The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


In the City of Sylvia

I first stumbled upon the work of José Luis Guerín last summer at the Venice Biennale, where his installation Women We Don’t Know was shown in the Spanish pavilion. It happened to be one of the first things I saw in Venice, and I later regretted not being able to spend enough time with it. David Bordwell mentioned In the City of Sylvia (2007) on his blog when he saw Guerín’s feature at the Vancouver Film Festival and later wrote a brilliant and very detailed analysis involving the film’s use of point-of-view shots. As a result, I looked forward to catching the work when it played recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival. There were many extraordinary films at this year’s festival, including Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life and Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, but the most rigorously formal one turned out to be In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia).

In the City of Sylvia is a story about a young artist who comes to Strasbourg, checks into a hotel, scopes out the women at outdoor cafes and then proceeds to follow one of them through the streets of the city. The film is highly abstract and completely obsessive. It’s about observing women and scrutinizing human gestures, about images and sounds rather than plot and dialogue (of which there is very little). Guerín is interested in an observational cinema that blurs the lines between narrative, documentary, and avant-garde practice. There’s a structural aspect to the film, reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman (who was herself influenced by American structural film), in which repetition becomes an important element. Certain key locations reoccur several times. As the narrative progresses, peripheral characters or their “traces” also reappear – an African street peddler who wears an umbrella hat, a Pakistani flower vendor, a female street person who sprawls on the sidewalk, and a young woman who bums cigarettes. Drinks repeatedly are dropped or spilled in cafes. Images are reflected by mirrors and glass, which will be thematically reinforced later on by the lyrics of a Debbie Harry song. Like Ackerman or Warhol, Guerín includes what would be considered extraneous in most other narrative films.

Scenes in In the City of Sylvia represent chunks of time in which aspects other than the narrative are given equal weight. For instance, the opening scene in the hotel room cuts to someone running down a street where we see a sign for the Hotel Patricia. The young protagonist walks out of the hotel and starts down the narrow street. He stops and checks a map, then changes direction and comes toward us. The shot continues as a bicyclist does the same, and two children, who speak English, head in the opposite direction, followed by a flower peddler who hobbles down the street after them, while strollers and a bicyclist cross in a perpendicular direction at the base of the street. Guerín often holds the shot beyond its point of narrative interest. After the young artist decides to shadow a woman in a burgundy dress, we watch the waitress wipe the table and a trolley move through the background. Later, after the woman and protagonist pass a homeless woman, she tosses a bottle across the street. It rolls past the bottom of the frame, while the rattling sound continues after it disappears, emphasizing Guerín’s interest in the interplay between on- and off-screen space.

The film’s opening scene cues us to Guerín’s more formal concerns. A title indicates “first night.” The light changes during a course of the shot of a hotel room. We see a still life consisting of a map, hotel key, a pencil, and a coaster for “Les Aviateurs.” We hear the sound of cars. In another shot, the still life expands to include fruit, an alarm clock, and sketchpad. Leaves sway outside the window; church bells ring. A young man, who has long straggly hair and wears a vest (Xavier Lafitte), sits in bed. He seems lost in his thoughts or concentrating on something. Sounds of traffic and chirping birds can be heard from outside. The young man remains poised with his pencil, then begins to write feverishly in the notebook. He gets up and moves offscreen. A maid asks whether she can make up the room, causing the scene to cut abruptly. After leaving the hotel, the protagonist heads to an outdoor café. He tries to start a conversation with a woman who reads a book at a nearby table, but she refuses to acknowledge him. A waitress brings coffee, but he causes her to spill it, as the scene cuts to blackness.

After a title that indicates, “second night,” we see shadows cast on the walls of his hotel room as the young man lies in bed. The scene cuts to a crowded outdoor café outside the Conservatory for Dramatic Art on a sunny day. Only after awhile do we notice our protagonist sitting in the background. We observe small details, such as a blond woman playing with her hair. The artist draws and drinks a beer. He fixates on an attractive waitress, whom he also sketches, adding the written notation that this was done “in the city of Sylvia.” An African peddler tries to sell a wallet for five Euros. The waitress gets into an argument with customers over their order. She drops the coffee, which crashes to the ground, as the artist watches with great interest. He has a sad look of longing and desire. With his intense blue eyes and pasty face, one could easily imagine him as a mime. His attention shifts to a group of women. One of them is the same woman from the day before. They make eye contact. Musicians begin to play violins. A brooding man with glasses, whom we’ve observed earlier, suddenly exclaims to the woman next to him, “No.” She shifts her gaze and then looks back at him. He continues, “I don’t think so . . . but I’ll think it over.” This comes as something of a surprise because we didn’t realize they were together as a result of an earlier framing. The artist eventually notices the reflection of a woman in a burgundy dress (Pilar López de Ayala), who gets up to leave. After much deliberation, he knocks over his beer and chases after her.

Like Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd (2003), In the City of Sylvia becomes a game of pursuit. As the young man stalks the woman through the downtown streets, a tram comes between them, causing us to view her and then him through the passing windows. At one point, he calls out, “Sylvie?” In a frontal shot of the two of them walking, her eyes momentarily dart sideways, suggesting that she’s aware of his presence. The sound of their rhythmic walking recalls scenes from films by Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant. The woman, who talks briefly on a cell phone, eventually ditches the young man. In a square, the rings of a cell phone cause him to stare at an upstairs window where a dress on a hanger flaps in the breeze. The artist backs up into a fruit stand. The African peddler tries sell him various items and a young woman wearing a backpack tries to borrow a cigarette, but he’s too absorbed in watching a woman, in only her underwear, blow dry her hair in a window above. Behind him we see the woman whom he thinks is Sylvia leave a shop. 

As church bells sound, the woman heads for a trolley stop. The young man stands next to her on the platform where an attractive model puts her finger to her lips in an advertising display. Once inside the trolley, he finally speaks to the woman. Their conversation takes place on the tram with the city gliding behind them, while the sunlight shifts on their faces:

YOUNG MAN: Sylvie . . . Sylvie?
WOMAN: What is it?
YOUNG MAN: Don’t you remember?
WOMAN: We’ve met?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs,” six years ago.
WOMAN: What?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs.”
WOMAN: What’s that?
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar, behind the cathedral.
She takes off her sunglasses.
YOUNG MAN: I still have the map you drew on a napkin. You don’t remember? No?
WOMAN Yes, yes, yes.
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar.
WOMAN: Sounds familiar.
YOUNG MAN: You were with two friends from the Conservatory. The College of Dramatic Art. You don’t remember?
WOMAN: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
YOUNG MAN: You entered the Conservatory six years ago, right?
WOMAN: You’re mistaken. I’ve been here a year.
YOUNG MAN: But you are Sylvie, aren’t you?
YOUNG MAN: But you’re Sylvie, right?
She laughs and shakes her head.
WOMAN: No. . . No
YOUNG MAN: You aren’t Sylvie?
WOMAN: No, you’re mistaken.
She laughs.
WOMAN: Sylvie. You’re mistaken.
YOUNG MAN: What a disaster! . . . What a disaster! I made a mistake.

The young man seems completely devastated. Have they indeed met previously? Because it’s left ambiguous, the scene has strong echoes of Last Year at Marienbad. The tenor of the conversation switches, however, as she chastises him for following her. When the woman eventually gets off at her stop, he tries to prolong their conversation, but she puts her finger to her lips, mimicking the model in the advertising poster.

At Les Aviateurs, the young man tries to pick up a different woman at the bar, but she ends up dancing with a tall guy instead. After a title indicating “third night,” we view the artist in bed with a woman. He stares at her body while she sleeps. We see a shot of the street corner where the remnants – bottles and refuse – of the homeless woman remain. As a heavy-set woman waddles toward us, another with blond hair runs from the direction of the camera, kicking the same bottle we watched the homeless woman toss into the street. The flower vendor hobbles toward us. A car comes down the street with music blaring. Another man inadvertently kicks the bottle as he passes. We return to the shot of the street with the sign for the Hotel Patricia. A woman carrying a baguette walks down the center of the street, away from the camera. In another shot in front of large graffiti, we hear sounds of earlier violin music and the young woman again asking to borrow a cigarette. In another shot, the African peddler passes through the frame. The young man returns to the Conservatory café, flirts with the waitress, imagines he sees Sylvie again, and pursues the woman to the tram platform, suggesting that his romantic obsession is an endless cycle.

I apologize for providing such detailed description, but In the City of Sylvia is precisely about details – specificity rather than generality – which is why many of the reviews I’ve read have a tendency to talk around the film. While many critics point to Hitchcock, Bresson, and Murnau as some of the film’s obvious references, I would also cite Maya Deren, whose avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (which she made with Alexander Hammid) shows the power of the imagination to overpower reality, imbuing the everyday world with the magic of the dream. Titles divide the film into three distinct “nights,” even though much of the action takes place during the “day.” Guerín’s emphasis on night and shots of the young protagonist at the hotel provide some basis for the hallucinatory quality of much of what transpires. The film creates tension between the documentary-like recording of the streets and cafes of Strasbourg and the protagonist’s own heightened memories.

Looked at in narrative terms, one might ask a number of questions that have to do with character motivation and believability. If Sylvie represents such an obsession, why has the young artist waited six years to try to find her? Where has he been all this time? If Sylvie knows she’s being followed by a stranger, why doesn’t she seek help? Guerín seems completely uninterested in providing such answers. Like much of art cinema, the film relies on ambiguity to create the gaps in the viewer’s own imagination, which becomes a strategy for engaging the viewer. We observe the world of Strasbourg, gradually becoming obsessed with its inhabitants and the city’s rhythms in a similar manner to how Guerín’s voyeuristic protagonist apprehends it. He is attuned to every nuance of the females at whom he gazes. For him, their smallest gesture carries an erotic charge. The film employs the sexualized look of fashion and advertising, but Guerín undercuts this by including street peddlers and homeless people.

Guerín’s structural narrative is interesting for demonstrating how little it actually takes to create a story. The plot easily could be summarized in a sentence or two. Natural sounds and bits of overheard conversation position us as eavesdroppers. Character, as in the case of Sylvie, is extended to include nearly every woman we see, as well as a sense of place. The film’s sound design plays a crucial role. When the woman in the burgundy dress stops in a corner doorway and talks on her cell phone, voices of passersby fade in and out, while we only see the movement of the woman’s lips. In place of the dialogue-driven script, Guerín substitutes visual storytelling and formal concerns, so that, for the attentive viewer, the pleasure of watching In the City of Sylvia involves participating in an elaborate and complex perceptual game.

Posted 21 April, 2008

Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani’s first feature Man Push Cart (2005), which played opening night at last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, explores the world of a Pakistani pop musician, whose immigrant status has forced him to operate a push cart in Manhattan. More than anything, it’s a meditation on the streets of New York City at night, as Bahrani emphasizes the cinematic details of this milieu over plot in order to create a kind of poetic realism. His lead actor from Man Push Cart, Ahmad Razvi, now operates an auto body shop in the Willets Point section of Queens, right near Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets play. But Bahrani’s second feature, Chop Shop (2007), which premiered at Cannes and will also play at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, focuses not on Razvi, but on a scrawny twelve-year-old Latino kid, Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works at another chop shop where the owner allows him to live upstairs. Bahrani eschews expository background information about Alejandro, or Ale, as he’s called in the film. Suffice to say that Ale’s a survivor, the type of kid who can’t be held down, no matter what obstacles life hurls in his path.

Ale concocts a scheme to buy a lunch truck, so that he and his sixteen-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), can control their own destinies. It represents his ticket out of the chop shops and her escape from having to turn tricks with truckers, a painful discovery that Ale makes one night during the course of the film. Whereas some plot elements are initiated and not necessarily developed in Man Push Cart, Bahrani does the same in Chop Shop – the broken lock on the door, Ale’s hiding place for the money, Ale’s suspicions of Lilah – in order to build a sense of impending catastrophe. Ale attempts to navigate a treacherous world with an optimism that – as might be expected of someone so young – is also remarkably naive. Ale is only a youngster after all, even if he races around the neighborhood with the bravado of an ultimate fighter.

Ale moves from day laborer, to hawking candy on the subway, to steady work in the chop shops, to selling DVDs, to stealing hub caps from the stadium parking lot, to more serious crime. As a result, the film moves forward with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, but Bahrani wisely ends his film on a metaphor that’s similar to one that Charles Burnett used throughout his film of a South Central family under siege, To Sleep With Anger. Bahrani, who is Iranian American, grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and went to film school at Columbia, collaborates with cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, to make a film that never lapses into sentimentality. The two of them are much more interested in capturing the look and texture of this underground economy with closely observed poetic images, such as a blue rubber sandal floating down a flooded street or a black pit bull attacking a car jack with menacing ferocity.

Much of the film involves Ale’s relationship with Isamar. Although he’s much younger, Ale is the one who gets her a job and a place to stay above Rob’s chop shop. Isamar complains about the cramped quarters, but Ale counters that it has a bed, microwave, and refrigerator, which is stocked with bottles of grape soda. When Ale observes Isamar struggling at her job – she’s lazy rather than ambitious like him – he also comes up with a master plan. What’s interesting about their relationship is the role reversal. Although he loves her intensely, Ale acts very much like a jealous boyfriend or husband, trying hard to manage and control every aspect of his sister’s life. Despite his young age, he’s the pragmatic and responsible one in the family. Ale knows that he can’t afford to be kicked out of the auto repair shop for having parties. There are also certain things that are left unsaid in their relationship. Blood trumps friendship. When Ale discovers how his sister spends her nights, and his pint-sized friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) makes the mistake of verbalizing what they have both witnessed, Ale storms off and refuses to acknowledge his friend, who has crossed that mysterious line we all draw with invisible ink when it comes to personal boundaries.

The most interesting aspect about Chop Shop is the film’s naturalism, which is enhanced by Bahrani’s use of non-professional actors, fluid camera work, and, in particular, how he deals with the script. Like so many recent independent films films, such as Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, the script, which was written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi, became altered in the process of making the film. In an interview in Filmmaker, Bahrani told Nick Dawson:

There was a very detailed script which was never shown to the actors. We would rehearse with them for months in advance, so I would tell Ale and Izzy, “Alright, in this scene this happens. This scene is about this” and I would tell each of them separately what I thought the scene would be about for them, not in intellectual terms, but in the most fundamental terms. They remember enough of it to get the point and then they say it the way they want to say it. I’d record all the rehearsals and I’d transcribe the best of what they’d changed. If they forgot things that were important, I’d remind them, because they don’t read the words, they say it in their own language. “Those shoes are fake.” “No, they’re real.” That’s what it says in the script, but Izzy says, “No, they official.” That’s fuckin’ great, man. I don’t talk like that and I don’t know about it, but whenever she didn’t say “No, they official,” I’d say “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you said ‘No, they official.’ I like that. You have to say that from now on.”

Bahrani’s method of working benefits from improvisation. The scenes are transformed by the actors, so that the resulting changes then become incorporated into the script. Although Chop Shop appears to have a documentary-like spontaneity, the film was very carefully blocked and shot. Its sense of realism is the result of a familiarity built up with the film’s various participants over an extended period of time.

If there are things about Chop Shop that feel a bit deja vu, it has to do with the fact that we’ve seen this story countless times before – the poor orphan kid who struggles to get out of poverty against impossible odds. What’s unusual, however, is that even though the story has become a staple of art cinema – from Italian neo-realism to recent Iranian cinema – Bahrani chooses to focus on the multiethnic underclass within this country. Bahrani shows us a world that’s not untypical, but rather one that most Americans choose to ignore, because it neither matches our national self-image, nor gets represented on our movie screens. As Bahrani puts it: “I bring you to these places that no one wants to accept that they exist. These movies aren’t about marginal characters, despite what people say. These movies are about how most people in the world live: check to check, month to month, day to day.”

Chop Shop will screen at the festival on Saturday, April 5 at 1 PM and Sunday, April 6 at 5:15PM at MMoCA. For further information about the Wisconsin Film Festival, please click here.

Posted 24 March, 2008

Adapting Paranoid Park

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Gus Van Sant discusses his adaptation of Blake Nelson’s teen novel into the film version of Paranoid Park. According to Van Sant: “I wrote it quickly, in two days. I outlined the parts I wanted, wrote it out script style, transposing in some ways, not even rewriting. I would take the descriptions and make those scene headings, and then I would take dialogue and make it dialogue. It was almost like Xeroxing the story. Then I shifted it around and got rid of some of the parts.”

I was intrigued enough by Van Sant’s comments that I decided to read the novel in order to better understand its transposition to the screen. It turns out that Van Sant’s description of the process is pretty accurate. As one might imagine, the novel provides a great deal more exposition, especially about the interior panic of its unnamed protagonist once he accidentally kills a train guard. In the book, he’s sixteen or slightly older than the actor (Gabe Nevins) who plays him, as well as a lot more forthcoming and articulate about his feelings. In Nelson’s novel, the teenager has a revelation about himself while lying in bed one night: “I was a bad person.” He explains: “Character is fate. My English teacher had written it on the board at the beginning of school. I had a bad character, I was a bad person, and now my fate had caught up to me.”

The book follows a diary-like format. Although I was somewhat confused by scenes of Alex at the beach in the film, the novel makes it clear that he’s at his Uncle Tommy’s beach house, where he’s writing the story over winter break. We learn more about the other characters as well, especially Macy. Nelson’s protagonist describes her as having had a crush on him in sixth grade. In one scene that’s not in the film, she wants him to help her friend buy a skateboard for her boyfriend – an idea that he finds idiotic. The narrator comments: “It was so ridiculous about girls. They get these schoolgirl crushes on you, and you can do no wrong. Then they stop liking you and they want to boss you around, like you were once their boyfriend, which you never were. You never even liked them.” He changes his mind, however, and helps them buy a skateboard at a store downtown. He and Macy eventually get closer, especially when she intuits that he harbors a dark secret. In fact, he starts to fall in love with her by the end.

Even though Van Sant’s film is decidedly non-linear, he also takes the liberty of shifting scenes around. In the film, for instance, the sex scene with Jennifer does not occur after they go ice skating, but actually happens earlier. The order of the interrogation scenes are also reversed in the film. Van Sant has Detective Lu interview Alex first, then later as part of a larger group of skateboarders. In the novel, Detective Brady pushes his individual questioning much further than in the film by asking the teenager to imagine what he would do if he had committed the crime. Detective Brady shows up a third time and drives the narrator downtown. He discusses his breakup with Jennifer with the detective, and spots Scratch’s friend, Paisley, among a group of street kids Brady asks him to identify.

Van Sant also eliminates still another scene in which the protagonist returns to Paranoid Park with several friends, including Jared. He’s recognized by Paisley, who confronts him about Scratch and the police crackdown. A group of her street friends then chase after him and start to beat him up, before the narrator gets rescued by Detective Brady. He decides to bare his soul to Brady, but discovers that the detective has lied to him about his own parents being divorced.

Like the work of Dreyer, Van Sant’s elliptical rendering of the novel benefits from subtraction – less somehow ends up being more. Alex becomes more inscrutable as a result of Van Sant choosing to remove exposition as well as certain suspenseful and dramatic scenes, while sticking to the surface. Even the breakup between Alex and Jennifer is presented without dialogue. In my previous post, I suggested that Van Sant focuses on the face of Alex throughout Paranoid Park. The real surprise, for me, has to do with the fact that this idea derives from the book’s epigraph. It’s from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Young man,” he went on, raising his head again, “in your face I seem to read some trouble of mind.” Because Gabe Nevins’s face is not transparent, Van Sant’s close scrutiny of it, and its lack of disclosure, only serves to imbue the teenage protagonist with an even greater sense of mystery.

Posted 17 March, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (2007) confirms Gus Van Sant’s status as one of the top American independent filmmakers working today. If his last two films, Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) were loosely based on already well-known figures and events – the Columbine shootings and the demise of rock star Kurt Cobain – Van Sant’s superb new film, adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel, focuses on a shy and disaffected teenage skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), who accidentally kills a security guard while hitching trains one night. In this latest film, Van Sant moves even further away from the dialogue-driven script – he completed the adaptation in a mere two days – toward a film that relies heavily on visual storytelling

Paranoid Park is more boldly free-form than Van Sant’s previous trilogy, but it borrows some of the same strategies for a somewhat different effect. Van Sant still plays with temporality by scrambling time as the film shifts the chronology of events to explore the guilt-ridden psyche of its teenage protagonist, who’s clearly gotten himself into a situation that’s way over his head. Alex is barely able to negotiate everyday life, never mind a crisis of this magnitude. Van Sant creates an impressionistic look at this introverted kid’s world – his relationships with his estranged parents, friends, and his jealous and demanding girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). Van Sant speeds up and slows down time, giving equal weight to long lyrical passages of kids skateboarding. Sounds of birds once again suggest the inner turmoil of Alex, connecting him to the troubled shooter of the same name in Elephant.

On a surface level, Van Sant shows the same fascination with the world of teenage outcasts as Larry Clark. Whereas Clark’s Wassup Rockers (2005) and his subsequent photo show of its lead actor, Jonathan Velasquez, felt voyeuristic and ultimately exploitative, Van Sant avoids fixating on teenage bodies in the same leering way. Instead, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li’s camera focuses more heavily on the light that illuminates the protagonist’s angelic face, linking Alex – with his eyes raised toward heaven – more directly to the history of painting.

Paranoid Park opens with a shot of the massive steel bridge straddling the river in the city of Portland, as we watch cars in fast motion traverse the expanse, with the city in the background and gray clouds in the sky. Alex writes the words “Paranoid Park” in a lined notebook. We see him walking in a field with a dog. As Van Sant does so often in Elephant, Van Sant follows his subject from behind as Alex strides toward the beach, where he sits on a bench with his notebook and reflects. In voiceover, he describes Jared (Jake Miller) and the skateboard haven known as Paranoid Park. Alex doesn’t believe he’s ready to go there, but Jared convinces him otherwise. About a month later, Alex gets called out of class at school.

Once inside the main office, Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu) questions Alex about his whereabouts on a particular September evening. Alex is more articulate in describing the contents of a Subway sandwich than in providing other details of the night in question. Lu’s line of questioning suggest a shared rapport with the teenager, when, in fact, there’s an enormous chasm between them. In a subsequent scene, Lu calls in the various skateboarders. He suggests that they can call him “Rich,” and discusses his desire to make contact with this particular “community” – a concept that completely eludes these kids. When Alex later wonders about Lu’s suspicions, one of his friends remarks that cops are paid “the same as a janitor.”

In the first scene with Lu, we learn certain background information about Alex, namely, that his parents are in the process of getting a divorce, as well as the fact that he has a younger brother and girlfriend. When Lu indicates that a skateboarder from Paranoid Park was most likely at the scene of a horrific crime, the camera slowly moves in closer toward Alex, eventually framing the blank reaction on his face, as we hear the sound of a loud scream from offscreen.

After Alex returns to class in a slow-motion tracking shot down the school hallway, we see documentary shots of skateboarders and other people, whose faces have been blacked out. Jared announces his desire to go to Paranoid Park the next day. Alex also explains the issues with his cheerleader girlfriend. He claims that Jennifer is nice, but she’s still a virgin. Alex knows that sooner of later they’ll have sex and things will get a lot more complicated as a result.

Alex borrows his mother’s car and heads to Paranoid Park, where he meets a hardcore skateboarder named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green). Alex thinks the park is great, but he also worries about his parents and the stress their impending divorce is having on his younger brother. He also wishes that he and Jennifer had more in common, but he really wants to ride the freight trains with the other train hoppers from Paranoid Park.

We learn from a female neighbor friend named Macy (Lauren McKinney) that Alex has broken up with Jennifer. Macy also suspects that he harbors a dark secret. She flat out asks him, “Did something happen to you?” Alex does end up acknowledging that something has happened. It is only at the end of the film that we realize that Macy is the one who has convinced Alex to write down the events that he narrates as a way of purging himself of what’s weighing on him. She tells him, “Write it to me.” He does, but burns the evidence.

The weight of the crime causes Alex to lie on a number of occasions – to Detective Lu, his mother, Jared, and even to Macy, who seems to know when he’s being untruthful. There’s a scene where Alex’s mother asks him about a phone call to his Uncle Tommy, with whom his father is staying. When it turns out that the call was made at 4:35 in the morning, Alex suggests that he was “half-asleep” or “maybe even sleepwalking.” It’s the kind of preposterous lie that teenagers continually tell, as if most adults are completely stupid. His mother doesn’t call him on it, which makes its own sad statement.

Alex says of the crime, “I tried to put that part out of my mind,” but Lu’s pictures of the victim’s severed body bring it vividly back to mind. We see Scratch and Alex hopping the freight train and the security guard running after them. After the gruesome accident occurs, Van Sant cuts from the victim’s face as he crawls toward them, to two different shots of Alex, to Detective Lu, then back to the security guard and Alex’s startled reaction. As Alex flees the train yard afterwards, we hear his confused internal monologue – the rationalizations and jumble of thoughts flooding his mind. In the film’s most spectacular visual sequence, Alex showers in an attempt to wash away the crime. We see his lowered face as water spills over his hair. As a result of Van Sant changing the camera speed, narrowing the shutter angle, and moving a hand-held 2K light, the scene darkens and brightens. Images of birds decorate the wallpaper in the background as Alex slowly slides down in the shower and the sounds of birds keep getting louder.

After ice skating one afternoon, Jennifer seduces Alex. He lies there impassively in a lovemaking scene that’s rendered as light reflected off her blond hair and his deadpan face. Afterwards, she suggests getting more condoms. At school the next day, she asks whether Alex has gotten them. When he indicates that it was her idea, this elicits an angry response, but Alex appeases her by suggesting that he thought they would get them together. Alex later breaks up with Jennifer in a scene in which the diegetic sound of their argument has been replaced by music.

Paranoid Park explores the strange confusion of being a teenager, compounded by the burden of guilt and hidden secrets. Van Sant’s elliptical storytelling reflects Alex’s fragmentary attempts to tell his story, while managing somehow to render this transitional period of being a teenager with more depth and complexity than would seem possible. The scrambled subjective narration and use of repetition prevents Paranoid Park from ever becoming predictable, while the broad range of tonal shifts – the abstract interplay between image and sound – show Van Sant to be able to make a great work with an economy of means.

Posted 9 March, 2008

Dance Party, USA

I’ve already written about Aaron Katz’s terrific second feature, Quiet City (2007) previously, but I finally had a chance to catch up with his debut effort, Dance Party, USA (2006). Both films have been released recently on DVD in a two-disc set from indie distributor, Benten Films, confirming my belief that the most intriguing films out there aren’t necessarily playing at the local multiplex.

The two films – Quiet City and Dance Party, USA – are remarkably different in tone. Although Quiet City is a potentially uplifting love story, Dance Party, USA is an incredibly dark and disturbing portrait of teenage relationships. Dance Party, USA begins with the aftermath of a beer bash, as Jessica walks through a house the next morning, which is followed by large credits set against patriotic red, white, and blue backgrounds. Following moving car shots of Portland, two teenagers converse while riding on light rail transit. Gus (Cole Pennsinger) tells his friend Bill (Ryan White) a crude misogynous story about one of his sexual escapades, but also reveals that the girl, named Kate, is only fourteen. This freaks out Bill, who dismisses the story as bullshit. The conversation switches to the upcoming Fourth of July party. When Bill asks Gus about his ex-girlfriend Christie and it becomes apparent that he’s interested in her, Gus encourages Bill to have sex with her.

Meanwhile, as they walk in an industrial section of town, Christie (Sarah Bing) discusses Gus with her friend Jessica (Anna Cavan), who hasn’t had much luck lately on the romantic front. Christie confides her ambivalent and conflicted feelings about the relationship with Gus. As rap music plays, the camera moves through the party, before settling on a phallic beer bottle resting on Gus’s crotch, as he converses with Bill, who’s waiting for Christie to show up. It takes a matter of minutes for Gus to get a bored female party-goer into bed. Her post-coital dissatisfaction is obvious not only from her body language, but from the brick pillar that divides the frame in two, as she lies in bed, while Gus gets dressed.

A guy hits on Jessica at the party with a promise of killer weed, but she’s not interested, especially once she figures out that he’s the older brother of someone she knew in fourth grade. Katz has a great ear for naturalistic dialogue:

GUS: Where you been?
GUY: I’ve been all over. I was driving all over the place.
GUS: Cool.
GUY: You ever been in Nebraska?
GUS: No.
GUY: Well, you know how like when you think of Nebraska, you can’t really think of anything that’s there?
GUS: Yeah.
GUY: Well, there’s actually a lot of stuff there.
GUS: That’s pretty cool. So what are you doing here?
GUY: I don’t know. I guess . . . I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I ran out of money, and I’m back. I had this job in Texas, but . . . fuck . . . I didn’t want to stay there.

What’s also interesting in this scene is Gus’s sustained reaction to this drunken guy. He’s become so inured to such conversations that the fissures in his concentration are only revealed in the darting movements of his eyes.

A huge fireworks display is depicted without the accompanying explosions, creating a disjunction between sound and image. There’s another shot later on of Jessica playing a record with head phones on, which creates a similar effect. It’s the equivalent of the gaps that exist in the conversations between these young kids – almost as if most of the meaning of what’s transpiring is occurring entirely in the silent spaces between their words rather than in the words themselves. In a sense, even more so than Quiet City, Dance Party, USA is nearly all subtext, as if these kids’ whole world – adolescence itself – is somehow rendered as a completely impenetrable experience, even to those who are experiencing it.

Gus meets Jessica outside the party, as she sits there bored and brooding while waiting for Christie, who has taken up with Bill. Following the stiff formal introduction of these two “friends of a friend” – who know each other only indirectly, but nevertheless intimately – Gus tries to explain his bad reputation. Jessica, however, beats him to the punch by prematurely divulging that she’s not going to sleep with him and declaring that she thinks he’s an asshole. Gus tries to start over again, and in doing so, ends up making a shocking personal revelation regarding the fourteen-year-old girl.

It’s the same story he’s told Bill earlier, but this time Gus actually confesses the truth about what really happened that night – it’s not a pretty picture. “I do bad things a lot of times,” he tells her, “but I’m not a bad person.” Throughout his long and painful monologue, Jessica, bathed in warm golden back light, doesn’t really say anything. Afterwards she ignites a couple of sparklers, which we watch in close-up until they fizzle out. Finally, she asks, “Do you want to go somewhere?” The two drive through downtown Portland at night. The shots of city – the lights emit a reddish cast as if we’ve suddenly entered the underworld, followed by more fluorescent blues – manage to provide the intrusions of reality into this otherwise encapsulated teenage world. The sequence culminates in a scene where Jessica simply asks Gus whether he’s cold, before she silently drops him off at his house.

Gus manages to track down the victim of his story, Kate. Gus has earlier told Jessica how the passage of time had nearly wiped the incident out of his memory, but he’s clearly trying to gauge what impact it has had on the younger teen. When Gus turns up at her door, Kate doesn’t appear to recognize him. She asks, “Have we met before?” He responds, “Kind of. I mean, we met at a party. Like a year ago.” A bit unsure what to do, she invites him inside to watch TV and drink coke. Gus queries her about having a boyfriend as well as the length of the relationship. He asks casually, “What happened with that?” Kate, however, is not very forthcoming. After a long pause, Gus asks, “So has anything like really bad ever happened to you?” She answers, “Like what?” Kate merely shrugs and asks him the same question, suggesting that she has already repressed the whole incident (at what future psychological cost?), and, consequently, Gus doesn’t bring it up.

As Gus and Bill sit on the couch drinking beers, Bill invites Gus to join him and Christie at the amusement park later on. He also refers to Jessica as a bitch. Gus complains about women always wanting him to stimulate them physically, when, as he puts it, “I’m like, suck my dick. I just want you to suck my dick.” He also finds the word “slut” to be a turn on, and refers to photography and painting and studying insects as “fag shit.” Gus, however, suddenly asks, Why not?” He then confesses that he really likes Jessica, not for her body, but for herself. Bill, however, offers Gus advice, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to feel bad about anything.” He continues, “Don’t do it to yourself.” Gus responds, “Thanks.” As hardcore music continues to play in the background, Gus asks Bill for a hug, but it clearly makes Bill feel uncomfortable.

Gus and Jessica later meet up at the amusement park, and decide to get their picture taken together in a photo booth. After they make goofy faces and run out of money, the two turn and kiss twice before they leave the booth, and the film abruptly ends.

Dance Party, USA captures the emotional turbulence of what it feels like to be a teenager. In particular, it’s about the pressures of being male with its exaggerated emphasis on getting drunk, sexual conquest, and subservience to peer-group pressures. Although Dance Party, USA, in contrast to Quiet City, stays much closer to the written script, Katz has a knack for obtaining incredibly naturalistic performances that actually have real depth. He also has an economical way of staging scenes by employing long takes and minimal cutting that caters to the performers. Aaron Katz is clearly at the forefront of filmmakers associated with mumblecore.

I’m not convinced that Dance Party, USA deserves to be seen as “a kind of correction to Larry Clark’s KIDS,” as Karina Longworth has written, or that the film is “a story of bad behavior leading to redemption.” If so, I don’t understand the scene toward the end between Gus and Bill, or even the previous one with Kate. I think Gus definitely has been affected by his interaction with Jessica. At least he can admit his feelings for her beyond lust for her physical body, but confession alone is rarely enough to change a person’s behavior. To his credit, Katz is careful to leave this as an open-ended question, which is part of the authenticity and honesty of the film. Dance Party, USA remains a sobering portrait of a rather confused male teenager, who — at least until now — has used his good looks as a weapon against young women.

Posted 17 February, 2008

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