Monday, August 25, 2008

The Great Lingerer

I love Gus Van Sant. I think he is one of America's most important filmmakers and, as an auteur, I firmly believe that his point of view is vital, both culturally and artistically. The trailblazing "My Own Private Idaho," with its poetic tone and gorgeous execution, is one of my all time favorites. I cover my ears to the naysayers who were/are part of the mini-backlash against the commercially successful, brilliant "Good Will Hunting." I cannot wait for Van Sant's upcoming biopic, "Milk," starring Sean Penn. All that said, I can't stand some of Van Sant's films.

Those (and their were/are many) who enjoyed 2003 Cannes Palme D'Or winner "Elephant," Van Sant's tedious response to the Columbine tragedy, will revel in "Paranoid Park," his adaptation of Blake Nelson's Portland-based novel about a skater who pours his heart out in his journal after unwittingly killing a security guard. "Park" was nominated last year for the same award that "Elephant" claimed five years ago and could easily be viewed as a sequel, of sorts. It employs the same exhaustingly long tracking shots of kids walking through hallways and treats those images as though they were revealing some sort of deep, existential truth. It's made up of a similar no-name cast of 15 and 16-year-olds who are meant to convey a zits-and-all sense of realism. It focuses on a complicated young boy who, within the film, experiences growth after balancing coolness and morals in the midst of a tragedy.

I did not like "Elephant." I was bored silly with Van Sant's insistence on silently holding on subjects through an entire school's worth of hallways. I also found it way too derivative; nearly every aspect felt like a news headline assumption about what went down during those fateful killings. "Paranoid Park" is better, for sure, but continues Van Sant's dull tradition of forcing his point via needlessly lengthy sequences. I understand that this is a stylistic trademark of Van Sant's pet projects but what good is a signature style if it's ingratiating to its audience? The rest of the film is bursting with loveable Van Sant-isms (an excellent retro-pop soundtrack, dreamy and diverse photography) that exude style in a positive way. But the lingering camera shows up far too often to make it a smooth ride.

From "Idaho" to "Drugstore Cowboy," Van Sant has always been a pioneer in producing films that take an unabashed, unbiased look at American youth. The director is like the rich man's Larry Clark ("Kids," "Bully") in that he can illustrate those same adolescent worlds but remove the harsh vulgarities without losing any of the honesty. His films are more artful, as though he took Clark's work and touched it up with a paintbrush and a quill pen. The cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Rain Li brings beauty to a seemingly washed-out world (I even loved the grainy skater footage, which is not my thing at all ) and the chronoligically scattered narrative avoids gimmick and convention by following the scatter-brained diary of the lead character. Even the boy's voiceover, all robotic and inarticulate, is genuine, evoking the feel of a high school show and tell. All these things are virtues, courtesy of Van Sant. It's when his paintbrush gets stuck to the canvas that things literally slow down and these virtues go almost unnoticed. I would not recommend "Paranoid Park" because I couldn't imagine anyone outside of Van Sant's fan circle enjoying it. I consider myself in that circle and I thought it only a mild success.

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