Experiments In Crime And Punishment
By Dale Peck
It never rains but it pours, as the saying goes. After a long stretch marked by an almost complete absence of movies (or at any rate good movies) that had anything to say to gay audiences, 2007 closed with a trio of releases by New Queer Cinema founders Gregg Araki (Smiley Face), Tom Kalin (Savage Grace), and Todd Haynes (I'm Not There), followed now by the most successful of them all, Gus Van Sant. Paranoid Park, the director's first outing since his so-called Death Trilogy (the variously maligned and adored Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days), is less a departure from Van Sant's post-Hollywood techniques than a refinement, possibly even a paring down of them. At the New York Film Festival, the director referred to his new movie as a 'young adult film,' which might have been a joke, but then again, maybe not.
Alex is an average Portland teenager more into skateboarding than his sex-obsessed girlfriend Jennifer, until he accidentally kills a security guard after hanging out at the eponymous skate park of the film's title. He's not caught, but so what? It's still the kind of thing that seriously fucks with, like, everything. Eventually, a new girl enters his life: the edgy anticheerleader Macy, who without eliciting a confession convinces Alex to write down what happened. These fragments -- diligently penciled into a ruled notebook -- become the episodes of Van Sant's movie. Though it takes a while until the pieces fall into place, they do in fact cohere into a linear narrative, one whose comprehensibility in no way explains how Alex will make sense of what he's done, let alone what he should do. As in Elephant, Van Sant refuses to pass judgment on his protagonist. In that film the choice made sense for obvious reasons; if you don't already know it's wrong to walk into a high school and blow away 30 or so of your classmates and teachers, a movie isn't likely to illuminate you. In Paranoid Park the situation is more complex; though we're shown exactly what Alex did (he shoved a security guard who was attempting to pull him off a moving train; the man tripped and fell into the path of a second train), we're hard-pressed to determine the appropriate level of condemnation -- or, for that matter, sympathy. In lieu of a Law & Order-style conclusion, the movie's collage of grainy dreamlike sequences and cinema verit' long takes leaves you with a lingering sense of melancholy, both for a boy whose life has been irreparably altered and for a world incapable dealing with the situation on a moral, let alone emotional, level.
Whatever you think of the more experimental aspects of Van Sant's oeuvre, it's hard not to admire the way he's maintained his independence over nearly 25 years. He launched his career with a gay film (the beautiful and underappreciated Mala Noche), then immediately confounded expectations with the heterosexual Drugstore Cowboy, in the process doing for Matt Dillon what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta. My Own Private Idaho had a similarly galvanic effect on the reputations of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, and To Die For elevated Nicole Kidman from Tom Cruise's wife to a leading lady, for better or worse. Long-term fans feared he'd sold out with the earnest, straightforward, and sappy Good Will Hunting, not to mention the saccharin Finding Forrester, but it turns out the director's talent was merely on hiatus (or perhaps he was simply cashing in while the time was ripe). Gerry simultaneously rehabilitated Van Sant's position as the most rigorous and emotionally intelligent of experimental filmmakers, even as it and its two successors pretty much alienated the mainstream audience he'd built up over the course of a decade and a half. In the middle of this, there was of course the remake of Psycho. Quite possibly the smartest and dullest movie made in the last 20 years, it is also a movie that could've only been made by someone in Van Sant's position: a multimillion-dollar art-school exercise that illustrated more clearly than any critical essay how Hitchcock's genius was ahead of its time yet firmly rooted in the moviemaking conventions of his era.
At this point, experimental has become just another genre tag -- thriller, chick flick, porno, etc. It usually refers to some kind of departure from storytelling conventions, a violation of the rules, as it were, that plays as a reaction against mainstream assumptions rather than a pursuit of concealed truths or unexpected conclusions. By contrast, Van Sant's excesses and opacity -- the interminable tracking shots in Gerry, say, or the refusal to pass judgment on Elephant's teenage murderers -- strike one as experimentation on the scientific model, a trial-and-error process whose failures and false leads are every bit as important as its successes. My Own Private Idaho was hardly a perfect film, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was damn near unwatchable, but without them there would've been no To Die For, a more or less flawless movie that, along with Todd Haynes's Safe and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves, seems in hindsight to mark the moment when independent cinema lost the chip on its shoulder and began to make pictures that appealed to broader audiences without shredding its intellectual credentials. By the same token, the seemingly effortless mise-en-sc'ne of Paranoid Park is in fact built from the best aspects of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Like all three of these films, Paranoid Park is both more and less than what it appears to be -- a crime story in which the who, what, why, and how are incidental; a fractured narrative whose goal is unity -- until what ultimately emerges is an examination of American adolescence, nostalgic but hardly uncritical, although perhaps what's being criticized is less adolescence than the failure of adults to make the process easier, safer, or simply more comprehensible to their children.
There are certain kinds of crimes, one is tempted to say, for which the crime itself is punishment, just as there are other crimes in which guilt is shared by more than the perpetrator -- Bigger Thomas in Native Son comes to mind, as does on a perverse level Linda Fiorentino's Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction. Then there are crimes that are really accidents, when the desire to punish conflicts with, without being mitigated by, the desire simply to erase the past. Which is to say that at the end of Paranoid Park, Alex burns his confession, but we know he'll live with what he's done forever.