The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

Shotgun Stories

 

In Charles Burnett’s family drama To Sleep With Anger (1990), Harry, an old friend from the South, visits an African-American family in South Central Los Angeles and manages to wreak havoc in the process. At one point Harry disputes the fact that Hattie, a former prostitute who has found religion, is now a different person. Shotgun Stories (2007), the stunning debut feature by Jeff Nichols about a family feud involving two different sets of half-brothers who have the same father, would seem to side with Harry by challenging the notion of personal transformation or the religious belief in redemption. Despite the fact that their father has managed to turn over a new leaf, he’s left behind a smoldering cauldron of hatred, as embodied by Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) whose scars on his back suggest the permanence of deep psychic wounds. Shotgun Stories, which was produced by David Gordon Green and Lisa Muskat, nominated for the John Cassavetes Award, and played at the Wisconsin Film Festival, would seem to rest on the biblical premise that human actions have consequences.

Shotgun Stories begins with Son Hayes sitting in a semi-vacated bedroom in the scruffy landscape of rural southeast Arkansas. His two brothers – Kid (Barlow Jacobs) camps in a tent in the backyard, while Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives out of his truck – are dirt poor. As Son laments one evening as they hang out together in town, “We don’t own the square root of shit.” When Son, an inveterate gambler, announces to Kid that his wife Annie has left him, Kid welcomes the opportunity to move into the house. Their mom turns up one evening with news about their father’s death. At Son’s instigation, the three brothers interrupt the outdoor funeral service. Son tells the assembled second family, “This is the same man that ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman. He made like we were never born. That’s who this man was, and that’s what he’s answering for today.” He then spits on his casket, setting in motion the ensuing family feud.

Referring to her born-again husband, the second wife tells her son, Cleaman (Michael Abbot Jr.), “He was a different man back then,” but her other son, Mark, comments about Son and his two brothers, “Those three are like a pack of dogs. You can’t expect a dog to have manners,” suggesting the class difference that contributes to their enmity. Cleaman indicates that he has two kids, and that his other brothers – Stephen and John – don’t need to be mixed up in this. Son also has a young son, Carter; Kid has a girlfriend, Cheryl, whom he plans to marry; Boy serves as a basketball coach to young kids, even if the court sits plunk in the midst of a vast open field. One of his players innocently asks Boy, “Did you know that someone wrote ‘suck it’ on the back of your van?”

In Michael Shannon’s compelling yet understated portrayal of Son, he’s a walking time bomb – animosity seems to flow through his veins, inflect his slow gait, and impede his capacity for speech. Son’s co-workers at the fish farm where he’s employed speculate on the shotgun scars that cover his back. There are rumors that they result from robbing a liquor store or messing with someone’s wife. The conversations in Shotgun Stories are for the most part composed of long silences and small talk, with Arkansas basketball and basketball trivia as favorite topics. Son and Kid later discuss love and faithfulness in a scene that seems right out of a film by David Gordon Green, whose influence on other young filmmakers has become markedly evident lately. Son’s advice to Kid – to find a woman you love and love her – might carry more weight if Son wasn’t already separated from his wife.

Shampoo, a local drug dealer who wants to park his car on their property, is very much like Harry in To Sleep With Anger in the sense that he exploits the inherent tensions of the situation. He stokes the flames of resentment by suggesting to Son that Mark plans to kick their butts. When the brothers meet in town, there’s a confrontation in which Son punches Mark, causing a major ruckus that Boy tactfully avoids. Son later tells him, “That’s the last time you stay out of a fight.” Cleaman attempts to make peace. Son merely responds, “I don’t like you. I don’t like your family.” He threatens to retaliate if anything happens to his brothers.

Boy’s dog dies of a snakebite, but Kid learns from Shampoo that Mark was behind it. He grabs a wooden stick, tracks down Mark, and brutally beats him. We see a knife being flashed, and John and Stephen rushing to aid their brother. Both Mark and Kid end up dead. Once again, Shampoo relays the news that Stephen and John were actually involved. Son tells Boy, “They can take our daddy, good riddance, but they’re not going to take Kid.” The feud escalates from there.

Shotgun Stories is very much a male story. The women merely stand by helplessly, unable to prevent the endless cycle of revenge. Cheryl asks, “Why is this happening?”At least Annie has the good sense to flee. When a person literally has nothing, hatred and an appetite for revenge can easily serve as one’s identity. That’s the case with Son, who places the blame squarely on his mother. In a wide shot, he tells her, “You raised us to hate those boys and we do. And now it’s come to this.” There’s no love or loyalty there, just a residue of inherited anger and hatred that will no doubt be passed on to Son’s own boy, Carter.

Despite its concern with violence and revenge, the film provides an even greater emphasis on the everyday. Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock, uses an anamorphic lens and the larger aspect ratio to capture the desolation of southeast Arkansas – its endless cotton fields, dirt roads, ramshackle houses, and empty main streets. Adam Stone’s striking cinematography leaves an indelible impression of this unforgiving landscape, creating a tight nexus between character and place. This has always been both the strength and rationale of a regionally based independent cinema, which Shotgun Stories so masterfully epitomizes.

Posted 11 April, 2008

Stuart Gordon: Stuck

 

Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), who went to school here in the late 60s and taught at the university as artist-in-residence several years ago, will return to screen his latest film Stuck (2007) tonight in the main theater of the Orpheum at 11PM as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Based on a shocking true event that occurred in Fort Worth, Texas in 2001, Stuck tells the story of how fate and circumstance can transform a seemingly ordinary person into a frightening monster. While many horror fans will no doubt appreciate Stuck for the way it deftly plays with the conventions of the genre, it strikes me that Gordon’s film – with its overt reference to George Bush – uses the story as thinly disguised social and political criticism. In doing so, Stuck manages to find a perfect balance between dark humor and the grotesque, while exhibiting the relentless quality of a nightmare. 

Brandi (Mena Suvari) is a nurse’s aide in a retirement home. She’s the personal favorite of one of the elderly men who messes himself continually. The administrator, Mrs. Petersen, thinks it’s time to get rid of him, but Brandi embodies the selfless caregiver. Petersen, played by Carloyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife), dangles the NA captain position as bait to manipulate Brandi into working on the weekend. The stress of ministering to others all day creates a need for Brandi and her co-worker friend, Tanya (Rukiya Bernard), to unwind at a nightclub after work, where Brandi’s boyfriend, Rashid (Russell Hornsby), slips a pill into each of their mouths. “Trust me,” he tells them.

Tom (Stephen Rea) is down on his luck. A former project manager, he’s fallen on hard times. Tom slips out of a flop house where he’s unable to pay his rent. He escapes with his clothes, leaving his suitcase behind. His trip to the employment services agency becomes a exercise in futility. For some reason, Tom is not in the computer system, which becomes its own self-justification for failing to help him. A homeless man named Sam befriends Tom, giving him something to drink and a shopping cart for his clothes. Gordon’s humor is such that Sam warns Tom to be careful if he plans to sleep in the park – not because of criminals, but because of the police, who congregate at the nearby doughnut shop. Sure enough, Tom is awakened by an unsympathetic cop, who forces him to move on – an event that will have profound implications.

The parallel plot threads collide to create the film’s inciting incident. On her way home from the club, Brandi, high on alcohol and drugs, inadvertently slams into Tom as he crosses the street with his shopping cart, leaving her victim impaled on the broken windshield of her car. Sam sees the car pass with the body and tries to tell the police who are detaining him, that “the guy was stuck like a goddamn bug.” This is pretty much how Brandi decides to view Tom. Rather than stopping and calling for help, Brandi keeps going, with the bloody body still stuck on her hood. She drives to a hospital, but the sound of a garage door opening scares her off. Brandi thinks of calling 911, but doesn’t. She becomes terrified that she’ll get caught and won’t get her promotion. Brandi drives her car into her garage and ignores Tom’s desperate pleas to help him. Instead, she blames her victim: “You should have watched where you were going.” In a case of sheer projection, she later screams at him, “Why are you doing this to me?”

Brandi confesses to Rashid what happened, but when he finds out she hit a homeless person, he tells her, “Nobody’s gonna give a shit.” In an attempt to reassure her, he admits that he’s done a lot worse than that. Rashid waxes philosophical as he’s about to have sex with her, “Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it. I mean anything. I mean, fuck, look who’s in the White House right now.” Brandi makes love with Rashid while rap music mixes with their groaning sounds, as the camera tracks from the garage to a red lava lamp that can be seen through the bedroom window. Her lovemaking sounds turn into screams as images of Tom’s head exploding through the windshield glass and his pleas for help alternate with Rashid’s face.

Once the traumatic event happens, Brandi elicits no pangs of regret. Her sole instinct is to survive, which mirrors Tom’s feverish attempts to extricate himself from the torture chamber of Brandi’s garage – it’s almost as if she’s turned into a menacing serial killer. In fact, she behaves like one. When Tom manages to honk the horn, Brandi promptly whacks him on the head with a board to get him to stop in order to avoid getting caught. Seeking help to dispose of the body, she later turns up at Rashid’s house, but discovers him in bed with another woman. Brandi takes vengeance with an almost pathological fury. She pulls her hair, smacks the other woman with a frying pan, and kicks her naked body into the hall.

Gordon teases the viewer with various near attempts at intervention. A cab driver almost finds Tom in the garage as he goes to investigate the honking horn. A Latino kid sees the moving body through the garage window and manages to get his mother to the crime scene, but the father becomes fearful they’ll get deported. Tom almost succeeds in using Brandi’s cell phone to get help. Tanya nearly discovers Tom in Brandi’s garage. The film moves toward a hellish climax, which finally pits perpetrator and victim in a consummate battle for survival.

In dealing with a story inspired by a true event, Gordon attempts to penetrate the bizarre mental processes of his unglued protagonist. In a sense, he’s asking how human beings can be capable of such horrific behavior. For Gordon, the horror genre becomes the appropriate vehicle to probe such issues. When asked in an Isthmus interview whether the fact that Stuck is based on a true story turned out to be limiting, he responded, “No, I think that the thing that I realized is that stuff that really happens is much stranger than anything you could dream up, and more horrific, really. Things that people do to each other are much more disturbing than typical monsters.”

Posted 5 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

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