Paranoid Allusion

Gabe Nevins as Alex in Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant, 2008.
Gabe Nevins as Alex in Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant, 2008.

The idea of indie auteur Gus Van Sant filming a young-adult novel might seem odd at first, but a closer look suggests more than a little destiny at play in the director’s latest, Paranoid Park, adapted from Blake Nelson’s 2006 novel of the same name. The film, which advances the dreamy, elliptical style of Van Sant’s recent work by adding noirish elements to it, opens with a haunting image of Portland, Oregon’s St. Johns Bridge, set to the eerie strains of Nino Rota’s score for Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. It’s a perfect way to kick off the proceedings––not only because Portland plays such a dramatic role in the film but also because the city itself practically conspired to bring together Paranoid Park’s two creators.

Van Sant and Nelson had, in fact, hovered around each other over the years in Portland. The author recalls working at the legendary Powell’s Books back when Van Sant was directing his breakthrough film, Drugstore Cowboy, in the late ’80s. “All the artsy people in Portland were buzzing about this guy with this interesting name,” Nelson says. “And people were helping out the production in all sorts of little ways. When it came out a year later, we all went en masse to the local theater. It’s a strange, inclusive quality Gus has, where he makes it feel like you made the movie. When Drugstore Cowboy came out, every person in Portland felt like we had had a hand in making it.”

Interestingly, Van Sant had also been aware of Nelson; the director’s early low-budget effort Mala Noche (1985) was based on the work of Walt Curtis, whose angry-young-poet crown Nelson had inherited for a while. “Walt was the Allen Ginsberg of [the Portland poetry scene], and Blake had been the heir to his throne,” Van Sant says. “I’d seen him read poetry, but I’d forgotten.” The two finally came together as collaborators when Van Sant had the idea of optioning Nelson’s 2004 book, Rock Star Superstar. “I had read a review of the book,” the director says. “It was kind of a cool review, and the book had an interesting title. So I bought it and inquired about the movie rights.” Van Sant did not eventually option them, but he did wind up partly inspiring Nelson to write Paranoid Park. “I had been a fan of Gus’s work for so long, and I felt very much that we were on the same wavelength,” says the author. “I don’t know if it was a Portland thing, but I knew that whatever I wrote next, I would send it to him.” In 2006, Nelson sent a galley to Van Sant. Finding Paranoid Park to be more cohesive than Rock Star Superstar, Van Sant quickly asked MK2, the film’s French producer, to option the material.

Paranoid Park tells the story of an ordinary high schooler (unnamed in the novel, called Alex in the film) who spends most of his time skating and hanging out with friends. One evening, while hopping a train with an older kid after meeting him at the city’s titular underground skate park, Alex accidentally kills a security guard and flees the scene. Over the course of the next few days and nights, he has to decide what to do about his crime––if anything. As he mulls his options and replays the incident in his mind, he gains a heightened awareness of the world around him, suddenly awakening to the fact that he might be on the verge of losing it all. One can see what might have attracted Van Sant to the material: In the novel, lyricism and freedom are fed by an undercurrent of dread, contrasting themes perfectly captured by the title.

Van Sant worked very quickly on the script: “It wasn’t so much writing a script as just reformatting the book,” he shyly admits. “I just marked areas that I wanted to use in the story. It took a day to write it and a day to edit it. And a week later, I edited it one more time. It’s a certain style of rewriting, where you’re not really reconceptualizing, but using the original dialogue in the scene and the setting. So it’s more like changing the margins. Computers make it very easy.” By the time Nelson and Van Sant met to discuss the film, the director already had a first draft. Confident that his story was in good hands, Nelson had no desire to become involved in the adaptation. “There are two options open to you,” Nelson says. “Either you get in there and make them do it the way you want it, or you hand it off and let them do it their way. I knew Gus wasn’t going to radically misinterpret what I wrote. And as a fan, I was just eager to see what he came up with.”

Gabe Nevins as Alex in Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant, 2008.
Gabe Nevins as Alex in Paranoid Park, directed by Gus Van Sant, 2008.

Although he kept many of the incidents of Nelson’s novel, Van Sant did alter its linear structure, opting for a dreamlike narrative in which scenes play out of order and moments of Alex’s day at Paranoid Park are repeated, developing a bit further each time. A perfect example of the divergence: In the book, a few days after Alex commits his crime, a detective comes to school to question the skateboarders. Some time later, the detective meets Alex alone and begins to pry into his personal and family life. In the film, the latter scene appears first––and before we even see the crime itself. Yet it’s still a remarkably tense scene, even though the viewer does not know whether Alex is guilty or, for that matter, of what.

The issue of Alex’s guilt is another of Van Sant’s alterations of the novel, which tells its lead character’s tale through a series of confessional letters to an initially unnamed correspondent. As a result, the gruesome central accident occurs early on, and the rest of the story unfolds in its shadow: Paranoid Park the novel contains ruminations by its teen narrator on whether he should say good-bye to the world around him. “It sounded like a place I’d never get to,” he writes at one point, after his best friend, Jared, tells him about a wild night at a college party. In effect, the novel becomes a conversation between the reader and the character, weighing the imperatives of justice against the promise of a life barely lived. (Tellingly, the novel opens with a quote from Crime and Punishment.)

Van Sant’s film, on the other hand, delays the revelation of the accident until near the end. As a result, the film’s lyric depictions of the skateboarding life feel less pointed in their sense of loss; while Van Sant imbues his portrait of Alex’s life with a sense of melancholy, the viewer is kept in the dark as to what, exactly, is at stake. The conversation about whether Alex should confess his crime is pushed to the end of the film, and beyond. In other words, we have the conversation with each other, as we exit the theater.

“The film can’t really have the same interior nature that the book has,” Nelson says. And indeed, films often have to externalize the internal aspects of their stories, to find corollaries in the physical world. To illustrate this, the author recalls an Italian interviewer who recently asked him about the role of God in the novel. Nelson replied that the only scene in the book that brings God into the picture is a scene in the shower, when Alex, as he washes off the grime and blood following the accident, starts crying uncontrollably and asks God why all this has happened to him. The scene exists in the film, but we hear no words. Instead, Van Sant slows the image down and focuses in close-up on the water dripping languorously through the boy’s long hair—an almost ritualistic sequence that begins physically, then transforms into pure abstraction. “The journalist and I joked that this is how filmmakers talk to God,” Nelson observes. “They slow everything way down and turn up the ambient music.”

It’s amazing to think that Paranoid Park the film originated as a novel, and it’s even more amazing to think that the film is rather faithful to its source: Van Sant’s impressionistic style incorporates lengthy Super-8 skateboarding footage, evocative tracking shots, and ethereal moments of silent contemplation, accompanied by a patchwork score that features both the aforementioned Nino Rota music and very modern electronic soundscapes. That such a radically cinematic piece of art has emerged from a work of young-adult prose speaks both to the resonance of Blake Nelson’s novel and to Gus Van Sant’s ability to make it his own.