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Dear Gus Van Sant,
In your new movie Paranoid Park, the main character, Alex Tremain, is told by his tough gal pal Macy that if he wants to expiate his troubled thoughts, he should express them by writing to someone, whether or not the letter is ever sent. Since I was kind of bewildered by the movie, I've decided to write to you, and ask: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???
Alex, is an ordinary teen whose fascination with skateboarding supersedes all other issues in his young life: casual sex, his broken family or certainly school. The legendary hangout is East Side Park, known to the hard core skateboarders as Paranoid Park. One night he lends his board to a stranger who in exchange offers to show him how to ride a freight train. It was a surprise to me that young people today even knew there were trains, let alone freight trains, let alone an outlaw tradition of riding the rails. Maybe Alex has some hobo blood in him, or is a Woody Guthrie fan. Please advise.
Anyway, they hop a train and, when a security guard finds them and starts to rap the boys with his flashlight, Alex hits the guard who falls backward onto the tracks just as another train comes by, and cuts the guard clean in two. Another thing I did not know: after a man is severed at the waist, the top half can still crawl a few feet toward the fellow who whacked him.
I did learn, from your ample documentary-style Super-8 footage, that skateboarding is a noisy, solitary, occasionally graceful sport that is best accompanied by Nino Rota's score for Juliet of the Spirits. But mostly what I discovered is that you are mad about photographing young boys. Gabe Nevins, who plays Alex in Paranoid Park could have posed for Botticelli or Raphael, he's that gorgeous.
Now, there's nothing wrong with the camera falling in love with its subject. Star quality is an essential factor in movie mystique. Directors are also free to show a lovely face in slow motion, as you do endlessly with Nevins'. The Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai has built a brilliant career on that technique. You selected Wong's longtime cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, in part because he would know how to work a similarly glorious magic for you.
There are two differences, though. The first is that the people in the Wong-Doyle films (Chungking Express, 2046 and the others) are professional actors, wonderful ones, who find interior life in their characters; Nevins, who's not an actor, doesn't have that skill, for all his photogenicity. The second difference is that those films weave a romantic spell about their dreamy characters, one that puts the audience in the mood for love. Your Alex is just a mopey, angst-ridden kid, cocooned in the misery of the immature, connecting with no one. Granted, he has plenty to fret about, since he could soon be up on a murder charge. Your aesthetic idolatry of Nevins' beauty derailed, may I say, your ability to tell a story which is pretty slim to begin with. Though not so slim, or so pretty, as Nevins is.
In the movie, Alex writes his letter and then burns it, perhaps because he realizes it won't make a difference.
I'm lighting a match....