Thursday, April 10, 2008

Paranoid Park: Alex in Wonderland

Positioned at opposite ends of the small Midwestern town where I went to college were two very different structures—to the north, a small, skeletal power facility; to the south, a large grocery store. During the day they were innocuous enough, but at night both hummed and pulsed with mysterious currents. One spring night, I remember, I happened to find my way south, to the grocery store, where I was paralyzed by a sudden recognition: they were connected after all; there was only one current. This connection, clarified by the night’s darkness and by the incandescence of the grocery store lights and by the throat-sung buzz of the ATM in the parking lot, seemed to confirm the connection of everything to all other things. I didn’t feel a reassuring sensation of oneness with the universe, like the climax of a Tolstoy novel, but an unsettling reverberation of the world’s coded and murmured conversations. If the power facility was connected to the grocery store by forces I only vaguely understood—if things thought discrete were actually inscrutably linked—then what peculiar powers might bind me to which distant strangers?

This discomfiting sense of atomization, of the world’s prevailing randomness, is the dominant tone of Gus Van Sant’s eerie and elegiac Paranoid Park, the latest in a line of movies of which Terrence Malick’s Badlands might be the first and which includes Killer of Sheep; Blue Velvet; George Washington; and Me, You, and Everyone We Know. In those movies, children, adrift in semi-urban areas, explore the porous boundary between the innocent and the sinister, the premeditated and the accidental, the home as a place where they have to take you in and the house as a place where other people lived before you and still more will live after you. Our claims to the world, these movies suggest, are contingent and tenuous: to borrow from Deborah Eisenberg, the thing we think is going on is not what’s going on at all; there’s a top thing and a bottom thing and “sometimes the thing on the bottom just pops out…Into the top thing.” Or, like Alice adventuring in Wonderland, sometimes the top thing pops out into the bottom thing.

In Paranoid Park, Alex, a novice skateboarder, discovers this convergence at an elaborate skate park under a Portland, Oregon highway. (The movie’s first scene—an elastically tethered, slow-motion skateboard ballet shot in grainy Super-8 and scored with a narcotic musical collage—establishes Paranoid Park as Alex’s Wonderland.) Befriended by some older skaters during a night when he is content to simply watch the action, Alex finds himself drawn into the nocturnal world of adult motivations, activities, and consequences: while hopping a train with one of his new acquaintances, he accidentally kills a zealous night watchman by pushing him away and into the path of a train on a parallel track. The banality of the events that bring Alex to the skate park; the unpredictability of his encounter with the older skaters; the instinctiveness of his self-defense—none of these seemed ineluctably destined for tragedy. But for Van Sant, Alex isn’t the sum of his intentions but the product of his actions: he is, however accidentally, a murderer.

The film’s narrative is framed by Alex’s effort to write down the events of that night, its fractured discontinuities and revisions the result of his hazy memory and his shattered identity. Van Sant follows while Alex navigates his world as someone fundamentally estranged from it, and if friends and family are suddenly unfamiliar to him, it is because he has become a stranger to himself. Writing, then, becomes a form of mapping: perhaps, after he has documented the blurred borders of his new self, he will be able to venture beyond them again. The movie’s major flaw is that we have never seen Alex at home anywhere. He is never completely at ease with his family or his social networks—even the high school skateboarders maintain that they’re not really a community, that they hardly know each other. This means that Alex’s severance feels more like expatiation than expulsion, and the murder more symbolic than tragic. It’s hard to know how to feel about a character who doesn’t know how to feel about himself.

Paranoid Park’s other distraction—and the flip-side of its success—is its generous deployment of slow-motion photography. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who filmed most of the movie, frames his simple shots elegantly and lingers patiently on his subjects; and Rain Kathy Li shoots the extra-narrative skateboarding sequences, like the opening scene in Paranoid Park, with a startling and exciting intimacy. But there’s something palliative about slow motion: it reduces whatever and whomever it slows to a purely aesthetic phenomenon. So skateboarding is emptied of its political, social, and even transportational subversion in the same way that the ruination of the small Southern town in George Washington, filmed with near-fetishistic attention, is deprived of its historical context. Slow motion forces us to look longer at a world we acknowledge typically with glancing consideration, but it also changes this world. The music hums and whispers and careers and sighs—it’s the sound of dislocation and evanescence, the sound of a connection that makes us feel farther away from ourselves, the sound of buzzing lights and radios in passing cars and a small-town power plant; it’s the sound of us, listening—and the thing we’re looking at looks back at us. Maybe this is what art is for, after all: to lock us in a gaze with what we’re all too eager to ignore in our more real lives.

(Paranoid Park is showing this evening at 9:fifteen at Cable Car. You really should go.)


James said...

Thomas Hardy on convergence.

Jack said...

I drank up your reflections almost (sorry) as much as I drank up the film. The only downside is that you've also succeeded in inducing the same melancholic mood that that accompanied the film's viewing. Excellent post, my friend.