psychoPEDIA: Inside the Outpost

VIDDY
Poetry In Motion: Paranoid Park

"Paranoid Park", the latest feature from auteur Gus Van Sant, could teach bohemian wannabes a thing or two about "experimental" filmmaking. Shot on both super 8 and 35mm by one of cinema's greatest living DPs Christopher Doyle, and using an ingenious mix of soundscapes (mostly by Ethan Rose) and music ranging from Nino Rota to Cool Nutz, the film follows a simple, if morally weighted, storyline about a teenage skateboarder named Alex and his possible link to the murder of a security guard near a notorious skate park known as Paranoid Park. Because the film, based on a novel by Portlander Blake Nelson, is so straightforward, anchored in its plot, Van Sant is able to go as "avant-garde" as he pleases, playing not just visually and aurally, but with structure and time, without losing focus. What most likely would have been a cluttered mish-mash in the hands of an overly cerebral director becomes a poetic revelation with visceral Van Sant at its helm.

The film's opening has a 70s feel, a no-nonsense static shot of a bridge as the credits roll. The score shifts as effortlessly from Fellini to a breaking glass soundscape, from Alex's (35 mm-shot) school day to his super 8 skate stunts, as day to night, as waking life to a dream. Christopher Doyle, who seemed to sprout wings working with Wong Kar Wai all those years, doesn't move his camera a quarter inch without a reason. There's a terrific two-shot near the beginning of "Paranoid Park" that occurs after Alex has been called out of class for a police interview. The camera fixes on an empty classroom and pans right to reveal Detective Lu sitting at a table before Alex slowly takes a seat in the frame across from Lu. As the interview moves along the camera creeps closer and closer until only Alex is left in the frame. The scene started with Lu but ended with Alex. Psychologically, this is all you need to know, the easygoing realistic dialogue rendered merely peripheral.

And with a natural believable script matched by an equally convincing cast led by Gabe Nevins as Alex, Van Sant's idea to use MySpace as a casting service seems to have paid off. Nevins is equally lanky, angel-faced and serene, as in the moment as an improv performer. Dan Liu's Detective Lu avoids all movie clichés, more a benevolent social worker than murder investigator. Equally innovative is Alex's story, shown and "read," not "told," since Alex recounts his tale in a notebook, a sort of creative writing project with a gruesome homicide at its center. And Van Sant's attention to teenage detail is right on the mark. From the awkward low-angle shot of Alex picking up a newspaper to read about the murder to the lovely composition of the skate kids as they're called out of class for questioning, a horizontal lineup forming in the hall as one by one they join at each end, move forward with youthful musicality, visualizes adolescence itself. From the flashes of lightning during a thunderstorm to a shower scene in which cleansing water becomes heart pounding loud, "Psycho"-like in its horror, we can practically hear the scream of teenage angst.

As Van Sant glides back and forth in time, showing us the same scene more than once, the second time around with information that changes everything, we realize we're never really watching the same scene twice. With new meaning and profound resonance, we're forced to confront the fact that perspective is everything. After Alex loses his virginity to his girlfriend Jennifer, shot in a maelstrom of long blonde hair and noise from the crowd of teens goofing around outside, Jennifer compliments Alex, pulls on her jeans and goes to the bathroom – where she immediately calls a friend on her cell to brag about getting laid. The scene is hilarious, not least because it's so thoroughly realistic. (In this Facebook/ text-message obsessed age, isn't that what one is supposed to do?) And when Alex finally breaks up with Jennifer it's done with the camera frozen on her tearful face, music in lieu of words (for what could she possibly say that hasn't been cried a million times before?) Van Sant is all heart, a director who wants you to feel through sight and sound. And he understands something often lost in this "Grownups do stuff for money. There is no other reason," (as one character puts it) blockbuster society – the sheer weight of simplicity.

~Lauren Wissot

Lauren is a film critic, screenwriter, and author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings
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VIDDY: There Will Be Blood
(And Sweat and Tears)

Paul Thomas Anderson's films always inevitably devolve into a cinematographic game of "name that director." And There Will Be Blood, his latest film based on an Upton Sinclair novel [Oil] about an oilman's obsessive, cancerous lust for the black gold, is no exception. Fortunately, what sets There Will Be Blood apart from other pseudo-homages like Magnolia and Boogie Nights, and what makes it his most mature film to date, is a result of the blood, sweat, and tears of one man. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those rare actors able to rise above his directors' deficiencies. As the oil baron, Daniel Plainview, he grounds the film with the heavy weight of his character's soul and forces Anderson's attention-deficit-disorder directing to remain as sharply focused as the steel bit on a rig.

This is a performance far more nuanced and less showy than Day-Lewis' turn as Bill, The Butcher in Gangs of New York. Daniel Plainview has a back-story a thousand dusty miles long. You can see it in his hunted animal eyes, his clenched jaw, and his stoop and stagger. This is a broken, spiritual “dead-man-walking,” with Day-Lewis treading nothing less than Academy Award territory. Anderson took a big risk in the wordless opening, eschewing dialogue for rich, long shot images of the old and Wild West – a chance that pays off when we're jolted into the story by the sound of Plainview's oddly cadenced baritone. His voice is so unfamiliar and untraceably foreign that we treat it with unwavering attention. His proclamations about being "an oilman" become sermons from on high. Like in No Country For Old Men, the theme of man coming to terms with the notion that anything outside of fate is just a mirage is up close and personal. Day-Lewis as Plainview (every bit as bizarre as Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurgh) is himself often out of control. But some actors – like Brando and De Niro in their youth – a director can let get out of control. That's where they shine. These actors are artists who can devour without chewing scenery. (And then of course there are those like Jack Nicholson, clearly not in their ranks, as everything from The Shining to The Departed can attest.) There's a scene in which Plainview is awakened in the middle of the night to the news that one of his workers has been lost in the well. After receiving the crucial details he's about to return to sleep when he's startled by the realization he hasn't asked the most important question of all, "Did you get the bit?" Everything about this character is crystallized in the delivery of that line. Up until that point we're not quite sure if he's going to be able to pull off this strange performance. Afterwards, you can't imagine the character being played any other way. Day-Lewis is simply that brilliant. And Anderson has every reason to blindly trust him – he's that good.

But there's another preacher in the film whose sermonizing is just as powerful as Plainview's– a second antihero in this darkly brilliant tale. Paul Dano, as the young minister Eli Sunday who must match wits with the oilman else lose his community, has mastered the art of going up against a giant like Daniel Day-Lewis. He's a smart David in the face of this Goliath, choosing to go under Day-Lewis instead of over, lowering the tone and volume in an effort to shrink him down to his own size. Dano is a young
Edward Norton playing Ali to George Foreman, the water antidote to Day-Lewis' fire. Their acting is 100% physical – Dano preaching with his body, Day-Lewis' posture changing as his body begins to deteriorate, making physical his character's spiritual disintegration. (And the manipulative preacher versus the hustling baron is indeed a delightful prizefight, each testing the other to see if he's a man of his word or whether they're simply two sides of the same coin.) Dano knows he can't knock him out, so he just quietly waits, lets Eli take the punches (literally), until the monster wears himself out. Though Day-Lewis is an acting machine who never grows tired, by the end he's psychically battered and bruised. Paul Dano is the best thing to happen to Day-Lewis in a long time– the new kid on the block forcing the master to step up his game. (Actually, the casting is nearly perfect– the only misstep being not wooing Willem Dafoe to the role of Plainview's long-lost brother Henry. What I wouldn't give to see Day-Lewis and Dafoe in an acting showdown!)

I only wish Paul Thomas Anderson would have been so inspired. Though he benefits from a script founded in great literature, he's a risk-averse director relying on the fearlessness of his leads to overcome his own shortcomings. His camera often draws attention to itself instead of serving the story, moving on top of the script rather than with it (which is why Day-Lewis' voiceover works every time, with the narration serving as a focal point for when the lens wanders too far). He's an inorganic filmmaker, the separate pieces of cinematography, screenplay, and music never quite flowing together. (Though he has his moments. The suspenseful, Jaws-like music is fitting for the oil well blowup. Things finally get organic with stringed instruments drawing us in, not distracting, as the multiple POV images seamlessly segue into one another. But that's just one scene in a two-hour-plus film.) Yes, Anderson is able to employ the stillness of Sayles – didn't I see some of that footage in Matewan? – isn't afraid of the silences anymore. He's learned a lot from Altman about using the camera to probe a character's conscience. He shares his love of shooting the overwhelming landscapes of the west with Malick. In fact, his constant referencing of these directors through the visual only serves to remind that Paul Thomas Anderson will never be any of them. He's simply traded in his Scorsese shots of Boogie Nights for a course in Days of Heaven.

Only when Anderson takes the next step of absorbing the legendary filmmakers' directing – then making it his own – does the movie truly succeed. The film's finale is such a disconcerting, twisted mix of Scorsese's The Age of Innocence with Kubrick's The Shining, complete with decrepit gilded mansion and trailing, low angle, Big Wheel shots in a surreal bowling alley (and a mob rubout to boot!) that you can't help but sit back and admire it. Anderson has finally created something new like the best, DJ remix. The filmmaking has risen to the level of Day-Lewis' performance. "The third revelation? What is the third revelation?" Plainview mockingly terrorizes Eli. I can only hope that the Academy voters see that the answers in plain view.

~Lauren Wissot

Lauren is a film critic, screenwriter, and author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings

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