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Photo: Scott Green/Courtesy of IFC Films

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.

Green has adapted a novel by Stewart O’Nan that, no matter what you think of it, works on its own suffocating terms. A western-Pennsylvania man named Arthur remembers the murder of a former babysitter he had a huge crush on—an event that happened around the same time his parents split up and he and his mom had to move from a house to a squalid apartment complex. The novel is steeped in working-class fatalism—it moves toward its two climaxes (the accidental death of a little girl, the killing of Annie) in a way that critics like to call “inexorable.”

Green doesn’t want to saddle these characters with a fat load of inexorability, and the film has none of the novel’s pall. That’s good—to a point. What isn’t good is that at times he seems to think he’s making an ensemble comedy about several different estranged couples, some funny, some sad, and the fizz and buffoonishness never begin to mesh with the primal horror of the central events. The socioeconomic bracket has been bumped up a notch, and Annie is played by the British Kate Beckinsale, who is touchingly unaffected, but whose lissome body and unlined face don’t even suggest the pain of doing badly on her “O” levels, let alone trying to get by as a single mom with an unstable ex-husband. As that husband, Glenn, Sam Rockwell tries not to come off like too much of an Actor—this kind of indie regional moviemaking wears its amateurishness like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval—but the script doesn’t give him much to play, and he has great comic timing, so he becomes a lovable clown. Annie and young Arthur (Michael Angarano) work at a Chinese restaurant alongside Barb, played by Amy Sedaris, who bristles with comic energy. Nicky Katt plays her narcissistic husband and Annie’s lover—he’s hilariously self-involved. If Green had thrown away the death of a 4-year-old and the murder-suicide that now comes from nowhere, he might have had the beginnings of something.

You can’t accuse Green of laying back. He uses a jiggly handheld camera in scenes where a static one would do, and sometimes the camera travels with the actors and then keeps traveling, leaving them behind. (I wanted to reach up and yank it back.) The ghastly, the funny, the tragic, the surreal—it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry, right? Maybe. But Snow Angels is a hopelessly addled weave.

In Married Life, Ira Sachs aims a bit lower than Green but obliterates his target: The funny, the scary, the campy, the sad—they’re all splendidly of a piece. The movie is a goof on Hitchcock and Sirk—a period (late forties) soap opera with nasty sexual undertones and the omnipresent threat of murder. The narrator, a Lord of Misrule, is Pierce Brosnan, who can play a too-handsome cad and convincingly parody one—everything rolls off him. But his best friend, the protagonist, is played by Chris Cooper, off whom nothing rolls: Sour, saggy, quivering with repressed longing, always a step away from implosion, Cooper straddles the comedy-melodrama border and keeps you both giggly and tense. The premise of Married Life is that he wants to spare his wife (Patricia Clarkson) the agony he knows she’ll feel when he leaves her for a young, blonde war widow (Rachel McAdams)—which means doing the humane thing and killing her. The joke is that he doesn’t have a clue what’s really in her head—or in the heads of his mistress and best friend: His scary switchback emotional roller-coaster ride has nothing to do with the real world. The movie is written from a male perspective—the women are projections—and wouldn’t work without the gorgeous Clarkson, neurasthenic one instant and the next the very image of sensual feline self-containment.

Gus Van Sant found the gangly high-school kids and skate rats of Paranoid Park by posting a MySpace page in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, explaining his decision as a function of age and geography: “When you’re casting below a certain age, say 20, you start to need to go the nonprofessional route; there are only certain areas of the world where kids are professional actors.” Van Sant himself was born in 1952. He first studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he befriended classmates David Byrne and other members of the Talking Heads, and graduated in 1975 with a B.F.A. in film, animation, and video.

Paranoid Park
Directed by Gus Van Sant.

Snow Angels
Directed by David Gordon Green.
Warner Independent Pictures. R.

Married Life
Directed by Ira Sachs.
Sony Pictures Classics. PG-13.


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