A Review of Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park

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PARANOID PARK

My motivation behind watching Paranoid Park was multifactorial. A former friend, who meant a lot to me, left me a collection of their favorite movies on my drive. A person who was always difficult to stereotype or fit into a box, an incredibly bright person who happened to be a skateboarder. They left me these other films: MirrorMask, What Dreams May Come, Milk, Ed Wood, Rebel Without a Cause and The Secret of NIMH. However Paranoid Park and its fascinating title enraptured me, the film caught me at the right time of my life.

Paranoid Park was directed and adapted by Gus Van Sant, the same individual responsible for Elephant, one of my favorite films. The film features many Van Sant staples: symbolic dialogue, tracking shots, uncomfortable close-ups and social commentaries on sexuality.

Before researching the film, I believed the title alluded to a neurotic’s state of mind while wandering in public. However, the film is about a boy’s initiation into manhood. The story follows a skateboarder, Alex, who deals with immense manifestations of guilt, after a traumatic experience. Alex was spending time with outcasts at Paranoid Park, when he takes off with someone and something terrible happens.

Like his name, Alex’s gender is ambiguous. He has long hair, angelic facial features and wears earrings. His appearance and demeanor make him identifiable to audiences of all sexes, a fact which helps us interpret Paranoid Park as being symbolic in nature, or an allegory. You might be tempted to ask, an allegory for what? The answer might please you.

In the film, Jared, Alex’s best friend, chews him out for buying a new skateboard without consulting him beforehand,

JARED: What’d you get a new board for?

ALEX: Because I wanted to try something new.

JARED: Why didn’t you tell me about this?

ALEX: Why would I tell you, it’s just a new board.

………………………………………………………

JARED: I can’t have some fag board riding next to me.


Jared stereotypically acts like a girlfriend who stereotypically complains to their significant other for not consulting them before making important decisions. Our next shot features Jared seductively staring at his passenger seat, at Alex. To further solidify the possibility of Paranoid Park being a queer allegory, Alex deflowers his girlfriend and shows no pleasure while doing so. Alex’s little brother even talks to him about a scene in Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon’s grandmother is at the dunes with her girlfriend, but tells her grandchildren she’s with a man.

There are numerous homosexual references in Paranoid Park, anyone familiar with Van Sant’s filmography knows these references are there for a reason. However, I want to argue that Paranoid Park is not simply an allegory for homosexuality, rather an allegory for initiation into a subculture, and the guilt and paranoia provoked by these experiences.

… parents get divorced. There’s other problems, bigger problems, like people dying in Iraq, starving kids in Africa. … You know what I mean, the little problems, they are all just so stupid … I just feel like there’s something outside of normal life, outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends, like right out there, like outside, there’s different levels of stuff. (Van Sant, 2007)

Besides being a beautifully shot film, Paranoid Park helped me understand skater culture better. The film made me understand why friends believed me to have a skater’s flow, despite not even being able to ollie. As Alex’s dialogue states, skaters tend to be woke and rebellious. They are critical of mainstream culture, warfare, and  the privileges we have because of others’ suffering.

Our relationship with our parents will forever change the way we act inside of society, they are our authority figures and representatives of mainstream culture. They either give us free reign to do as we will, or they pressure us until we explode in rebellion. If we rebel, we learn to do things by ourselves. Paranoid Park is not only an allegory about teenage homosexuality, it is an allegory about teenage rebellion. We all go through experiences which shape us, and make us different. Things we need to hide from our parents, that make us who we are. This is when we become adults.

As a cultural piece, Paranoid Park expresses incredible ideas. “They built the park illegally all by themselves. Train hoppers… guitar punks… skate drunks… throwaway kids… no matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse” (Van Sant, 2007). Anyone outside of society’s approval is an outcast. Paranoid Park expresses how a dysfunctional family life can bring children into the light, which is to say, reality.

We were children who were forced to mature early, exposed to the darkest sides of society, with difficult choices to make. We could “follow our bliss” and struggle in the jungle, or we could follow the paths made for us by our parents; to live a long, boring, yet comfortable life.

Arguably, Paranoid Park’s most pivotal moment is when Alex decides to “ride a train” with a friend by the woods. Alex’s decision to “ride a train” can be interpreted as an initiation experience, when a person makes a choice which will forever change who they are. Certainly, the phrase has a certain homoerotic element to it, with the train being a phallic symbol.

These teenage initiation experiences can be innocent acts which help us find ourselves and to bond with other people. Our first sexual experience, our first time smoking reefer, our first time skateboarding together. They can also be more sinister acts which bind us together: our first time beating another person, our first act of armed robbery, or even an act of unintentional murder. Everyone who carries out an act which differs from the norm gets branded as an outcast. They become dehumanized and become paranoid, because becoming paranoid means becoming an adult in our sick society.

Secrecy is required for our safety. Notice how the skater who was with Alex during the accident never talked to the police. The entire ordeal made Alex an outcast, a member of the park, and simultaneously separated him from mainstream society. The events of the film could even serve as an allegory for a gang initiation, but it works best as an initiation into a subculture.

If you keep frequenting a place like Paranoid Park, eventually something will happen to you. What happened to Alex was one of the worst possible outcomes, his life changed forever as a result. He became disconnected from society, from school and the park claimed his life. As you might or might not have guessed, my friend’s sexuality was an eclectic mystery. She was quiet, and I wonder if she ever went through an experience like Alex’s in Paranoid Park. I can safely say that I did, and I attest to the fact that “nobody’s ever ready for Paranoid Park” (Van Sant, 2007), we just make it there.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Review)

When we left the movie theater after watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I didn’t know what to think. I knew it was a great movie, hell, I knew it was a lot better than The Force Awakens (which I loved), but something about it was off… The Last Jedi has a lot of political messages and great action scenes, but there was one message that our generation needed and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars refused to send…

First of all, The Last Jedi is a lot darker than The Force Awakens. It starts off with a jarringly comic tone, which progressively gets darker as the film develops. Hell, it really feels like a Disney movie during the beginning. I am referring to the scene where Hux and Poe are having a radio conversation and Poe keeps pretending that he doesn’t hear Hux’s stereotypically villainous threats. It was a funny gag that reminded me Disney’s classic villains and their interactions with their heroes, like Captain Hook being played by Peter Pan. However, now that I reflect on this though, I feel that (despite being funny) the gag is pretty fucked up, especially because General Hux (the planet destroyer) and the First Order were allegories for Hitler and the Third Reich in The Force Awakens.

The Last Jedi feels political and revolutionary, it sends a lot of important messages that sneak through its plot. For example, Chewbacca gets persuaded not to eat meat after the porgs (surround him, looking sad, right as he is about to eat the cooked body of one of their kind. Chewie spooks them off and then feels guilty, and the next scene shows us that these creatures have populated the Millennium Falcon. It is a pretty clear-cut argument for vegetarianism.

Later on, Rose and Finn travel to Canto Bight, a casino planet. The Last Jedi‘s political messages are mostly sent through the scenes and characters from Canto Bight. Finn comments on the city’s beauty, and Rose tells Finn that this city (and its richness) exist because the gamblers make their fortunes from planets like Rose’s. They destroy their planets and steal the native’s resources, Rose mentions that this is why she and her sister joined the Resistance. Then, while they stare at a race track (think of the Kentucky Derby in Star Wars) Rose urges Finn to look closer, and he sees these creatures being lashed by their jockeys during the race; just like real-life horses are whipped by their jockeys. We see numerous scars on the creatures and later on these animals are freed by Rose and Finn. Here we have another clear cut argument from The Last Jedi in favor of animal rights.

Another message deals with the military-industrial-complex. DJ steals a vessel from a random gambler in Canto Bight and helps Rose and Finn escape. This vessel belonged to an arms dealer and DJ exposes how there are no “good” guys or “bad” guys. The arms dealer sold weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance, good and bad guys. I guess you could call this an anti-capitalist message, but conservatives and liberals both agree that selling weapons is a dirty business.

Finally, Kylo “reveals” that Rey’s parents were good-for-nothing drug addicts, who sold her into slavery and are now dead in a ditch. This last scene essentially sends a message that resonates with many people, we can become more than our parents. It’s the same message Yoda tells Luke, “we are what they grow beyond.” Meaning that each successive generation of children and students should become better than us, otherwise, what is the point? This is The Last Jedi’s metanarrative, the death and decay of the old ways feeds the new. Therefore Kylo kills Snoke and Luke dies without training Rey. Although, we could also argue that the film’s real metanarrative is that as long as people are oppressed, there will be a resistance; a connecting thread that runs throughout all Star Wars films throughout the series.

Speaking of different topics, everything the characters discuss and everything the camera focuses on plays an important part in plot. It adhered to the principle of Chekhov’s gun. The film also keeps you on the edge of your seat, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Last Jedi has one of the best lightsaber fight scenes in the history of Star Wars. It might even be better than Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon’s duel against Darth Maul. It was seriously impressive and after watching it, any reservations I had about the film’s Disney tone went straight out of the window. I felt like I was having an orgasm. Although, to be fair, I was expecting more action from the film, but that was because I had unfair expectations. I was expecting The Empire Strikes Back, but what we got was different, which is a good thing.

Now, making a movie that appeals to everyone has always been difficult. Someone, from some community, will always find something “wrong” with your work. Keep in mind that I am speaking as a fan, someone who agrees and believes that Star Wars is “our generation’s religion.” Still, I think The Last Jedi played it too safe. These are the things that left me puzzled when I left the theater:

  • How did Leia manage to save her own life by using the Force? Sure, she is force-sensitive, but actually managing to use the Force to pull herself into safety was pretty outrageous, and it was definitely a WTF moment for the audience. I feel like Rey already broke this barrier. She showed how people without any force training could basically become proficient without a reason, but yeah. This made me feel like Disney took too many liberties with Star Wars. They are stretching what can be acceptable to fans. And yes, I know that according to canon, Leia received some Jedi training, but really, this was never shown or discussed during any of the films, so it is still a major WTF moment.
  • Not to be overly PC, but as a Puerto Rican Star Wars fan, I am disappointed that our heroes find Benicio del Toro’s character, DJ, in a prison cell. Mostly though, I am disappointed by the fact that he also betrays the Resistance and causes the deaths of hundreds of people. I know Benicio del Toro is type-cast as a criminal in most of his roles, but I was disappointed to see him, a Puerto Rican actor, be typecast as a sleazebag, even in a galazy far, far away…
  • Second, after implying that Finn and Rey would end up together in the first film, Rian Johnson conveniently created another non-white character to become Finn’s love interest. Then, Rey and Poe instantly develop an attraction to each other. Now, we can argue that Poe is Latino, or Hispanic, that their relationship is still interracial, but Poe is light-skinned, so it does not really matter. It is not controversial or groundbreaking.

I feel that Star Wars failed to be as progressive as it originally aimed to be (or as progressive as it should be). Fans felt that Rey and Finn would end up together, and then we get this Harry Potter-esque romantic twist, which not only betrays fans, but also betrays people who do not believe in outdated and foolish ideas about racial purity. I honestly feel that this change was made to appease the race purists from America and Britain, people who are afraid that their race will be “wiped out” to avoid any possible controversy. For me, this is both hilarious and sad. It was something I could not talk to my friends about, because I didn’t know how to frame my feelings into a joke, which tends to be the healthiest way to communicate controversial ideas like this.

To me, no matter how “progressive” or inspiring this film might be, it truly did not become as revolutionary as it should have been. It wasn’t the film we needed right now. The Last Jedi’s messages about rebellion, colonialism, corporatism, war profiteering and animal cruelty are all great, but they are also old messages that films have been delivering to us for decades. None of these things are current, pressing or new. They were not the message that a racially-divided America needed right now. We needed to see Finn with Rey and Rey with Finn. Some people might call the idea campy or preachy, but really, I don’t think that it’s asking for much. Especially after The Force Awakens was setting us up for this. Besides, it’s not like we’re ever going to see a Star Wars film with a non-white protagonist as powerful and morally righteous as the others (I’m looking at you Cassian). Now, that would really be revolutionary, but I guess that entertainment today still has to cater to the majority, while feeding Easter eggs to minorities.

In my opinion, The Last Jedi did not show us anything new, so, I guess that’s why I left the theaters confused and slightly disappointed. For a film saga built on resistance and revolution as its central pillar, I feel disappointed that The Last Jedi took a safe (or conservative) stance on interracial relationships. I must have been foolish and innocent to believe that a relationship between a black male and a white woman could ever be part of global culture in 2017. 2015 was a different time. I wonder what its message is going to be in 2019. I’ll be looking forward to it. But I’m not expecting any revolutionary this time around, at least not in the film’s message. Maybe Disney will finally release a great movie with a black male prince and a white princess. But if this film has taught me anything, it’s that failure is our greatest teacher. Hope has failed me a lot since 2016, so I guess it’s time to learn.