Paranoid Park

I’d heard mixed reviews of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, so perhaps I was surprised to find it riveting, hypnotic and beautiful (there’s a poster-quote for you). GVS seems to have found that delicate equilibrium between the formal experiments of Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005) and the subject matter that obviously interests him (the moral dilemmas and looming life-choices facing alienated teens), but which became rather cloying in Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. It deploys remarkably vivid techniques (particularly slow motion and a sparkling soundtrack of musicalised ambient noise) to convey its lead character’s subjective experience and his perceptual disconnect from the people around him.

Van Sant’s skillful marriage of form, tone and content is exemplified in the central incident at the core of the film (do not read on, not even the rest of this sentence after the parentheses, if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know any plot details!), the bissection by train of a security guard. In Blake Nelson’s novel, the guard is knocked down and killed by the train during a scuffle, but Van Sant’s decision to restage the death as a bravura sequence of baroque violence, during which the guard is cut in half, living long enough to crawl pleadingly towards his accidental killer, pushes the film into a new zone of oneiric excess. In a film that constructs a strong tinge of naturalism, this moment, briefly going all Dario Argento on us, could easily have overpowered the surrounding drama, but instead it effectively lodges in the memory as a bizarre and imposing memory that will haunt our central protagonist forever, regardless of whether he eventually takes responsibility for it. (See here for more on the distinctions between book and film.)


Van Sant has suggested that this event, sitting temporally and dramatically in the middle of the film, represents all of the divisions and separations contained in the film – divorced parents, the gulf between adults and youth (Alex’s parents are seen almost entirely in long shots, and his mother’s face is never shown), and the binary oppositions of confession/concealment, guilt/innocence, conformity/individuality. The death of the guard doesn’t really need all of this symbolic freight: it is important enough that it stands as an extravagantly shocking fragment of time that stays as Alex’s personal secret and permanently separates him from others.


It’s a separation that Van Sant enforces with overwhelming bursts of ambient sound, extreme slow motion and compositions that isolate Alex or hide his face from view (even when we can see his face, it is often difficult to read – a blankness that emerges as troubled contemplation rather than listless unconcern), but also with his signature following shots, illustrated below with examples from Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park :


The shot from Gerry is no doubt a tribute to Bela Tarr’s Sátántangó, with tumbleweeds standing in for Tarr’s flurries of litter. I thought perhaps that Van Sant was using this shot to suggest that he was observing, following and being led by his protagonists, rather than positioning them along pre-ordained lines of action. It’s certainly unsettling to have faces hidden, backs to the camera and destinations unknown. But, particularly in Elephant and Last Days, the impression of ineluctible lines of fate drawing people towards a mortal destiny is difficult to shake. Elephant‘s tracking shots bring the film’s scattered characters gradually into deadly coincidence, while in Last Days Blake’s wanderings in the woods are more circular, repetitive and searching. It seems that Van Sant has found a range of different meanings for nearly identical shots, and by the time we get to Paranoid Park, it has become part of a more varied visual syntax that comprises a picture of Alex’s conflicted state of mind.

There are problems with Paranoid Park. It is dismissive of Alex’s girlfriend, portraying her as needy, self-absorbed and desperate for social acceptance. By portraying her as a needling representative of the forces of conformity, Van Sant misses out on a chance for compassionate consideration of the forces that alienate, control and define her. It’s reminiscent of the crude, embarrassing moment in Elephant where a group of chattering schoolgirls casually puke up their lunches in a synchronised display of eating disorders that makes them easy targets for laughter rather than dismay. But I’d hate to see Paranoid Park considered the runt of the litter in Van Sant’s great run of fascinating, exploratory movies.

6 thoughts on “Paranoid Park

  1. Good to hear that you liked it.

    My initial coolness towards the film has subsided after seeing it on DVD in 1.37 (after two disastrous cinema screenings in 1.85), and the more ‘open’ ratio makes a huge difference. 1.85 masking compromises the mise-en-scene so severely that all the potential drawbacks threaten to overwhelm the experience: Alex’s worryingly blank presence/performance, Van Sant’s shift to a more direct and involved perspective on ‘youth culture’, the greater reliance on plot/incident rather than detached observation. Hoberman argued in his review that there’s more ‘inner life’ here than in Elephant, but I don’t see it – there’s more narrativity and emphasis on ‘character’, but less observational reward (Alex is the least compelling presence in all of Van Sant’s films for me).

    Anyway, I really liked what you said about the creation of a range of meanings from similar shots within differing contexts – the lengthy ‘Tomb Raider’ tracking shot is used much more sparingly here, and I think the broader range of stylistic devices works well alongside the pronounced temporal fragmentation and sense of disorientation. Even though there are occasional lapses into formal self-pastiche (like the slow panning shot over Macy and Rachel at the mall when Alex is reading the ‘obituaries’), I loved the searing white noise of the shower scene and that slow-motion shot of Jared from Alex’s POV unexpectedly overlaid with raucous speed metal.

    I have to say that I had no problems with the treatment of Jennifer: Gus’s observation of her strangely aryhthmic movements and insistent mannerisms are fascinating. If I remember rightly, the cutting between long takes when she’s on-screen is slightly awkward, as if Gus is simultaneously befuddled and amused by her presence – he’ll always be more interested in the boys.

    I’m looking forward to Milk very much as Gus is working with Savides again (I caught Margot at the Wedding this week and the cinematography is terrific – the rest unfortunately not so much). Also, there’s a really good interview with Van Sant in a recent issue of Filmmaker magazine where he rails against the ‘hosing it down’ (or: shoot acres of coverage and sort it out in the cutting room) style of The Bourne Ultimatum. I’ll give you a photocopy when I see you next.

  2. What a strange thing that I should stumble upon your great blog. The only reason I found it was because I was searching for Michael Brooke’s blog on Melies, which you referenced. And coincidentally you have just written a post on Paranoid Park, which I’m watching tonight.

    I will keep reading now that I have discovered it.

  3. Oh, and I do think that the Herzog-blog is a spoof.

    Certainly an easy character to spoof, as much as I love him (and that is an inordinate amount).

  4. Thanks for reading, Tom. Glad you like it. You should keep your own blog going, too. It’s a good way to register initial responses before you polish them up.

    Michael Brooke’s blog is a great achievement. It’s good to hear that people read it…

  5. m.f.

    Thanks, again. Great news that you finally made peace with the aspect ratio.

    There is a bit more ‘plot’ in P.P. – losing his virginity, meeting people at the skate park, dumping girlfriend, maybe finding a new one – but it’s all low-level detail around that central killing, which is a really heightened experience compared to everything else. His entire relationship with Jennifer happens with almost no input from himself, and Van Sant responds by shutting out her voice. Just tunes her out. I see the point about detachment, but it does mark her out as a deadweight distraction rather than a sympathetic, rejected figure in her own right.

    I did wonder if it was deliberate that Jennifer looks like Avril Lavigne. And Alex is a skater boy? Spooky.

    That was terrible, sorry.

    As for “hosing it down”, I’ll look forward to that interview. Despite what Bordwell says, I think the choppy cutting works really well for Bourne. Bordwell seemed to think it was supposed to represent his subjective mental state, but I suspect it’s more about simulating the glimpsed action from the point-of-view of out-paced bystanders.

    I wish I’d put a Van Sant movie on my second year module now. Tried to get Elephant into a week on teen movies, but no takers…

  6. Shame you couldn’t get Elephant on a module – in my experience, it’s one of those films that goes down surprisingly well with people who aren’t used to more minimalist cinema. The familiar teen milieu and ‘high concept’ situation are a great way in to the more experimental aspects of Van Sant’s style – it would probably spark a good level of discussion.

    The sk8ter boi thing had somehow passed me by, but I can see the resemblance now – oh, the layers…

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