About the small matter of that other Gus Van Sant movie that’s been appearing on many people’s year-end best-of lists, including that of the Voice‘s own J. Hoberman. With all due respect, have any of these people ever stood on a skateboard before?
If you want to see a film about skateboarding, put the 1986 Josh Brolin vehicle Thrashin’ in your Netflix queue (trust me, it’s awesome). Better yet, head down to your local skateshop and buy the The Final Flare DVD, which went on sale yesterday. But please don’t tell me how beautiful and poetic Paranoid Park‘s slow-motion cinematography is — by Christopher Doyle, Rain Li and a team of others — of dudes doing airs at Portland’s, uh-hum, Burnside Park.
With Paranoid Park, released in March, Van Sant returned to familiar skateploitation ground. Not only was the Milk director the executive producer, in 1995, of Larry Clark’s Kids, he also boasted this spring that he was an uncredited member of the crew, early in his career, on Skateboard: The Movie that Defies Gravity (1978). He even implied that, back in the day, he used to rip.
But if Van Sant wanted to make an authentic film about the skateboarding subculture, he could not have chosen a worse source. Paranoid Park, Blake Nelson’s 2006 young adult novel, is utterly clueless about its subject. Four pages into that book, Nelson describes a kid “nail[ing] a lip-grind,” though he probably means a lipslide. If this seems like splitting hairs, imagine a sportswriter on the Yankees beat referring to a “base-drive” or a “line-blunt.”
And so in Van Sant’s faithful adaptation, high school loner Alex (Gabe Nevins) does a lot of carrying his skateboard around. He even rides it, twice: once, in the final scene, where he lands one lousy kickflip, and once earlier, during a rainstorm. The reason that Alex rides his board so little is that he’s afraid — scared of falling, or of looking foolish in front of better skaters. He also seems to be afraid of girls, and possibly of his own latent homosexuality, but that’s another story. The point is that Alex never learns to confront his fear, which, ironically, is something that skateboarding can do for even the scrawniest, most introverted kid who sticks with it. Van Sant seems to think that it is enough to clad his protagonist in conspicuous logos in order to make him a credible skater. Instead, the director only reinforces the impression that, like Alex, he’s glomming onto skating for its cool factor. — Benjamin Strong