Sunday, March 30, 2008

Paranoid place

Filmwise, I've finally turned things around after going through a horrible stretch of seeing little but Oscar nominated dreck such as Juno, There Will be Blood, and the wretchedly banal No Country for Old Men. But this week has been different. Comparatively, how to put this with as little drama as possible? it's like the crap colored clouds parted and beams of light shone down from heaven.

First, sitting there flipping the channels, I came across an old black and white movie that was just starting. The title, Suddenly, Last Summer sounded familiar and a long forgotten eighties tune started playing in my head. Then the credits rolled. It starred Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. The screenplay was by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal from a play by Tennessee Williams. Wow, the star power! I settled in and gave it a chance.

I was eager to do this because I have had great fortune watching old movies I knew nothing about on two other occasions. Those times were better because I missed the credits. I knew nothing of the backstory.

The first time I got hooked on an old black and white movie it turned out to be Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. The second film I was unexpectedly drawn into and thoroughly enjoyed was Night of the Iguana, not coincidentally, another work by Tennessee Williams.

I've never liked Katherine Hepburn as an actress and her performance in this movie is her usual shtick. Fortunately, she is absent throughout most of the movie. This was the first time I had ever seen Montgomery Clift. I've always been curious about him because of the song. Apparently, he was wasted throughout the filming and it shows, though not in a bad way.

But if you've never seen Elizabeth Taylor when she was a hot young actress, see this film. She is incredible. Even if you've seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she looks much better in black and white. Trust me on this.

The rest of Suddenly, Last Summer looks good too but it is clearly a play that has been filmed. There is very little movement and the story is told in a series of long speeches by three of the four main characters. The other main character, about whom the plot revolves, is dead and doesn't appear on screen until the very end. The drama is figuring out what happened to him. It is some very good drama. Good and twisted, in a Tennessee Williams kinda way. Seems like he might have been reading some Paul Bowles as well.

Paranoid Park, on the other hand, employs an entirely different kind of visual storytelling, almost the opposite of what we see in Suddenly, Last Summer.

The new film by Gus Van Sant would never work as a stage play. Van Sant has an amazing ability to tell a complex story with moving images. He makes you feel the characters, feel the story on such a visceral level that words are unnecessary. I think you could watch the movie without sound and come away with an equal understanding of what happened. I'm not saying that the dialogue is bad. It is well-written and enhances the film. Still, it couldn't be much further away from a Tennessee Williams kinda sensibility as you could get. It is definitely not a talkie. The fact that it would be a great film without a word of dialogue says so much about Van Sant's visual artistry.

Likewise, Paranoid Park has no Taylors, Clifts, or Hepburns. The great majority of the characters, and all of the main ones, are just kids from Portland. The movie is about story, not actors.

And it is a great story. (Spoiler Alert!!!) If I were a hack wanting a blurb, I'd call it a modern day Crime and Punishment. (note that I came up with that on my own. As regular readers know, I don't read about movies before I see them. It turns out that the crew referred to it as Crime and Punishment on Skateboards during the filming. Still, it's not that obvious and it would be very unfair to call it a rip-off.)

And I can't say enough about the cinematography. It is all great, but there is one scene, a shower scene, that must rank up there with anything ever filmed. The visual aesthetics of the drawn-out scene are fantastic beyond any words I could use to describe it and the storytelling triumph of that scene is at least as great. And not a word is spoken. If you read chuckling on-line magazine and pay any attention to the photos I post, I think you will have some understanding of how I feel about Paranoid Park. Van Sant and I, we share an aesthetic.