In the past few weeks, I’m seeing skaters with a new glow in my eyes — a kind of sparkle of the special — as they slalom down Sunset sidewalks, click-clacking over cracks and jumping curbs. It’s the artistry, sure, and the grace with which they roll through space, as if on a puff of clouds. But I’ve always admired that about skating. A specific experience involving Gus Van Sant’s recent film Paranoid Park, though, has nudged my brain in a new direction, has painted the skaters with a fresh patina. It doesn’t happen too often that a film’s music will tweak my visual and sonic filter to such an extent that I actually perceive a whole class of people in a new light, with more depth or empathy or whatever. But it’s springtime, the Paranoid Park soundtrack has been a big iPod hit for the past week, and it’s having an effect. All I can think about is this profoundly beautiful piece of art I’ve seen three times already, which, together with the music chosen to embody it, creates an exquisitely imagined video mix tape, an ode to music, image and the medium that rises from their convergence.
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Two muses: Fellini had Nino Rota (above). Van Sant has Smith.
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Let me explain. Usually, skateboarders = punk rock, or metal, and maybe a little emo. See a skate kid careering across rails in film, or on TV or video, and the soundtrack to said feats of airborne glory inevitably consists of hard, aggressive guitar riffs and fast drum fills. Seldom will a director couple ragtime with skaters, because the thread that connects the sound and the vision is thin. Nor, it would seem, would music created for a 1965 Italian new-wave masterpiece be a logical choice for a present-day coming-of-age story set in the Pacific Northwest. But for Paranoid Park, Van Sant draws heavily on music originally composed by soundtrack master Nino Rota for Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord, tossing in vastly counterintuitive tracks to accompany his narrative. In one beautiful shot, Alex walks down a street blanketed with rich yellow leaves as Rota’s “La Porticina Segreta” chimes along with him. Another Rota melody is reutilized by Van Sant to express the ennui of adolescent confusion between a skater and the soon-to-be-deflowered girlfriend who wants him. Whenever our hero Alex and Jennifer meet at her locker, Rota’s music swells into the frame like a tide, washing the virginal couple with valentine strings.
Grainy Super-8 color sequences move across the screen in slow motion: Skaters at a mystical but ominous hangout called Paranoid Park are celebrated like ballerinas at the Bolshoi. The music that carries them into sk8ter Valhalla isn’t the rebel rock of Rage Against the Machine, or Black Flag, but gentle electro-acoustic pings created by Portland’s Ethan Rose, washes of digital tones and little melodies that whisper like snapshot memories as daredevils float through the air. These soft sonic tings draw the characters not with bold reds but with cool blues, so that what spins from the screen is a magical juxtaposition, an enigmatic woosh of the new, a redefinition. Lesser filmmakers rely on Big Rock to convey “emotion,” even though, anymore, such coupling of youth and noise seems so rote, such a waste of an opportunity that serves only to reinforce cookie-cutter notions of teenage angst; it isn’t just about aggression, even if you live your life on the back of a board. It’s about confusion and disconnection, and sadness and romance that fills your heart like a Nino Rota waltz even as your life descends into fits of Elliott Smith sorrow.
Van Sant stitches the music into his story and surrounds his visual gestures with sonics no less imaginative. Billy Swan’s ditty-bop classic, “I Can Help,” accompanies Alex as he walks through a high school hallway on his way to be questioned by a police detective investigating the death of a security guard. A similar shot of half a dozen boys walking down the same hallway is unadorned by music, the silence of their journey filled only by the solitary sound of a skateboard’s polyurethane wheels humming over waxed linoleum. The absence is a presence. Van Sant couples country-blues singer Cast King moaning in woeful baritone about a gunfighter with “21 notches on his gun” with skaters in slow motion, riding the curves of Paranoid Park. Songs serve as narrators, and it never feels cloying or manipulative. Rather, it feels like Van Sant is striving through sound to convey a rich inner life, to employ audio as a silent rudder guiding the action from below, infusing scenes with unspoken, graceful weight.
The power of a film, and of music, lies in their ability to reshape one’s perception, to fine-tune the way one experiences the world, if only for a moment, or a day, or, ideally, for a lifetime. The hope is that a story, or a song, or some perfect combination thereof, can so dent a consciousness that, for example, a 16-year-old kid drifting on a board through the SuperSaver parking lot can be reimagined as an embodiment of something bigger than himself, can be recast as a soul in the midst of an epic struggle, who travels along his trail with the grace of a knight galloping through a labyrinthine forest. That he’s in fact on a skateboard is merely circumstantial. What matters is the depth of his character, and by filling Paranoid Park and the characters who skate through it with music that captures their complicated world, Van Sant has delivered not only a story but a song.
VARIOUS ARTISTS | Paranoid Park | Uncivilized World France