Gus van Sant on Wheels

Gus van Sant's latest film, Paranoid Park, opens today and you should definitely run out and see it pronto. When it played the New York Film Festival last year, I said this:

Van Sant continues to explore the nether regions of the teen psyche in this bleak, yet strangely lyrical film about a kid who accidentally causes the death of a security guard then tells no one what has happened. The boy, Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the latest in a series of opaque, impassive protagonists that van Sant has been exploring in his recent, Bela Tarr-influenced films as he turns his back on Hollywood narrative to try something more indeterminate, more elusive. Paranoid Park is probably the most accessible of his films since Elephant, particularly since it lacks that film’s insistently slow rhythms and occasionally offers us a fleeting glimpse into its central figures mind in sumptuously shot skateboarding sequences. The title refers to a skateboard park of sinister reputation in Portland, where the film was shot and set, but it could just as easily stand for the state of mind of its disaffected adolescents. As in Elephant, these kids aren’t exactly rebelling against the world their parents made for them. It’s more like they’re opting out, although without any particular animus or display of strong feelings. An elegant piece of filmmaking and an disturbing ride.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me since then. First, I suspect that the importance for his artistic develoopment of van Sant's remake of Psycho will eventually turn out to be much greater than anyone suspected at the time. On some level, I think that odd venture was van Sant's farewell to the Hollywood paradigm, coming after he had hit the jackpot with Good Will Hunting and had already begun to repeat himself. Psycho must have been something of a purgative, a homeopathic overdose of exactly the thing to which he was becoming allergic, conventional narrative. Since then, he has moved in a wildly different direction with mixed but fascinating results.

The other fleeting thought that raced through my head while thinking again about Paranoid Park is that in some odd way skateboarding is a perfect cinematic subject, kinetic but human. It's the difference between a movie about baseball or boxing, where you can see the protagonists' faces and bodies, and a movie about American football, where everyone is masked and armored. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that everyone run out and make skateboarding movies -- what makes Paranoid Park work so well is precisely what makes most skateboarding films so uninteresting, the inarticulate hopes and dreams of adolescent boys. Personally, I'm not really up for a whole lot of that.

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I'm not in the habit of recommending films I haven't seen, for obvious reasons. However, Philippe Garrel's 1991 drama J'Entends Plus la Guitarre is getting a belated American theatrical release this week in NYC at the Cinema Village, and I can honestly say that any Garrel film is worth your time. I don't love (or even like) everything he has made, but he is a unique and original voice that has never gotten the attention he deserves here in the States. Judging from the rather convoluted plot synopsis A.O. Scott gives in his enthusiastic review in the today's New York Times, the film sounds like a much more interesting version of several of the lesser works in this year's French series at the Walter Reade. (Yeah, I know, I promised a run-down on that collection. I swear I'll get to it. No, really.)






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