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.
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.