to (relatively hip) parents of teenagers.
  • to fans of skater vids.

Not Recommended

  • to “CSI” fans.
  • if it’s important to you that things happen in movies.

“Paranoid Park” is filmed in Portland, home of Gus Van Sant and my former home.   I must’ve walked past Paranoid Park a hundred times, and never really noticed it.   I probably sat and watched the skaters while I ate my lunch once or twice.   Strange.
 

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