Saturday, October 18, 2008


In 1958, with The Left Handed Gun, Paul Newman and director Arthur Penn sucked the well-storied mythic qualities out of famed outlaw Billy the Kid. Instead of a chew-spittin', whore-hittin', son-of-a-gun that could shoot the teeth off a beaver three hundred yards away, Newman's Billy was reimagined as a beautiful, tortured every-kid not unlike James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Fifty years later, with Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant tries to restore that mythic outlaw quality to high school skater youth.

Van Sant calls his period of work from Gerry to Last Days the death trilogy, but closer examination reveals that, starting with Elephant and up to Paranoid Park, Van Sant has really been celebrating destructive, young outcasts as the western anti-heroes of our time. Murder, drug abuse, suicide, and manslaughter are the dirty deeds that Van Sant gets dangerously close to justifying with his characterizations of Alex & Eric in Elephant, Blake in Last Days, and Alex in Paranoid Park.

Because he's always been wise in the department of hiring talented directors of photography (Christopher Doyle shot Paranoid Park), Van Sant has cleverly been able to fool audiences and critics alike into thinking that there is substantial depth to his artful meandering. In fact, that folly reaches a goofy pinnacle when critics start comparing Van Sant's casting of faceless models to the blank acting style that Robert Bresson pushed on his actors. The difference is that Bresson's models either came already from trained backgrounds, or were novices with enough talent to connect with the vision of Bresson's direction.

Van Sant, on the other hand, mistakes straight-up poor acting as some kind of reach towards neo-realist charm. This is apparent in the forced reaction of shock that Alex (Gabe Nevins) gives after seeing a local Portland news story about the crime he's committed. Same for the moment when the actress who plays Macy (Lauren McKinney), is obviously mouthing the dialogue of the actor opposite her. I suppose Van Sant would argue that those bumps were left in by design and that there was artistic purpose in such a decision. Thing is, that type of argument gets swallowed whole by critics these days, allowing precedent for future crap like that to fly.

Paranoid Park is the name of the makeshift skate park that a makeshift family of burnouts, homeless, and runaways have constructed as their refuge (it's a modern day saloon, whore house, and bath house all in one). Too shy to skate with the others, Alex just goes to Paranoid Park to sit on his board and idolize the others. Though Alex's inner dialogue never gives way to an overly romanticized admiration of these punks, Van Sant insists on pushing that notion through with his camera. In one hilariously dumb shot, Van Sant shoots a line of skateboarders verting off a ramp in slo-mo, giving their frozen air time an awed sense of spiritual bravura. Later, all of the skaters at school are called to the office. One-by-one they file out of their classrooms to form a line of strutting rejects like a wild bunch kicking up dirt in Tombstone.

My guess is that Gus Van Sant envisions his current batch of films will one day serve as a kind of time-stamped portrait of Generation Whatever for viewers decades down the road. But in the way hindsight has been unkind to some of the misguided social dramas of the 50's, the message movies of the 80's and 90's (Mississippi Burning, anyone?), and the 00's documentary explosion, I predict that down the road Van Sant's work will be treated to the eternal recurring question of "What was he thinking?!?". I submit that you get ahead of that curve now and start asking yourself that question today.


Marilyn said...

Interesting article, Fox!!!

I never looked at these films that way. I liked Elephant well enough for its more documentary style, but felt Gerry was a real misfire. If they're alone in the desert, why is there a camera filming them. Van Sant never made me forget his presence in that film, and it killed it for me. I haven't seen Paranoid Park, and probably wouldn't even without your pan.

But Billy the Kid, now that's a real stroke of genius. To me it makes perfect sense. But Van Sant is just trying to be the "cool" adult who understands teenage angst and gives them films that "speak" to them. Both ideas are total conceits and made to impress Cannes, not a skateboarder.

Fox said...

But Van Sant is just trying to be the "cool" adult who understands teenage angst and gives them films that "speak" to them. Both ideas are total conceits and made to impress Cannes, not a skateboarder.

That's the thing. I see a real disconnect between Van Sant's and the intended audience of his films. Or maybe he intends them for adults... regardless, they still fail in my eyes.

The more I think about Van Sant's work, the more I don't understand what he is trying to say. With Elephant, I was expecting an attempt at understanding (granted, could we ever understand something like that?), but it just felt like glossy fantasy to me. The we he protrays Alex & Eric, from the piano playing to the shower scene seem like exercises in sympathy or justification.

J.D. said...

Um, well, okay. Stuff's subjective.

Marilyn said...

I felt Elephant had a Platoon feel to it. I didn't think of the latter as a film, but rather as an "in their shoes" experience, and was shaken up pretty hard by it. I wasn't as shaken by Elephant because the element of surprise for the audience is missing, but it still felt like an on-the-ground, combat pic. I remember telling people who had not seen it to go in knowing NOTHING. I wanted to know if they would have a different reaction, but of course, I couldn't get anyone to take me up on the challenge.

Fox said...


Always, my man, always. That's why discussion is fun! :)


I like that connection you made with Platoon, b/c despite some of my problems with Platoon I like it for what you mentioned. It's a very interesting connection to make between the "on-the-ground" viewpoints of both.

Yet, for me, Elephant fails with that b/c it feels so unreal to me. I especially remember the scene of the black athelete roamin the halls in some kind of meditative state to be silly. Is that how it really would have gone down. Even close to how it woulda gone down?

But if Van Sant's intention was to recreate an atmosphere of what it was like "that day" then I would have even bigger problems with Elephant. That is the reason I hate United 93. I find it exremely exploitative... an action film fashioned out of real life tragedy.

People may say "but Platoon was about the real tragedy of Vietnam!". True, but it was a fictional story within a historical time frame.

I'm not claiming real-life tragedy should go untouched by artists... no, no, no, not at all. Take World Trade Center. I thought that film was great. Effective human drama out of real tragedy. But had Paul Greengrass made it, he probably would have shot chaos and bodies flying and death and fire the whole time b/c he thought it made for cool action.

Marilyn said...

Fox - I disagree strongly with your assessment of United 93 and Paul Greengrass. He's the one director who has best been able to deal with tragedy in a way the creates understanding, not exploitative thrills. His Bloody Sunday and Omagh do this brilliantly, and United 93 captured, in my opinion, the chaos and uncertainty that can and did occur on 9/11. People have been quick to point fingers, but Greengrass shows what a hard job the military, the air traffic controllers, and the passengers had sorting out what was happening. Even though I had to talk myself into seeing it, I felt it was a healing experience for me.

Wiley said...

I liked Gerry a lot. I'm not sure if i've girded myself up to go to bat for it though. The sound design towards the end was pretty nice. Last Days won me over when it found the gall to make the audience watch an entire Boyz II Men video. That's one of the most confrontational things I've seen in a movie in a long time. I couldn't stop laughing.

Fox said...


Agreed on Last Days. And while I don't think it's great, it's the one recent Van Sant film I think is passable. The scene that stays with me is the long shot of Michael Pitt going into that instrument room and kind of howling know and then. At least, that's how I remember it... it's been awhile.

Oh, and I have a "thing" for Asia Argento, and like Lukas Haas. I think the casting of that one gave it a lift.

nick plowman said...

Yeah, I’m with JD, lol, as this is still my absolute favourite film of 2008.

But its all good :)

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