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“Paranoid Park” skates around the issues

My wife and I saw Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park last night so you won’t have to.

I’m about to tell you what the movie is about, but I won’t go further than what you’ll read in the typical capsule review. So, if you don’t want to know that, please count this as a [SPOILER ALERT].

The movie is about a teen-ager who may or may not be involved in what may or may not be a fairly random-sounding murder. It’s told in a jumbled-up chronological order. It’s not a murder mystery, though. It’s focused tightly — and literally, since much of the rest of the frame is often blurred — on the boy’s day-to-day coping with the maybe-murder. And here’s the key to the movie’s ultimate failure: If you assembled the pieces chronologically, it’d be clear that it utterly does not address the moral, psychological, and spiritual consequences of the boy’s involvement in the movie’s central event. The disentangling is not of the boy’s feelings or culpability but of a timeline arbitrarily snaggled by the film-maker. He cuts up the narrative simply to keep something from the viewers. That’s a cheap way to manufacture revelation.

The result is a movie that is told from no one’s point of view. The boy remains a cipher. We don’t think he’s heartless or psychotic. He seems to be simply emotionally guarded the way many teens are. He is effectively portrayed as a subordinate member of his social group, under the wing of a dominant friend, and appealingly nervous about hanging with the hardcore guys at the local illegal skateboarding park. But we don’t get past his bangs and fetching face. We don’t know why he is heartless to his girlfriend. An important event with his girlfriend (no spoilers here!) is shot carefully so we don’t get any sense of how the boy felt about it. We don’t see any emotional change before and after the movie’s central event. We don’t see him wrestling with the consequences in any except the most pedestrian ways. You could edit out the central event and not affect the movie.

Maybe Van Sant is trying to show us a teen who is so alienated that not even an event as horrific as the one he shows us — an intense and graphic scene out of a horror movie — can get a response from him. If so, it’s got to be an indictment of an entire generation, or perhaps of the teen years themselves, for Van Sant seems to tag the protagonist as typical to a fault. Are we supposed to think that teenagers are that impervious to events outside their own narcissistic sphere? If so, then this movie is Van Sant saying “I just don’t get kids today.” But I don’t think that’s his point. I think he thinks he’s showing us the turmoil under the skin.

Except he forgets about the part where he shows us the turmoil under the skin.

* * *

By the way, Ted Fry of the Seattle Times is among those who disagree with me. Here’s his opening paragraph:

Gus Van Sant’s capper to a trilogy of experiments in elliptical narrative and lyrical structure is a masterful triumph of art, craft and empathy for the complicatedness of being a real teenager. With “Paranoid Park,” Van Sant has solidified his niche as a singular American film auteur whose vision melds formal skill and abstract invention with an intuitive sense of the poetry movies can exploit to convey their unique interpretation of life.

Yeah, that’s what I meant. [Tags: ]

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