|Alex (Gabe Nevins) gets mixed up in a security guard's murder in "Paranoid Park," the latest film from Gus Van Sant. (Scott green)|
"Paranoid Park," the new Gus Van Sant movie, is slight but fascinating. A Portland skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins) gets mixed up in a security guard's murder. The explanation is easy to the point of being anti-dramatic. The movie's actual subject is Van Sant's ongoing preoccupation with the lives of unmoored young men. His art flirts with indecency (he's 55), but his skill and creative wisdom transcend it.
Were they not such tough and fantastical artworks, it'd be tempting to see "Elephant" (about a school shooting), "Last Days" (loosely about Kurt Cobain), and this new movie as part of some queasy fetish. But Van Sant has a keen eye for the way particular teenagers behave and talk. He recognizes himself in them without over-identifying. So the worlds in his movies feel both conjured and authentically captured: dreamt-up documentary.
"Paranoid Park" is the simplest of these three movies. Despite the dead security guard, it's also the least fraught. The tone is somber, but Van Sant appears to be at his most playfully inspired. In the opening shot, Nino Rota's music from Fellini's "Amarcord" (or is it "Juliet of the Spirits"?) plays over a shot of Portland's Fremont Bridge. That score is like smoke rising from a genie's bottle, but under the circumstances it feels like a doppelganger for the "Rhapsody in Blue" that opened Woody Allen's "Manhattan." The movie is as much a tribute (another one) to Van Sant's scruffy alternative Portland as Allen's movie is a valentine to New York.
Alex narrates the movie from a letter he's written. The note effectively doubles as an explanation of what happened that night and what's happening in his head. He mentions visiting Paranoid Park, where the city's most hard-core skaters hang. Van Sant and his cinematographers, Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, plant themselves amid the action and behold the board jockeys who surf half-pipes and flip gravity the bird in slowest motion, while ambient Francophone noise blips and scratches on the soundtrack like an outer-space radio station trying to come in clearly.
The murder doesn't occupy the movie's center. In so many ways, it's an afterthought. In fact, it's more like an accident. So the epochal cloud of fatality and doom that gave "Elephant" its gravity has dissipated. "Paranoid Park" is a lighter movie, all the more remarkable for the pleasure Van Sant takes in sweeping chronology into lacunae. Parts of the film replay themselves, and, as it did in "Elephant" and, to some extent in, "Last Days," the repetition produces a bewitching, mysterious depth. We're looking with fresh eyes from another angle. It's neat to think of "Paranoid Park" as running on a closed loop, like a record spinning infinitely on a turntable.
Van Sant's most recent films, including his criminally underrated desert thriller, "Gerry," show what a beautiful elliptical storyteller he's become - an idiosyncratic one, too. Each scene in "Paranoid Park" has its own rhythm. They're like different songs that cohere into an album, one that turns Alex's memory, his perception, and his skateboarder microcosm into a serene, naturalistic kaleidoscopic.
If "Paranoid Park" is a generational statement, it's a modest one. Alex comes from a broken home (his parents are in the middle of a divorce), but the mild dysfunction hasn't broken him. He's not rebellious or oppressed. There's an aura of sadness around him. Like a lot of the boys in Van Sant's recent movies, Alex is diffident, vaguely androgynous, and vaguely asexual. His girlfriend (Taylor Momsen) is a virginal cheerleader, and the incongruity between Alex and her seems to bewilder him a little. He has a much easier time with Macy (Lauren McKinney), a sarcastic friend who dispenses advice and drinks from a mug that seems bigger than her face. Alex tells her the divorce is no big deal compared to other problems in the world.
Van Sant allows the kids in this movie to sound both ignorant and half-wise the way some teenagers can. One character tells his friends, "Grown-ups do stuff for money. There is no other reason." You're nervous he'll keep Alex's parents as faceless blurs the entire film. But Van Sant is pretty generous toward the adults. They still have a kind of moral authority that the movie never undermines. The kids here maintain the illusion of autonomy and absolute freedom - at the skate park scaling a half-pipe until they're frozen in mid-air, say. And the connection, however loose, between kids and grown-ups seems necessary, even if every grown-up in Van Sant's Portland just seems like an adult kid, including Van Sant himself.