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We’ve seen plenty of great underrated movies from Gus Van Sant that tell dark stories, populated by dysfunctional characters. ‘Elephant’ dealt with the Columbine massacre, ‘Last Days’ the suicide of Kurt Cobain, and ‘Gerry’ considered the violent potential inherent in all of us.
‘Paranoid Park’ is a tale of rebellious young men; a theme that Van Sant covered in his Shakespearean influenced ‘My Own Private Idaho.’ ‘Paranoid Park’ is based on a novel written by Blake Nelson, set in Portland (Van Sant’s hometown and a place he often returns to in narrative film), and it gravitates around the ‘cool’ setting of a hardcore skatepark, built by the skaters themselves.
It’s a place where disenfranchised and unhappy youth congregate and skateboarding offers them something close to a sense of community, and it provides them with their own culture too. Van Sant clearly romanticises their lifestyle and he lovingly captures the flow and the movement of their pastime in gentle slow mo shots.
There’s a beauty in the way that Van Sant frames and captures the movements of the skateboarders. The director used Super 8mm film and the effect is one of nostalgia, perhaps timelessness, and it shows the ethereal escapism that attracts so many young people to push off with a skateboard beneath their feet.
In essence ‘Paranoid Park’ is about consequences. It’s a story of a young boy and a terrible accident that threatens to shape his future for the worse. But Van Sant chooses to focus on the escape and freedom that the skateboarding culture promises. The skaters themselves are a group of young people with nowhere better to go and nothing better to do.
For audiences ‘Paranoid Park’ has a slow melancholic but meditative effect as dreamy visuals collide with a simplistic and basic narrative arc. It’s a film for fans of Van Sant and it builds on the storytelling choices in the director’s ‘Death Trilogy.’ It’s a heady mix of sub cultures, adolescence, and a sense of alienation, of atomisation from overarching societal values and of finding your own sense of purpose.
There’s a hint of noir to the dialogue and Van Sant deliberately utilises music and sound to develop the simple story laid out by fellow Portland native Blake Nelson. Between them they manage to capture a sense of the experience of youth, the long days with little to do, and the introspection that comes along with growing up.
But time and experience does take its toll and for Alex his violent and grisly encounter with the security guard stands in stark contrast to the lyrical experience of skateboarding. Van Sant’s film relies on movement; it captures skateboarders twisting in graceful almost balletic arcs, but those moments stand in stark contrast to the death of the security guard, and his ignoble motionless body.
Kids are drawn to the skatepark because there’s something missing in their lives; for the most part they are looking for a sense of community. Alex’s choice to keep the ‘accident’ to himself further cements that feeling of loneliness and his attempts to keep his mouth shut and to ignore the guilt pushes him ever further from human interaction and communion.
The element that makes Van Sant’s ‘Paranoid Park’ stand out is the way that emotion is communicated. The characters themselves have little to say and Van Sant expertly uses music, movement, and filmic language to tell Alex’s tale. There are a lot of similarities between the high school depiction in ‘Elephant’, the camera movement in ‘Last Days’, and the use of music in ‘Paranoid Park.’
For kids, growing up comes with a soundtrack; it comes with music that lets them express themselves, and music that lets them find a sense of identity. Van Sant relies heavily on strong musical choices and sequences to develop an emotive response in the audience for the experiences Alex has.
Music is transcendent and like the final moments of Van Sant’s Kurt Cobain influenced ‘Last Days’ it’s used to contrast the action occurring with the tone of the moment itself.
Van Sant’s film is an experiment with aesthetics, it tells a story in a non-traditional format, and it relies heavily on sight and sound, rather than overt narrative choices, to tell a tale of youthfulness and the messiness that comes along with growing up.
‘Paranoid Park’ is one of the best underrated indie movies I’ve seen. Like other underappreciated movies from Van Sant, it reminds us that film can be beautiful, that as a storytelling form it can capture emotion, and it can use music and movement to create a sublime experience that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
Have you seen ‘Paranoid Park’? Are you a fan of Van Sant’s experimental storytelling choices?
Let me know with a comment below.