While the decade won't be over for another nine months, they'd have to be an impressive nine months indeed to bump this one from strong candidacy for the finest film of the 2000s. On so many levels does it resonate me that I'm having serious trouble even provisionally assembling the sentences to faithfully express how and why. Inelegant as this method is, perhaps I'll attack this Anne Lamott-style and take it dimension by dimension.
Visually. Holy crap is this a good-looking film, and not just because it's shot by Sino-Aussie titan of cinematography Christopher Doyle — though his work here reminds me that I really must track down and watch every production with which he's ever been involved — but because it takes a bunch of risks. These include mixing 35mm film with 8mm film and video, altering the frame rate in real time and shooting with a variable aspect ratio. (The aspect ratio thing actually wrong-footed the theater staff at my screening; they projected the edges of the larger shots onto curtains until fifteen minutes after I got up and told them to open them.) This sort of business would be tiresome if it didn't serve the whole; this time, fortunately, it does, serving a narrative that's variously dazed, frenzied and unconventionally nostalgic.
Sonically. Even better than the visuals themselves is their cooperation with the music. While a chunk of the soundtrack consists of the usual indie-movie suspects — "Elliot Smith" is a name I've heard before — much of it is what I'd call analog/digital electronic/acoustic ambient. While this resides, in its own right, in my musical strike zone, I would also submit that it aligns perfectly with the film's tone and sensibility, which is, in large part, established...
Rhythmically. I've gone on and on about how sloppy, herky-jerky editing — some call it "MTV editing", or at least they called it that in 1992, but I don't feel confident using that descriptor since I haven't seen MTV since 1992 — is the bane of modern cinema. It's as if filmmakers have forgotten how and when to cut. Van Sant and co. really know how and when to cut in Paranoid Park, which is to say that they know when not to. The clearest example of effectively aligned image, music and editing comes when 16-year-old protagonist Alex, having stumbled home deeply shaken after a train-hopping session gone horribly awry — awry used here to mean "a security guard got cut in half, and Alex might get it pinned on him" — garbage-bags his possibly DNA-evidence-bearing hoodie and jumps in the shower. There he stands, for a shot that my memory says lasts somewhere between 90 and 120 seconds. As the ambient score gradually grows more subtly harsh and metallic, the lighting reduces Alex, borderline catatonic and slumped against the wall without a clue in the world about what to do next, into a surreal, dripping profile silhouette.
Geographically. The story takes place in Portland, which, with Seattle and Vancouver B.C., constitutes a trifecta of Pacific Northwest cities I find aesthetically and culturally favorable. (And yet where do I really want to be? Los Angeles. Go figure.) The film isn't simply one that happens to be shot in Portland, either; it's actually pretty solidly rooted in its location — the titular illegally-constructed skate park, for instance, is a real place — which, given Van Sant's Portland residence, is probably to be expected. Thrillingly, one shot even includes The House of Louie.
Structurally. The picture rolls out its events in a nonlinear fashion, though that itself isn't saying much; lesser filmmakers have labored under the impression that effective nonlinearity is achieved by hitting the "shuffle" button on the Avid. Paranoid Park's structure is more like one constructed improvisationally by a casual storyteller, lurching forward and then looping back around to add some detail or tell it a bit differently. Were I feeling more florid, I'd compare it to the structure of the very free-form skating routines Alex and the other characters perform in Paranoid Park itself, swooping up a ramp and then wheeling back to do it again, at a slightly adjusted angle.
Thematically. Not that I was ever entrenched (or so much as loosely affiliated) with youth culture even in youth, but the older I get, the more fascinating I find it. Despite how many movies try desperately to resonate with the lucrative age 12-18 market demographic, most of them don't even try to reflect, much less understand, that bracket's experience. (Not casting 26-year-olds to play high school juniors would make an admirable start.) Thus, when I see a film that strikes me as having Gotten It Right, the last of which was Jeffrey Blitz's Rocket Science, I absolutely freak out. Though I didn't spend my teen years as a skater — I didn't spend my teen years as anything, really — I couldn't help but nod in agreement at the film's conveyance of teen age's signature blanket of numbing ambiguity and the miniscule-scale joys surreptitiously consumed beneath it.
Formally and substantially. Not much obviously unites my favorite movies of all time — the common threads between the likes of, say, Ran, Hana-Bi, 2001, Rushmore and American Movie are wispy at best — save their common unification of form and substance. Paranoid Park's is the best kind of story: a spare one, but one in the hands of a filmmaker alive to the depths to be found in it when it's properly exposed to the audience's attention. The events are easily rattled off — Alex and a buddy check out Paranoid Park, Alex returns by himself, a freaky dude shows him how to train-hop, Alex whacks an attacking guard with his skateboard and sends him straight under moving wheels, Alex can't quite deal with the aftermath, Alex's girlfriend demands teh secks, Alex's homely girl-confidant advises him to commit whatever's bothering him to paper as catharsis — but reciting them is a waste of digital ink. It's not the tale, it's the telling, and the highly aestheticized, unflinchingly observational telling here comes pretty damned close to perfection.
- Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park
- James Marsh's Man on Wire
- Tarsem's The Fall
- Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In
- Gus van Sant's Milk
- Alex Gibney's Gonzo
- Doug Pray's Surfwise
- Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD
- Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind
- Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona
- Randall Miller's Bottle Shock