When you look at a teenage boy with no expression, his clothes drooping, his long hair in his eyes, perhaps toting a skateboard, you might construe his blank affect as a sign of the blankness within—a supposed void that, in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, turns out not to be too empty but too full. The protagonist and narrator, Alex (Gabe Nevins), is a Portland, Oregon, teenager whose father has moved out and who gravitates toward a scary-rough makeshift skate park for what he calls “thrown-away kids.” There is a death in the film (so grisly it’s almost laughable), and Alex has something to do with it, but guilt and innocence (along with cause and effect) are hopelessly hazy. Alex longs to tell his father, who seems a world away, or even a detective (Dan Liu), who tries to talk like a father but sounds too much like Columbo. Instead, Alex sleepwalks, his inner world teeming with inchoate sounds and sensations. The state of alienation is so noisy he can barely hear himself think.
You could say that Paranoid Park is another in the series of experiments that began with Van Sant’s Gerry and continued with his Elephant and Last Days—vaguely narcotizing works in which the shots could go on and on (and on), in which you drifted through time and space with the characters (nonactors, or actors behaving like nonactors), in which narrative information was dispensed in tiny increments you could choose to arrange in your head (or not). But when an experiment works, there’s no need to call it “experimental.” (“Pat-pat, there’s a nice little avant-garde director … ”) Paranoid Park is a supernaturally perfect fusion of Van Sant’s current conceptual-art-project head-trip aesthetic and Blake Nelson’s finely tuned first-person “young adult” novel. The book is linear and psychological and even invokes Dostoyevsky—Notes From the Underground (which Alex has read) and, by implication, Crime and Punishment. Van Sant dumps Dostoyevsky and ruptures the story line; his narrator, Alex, apologizes for screwing up the order of events. (“I didn’t do so well in creative writing.”) Alienation, guilt—it’s all free-floating, as if Camus had reworked Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Yet the narration keeps the movie from drifting into the ether, like Gerry. Everything jells.
Christopher Doyle shot Paranoid Park, and he and Van Sant must have had a blast doing stuff that would once have gotten them kicked out of film school: mixing up visual styles, leaping haphazardly from the static to the woozy-subjective, throwing in Super 8 skateboard footage through darkened sewer pipes—images that seem to bubble up from the collective unconscious of skateboarders. Alex drives through the night, and the music—is it supposed to be his radio?—is a Beethoven chorale, then a country-and-western outlaw ballad (“Die like a man”), then a snatch of boisterous Dixieland jazz. Melancholy, introspective Elliott Smith segues into carnivalesque Nino Rota. The main aural wash is “electroacoustic”—sound collages by Ethan Rose and the enveloping water-and-birdsong pieces of Frances White. The opening and closing find Alex on a beach, writing the words “Paranoid Park” in a notebook—writing to find his way back to the natural world.
Gabe Nevins is a Portland teen Van Sant found via MySpace—another nonactor nonacting. He has a good, soft face for the part—it’s a 7-year-old’s head on a 17-year-old’s body. But he sometimes seems clinically inexpressive, as in the scene in which the blue-eyed, blonde cheerleader virgin with the great rack (Taylor Momsen) has mounted him and is moaning in ecstasy, and even though we can barely make out his face from where the camera sits, he appears to be feeling nothing. The novel’s Alex thinks about things like the war in Iraq, but the movie’s Alex says it doesn’t affect him one way or another. Even though he’s traumatized, he can have opinions; he doesn’t need to stand for Deadheaded American Youth.
To enjoy Paranoid Park fully, you need to be both preternaturally alert and totally relaxed—to be attentive but not fixated, to catch Van Sant’s tiny clues yet be open enough to bring your own experience of the world to bear on what you’re seeing. I’m not being facetious when I say I wish he (or someone) would come onscreen before one of his quasi-narrative works and lead the audience in a Transcendental Meditation exercise.
A great filmmaker makes you want to get on his or her wavelength even if it means adjusting your expectations from scene to scene. You’re supposed to work at it— to make imaginative leaps that are sometimes a challenge. But David Gordon Green’s wavelength has always been beyond even my most athletic imaginative leaps. His acclaimed debut George Washington has a wrenching last act, but much of it is a strange and estranging blend of the amateurish and the slick—a kind of cinematic dyslexia in which nothing quite fits. Scene by scene his new film, Snow Angels, isn’t terrible. Parts of it are amusing, and there are wintry images that eat into the mind. But it’s one of the most disjunctive things I’ve ever sat through.