Director: Gus Van Sant
By Roderick Heath
My admiration for Gus Van Sant’s films made since he retreated to the edge of mainstream film after the shameful Psycho (1998) and Finding Forrester (2000) has been tempered by a major concession. Skilled artist of mood and texture that he is, films like Elephant (2003) or Last Days (2005) conjure a psychic atmosphere that’s cut adrift from cause and effect, from analysis, and thus from intellect. They are, fundamentally, explorations of sensual existence, implicitly expelling the world of the mind and, more intently, the moral and emotional didacticism of so much popular culture. They verge on being exemplars of a philosophy of “shit happens,” which is why they’re all about young people, teenagers mostly, beings that tend to exist in private cocoons of existential development. Van Sant wants to restore mystery to existence. The violent acts that punctuate his recent films, be they killing sprees, suicides, or accidental deaths, remain products of a suggested tension that lies eternally under the surface of the lives the characters lead. Van Sant’s explorations of what could be called antidrama, where the film’s soul is defined as much by what is not present as it is by what is, appears almost offhand, but requires tremendous technical discipline to realise.
Paranoid Park and Milk, his two most recent films, appear disparate in cinematic narrative method but are linked through their variably telegraphed sense of danger and transcendence: the omnipresent threat and frustrated escapism latent under the nondeclarative surfaces of Gerry (2002), Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park are literalised in the figure of Harvey Milk. Paranoid Park is distinct from its immediate predecessors in that the young protagonist Alex (Gabe Nevins) is not doomed. Rather, he is fated to live with a harsh knowledge inside himself—that he is born as a moral being far earlier than he’s equipped to be one. The film’s fractured storytelling, reflecting Alex’s dithering attempts to make account of what’s happened to him, bounces back and forth like an echo before reaching that central trauma, its grotesque result, and its immediate effect on Alex. Scenes shown earlier in the film only find context in repetition to restore the sense of cause and effect. When Alex ventures out to Paranoid Park, his actions communicate his desire to find a community; his interactions with those he meets, however, are filled with anxiety over what codes, behaviours, and status are required to enter the community.
Alex is middle class but rootless, the result of his father leaving a home that now has a provisional feel and is empty a lot of the time. He’s liked in school, chiefly for being passive. His girlfriend Jennifer (Taylor Momsen) would seem the adolescent boy’s fantasy; she’s, like, totally a cheerleader, but she’s also thick and a bit of a bully. He pines to belong to the faintly feral commune of masterful skateboarders who gather at the eponymous stadium, built illegally under an overpass in Portland, Oregon. The kids and young adults who hang out there are often homeless, perhaps damaged, but fired by their communal experience; they become weightless Seraphim, cavorting in harmonies essayed in loving slow motion. It’s a vision of transcendence that can’t last. Alex briefly pals about with Jared (Jake Miller), an older boy, and when they goof about jumping onto freight train cars, a railyard cop tries to swat Alex from his perch. Alex strikes back, and the guard falls under a train. In one key moment, he’s just a goofy, doe-eyed kid singing along to the radio: in the next, a haunted, weathered soul.
Detective Lu (Daniel Liu) is on the right track as he prods Alex and his schoolmates about the incident, no proof of wrongdoing turns up. Alex’s main struggle is with his own shapeless sense of responsibility. His attempts to compose an account of his situation obeys the advice of Macy (Lauren McKinney), the rather more intelligent girl he gravitates towards after he’s lost his virginity in a moment of nonpassion with Jennifer. Alex passes through experiences with an alienated glaze.
Where Van Sant’s previous trilogy eddied around everyday happenings before reaching a grim terminus, the end of Paranoid Park is known well before the climax. Van Sant portrays Alex and the skaters with the beatific arousal Renaissance painters found in their subjects: his sequences rejoicing in the physical transcendence of the skaters are the most compelling in the film. Van Sant’s overall aesthetic maintains a challenge to the American cinematic tradition of narrative flow, that illusion of relentless progress and resolution. He yearns for artistic traditions that distilled concept and feeling into figures and representations. The mop hairdos and retro-tone affectations of the kids reflect that of much current youth fashion, ironically aiding one of the film’s more telling reflexes, where domestic tension reflects a deeper dread as Macy attempts to stoke a sense of awareness in Alex over the Iraq War. This could as easily be a moment from 1972 as from 2007.
Van Sant has said he’s finished with this type of filmmaking, and Paranoid Park does indeed confirm its limitations as much as its potency. Van Sant has often wrestled with questions of articulation and how it conflicts with raw experience. His third film, My Own Private Idaho (1991), appropriated a Shakespearean narrative, whilst his visuals shattered individual scenes into tableaux: the clash between the image and the word, the experience and the response, resulted in a film whose sense of social relations and cultural form was turned inside out. Blake Nelson’s source novel for Paranoid Park owes its concept to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but Dostoyevsky could interrogate the psyche with implacable force. With cinematic technique that stays relentlessly outside the psyche, Van Sant can’t really say much about the nature of the guilt and reveal much of Alex’s thought processes, and so he, and the film, move to the most nonplussed of conclusions. The mostly nonprofessional cast further limits any sense of personal depth.
What Paranoid Park does, and in purely cinematic terms, is deal precisely with the consciousness that can refuse to look at itself, absorb without critiquing, and work up the moral courage to confront the horrible. Alex moves in a vacuum of ethics, which does not mean he wants someone to tell him what to think and feel. There is no adult and really no friend, except possibly for Macy, in whom he can confide without an assumption of some sort of judgmental, frame-forcing lens being placed on his experience. To this extent, Van Sant and Alex’s agendas coincide: understanding as opposed to judging is their chosen path out of a quandary.
Milk places Van Sant’s impeccable technique at the service of a biopic with a populist purpose. Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) initially is another Van Sant wandering dreamer, packing in his closeted life for some hippie adventuring, soaking up the world with his camera arbitrating between himself and experience. Unlike most Van Sant heroes, Milk grows swiftly into an undaunted, conquering force. He escapes from a dreadful stasis that afflicts most Van Sant protagonists. The head-on gay and outsider themes in Milk dispel the mystery in Van Sant’s best films precisely for making them apparent: the angst is over the difficulty of gaining a culturally resonant voice when none is allowed and the fear of violent repression. Although Milk confirms that fear on one level, it also memorializes a war against it. Van Sant took on the project as a commission, but the film is a far more honorable way to tackle his mainstream urges than Good Will Hunting (1997). Before Milk, the only halfway major film I can think of about landmark gay rights scenes was the severely disappointing Stonewall (1995).
Milk is interesting not merely as a man of force and conviction, but also as a magnet for sharply delineated, but subordinate personalities that become a community—people like his younger boyfriend Scott (James Franco), who energizes him to take a leap into the world; Cleve Jones (Emile Hirsh), a teenaged street hustler who spouts clichés and spirals until Milk gives him a sense of purpose; Jack Lira (Diego Luna), a recovering addict and hysterical near-ruin who brings out the nurturer in Harvey, but also defines his limitations; Anne Kronenberg (Alison Pill), a “tough dyke” organizer who ruffles feathers in Milk’s boy’s club but soon has a powerful effect on his campaign; and, later, gruffly agreeable Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). The urge to form community, to find a place in a milieu that is accepting and insulating, which haunts and hurts Alex of Paranoid Park, is Milk’s singular dream, too.
Most ambiguous and dangerous of the people Harvey draws into his gravitational field is fellow Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), the whitest of white bread—Irish, cop, and fireman—whose ruggedly charming façade obscures a faint awkwardness and a slow-simmering frustration. He and Milk seem bound from the outset into a kind of pas de deux, where understanding and contempt shade imperceptibly into each other. Milk thinks White’s closeted, and White thinks Milk is a bit of a showman—both might have a point.
Van Sant the realist is most apparent in Milk in its dedication to observing process—watching Harvey and his fellow organizers develop a political strategy, identify voting blocks and core messages, and forge alliances—making Milk is one of the most coherent films about political organization around. Milk’s skill and pragmatism, and even his temptation to throw his weight around, aren’t elided. His ability to zero in on the concept of the gay individual as a taxpaying citizen whose needs are not being met, stands in contrast to the radical-chic bull of hippie youths. Milk turns his square experiences into a new queer philosophy. He’ll get things done simply by tackling a rock-bottom issue of practical concern: cleaning up dog droppings. Yet he also stands a distance from conservative-minded gays, harnessing the new force of a movement that wants acceptance but no longer is willing to mollify.
The film’s most sustained dramatic movement details Milk and friends’ campaign to hold ground against the Anita Bryant campaign of reversing gay rights legislation. The climax is, of course, Milk’s and Moscone’s assassination by White. Van Sant adopts techniques of the docudrama in a rather more fluent fashion than that usually suggests as he captures the scene of DIY counterculture as thoroughly as he did grunge-era bohemianism in Last Days—a small child of the period and milieu like me might feel flung back into preverbal memory of a world of rolling political arguments between people crowded into small kitchenettes and provisionally furnished apartments smelling of patchouli. Although Van Sant is absorbed in telling a story in Milk, his filmmaking is at its most deft, for example, how he can instantly summarize the disdain for Bryant’s opportunism by showing a series of her orange juice commercials or use split-screen shots to explain a very simple organizational process. A pair of shots of White seated in his underwear, peeking out through his blinds, and then clad in his suit, but in the same place, communicates his potentially violent tension as effectively as the entirety of Elephant.
Not that the film is perfect: one ill-judged moment of foreshadowing has Milk watching a performance of Tosca in which Scarpia, the villain who drives Tosca to her death, looks a bit like Brolin. Although the scene is in line with Idaho’s Shakespeare-quoting and Van Sant’s culturally omnivorous bent, it’s still tacky, clumsily introducing an element of the overcharged, symbolic emotion that Milk says he loves in opera that contradicts the film’s otherwise determinedly naturalistic style. And Van Sant might have reined in screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s Hollywood reflexes in reducing Scott to the role of resentful politician’s wife and during the finale, when Scott and Anne bear awed witness to a streaming crowd of candle-bearing mourners, which, with its wait-for-it triumphalism and hopeful stares into middle-distance, walk the line of cornball.
But Milk mostly combines passion with a graceful touch, and will stand deservedly as an important work about the gay rights era, which is only just beginning to gain the same aura of nostalgia and perspective of plentiful films about other such movements. It’s the palpable sense of community that finally makes Milk feel like the cheeriest of homecomings for Van Sant. I saw Milk with an audience at least half composed of lesbian couples who cheered the “tough dykes” line. It made a nice change from sitting through a blockbuster with a bunch of glowering nerds.