3.27.2008

Notes on PARANOID PARK.



I haven't posted in a while here, but I wanted to write out some informal thoughts on PARANOID PARK after having seen it recently. I haven't been able to stop thinking about it and I feel strongly compelled to write all this stuff down. I'm going to talk about specific structural elements of the movie and specific shots, so if you want to be pure about seeing this one I'd suggest reading this post afterwards (or not, as I'm mainly typing this just to get it all out... if it stimulates conversation then great). But I can't recommend highly enough that all of you see this movie. I truly hope that come the end of the year it's not one of those films that many never got around to seeing. Problems with IFCFilms aside, the good news is that if you can't find it in theaters you can get it on IFC on Demand with Comcast or your cable provider, and turn the lights off at home, and the sound way way way up, and watch it that way. I haven't felt this way about a film in years. Years. I hope you seek it out and experience it, and I really hope to hear what some of you think about it.

I knew from the opening credits of this movie that I would love it. See, this has been a certain trend with GDSMs (God Damn Sam Movies) released in the past several years; the opening flight-simulator sequence of HEAVEN, the long take of Damon and Affleck driving that opens GERRY, the snowy tracking shot in BIRTH. As I watched PARANOID PARK's long landscape shot of Portland, accompanied by some great ambient sound stuff that reminded me of Fridge or Four Tet, I had that same feeling... I knew it. That's not to say that I decided then and there to love the film before truly seeing it, but that I had a sneaking suspicion that, if the pattern held true, the way I felt about that opening shot would line up with how I felt about the whole film, and that I was in for something special. Something just for me.

The style of this film is exactly the kind that I love. I should qualify my initial reaction and say that it reaches the level of pure cinema intermittently... it's not as pure as, say, KOYAANISQATSI (maybe the best film I've ever seen that tells a story without words), because PARANOID PARK has a concrete story, and a good one at that. Neither is it, on the whole, as pure as ERASERHEAD, which has a very abstract story laid out in the logic of dreams. But given its source material, the young adult novel on which it's based, the result is as close to pure cinema as one could imagine. The overall affect of the film is one of pure cinema. It's the exact kind of movie that I love because rather than relying on dialogue and traditional notions of plot, it creates an entire audio-visual experience which immerses us in (rather than presents in front of us) its story. Editing, cinematography, sound, music and performance all aim towards this same cause. What David Lynch did for dreams in ERASERHEAD, Van Sant has done for memory in PARANOID PARK. He is IN memory. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

It had frankly just been a while since a movie made me feel this way. Those aforementioned GDSMs, released between 2003 and 2004, along with some others like Soderbergh's SOLARIS, approached the level of film that I dream of. And though I consider every coming year a great year for film, each year bringing many many films I consider great, even my favorite films from the past few years -- THE NEW WORLD, CHILDREN OF MEN, and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, haven't hit that truly personal level for me. And there's nothing wrong with that; every year can't give you a film that makes you feel that way. And I absolutely those movies. Stylistically, THE NEW WORLD and NO COUNTRY are actually in the realm of my ideal style... true GDSMs. It's just that in that arena, some films mean more, personally, than others. I was beginning to fear I wouldn't truly feel that way again... that my reactions to some of those films I saw in college were simply based on my context at the time. PARANOID PARK restored my belief in the movies of my dreams. And given that Van Sant's GERRY was one of the films I previously placed in my own personal pantheon, I have to now acknowledge the fact that PARANOID PARK doesn't just sit alongside those films, I think it sits above them.

Yes, even I can admit now, from this perspective, that GERRY, ELEPHANT, and LAST DAYS were mere stepping stones to what many critics are agreeing is the perfect culmination of Van Sant's talent and vision as a filmmaker. One of the things that's been making me happy about PARANOID PARK is that critics and friends who didn't like GERRY percieve this to be an improvement on the potential expressed in the death trilogy, while fans of GERRY like myself love it too. Perhaps I see them as more similar than people who didn't care for Van Sant's experimental period, but I'll be the first one to expound on how this film refines and reigns in some of Van Sant's most promising aesthetic concepts that he's been exploring in the past few years. There is a source novel, and within that a compelling story. In fact, a mystery. And a good mystery, as any businessman on a plane can tell you, can enable you to move through any formal or aesthetic shortcomings with ease; I would imagine that even the people who don't care for PARANOID PARK still found themselves curious about the outcome of its plot. But to me, and it seems to a lot of people, Van Sant is giving us something accessible again. Not just an intriguing premise and a mystery to unfold, but something more... a psychological trip into the soul of a highschooler. Nostalgia. Put it this way: it's a lot easier, and a lot more entertaining, to be transported into the experience of being in highschool than to be transported into the experience of wandering alone through a desert.

It's funny, just last week Matt and I were having an interesting talk about memory and writing and I was telling him about how all through high school I found myself kind of taking mental notes about the way things were, and that I dreamed of one day writing a screenplay about high school that would capture what I experienced to be the truth and reality about that time in one's life. The internal world of the teenager. The experience of hearing, for the first time in your life, your adult voice taking shape. Your adult self, forming minute-by-minute all around you, as that wonderous world-- school, sports, cars, girls-- comes racing by at a speed that seems hard to even take all in at once. On the surface, you might think I didn't have much in common with Alex, the protagonist of PARANOID PARK. But I can't say I've ever seen a film so truthfully explore the teenage mind and soul. That film I always thought about... this is it.

In what could be considered the film's title card, we see Alex's handwriting on the lined pages of a small journal: "Paranoid Park." This beach landscape, where he's just sat down on a lonely bench, is our present tense. The voice we hear is Alex's written word. From here, we begin to share in Alex's memories; we know that this story is going to be told through memory. It's the framing device of the film. Soon thereafter we see Alex and his friend Jared skating down the street, talking about Paranoid Park. Alex, in voiceover, is describing what we're seeing, and he sounds just like it would sound in one's mind reading these words in a journal. We see Alex say to Jared, "I don't think I'm ready for Paranoid Park," but we know he's saying that already, because in Alex's voiceover he's already told us that he said that. In fact, the dialogue from the original scene is low in volume, and Alex's voiceover is in the aural foreground. It's somewhat jarring, given how the film's trailer showed us this scene already as if it were a present-tense scene to expect as normal... now, we see that this was in fact a memory*. It's as though we're not just hearing Alex's present-tense written word, but the closest approximation to what Alex was actually thinking and feeling in the past, during that moment. And when you think about it, it makes sense. Jared is throwing the gauntlet down, saying that they should do Paranoid Park. At that moment, thoughts run through Alex's head. He says something, but it may not be exactly what he's thinking inside. This is the beginning of a whole sub-narrative about the friendship between Jared and Alex. The power struggle between them, the intimidation and tension that Alex feels, and maybe a kind of admiration or even attraction (more on that later). Van Sant shows us Alex's story through the lens of his memory, and with the soundtrack of him reflecting on these memories, giving us insight into his internal state at that time.

(* watching the trailer back now, it's such a misrepresentation of the tone, style, and pace of the movie. But like other art films released by studios in recent years, you can't blame the marketing department for cutting a trailer that promotes a more mainstream movie. It's no wonder, though, that the trailer didn't particularly get me excited, nor did it match up in my mind with what early reviews were saying about the film)

It's this sound-image structure that, to me, taps so directly into that highschool, teenage consciousness. As a teenager, let's face it, the person you project to the world around you is rarely, if not never, an accurate reflection of the person you are, or are becoming, inside. Again, it is the most emotionally and psychologically tumultuous time in one's development. I think this is the main reason that I'm so attracted to children's films and films about childhood-- because they deal with a myth that will always haunt me: coming of age. It's so fascinating to me. It's this time in your life when you are becoming yourself. In the grand scheme of your life, it's so short a period of time. But when it's happening, it can feel like an eternity. PARANOID PARK takes us directly into the heart of adolescence. Here, the internal world is a vast universe of thoughts, ideas, philosophies, rebellion, observation, imagination, desire, questioning, introspection. I won't speak for anyone else, but at some point during adolescence I found my mind just talking. A lot. A mile a minute. I heard a continuous internal monologue. Not a monologue, but many voices, a collage of thoughts. It's been that way ever since... not aggresive, rarely suffocating, almost always calm and flowing. Of course, the inner monologue is one of the all-time movie cliches, and we're all familiar with hearing a character's inner thoughts, often with a nice reverb on it, as he or she ponders the mystery in which they've found themselves. But in one scene Van Sant reveals to us Alex's internal voice in a way that shatters this cliche: Alex walks across a bridge after experiencing a certain traumatic event, and we hear the many voices in his mind, all stacked and overlapping, without agreement or clarity. This is how it was, to be a teenager. This is often how it still is.

Separately from the inner world of the teenager, there are references to the teenager's outer world that are just so spot-on, for me. In one scene, Alex drives around at night in his mom's car. As every other teen movie and TV show has taught us, the car is the literal vehicle of teenage independence, and in the context of PARANOID PARK, it's a welcome relief of sorts to see Alex in that safe haven. It's something everyone remembers. Driving around, alone, through the night. Listening to music; Alex, just like me, goes through rap, jazz, classical, and tries on all of these personalities behind the wheel. After all, in that car you can be whoever you want to be.

One of the most interesting things about this story that you have to address is the relationship between Alex and his girlfriend. I loved it. At first, it's easy to say that this girl, a blonde, shallow, seemingly popular cheerleader, is an unlikely match for the young skater Alex. But I love how the film deviates from everything we would expect from this relationship... mainly by showing Alex in scenes having fun with her, going shopping and trying on vintage clothes. We know that Alex is introverted, and I would argue sensitive, but it's surprising and refreshing seeing him in these scenes. He's like a kid. And in other scenes, when Alex sees her, we hear beautiful music. It's interesting to me how realistically the film treats the paradoxical nature of this relationship, and the complexity of his feelings for her.

This leads me to the sex scene of course. Amazing. The sound design is brilliant. As she deflowers him on the second floor of her family's house, we only hear what Alex hears-- the other kids outside in the yard. It's a great scene because, obviously, we understand that Alex is mentally elsewhere (and Nate made a good point about how we rarely see males taken advantage of or emotionally distant during sex or the loss of virginity)... but also back to that aethetics of memory that Van Sant creates. I felt like I was actually there. I could imagine that Saturday afternoon, what the weather was like, and the other kids hanging out outside. Speaking of the kids' homes, I loved how Alex used Jared's house as a changing station, sneaking in and out through the night (and, unless I'm getting this wrong, showering there too). Who didn't have a friend in high school who's house was just a safe haven for other teenagers like that? I loved that it was a big, nice house, and though Alex was sneaking in and out carefully, you got the sense that Alex had free reign to drop in on Jared's place whenever. It was just true to life. And then the space of Alex's home... cheaper, minimal, empty. I loved when Alex is studying in the living room but then feels uncomfortable when his dad approaches him, and so he moves into his room for privacy... in these moments the adolescent is almost testing the waters of adulthood (can I hang out in the grownup space? no... a bit to scary still...). The parent characters were really fascinating to me, but more on that later.

The sound design on the whole film is brilliant. It plays a bigger role than we are used to. It plays a huge role in what I consider to be the defining, most memorable shot in the whole film-- the shower shot. I'm tempted to say it's the most iconic shower scene since PSYCHO, which Van Sant coincidentally re-shot himself already. But just as a piece of art, this one shot itself, I was completely blown away. Nate or Joe or someone else can bust this thing open and tell me exactly how it was technically achieved, but as Alex showers after the traumatic event (we are teased this image once earlier), he is enveloped by the water, by sound, by what has just happened. The water drips down his hair and we're suddenly not looking at a teenage boy, but a massive obscure object, an uncanny form, a terrifying vision. It almost looked like a bullet-time effect, or like a technique I may have seen in a Bjork video. As Alex leans against the wall and holds his hands to his face, it's as though the whole image of him is melting away. It's one of the greatest moments of abstraction I've ever seen... the image of Alex showering becomes something else entirely, and it's absolutely terrifying. One thing I didn't notice at the time for being to deep in the image, is that apparently we start hearing swarms of birds in this moment, as though the birds seen behind Alex on the wallpaper have come to life. All I remember was an ERASERHEAD-like drone of terrifying sound.

Every shot in PARANOID PARK has meaning and is so beautiful to me. Some other favorites of mine: Alex sitting poolside, and in a matter of six or eight seconds it appears that the sun goes down and night falls... some kind of exposure trick that just blew me away. The last three shots of the film were incredible... I won't ruin them or do any injustice to them in describing them. The shot of the security guard, when we see from Alex's point of view what's happened to him, is one of the most disturbingly surreal images I've ever seen outside of a Lynch film. It's no wonder he was traumatized (more on that later too).

And of course the skating shots. I would love to take a look at skateboarding films as a genre, and I'm sure someone already has, but it really interest me, and I'm sure there is a LOT of overlap, genre-wise, with surfing movies. But anyways, skating is to PARANOID PARK as flying is to Miyazaki. Basically, it's heaven. Alex isn't a hardcore skater, but he's adopted the image of one as a possibility of who he might want to be. When he visits Paranoid Park, it's a place of complete freedom and independence, but it's also a place of adulthood. Not that there are adults there; but the people around him are older than he is, and he looks up to the citizens of Paranoid. It's a threshold, an arena of adulthood in a way. As he sits there on the side of the ramp, we have no idea what will happen next... will he make a move? will he be approached? will it be friendly or hostile? or will he just observe the surroundings, a fly on the wall? Meanwhile, the skating sequences shot on 8mm are transcendent in their beauty. We're already one level deep into Alex's memory, and when we transition into these unique formal sequences we descend levels deeper into Alex's consciousness. Skating is Alex's independence, or what we wishes his independence to be represented by, and these sequences are a dive into Alex's dream self. And diving in we swim. Speaking of surfing, in these sequences I was struck by how much it felt like these guys were moving over the crests of ocean waves, and that we were swimming behind them. In this sense, skateboarding is just surfing with wheels (again, I want to come back and look more closely at this skating/surfing thing sometime). Van Sant's editing is great here too, and once again the sound design... watch and pay attention to how we transition into these sequences. The transitional shots and sounds that take us deeper into this state of consciosness. Perfectly done.

Almost all of Van Sant's films have been given gay readings. In ELEPHANT and LAST DAYS you have gay scenes coming almost out of nowhere (not that they don't belong... some might say they just felt a little forced), whereas PARANOID PARK has a potential gay reading to it but it's not overt... and the gay reading is actually more interesting and complex than in his other recent films, if you choose to see it. It didn't even cross my mind when I saw the film, but then reading about it online I came across some great interpretations. They addressed Alex's possible attraction to Jared, yet to fully develop or be acknowledged, and most notably the possible truth behind Alex's parents' situation. Alex's dad (who Alex interestingly feels like he should go talk to when he's in desperate need) is divorcing Alex's mom, and comes to Alex to say goodbye and give a very weak explanation for the divorce. We know he's been staying at Uncle Tommy's, but what I never thought about is the idea that Uncle Tommy could have been the cover story for a relationship dad was secretly having... perhaps he didn't realize he was gay when he married her and had Alex... and when you look at it this way, it's a hell of a lot heavier when dad tells Alex earnestly that he never meant for any of this to happen. Either way you look at it, I loved the one scene showing Alex's mom. We only see her from the back, but in one exchange of dialogue we learn so, so much about her, and about her relationship with Alex. She's basically cool as shit. Alex is in Alex's world. For many teenagers, nothing a parent can do can change this. I just thought it was cool to see the mom be really supportive and let Alex have his freedom. Too often teen problems in movies point right to their cliched parents. This movie has a fresh approach to its issues of family, and it says a lot with a very small amount of scenes.

Back to Alex's journal. Almost halfway through the film, we see Alex write again, "Paranoid Park." So the shot I previously considered the title card (aka the beginning) is here again. Is the narrative starting over in some way? Towards the end of the film, Alex's friend suggests that he write about what happened to him as a way of coming to terms with it. So now we know that what Alex has been writing (and saying in voiceover) is that very letter, written to this friend. But here's the thing-- we've seen Alex tear pages out of the journal and crumple them up only to start over again. Reflecting back on the structure of the whole film, you realize that when we see the title card again, it's Alex writing a new version of the story. So what's the difference between the first version and the second version, and why did he throw the first one out? Here's my take on it. In the first half of the film, which I'll call Alex's "first draft," we are given a kind of all-access into Alex's memory. Once he starts his "second draft," the narrative (fragmented as it may be) begins again. But this time, we hardly hear Alex in voiceover at all, or at least we hear him far less than during the first pass. My first interpretation of this, given the generally pleasant, sedated nature of the first half and the more ominous tone of the second, was that this may be a sort of structural film, in which we see two possible narratives: one in which he didn't do whatever this detective is accusing him of, and one in which he did. But when I realized Alex was actually re-writing his story, I understood what I now can only assume is the meaning intended here: that Alex, during his first draft, had actually not realized what he had "done." He was traumatized. When he starts the narrative again, it is here that he uncovers what happened to him. It was repressed, and he had to find it again. This is why in the first half, we see a couple glimpses of what we will see fully later on. Remember: everything we're seeing is what he's writing and remembering. So when we see the incident at the train tracks for the first time, we may assume Alex is revisiting it for the first time too. When he looks at the security guard, he is confronting this event in the present as well. And then that third-to-last shot... given this interpretation, is extremely devastating... or maybe beautiful... I don't know what to make of it yet. Other than that he has confronted what's happened. He's lost his innocence.

The best moment of the movie for me might not have been any of the gorgeous shots or image/sound syntheses, but when Alex sits with his friend and tells her with deadly seriousness that he now sees in the world "different levels... of stuff."

3 comments:

Bobbie said...

I would love to see you write a screenplay it would be amazing

Freddie said...

I remain fascinated by the fine line between pop culture and subculture. I had a similar visceral reaction to you in experiencing this movie, which I thought was great. And I think a lot of people (at least in America), on some level, experience some surprisingly similar version of the high school experience. So why did this movie not generate a major box office success?

mythopolis said...

Nicely written and so now another title to go on the long list of movies I haven't seen but ought to...I will get to it...afterall, I didn't see GoneWith The Wind 'til last year....but I did get to it! d