Cast: Gabe Nevins
Director: Gus Van Sant
Runtime: 85 min.
Through my eighth to the tenth grade, I was quite fast friends with a couple of guys who got into a lot of trouble. I was never ever a part of their escapades, some of which included a night out with the cops, or a good old fashioned no-holds barred fight for a few movie tickets down at Sangam theatre in Delhi, or gang fights complete with hockey sticks outside the school premises. But I was always there to listen to what they had to say. The radical difference in our backgrounds brought an intense sense of fascination within me, and as I look back, I find it strange they always possessed an air of assurance about them. Not anxiety. Just pure bliss. I don’t know why, but I wish I could show them these two remarkable films from Van Sant – Elephant and this one here. I would have loved to know what they had to say about Alex (Nevins) and his apparent opacity to his predicament.
From where I come, the assured nature of most of the memories I have, it is tough to feel the daze and confusion and the anxiety that is so much a part of many a teenager. I believe Van Sant’s film, much like its more accomplished predecessor Elephant, is successful in that other way, especially for someone like me, in that it does not necessarily bring out the expected emotional response out of us, i.e. it didn’t move me at all. Rather, it worked as an observation borne out of the fascination I have always had. An intense and prolonged observation of the paranoia, and herein it made me think and it let an outsider like me understand the plight.
Alex, like most of Van Sant’s teenagers, is meandering somewhere in between me and the guys. That means he’s confused, and there’s only the thinnest layer of assurance that helps him masquerade as a confident person. He dreams of Paranoid Park, and the skateboarders swirling around. His family life is in trouble in that his parents are getting a divorce and his father is leaving him and his younger brother. He is old enough to understand what it means when his father is living with “Uncle” Tommy. He has a girlfriend in Jennifer who is a virgin, and is more interested in him than he is in her. He would much rather spend Saturday night with his friend Jared skateboarding than with her, which obviously irks her.
Alex is the narrator here and he’s confessing his overburdening guilt to us. There has happened something, which I would leave you to discover, which this young mind is terribly weak at coming to grips with. This isn’t a thriller mind you, and it isn’t out to misguide you and trick you into a twist ending or anything. Consider this as a Memento made by Gus Van Sant. It is an intimate, honest film, and the narration is haywire only because the thoughts of the narrator are haywire. He would want to let it out in the open, but to whom and where could he. He is struggling within himself, under that overbearing conscience of his. I believe the ritual of adding on layers, rendering ourselves opaque, is something we approach adolescence. It is then when we metamorphose into individuals, with our own set of problems and doubts, and honesty is given a firm kick out of the window. Like a larva hiding in its cocoon.
In many ways Paranoid Park feels like an opposite world to that of Elephant. That film had its teenagers enveloped in a void around and a void within. The long observing shots have the complete opposite effect here. This film has the same opacity from its teenager, Alex, but it isn’t because of any lack of anything, but because he chooses to. The background blurs, everything is in slow motion, and we see a person wading through it all with dreams of skateboarders and skateboarding. Not sex or girls like most of his friends. The sequences of skateboarders skating along the inner curves of dry sewer pipes are shot with such immense grace in Super-8 grainy footage as if it is the light at the end of the tunnel dissipating the murkiness around Alex. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is what renders the film’s poetic effect, but it is the editing that what makes the film as good as it is. Something I have managed to appreciate on a second viewing.
Van Sant is one of our filmmakers who demands of us not mere attention of the mind (narrative), but of the heart as well. To enjoy his films, one has to attain a state that is purged of the baggage we carry to most escapist fare, and I believe one has to be ready to leap by oneself to be where Van Sant wants us to be. I’m not sure that is good filmmaking or bad filmmaking, but what I can tell you is it is mighty rewarding. I have benefited immensely from a second viewing, for this film digs deeper into its character, and you end up empathizing even more. That is of course if you haven’t identified with him. Gabe Nevins, I hear, is an untrained actor. And the stiffness he offers is central to the film.
Throughout the narration the only place we feel the uninhibited Alex talking to us is when he shares his fascination for Paranoid Park. I wonder what is it about skateboarding that fills so much of Alex’s imagination. Is it the simple uncomplicated beauty of it? I might only speculate here, you know, and my guess is I’m right. All of us have fascinations to which we pay a visit in an instant in our most troubled of times. To a haven which screens us safe from the realities of everyday life. I believe, when that screen is broken, melted the cocoon is broken too. And with it is broken our last link to the dreams which are so much a part of our adolescence, for we’re teenagers no more but adults. I was reminded of that beautiful Tom Perrotta novel Little Children and its ambitious yet immensely rewarding adaptation into that 2006 Kate Winslet starrer. In the final sequence of Paranoid Park, we see Alex with his eyes closed dreaming about the glories of skateboarding. More than anything, the tragedy is that those dreams would be snatched away from him at any given moment.