Poetry In Motion: Paranoid Park
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 is a film critic, screenwriter, and author of the memoir Under My Master's Wings