Friday, October 31, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park opens with an oddly unsettling credit sequence, a gorgeous static shot of a bridge on a dark, overcast day, threatening dark blue clouds hanging in the background over a pastoral scene. The landscape looks like it was cut-and-pasted from Hitchcock's chipper rural fantasia The Trouble With Harry, while the clouds and the air of foreboding might've come from the heavily painted backdrops of The Birds. There's something eerily artificial about this view that is reminiscent of Hitchcock's fondness for matte-painting backgrounds, even though here the scene is entirely natural. It's not surprising that director Gus Van Sant's images would subliminally hark back to Hitchcock in this way — after all, he has already paid homage to the master by remaking and deconstructing Psycho — but the film this shot introduces actually owes very little debt to Van Sant's acknowledged influence. As though driving this home, immediately after the proper credits there is in effect a second credit sequence, a close-up on a sheet of looseleaf paper as a pencil writes the film's title in juvenile handwriting sloppily across the page.

This second "credits sequence," in which the film's central character Alex (Gabe Nevins) starts writing a lengthy letter, is much more in keeping with the spirit of the film as a whole: it is rough, homemade, amateurish, perfectly attuned to the high school mentality that Van Sant aims to explore. In many ways, the film is a summation of Van Sant's career so far, from the rugged semi-documentary Mala Noche to the rigorous Bela Tarr-influenced "death trilogy" that immediately preceded this film. In fact, given the basic premise here — a skater kid accidentally kills a railroad security guard and is haunted by this tragedy — it's tempting to lump this film in with Van Sant's recent loose trilogy, but it doesn't quite fit. There are moments and techniques in Paranoid Park that seem to have developed naturally from the films that preceded it, like the endless tracking shots of Alex and his skater friends walking through the halls of the high school (cf. Elephant) or through the grassy hills in the area (Gerry). But in other ways the film moves beyond its predecessors, incorporating a rich pastiche of different types of material. Alex's narrative, shot with Van Sant's typical fluid, visually pristine cinematography, is subsumed within a patchwork structure that jumps unpredictably through time and includes frequent detours into abstract interludes or sequences that might have come from a skateboarding documentary, shot on grainy low-quality film stock with artfully off-center compositions capturing the quickly moving skaters.

The film is further marked by Van Sant's use of amateur actors, a practice he's often turned to but rarely with such commitment: not since his first film Mala Noche has he placed such an obviously untrained and technically unskilled cast in front of the camera at such length, with so much dialogue to work through. It's a choice that could have easily backfired, but the actors, mostly real high schoolers and skaters who had never acted before, wind up infusing the film with verisimilitude. This is especially true of Alex's narration, as he reads from the letter that he's writing throughout the film. His subjective perspective dictates the film's structure, his story jumping randomly through time as he simply pours his impressions onto the page, forgetting details, jumping back to fill them in later, continually skipping ahead and doubling back. Some scenes play out twice, once in broad outlines with Alex supplying the gist of the scene in voiceover, and then again in full, with the dialogue filled in completely.

His reading of this material is perfect, hesitant and constantly interrupted by awkward pauses or passages where he simply runs the words together without inflection. He sounds like a kid reading his book report aloud to a class, which is of course exactly what he should sound like. Van Sant is brave enough to really commit to this awkwardness, riding it out even when the results are as painful to watch as remembering your own embarrassing teenage moments. A conversation between Alex and his friend Macy (Lauren McKinney) is almost unbearable, its rhythms completely off-kilter in the way that only terminally shy adolescents can manage. You can feel the affection between these two as well as the insecurity and self-consciousness, the way they can sometimes barely get out their thoughts without endless pauses, and other times run everything together in a nervous jumble. It's oddly endearing only because it feels so shockingly real.

This awkwardness and nervousness extends throughout the film, and it's hardly limited to the traumatic event that Alex experiences when he witnesses the railroad guard's gory accidental death. Indeed, one of the ways in which Paranoid Park distinguishes itself from the so-called "death trilogy" is in its treatment of this death and its placement within the narrative structure. Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days can all be thought of as journeys towards death, documents of the time spent leading up to death, and ruminations on the sensationalist treatment of death in the media. They are truly films about death, about mortality, about violence, in a way that Paranoid Park is not. The film's one act of violence is harrowing and narratively important, but it does not have the same thematic central place that violence and death hold in the other films. Moreover, Alex reacts to this death in much the same way as he reacts to a lot of the other confusing, scary, unfathomable things he encounters on a daily basis: schoolwork, his parents' impending divorce, the prospect of losing his virginity with a girl he barely even likes, the uncomfortableness he obviously feels around other people. He is especially awkward around grown-ups, and it's not hard to understand why considering the condescending way they talk to him. In one scene, his father tries to connect with him but his language is so stiff and formal it sounds like he's making a business proposal rather than having a chat with his son. It's apparent that the adults around Alex are no more sure of themselves or in control than the teens they're supposed to be raising.

In this context, the death Alex causes is an extension of his general teenage insecurity, just one more thing to worry about. In an inversion of the usual priorities, death has become a metaphor for the trials of puberty, a distortion of scale that is wholly in keeping with the high schooler's outsized sense of his personal troubles. Van Sant privileges this perspective by infusing the film with Alex's own personal sense of things: his blurry view of the world, the expansion of individual moments into endless periods of contemplation. Van Sant makes liberal use of slow motion and extended static shots, drawing out these contemplative interludes into lengthy studies of Alex's internality and disconnection. In one of the film's finest shots, Alex takes a shower immediately after the accident, and the camera focuses steadily on his bowed head, his shaggy hair hanging down over his face. The individual spikes of hair let off long rivulets of water, flowing in slow motion like rivers of shifting light growing from Alex's head. The light in the scene subtly shifts from shadowy to luminescent, and the composition almost verges into abstraction even as it maintains its roots in Alex's expression of misery.

The sound design in this scene is also stunning, as it is throughout the film. Playing off of the rainforest wallpaper in the shower behind Alex, the soundtrack consists of electronically modified bird chirps and rain, slowly warping into a shrill, intensifying sine hum, morphing from tranquil natural sounds into an overpowering mirror of Alex's internal strife. Van Sant's use of sound is always remarkably sensitive, whether he's layering and subtly tweaking natural sounds like this, subtly referencing Fellini by bringing in chunks of Nino Rota's scores for Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord, or tastefully incorporating pop songs, as he does with two sad, yearning Elliot Smith tracks. Many of the skateboarding scenes are accompanied by glitchy, languid electronic music that brings to mind Robert Ashley's seminal minimalist composition "Automatic Writing," with processed traces of whispery voices skittering across a surface of droning electronic tones. This haunting, ghost-like music is surprisingly appropriate for the documentary-like skateboarding scenes, bringing a sense of wistfulness and nostalgia to the kind of footage that is usually accompanied with high-voltage jock rock. This collage of music and sounds drawn from many different sources contributes greatly to the film's tonal ambiguity, as the bouncy whimsy of the Rota music grates up against the more downbeat selections. There's a sense that, just as Alex doesn't quite know what to feel or what to say, Van Sant wants to leave his audience with similar sensations, a similar incompleteness and lack of resolution. His film captures the awkwardness and insecurity of adolescence but doesn't attempt to explain it; his characters always maintain their mysterious surfaces, their slow motion smiles and stares giving away little of their interior lives.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Black Sun

When the sight of the French painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert was taken from him by a violent robbery at his home in New York, he was unwilling to give up on his life. He forced himself through a recovery period, learned how to get around and navigate as independently as possible, began to write, traveled incessantly around the world without assistance or company. His story is remarkable, moving, and has all the makings of the kind of "hope from tragedy" story that provides powerful evidence of human resilience and unfortunate fodder for dozens of saccharine movies. However, Gary Tarn's Black Sun avoids the usual traps of these kinds of films: despite his emphasis on Montalembert's narration and story, he delves beyond the surface tragedy and recovery into a deeper meditation on sensation, independence, human relationships, and the often mysterious linkages between mind and body.

From the beginning, Tarn envisions Montalembert's loss of vision in consistently inventive, striking ways. The painter's disconnection from his world, his sensory isolation, is translated into a dichotomy between sound and image. The soundtrack consists primarily of the painter's autobiographical monologue, describing the attack that blinded him, his process of recovery, and the creative paths his life has taken in the aftermath of this trauma. His voice is calm, his cadence slow and deliberate, and his carefully worded voiceover naturally tends towards the philosophical and psychological ramifications of his new condition. What does it mean for a visual artist to lose his sight? How do the other senses create different "images" of the world? What is lost by this change? What is gained? Why does the mind continue to create images, both abstract and representational, even in the absence of sight? How do other people react to those who can't see them? Montalembert's narration is often affecting in exactly the ways you'd expect — his account of the attack is harrowing, and his description of losing friends and lovers who can't bear to see him anymore is heartbreaking — but more often he seems to view his experiences as an excuse to examine himself, his mind, and his understanding of the world. His steady, unwavering voice rarely betrays a hint of emotion regarding his blindness, retaining its contemplative distance and simply describing what he thinks.

This description is necessary because the images that Tarn chooses to accompany the narration usually do not illustrate the painter's story in any literal way. There are but two scenes where the images correspond to the physical reality of the story: one in which a pair of steel wraparound "glasses" are created to shield Montalembert's eyes, and another in which he describes how he lost 12 pages of writing because he was unable to tell that his pen had run out of ink. For the latter scene, Tarn stages a recreation, showing a blank notebook with his subject's pen running across the page, scribbling unseen words that will never be read as the page remains unmarked. It is the only point in the film in which the images ostensibly show Montalembert himself, even though we only see the narrator's hand holding a pen. Throughout the rest of the film, Tarn's camera is even more oblique.

The film opens with a few minutes of shaky aerial footage of New York City as Montalembert describes his attack, the camera keeping its distance from the horrifying story being told. In other places, the camera roves through the street, capturing random faces and surprising moments of humor or sadness as it catches people in the course of their daily lives. This is a secondary level of documentary within the film, a documentary that often has little to do with its ostensible subject, instead choosing to linger on striking images from the places where Montalembert has lived or visited. It's something like a travelogue that the blinded filmmaker might've assembled had he been able to film his own journeys. Tarn also frequently resorts to abstraction, including several minutes of Brakhagian light experiments in the immediate aftermath of Montalembert's loss of sight. Images are warped and manipulated in interesting ways: funhouse-mirror distortions of street scenes, shots of faces twisting amidst a sea of television static, colorful digital overlays that inevitably bring to mind the "Zone" from Chris Marker's Sans Soleil. In one shot, a ghost-like girl, drained of color, her eyes blacked out from view, plays on a swing, her joyful smile discordant with the melancholy mood created by Tarn's distortions.

The distance between sound and image in this film dovetails nicely with a portion of Montalembert's monologue where he describes the joy of walking, as a blind man, with a painter friend, who sees everything so clearly and in such detail that his descriptions are an artform. Through his blindness, Montalembert comes to realize that sight is an act of creativity, a way of creating a world by choosing what to see, what to focus on, what to notice; it's a creative act that most people, seeing only what they need to in order to get through their days, rarely engage in. In Tarn's film, the painter's descriptions of the world become a metaphor for Montalembert's own monologue, his descriptions of his interior state. Just as the painter sees everything around him so acutely, Montalembert's thought processes have a crystalline clarity even when circling around complex abstract concepts. Tarn's gorgeous but stubbornly non-representational cinematography necessitates the monologue, ingeniously putting the blind narrator into the role of the painter who must describe, with all his creativity, what the audience cannot see for themselves.

This subtle metaphor is a constant subtext in the film, flowing through the tension between the voiceover and the allusive, elusive images chosen to illustrate these words. It is no surprise that Tarn is primarily a composer, and that Black Sun is his first effort as a filmmaker, not because the film is technically inept (far from it), but because his attentiveness to sound inscribes every moment of it. His score, quietly under-girding Montalembert's narration, combines delicate, repetitive piano figures with synthesizer and other electronic touches, creating a moody, swirling bed of sound that often emotionally enforces both the images and the narration, uniting the film's two separately realized components. The film's effect is stimulating, thought-provoking, and incredibly moving. It immerses the audience in sensation, and even more so in the contemplation of sensation and what relationships exist between the senses, the human consciousness, and the world that's created by this collaboration of the mind and the eyes.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


The biggest surprise of Oliver Stone's W. — and one of its greatest strengths — is that it isn't just a predictable leftist hatchet job on an already unpopular and widely ridiculed president. It surely would've been tempting, not to mention easy, for Stone to have simply indulged in beating a dead horse (or at least a horse with a 23% approval rating). Instead, W. is empathetic towards its central figure, who comes across primarily as a man of good intentions surrounded by people with agendas he doesn't see or doesn't understand, who has sometimes staggering ambitions but lacks the intelligence or ability to follow through on them. The film doesn't exactly overflow with new ideas or new perspectives on the current US president, and anyone who has followed American politics over the past eight years is unlikely to learn anything or encounter any truly startling thoughts about the second Bush to inhabit the White House.

What Stone is doing here is distilling the endless media chatter, speculation, and punditry of Bush's two terms into a coherent narrative, condensing Bush's life into a compact timeline, all of it leading to his time as Commander in Chief. Everything here, including the central conceit of Bush as a befuddled frat boy in over his head, is familiar. Stone's job is essentially one of editing, contextualizing, assembling a story from the sound bites of the news. Familiar quotes are shuffled around, moved to convenient places in the narrative, serving as markers of the historical reality behind this tale. Catchphrases like "misunderestimating" and "is our children learning?" show up here and there, reminders of Bush's gaffe-filled public speaking career. Stone de-emphasizes these lines, throwing them out there without comment, letting them slip into the fabric of Dubya's life without putting them into the media spotlight that surrounded the real president's every public slip-up. Even the famous pretzel incident makes an appearance, reimagined as a private moment, a simultaneously poignant and ridiculous close encounter with death, far from the embarrassing glare of the TV cameras that captured the real event. Stone's film invites an American audience to reconsider the things it has seen over the last 8 years, to think of them not as part of the nation's political history, but as incidents in a life, with all the attendant emotional undercurrents and personal dramas.

This narrativizing drive requires a tough balancing act, and Stone occasionally slips into hamfisted foreshadowing, hitting the notes too hard in establishing pivotal moments for Dubya. When he loses a congressional race to a Texan Democrat who plays up his small-town connections and Christian faith, Bush vows to never again be "out-Texaned or out-Christianed," and indeed he wouldn't be. Later, when he sees his father miss out on a second term after failing to go all the way to Baghdad in confronting Saddam Hussein, the son vows not to let the same thing happen to him. This narrative of political learning is sloppily done, reinforced too heavily by the over-obvious dialogue. This Bush is sometimes too self-aware, too conscious of learning lessons and molding himself into political material. Stone underlines his points too emphatically, not trusting the audience to get the idea without at least a few lines of soul-searching dialogue to make things clearer. At other times, though, Stone is able to mold an excess of material — stretching from Bush's frat boy days to the occupation of Iraq — into a coherent, propulsive narrative, even as he jumps in time between the Bush presidency and the earlier eras that led up to it.

By far, the film's greatest asset is its cast, who for the most part truly embody the political celebrities they're playing. Stone is smart not to get too tangled up in overbearing makeup effects, instead casting actors who can bring out the essence of the people they're playing in voice, demeanor, and a vague hint of appearance. Josh Brolin, for instance, looks little Dubya except in fleeting shots from a distance. Mostly, he suggests Bush through the trademark voice, that Texan drawl that Brolin absolutely nails, and in the way he moves his face and his body: the swaggering posture, the furrowed brow, the eyes that shift between squinting pensiveness and wide-eyed confusion. Brolin completely sells his Bush, as convincing as a boozing party animal, a fervent born-again trying to turn his life around, or an earnest, ambitious political figure. The rest of the cast is mostly just as compelling, with some achieving more of a resemblance to their counterparts than others.

Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, and Jeffrey Wright are especially effective, as Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell, respectively. Dreyfuss plays an only slightly caricatured Darth Cheney, because really there's not much you can do to exaggerate the vice president's naturally sinister smirk and leering, halting speech. He's perpetually hunched over here, his head bowed like a vampire about to feast on its next victim, and he has his one joyful moment in an extraordinary scene where Stone imagines him waxing ecstatic about the possibilities for American empire in the Middle East, gleefully conjuring little American flags to spread across a computerized map of the region. Newton's Rice is more of a caricature, as she plays the National Security Advisor like a hyperactive lap dog, darting around Bush's orbit and parroting everything her boss says. In a hilarious meeting with Tony Blair (Ioan Gruffudd), she flutters over the British PM's shoulder, randomly chirping stray words repeated from whatever Bush is saying at the moment. Wright's Powell is perhaps the most understated representation here, nailing both Powell's appearance and his quiet dignity. Stone gives Powell a moving, intelligent speech in trying to convince the other members of the Cabinet to abandon their plans for war in Iraq, but once the war is decided on, Stone also portrays how Powell used his intellect and eloquence to sell the case in the UN despite his deep reservations. Toby Jones' Karl Rove is also worthy of special mention. Rove is mostly a cipher here, a fiendishly clever political architect whose machinations sometimes seem to dictate Bush policy to a frightening degree. In the midst of the War Room debate over the Iraq war, Rove offers the idea that without the war, Bush will not be re-elected in 2004, a moment of naked realpolitik slipping out unexpectedly, providing a stark contrast to the other, more idealistic justifications offered for the war. Rove's outburst silences the room and prompts Powell to wonder aloud why a political staffer is even in on this discussion at all.

It is perhaps these War Room encounters that provide the film's most fascinating moments. These are Stone's plausible but largely imagined visions of what might've happened behind closed doors in the lead-up to the Iraq war. The overwhelming impression here is of a roomful of people attempting to convince each other of the rightness of the war, each providing their impassioned justifications and rationalizations. Only Powell offers a word of dissent. The rest of the Cabinet seems to be engaging in a trial run for selling the war to the public, practicing the kinds of arguments that might be used to win over a gullible populace to the cause. These scenes, and others like them, provide the film with its raison d'etre, really. While it's nice to see the documentary facts of Bush's life arranged into a tidy narrative leading to the Oval Office, the real appeal of the film lies in the ways it goes beyond facts, beyond the known into the imagined. The film justifies its status as fiction, rather than documentary, by delving into the psychological underpinnings of Bush the president: his stubbornness, his mistrust of thought and tendency to equate it with indecisiveness, and most importantly the lingering inferiority complex bred in him by a perpetually disappointed father (James Cromwell) who clearly invests more affection, respect, and hope in brother Jeb (Jason Ritter). Stone finds the roots of a presidency, and a war, in family dramas and emotional wounds, and the result is a film as messy and strange as the last eight years have been.