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Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park certainly isn’t the first movie that has used a dead body or act of violence as a narrative device to depict coming of age and the violence of adolescence crossing the line to adulthood (think River’s Edge and Stand By Me). What makes this movie different and marks it with Van Sant’s signature is that it uses what seems like cinematic realism to propel us into a surreal, avant-garde state into the interior landscape of adolescent masculinity. In particular, it quietly codes the film with the trap of heterosexuality and the horror of being an adolescent boy coming of age within the heterosexual matrix. Sure the movie has a surface plot that involves a murder and some kids and some skateboards, but when you look below the surface of the film, what you discover is the abstract violence of growing up gay in heteronormative America.
Like in so many other Van Sant films, Alex, the adolescent boy in Paranoid Park, is an exceptional beauty who radiates with all the confusing mess that makes an adolescent boy an adolescent boy – the burgeoning sexuality, the confusion and innocence, and a kind of sexy slackerism. Van Sant’s loving and doting attention on Alex – the multiple close-ups on his big damp dewy adolescent eyes, slightly pouting lips, and gorgeously boyishly curved body – could be yet another example of Van Sant’s exercises in adolescent boy fetishism (not unlike what we see in the novels of Dennis Cooper). The camera’s lingering focus on Alex brings us almost uncomfortably close to Alex’s physical presence. Certainly adolescent boys truly can be beautiful, and no doubt, Van Sant’s depiction of adolescent boys borders on a kind of soft-core porn. But also, I think that Van Sant uses stories like Paranoid Park to revisit his own coming of age gay in America. Van Sant’s sexual orientation is no secret, and we cannot ignore the queer content of his films. What makes this story told through Van Sant’s eyes so brilliant and beautiful is how he takes the ordinary realistic landscape of America, namely Portland, Oregon, and is able to convert it into a kind of aesthetic subconscious state that takes us on a journey through the interiority of male adolescence.
The story of Paranoid Park hinges on Alex’s trip to a skate park that was created and is frequented by fringe skateboarders in Portland. Subsequently Alex meets an older man, takes a ride on a freight train, and accidentally kills a security guard. Alex’s guilt over the incident is eating away at him, and the movie follows the elliptical journey inside Alex’s head as he recounts the details in a letter. Just taking the primary narrative structure of the film – Alex’s trip to the skate park, the older man, and the violent death of the security guard – it is not too far of a stretch to read this as Alex being initiated into gay sexuality and the violence of entering homosexuality within the confines of heterosexual social norms (e.g. the security guard). Certainly, Van Sant had that in mind. But what makes this movie more than just another “coming to terms with our gayness” narrative is how Van Sant delivers the incredible beauty of this violent turning point.
His use of the skate park itself is a brilliant tool. Here Van Sant uses a symbol of the ordinary middle American adolescent – the skate board – and morphs it into a beautifully abstract state of consciousness. Paranoid Park is not just any park. It was created by rebel skateboarders and is populated by outsiders and fringe people. Street punks, homeless urban primitives, box car riders, anarchists, and other skaters use the skate park as an alternative space to carve out freedom within a system of rules and codes. Further, the skate park becomes a kind of interior alternative male consciousness that Alex and others visit to try to hold onto some kind of individuality and freedom within matrix of masculinity and the heterosexual norm. The sequences in the skate park are breathtakingly beautiful. The boys and men soar through the air on their boards, taking flight from the ground which nails them to social order. The camera slows down, and we watch the skaters float through the sky. They are more like angels in blue jeans than men and boys. Van Sant meshes the skate board scenes with Nino Rota’s gorgeous voice delivering music from Fellini films (namely Amarcord and Juliette of the Spirits) and infuses these scenes of men on skateboards with a an abstract feminine undercurrent. The combination of the skate boarding, the slow camera work, and the Fellini music turns this ordinary landscape into an alternative reality where we are left gasping with its beauty.
The use of music from Fellini films not only infuses the film with a feminine unconscious, but it also meshes realist American cinema with a European international abstract artiness, and ultimately creates a kind of hybrid film. Van Sant uses high art conventions to deliver an ordinary low art subject. What Van Sant does with the skate park (converting the ordinary into the extraordinary) is what he does best in this movie. Van Sant was inspired by the films of Hungarian avant-garde film maker Bela Tarr, and in his recent films Van Sant has adopted many of Tarr’s signature techniques. Namely, like Tarr, Van Sant uses the long take, tracking shock and the dissection of surface objects and mise en scène to deliver an interior state. While Tarr’s characters wander the vast barren landscape of Hungary to depict their particular brand of emotional despair and barrenness, Alex wanders the halls of his high school amidst rows of lockers, fluorescent lights and polished floors to depict an interior adolescent cosmology.
Two long takes in the film are particularly stunning – the shower scene and the sex scene with Alex’s girlfriend. In these two scenes, Van Sant delivers an entire interior landscape and depicts unfathomable occurrences through poetics and abstraction that carry so much more weight and meaning than a simple linear narrative could deliver. These two scenes contain tremendous power by focusing on a single element. In the shower scene, Alex stands in the shower after the violent incident with the security guard, and for many minutes the camera lingers on his profile as water drips off his face. The water seems so solid that it becomes almost like tentacles, an actual extension of Alex’s body. Alex’s face is abstracted by shadow and water, and we are left to watch for an extended period the water pouring off of/out of Alex. We are forced to contemplate the patterns and weight of the water, and it is like we are watching Alex’s innocence literally exit his body. The way the light reflects off the water, the water is almost like a living thing that is simultaneously leaving Alex’s body and clinging to it. In the scene in which Alex’s girlfriend initiates sex with him, Alex lies stiff and motionless on the bed while she climbs on top of him. We see Alex’s glazed eyes staring into space when his girlfriend lowers her head and her hair covers Alex’s face and the entire frame of a film. The camera holds this shot, and we are left staring at this mass of female hair under which Alex is buried. The hair descends over Alex’s head like some kind of monster and becomes a symbol of the smothering, claustrophobic forces of heterosexuality. Alex eventually emerges from the hair with his usual blank and distanced stare. Again he has lost innocence yet clings to it. And that is one of the things that Van Sant does so well in this movie. He shows us innocence that been corrupted yet completely unconscious. We the audience know what is happening to Alex, yet Alex himself is completely unaware because he is living within the “adolescent interior” of the film while we are experiencing his interior from the exterior perspective of adult audience.
One of the things that I think may be difficult for some audiences is the stilted awkward narrative. It sometimes seems clumsy. It’s non-linear and elliptical. People come in and out of the movie like looming archetypes – Detective Liu, Alex’s tattooed father, the guys at the skate park, the blond girlfriend, even the crawling mutilated security guard. But we have to remind ourselves that this is the perspective in which Alex sees the world. Van Sant is giving us a movie from the interior perspective of an adolescent boy. He uses highly evolved theories and techniques to depict an under-evolved adolescent state of mind. We are inside of Alex’s head during his violent transition from adolescent boy to man. We jump back and forth in time, revisit the traumas, project our anxieties, and reduce them to archetypes and symbols. The elliptical form of the narrative, the stilted and awkward language, and the hallucinatory perspective of events are all part of the landscape of Alex’s mind. We are experiencing realism projected into the interior surreal state. The events seem real, the set details are exceptionally real, yet the perspective on this realness is through Alex’s interior state. In a way, this abstraction of reality makes it even more real.
Ultimately, even though the movie traces Alex’s interactions with a number of characters, the film is primarily about Alex’s confrontation with himself. The movie is framed by Alex writing a letter that tells the story of the events. It turns out that he is writing the letter to his friend Macy who also happens to be a butch punk girl. Macy is ultimately Alex’s feminine side being given voice and solidity. By writing the letter to Macy, Alex is writing the letter to himself. The letter serves as his own interior monologue as he tries to reconcile his feminine/queer side within the heterosexual norm. In the end, Alex burns the letter and keeps that side of himself contained. Likewise, when we watch Alex recalling the vision of the severed body of the security guard, we also recognize the violated body as Alex’s own severed interior body and fragmented self. Certainly the scene is horrific and violent, but in Van Sant’s view, coming of age within the heterosexual matrix is violent. This is the literal severed body of a man, but ultimately it is also Alex being severed from his feminine side, from his innocence, from his sense of “security” within that innocence. In a way, this movie is a ghost story, in which Alex is haunted by his own masculinity and what will happen to him when he grows up. The movie ends with the song “Strongest Man in the World” which puts the final stamp on the movie’s point of addressing what it means to grow up male in America and to have to prove your masculinity when you are ultimately queer.
I think what is so incredible about Paranoid Park is its ability to seem so simple, yet when you scratch below the surface, it is an amazingly complex network of abstraction, symbol and art that delivers a devastatingly beautiful portrait of the violence of growing up male in America and the horror of reconciling masculinity and queerness within the heteronormative matrix. Yes, Gus Van Sant is a queer film maker. He deploys his queerness consciously within his films. What he is doing that cannot be dismissed is joining American realism, avant-garde cinema and a queer sensibility into mainstream cinema, and that alone makes his films worth seeing.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.