Friday, March 21, 2008

Film of the Century

Although some will disagree, perhaps with vehemence, I feel secure in stating that Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is the best film that has been produced in the 21st Century thus far. Van Sant’s astounding work is a study of textures and juxtaposition – a post-modern masterpiece that combines elements of my favorite filmmaking styles: the amateur acting and elegant precision of Robert Bresson, the melancholy fluidity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s existentially inquisitive camera, and the curious experimentation with image and sound that gave the New American Cinema movement a reinvigorated sense of the possibilities of cinema in the 1950s and 60s. In Paranoid Park, Van Sant, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, has crafted a film after my own cinematic heart.

Based on a novel of the same name by Blake Nelson, Paranoid Park follows Alex (brilliantly played by the non-professional actor Gabe Nevins), a wannabe skater punk as he juggles his parents divorce, losing his virginity, trying to fit in, and, most importantly, his manslaughtering of a security guard at a train yard. As the police investigation of the murder begins to target the skater community of “throwaway kids” after a skateboard is found in a river, covered with incriminating evidence, Alex’s guilt and anxiety begin to take over his every thought and his life begins to spiral into a state of moral confusion and fear that seems as gray as the ominous cloud that blankets the autumnal Oregon sky in the film’s opening shot.

From the aforementioned introductory shot of a Portland bridge being bared upon by the menacing weather, and throughout the entire film, Paranoid Park’s exploration of textural dialectics is in full force. The initial shot is in accelerated motion, cars zooming by on the bridge like smudges of light, and a selection from Nino Rota’s score for Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) bops along with a levity that seems to mock the heaviness of the daunting cloud formation. Van Sant throws the somber image against the chipper tunes to elicit a mood that is immediately startling and confusing – and then he never stops experimenting with the unique tones achievable through such unusual juxtapositions.

The following shot finds Alex writing in a journal, in normal motion, the intimate sound of his pencil scratching along a page replacing the bright levity of Rota’s composition. After a short shot of Alex in a field, the film shifts to gorgeously fuzzy 8MM slow-motion footage of skateboarders gracefully sliding over the rounded concrete hills of the film’s titular skatepark, as ethereal French electronic music haunts the scene. After the ballet-like motion of the skating scenes comes an 8MM handheld tracking shot that quickly pushes in on Alex as he walks through a field, followed by a Tarkovskyesque smooth tracking shot from just behind Alex as he continues to walk, capping a truly astounding sequence of perfectly woven, yet disparate, sensual experiences.

The experimentation with complimentary and contradictory visual and sonic textures in Paranoid Park is incredibly fresh, and is no doubt as much a result of the presence of Wong Kar Wai’s (former) ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose experiments with visual mutation and extremity made films like Chunking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997) unforgettable, as it is of Van Sant’s innovative direction. Thematically, the varying textures reflect the malleable nature of teenage personality and the warring facets that define one’s identity during highly developmental periods in life – such as just after one has killed another person, lost his virginity, and experienced the beginning of his parents’ divorce. Alex is in quite a bit of turmoil (to say the least), and therefore, the film’s visual and aural characteristics are as well, approaching an almost Impressionistic mode of film practice.

Van Sant’s history as a student of avant-garde film at RISD, particularly Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, no doubt informs his use of slow-motion, focal manipulation, and mercurial shifts in lighting, even within a single shot – all of which enliven Paranoid Park with a pulsing courage. But equally as important as the influence of the avant-garde on Van Sant’s textural probing, is the influence of Robert Bresson on Van Sant’s use of amateur actors and his elliptical narrative structure – although its non-linearity certainly doesn’t come from Bresson. Paranoid Park carries a brand of Bressonian “realism” that results from Van Sant’s use of non-trained actors and his carefully elliptical and non-theatrical construction. Bresson’s presence is also felt in the film’s use of Alex as an awkwardly inflected narrator as he reads from journals, as is the case of the amateur leads in two of Bresson’s masterpieces: Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Pickpocket (1959). It’s so relieving to see a filmmaker pursuing the same ends as Bresson, whose style is the most unsuccessfully explored of any of the classic masters.

Even beyond its formal brilliance, Paranoid Park is an immensely powerful film on an emotional and spiritual level. The film’s concerns are essentially existential, as expressed by Alex when he says to his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney), obliquely describing his experience with the death of the security guard, “I just feel like there’s something outside of normal life . . . There’s like different levels of stuff, and something happened to me.” The film’s poetic visual indulgence certainly establishes and accentuates the transcendental tone of its content, ingraining the film’s powerful, ineffable mood into that place that’s deeper than memory. I personally haven’t been able to get it out of my head, or my hands, or my lungs – it’s a very involving and absorbing film. I can’t quite describe how incredible Paranoid Park is, whether because of my inability as a writer or as a result of the film’s inexplicable power. The film can only speak for itself and every review I’ve read doesn’t quite do the film justice, so here's my conclusion: fuck writing and reading about it, JUST GO SEE IT.

by Brandon Colvin


Anonymous said...

Your observations are uncanny and enthusiasm infectious. Great Review.

Brandon Colvin said...

Thanks, man. I can't wait to see it again. It's coming to the Beclourt on 4/4 and I think I'm going to have to make a trip down to Nashville for that.

Brandon Colvin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Hansen said...

Although I generally hold off making big claims like "best film of the century", this is a really good piece of analysis on the film justifying it as the masterpiece you claim it to be. (And I have to admit, I labeled "Inland Empire" as one of the best of the decade in my review for it on my student paper...)

What I got even more from Paranoid, though, is the shaping of identity. Amy Taubin made the claim about this being a "welcoming to homosexuality" which Van Sant (of course) did not refute, but I couldn't get that off my mind either, even though I had the same thought and only read that comment after my screening. But the way he seems so uninterested in his first female sexual experience, his relationship with other young males...there's some sort of awakening going on amidst the chaos, and what exactly that awakening is is very much debatable.

Anyways, a really solid piece here (both your writing on it, and the film) but it is one of those films that is hard to accurately describe. It's a powerful piece of cinema for sure.

(One more thing...I find it interesting that Bela Tarr isn't mentioned...he is tied into being Van Sant's inspiration so much these days, which is fine, but I'm glad you are delineating other influences rather than just stating what everyone else in the "high art film community" is saying...kudos.)

Brandon Colvin said...

I caught the homosexual undertones as well (which are pretty much always present in Van Sant films), particularly one shot where Jared (Alex's friend) stares longingly at him in the car, smiling, is super slow-mo. It's just something I didn't really want to get into, since other people have already done it - a lot.

Yeah, I got tired of the Bela Tarr comparisons, so I just went once step back to Tarkovsky, since I don't think Tarr's films would be anything like they are without him.

James Hansen said...

True that on both accounts. I just like all things being gay and Tarr(kovsky).

Anonymous said...

Based on your enthusiastic response alone, I am tempted to see this film. I am particularly taken with your estimation of Van Sant’s pedigree as a sort of discipline of the avant-garde and new wave movements – specifically because it that very pedigree I have always questioned.

While I have always admired his early work, my interest in Gus Van Sant waned shortly after his breaking away from the New Queer Cinema. While even the “mainstream” efforts of queer filmmakers like Haynes and Jarman exhibited some sort of political and social radicalism, Van Sant lost me with his pandering middlebrow product which, ironically, gave him the sort of critical and commercial clout denied many of his contemporaries. Nothing can excuse his puerile Psycho remake, nor can it explain the hollow commercialism of Finding Forrester.

Then came his return to a more avant-garde aesthetic — and frankly, his films again felt a little hollow and unsatisfying. In many ways, it felt like a bad Bela Tarr impersonation – ripe with the same sort of aesthetic pleasure typical of the Hungarian maestro, and yet lacking any of the bleak poignancy of something like Satantango or Werckmeister Harmonies. Elephant intrigued me with its glacial, elegiac cinematography and elliptical structure, and yet the content itself felt sort of secondary –and even semicomic – when compared to the sophistication of its formal technique. Last Days, on the other hand, seemed to use its formal techniques as a mask to shield us from discovering that, again, the emperor wore no clothes. As purely cinematic experiences, his recent films have fascinated me, and yet they seemed to lack the significance and interiority of his early stuff.

With that said, I will try to put my personal biases aside and approach Paranoid Park with an open mind. You make it sound fascinating – transcendent even – as if it is a perfect marriage of form and content.

We’ll see. It’s available through IFC On-Demand right now. No excuse to miss it.

Anonymous said...

I couldn’t agree more!