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‘Paranoid Park’/'You, the Living’

Another zombie with no teen spirit

by Giovanni Fazio

Spree killer, rock star, average teenage skater. Director Gus Van Sant sees all three in much the same light: emotionless, affectless, blank. Numb characters for a numb generation? Or is Van Sant’s penchant for an aesthetic — an aloof, arty minimalism — blinding him to things like personality, expression, feelings. You know, the reason why a movie casts humans, not mannequins. It’s a difference that seems to be lost on the director these days.

“Elephant” covered the Columbine High School massacre with a blank teen gunman played inarticulately by Alex Frost. Then Michael Pitt was just as inaccessible (albeit plausibly) as a heroin-addicted Kurt Cobain in “Last Days.” Now we have Gabe Nevins as an alienated high-school kid in “Paranoid Park,” and he seems even more medicated than Cobain. Chosen through an open casting call on MySpace, Nevins seems to have been selected for his complete inability to make a facial expression.

The film’s story, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, follows Nevins’ character, Alex, as the police investigate a suspicious death that occurred near a skatepark he ‘boards at. Turns out that Alex has indeed seen something horrible, but he confides it to no one. One supposes his utterly blank demeanor is due to trauma. But no, flashbacks to before the incident reveal that Alex was just as blank then. He doesn’t even blink when a grisly death occurs right before his eyes.

Is Alex a psychopath, incapable of feeling, like his namesakes in “A Clockwork Orange” or “Elephant?” That doesn’t seem to be what Van Sant wants to get across, since Alex is portrayed with some sympathy. So what is the point? None, other than that expressionlessness is ipso facto cool in art cinema these days.

Just take an old-school classic of this style, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist,” from 1970. His protagonist, Marcello Clerici — a wannabe Fascist-party member played by Jean-Louis Trintignant — wears a poker face for almost the entire film. He shares many qualities with Alex in “Paranoid Park”: a troubled childhood, no real love of women, a desire to fit in. Like Alex, he witnesses a murder with no emotional reaction whatsoever.

Paranoid Park
Rating
Director Gus Van Sant
Run Time 85 minutes
Language English
You, the Living
Rating
Director Roy Andersson
Run Time 94 minutes
Language English

But in Bertolucci’s eyes, Clerici is a contemptible little man, cold and lacking empathy, fascism incarnate. Van Sant’s Alex, however, is merely lost, a pretty boy shot in a fawning way, with emotional detachment portrayed not as clinical but photogenic, not unlike a fashion ad.

Van Sant claims to be trying to be true to the skaters’ reality. But his cinematographers, Chris Doyle and Rain Kathy Li, contribute dreamy, slo-mo footage of the skate parks that — however beautiful — is closer to experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage than the slam-bang videos skaters enjoy. And when you have the outsider skater hero dating a cheerleader (a great, sugar-fueled performance by Taylor Momsen), well, you know reality has gone right out the window.

Van Sant tries to put his finger on the pulse of the teenage “Now,” but compared to classics like “River’s Edge” or even “Kids,” “Paranoid Park” seems overly brooding and devoid of the energy that defines the teen years.

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And now for something completely different: Swedish director Roy Andersson’s “You, the Living” is definitely one of a kind. Imagine the absolute deadpan humor of Jim Jarmusch crossed with the angst-ridden, surreal view of daily life from David Lynch and Luis Bunuel filtered through a dour Scandinavian sensibility, and you can glimpse the contours of “You, the Living.”

The film is composed of short vignettes, 50 in all, composed in one-scene/one-shot style in a studio to enhance their drab artificiality. They seem random at first, but they begin to interconnect as various lost souls in this urban limbo bounce off each other. The camera almost never moves, and cutting from one scene to the next feels like flipping the pages of a graphic novel.

Like “Eraserhead,” this is a funny miserablist film, hard though that may be to believe. An old man walks a dog, literally dragging the recalcitrant pup down the street; a heavily tattooed biker pitifully tries to reconcile with his drama-queen wife; judges quaffing pints sentence a man to the electric chair for a failed magic trick; an obsessed fan pursues the rock singer she’s besotted with; a psychiatrist confesses there’s no way to make people happy.

The film plays like a catalog of the stresses and miseries of modern life — packed commutes, endless queues and traffic jams, relationship troubles, bad sex, annoying neighbors. The impending arrival of a fleet of bomber aircraft only adds to the apocalyptic feel: The world is coming to an end, and we worry and bicker about trivialities.

Finding the absurdity in this is no mean feat, but Andersson chuckles as he catalogs the frailties and vicissitudes of the human condition.