In a class I took last semester entitled "Major Film Directors," my professor (Paul Arthur of Film Comment and Cineaste among other things) decided to include Gus Van Sant out of all five possible film directors whose work we could squeeze in the semester (the other four were Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Spike Lee, and Claire Denis - weird, huh? I suppose his selection was influenced by an attempt to consider a range of different filmmaking viewpoints - male, female, black, white, old, young, gay, straight, etc. - but it did strike me as curious nevertheless). We watched Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, and Elephant. (We were scheduled to watch Last Days, but the class was canceled). I have never seen any of Van Sant's "bigger" films such as or Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester (and frankly, I don't really care to), but the films I just mentioned prior to that helped me to develop and idea of Van Sant's visual style, techniques, and themes. I also did a close study of his remake of Psycho, which I posted earlier, which also reflects Van Sant's style, though in a restricted way since it was a shot-for-shot remake.
Van Sant's latest Paranoid Park revisits a subject matter that Van Sant seems drawn to: outsider youth subculture. Amateur pill-popping dealers in Drugstore Cowboy, male prostitutes and druggie squatters in My Own Private Idaho, and "disturbed" school outcasts in Elephant. Had I seen more films I'm sure there could be more correlations made. In Paranoid Park we get the skateboarder subculture of Portland, focusing mostly on Alex, a soft-spoken 16-year-old with a mop of brown hair hanging in front of listless eyes.
The "outsider" is appropriate for Van Sant because his focus in film is centered around "non-straight" filmmaking. This isn't to say everything about Van Sant is prefigured by his homosexuality, but I mean to use "non-straight" as in unconventional or with disregard to preordained rules (though it sometimes does explicitly pertain to homosexuality, such as in My Own Private Idaho). Van Sant loves to mix bits of experimental film techniques between the passages of straight-forward narrative, which often catch the viewer off-guard. Van Sant also loves to play with time, cutting up narrative so as to go from past to future to present to flashback almost with no indication of what is what. The sequences in Elephant are repeated, as if Van Sant is pressing rewind on his film and making us watch the same passage again, maybe from a different angle the second time. Paranoid Park is also jumps in time, repeats certain scenes, and goes from dream to reality in smooth transition. Van Sant would give us information early on in the film that wouldn't make sense to us until we see several other scenes much later, mixing the past and present, but all the while guiding us along in a way that's easy to understand.
Van Sant also has some lucid, almost sublime footage of skateboarders shot in slo-mo through a filter that gives the image a home-movie look (a visual effect that Van Sant seems to enjoy and associate with memories and dreams). The visual aspect of the film was probably my favorite; even when I started to care less and less for the character, I was still stuck to the screen by beautiful compositions. Watch this one:
Aside from the visual aspect, the main character, Alex, and eventually the story, were incredibly dull. I think Van Sant used mostly all non-professional actors, except for Alex's girlfriend (she was the little who in Ron Howard's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!) and the detective, and their mumbling, self-conscious presence on screen was less engaging than talking to an actual glaze-eyed teen. Maybe that's what Van Sant was trying to do, but... ::yawn:: To give Van Sant some credit, at least he portrayed how teens actually talk, as opposed to the pun-a-second Juno. Still, after watching this character that you care less and less about, the story surrounding him involving manslaughter (and a particularly gruesome scene) and the detective bringing together clues starts to fall apart and eventually does as the film comes to close leaving things up in the air. Van Sant may argue that the point of the film is not in the crime thriller aspect but on Alex's self-redemption, but it's still a let-down.
In the end, it is a pretty film which I would suggest renting. Actually, see My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy first. If that doesn't stop you, then see Paranoid Park. It's certainly interesting considering Van Sant's other work, but as a stand-alone film, it may bore (or even upset!) the average viewer.