Van Sant’s debut in 1985 with “Mala Noche”, about a gloomy relationship between a migrant Mexican worker and a liquor store clerk, signalled the director’s growing obsession for hustlers, junkies, homicidal teens and troubled geniuses. In short, Van Sant crafted films that invariably looked at men and women who were not just unconventional, but also detached from their surroundings. They often lived on the edge of society, and dangerously so. When the dead husband’s family kills the Kidman character in “To Die For” and buries her under ice, the moral is clear: a cold end to a cold and unfeeling woman.
Van Sant’s remake of Hitchcock classic, “Psycho”, in 1998, was understandably not very well received, but it was seen as a daring attempt and yet another affirmation of his desire to tackle obsessive solitude bordering on murderous mania.
“Psycho” was a classic study of dysfunction, and Van Sant’s “Elephant” (in 2003, and which won Cannes’ top Golden Palm Award) was merely an extension of the helmer’s study of men in isolated existence. For most part of “Elephant”, the camera moves aimlessly along with the students of an American high school, just looking at their routine lives, before violence explodes, which seems like a perfect anti-thesis to banality. “Elephant” was inspired by the Columbine High School massacre.
Van Sant’s latest film, “Paranoid Park”, presented at the 2007 Cannes Competition, does not disturb you as much as “Elephant” did with its questions of why seemingly harmless, dull and uninspiring youngsters suddenly turn hostile and brutal. But “Paranoid Park” still makes one a trifle uneasy. A skateboarder accidentally kills a guard in a railway yard, and goes through a harrowing time trying to keep the tragedy a secret.
Unlike “Elephant”, where Van Sant had a socio-political agenda, namely the American gun culture, he has no such compulsion in “Paranoid Park” and is free to explore the psyche of an introverted teenage boy, shaken by a broken home, a sexually aggressive girlfriend and the guilt of having killed an innocent man.
Van Sant narrates the story – based on a novel by Blake Nelson – in a non-linear form that is often dramatic enough to push us to the edge of our seats. When the police pull the skateboarder, Alex, out of the class twice, we know that something serious has taken place, and when he eventually breaks off with his buddies, including his girlfriend, we know that his alienation is complete.
Van Sant does not pass any judgment. But his style and stress gently nudge us towards feeling a strong empathy for Alex. Shut out of the adult world (his parents’ separation being one strong reason) and fearing ridicule, reproach and lack of compassion from his peers, Alex returns to his skateboard and Paranoid Park, the scene of the tragedy, to perhaps try and find solace.
At the end of “Paranoid Park”, which I saw at Cannes, I was troubled by a question: was Van Sant telling us that it was fine not to own up to something as gruesome as killing a man, even if it was entirely accidental?
(Webposted July 6 2007)