My motivation behind watching Paranoid Park was multifactorial. A former friend, who meant a lot to me, left me a collection of their favorite movies on my drive. A person who was always difficult to stereotype or fit into a box, an incredibly bright person who happened to be a skateboarder. They left me these other films: MirrorMask, What Dreams May Come, Milk, Ed Wood, Rebel Without a Cause and The Secret of NIMH. However Paranoid Park and its fascinating title enraptured me, the film caught me at the right time of my life.
Paranoid Park was directed and adapted by Gus Van Sant, the same individual responsible for Elephant, one of my favorite films. The film features many Van Sant staples: symbolic dialogue, tracking shots, uncomfortable close-ups and social commentaries on sexuality.
Before researching the film, I believed the title alluded to a neurotic’s state of mind while wandering in public. However, the film is about a boy’s initiation into manhood. The story follows a skateboarder, Alex, who deals with immense manifestations of guilt, after a traumatic experience. Alex was spending time with outcasts at Paranoid Park, when he takes off with someone and something terrible happens.
Like his name, Alex’s gender is ambiguous. He has long hair, angelic facial features and wears earrings. His appearance and demeanor make him identifiable to audiences of all sexes, a fact which helps us interpret Paranoid Park as being symbolic in nature, or an allegory. You might be tempted to ask, an allegory for what? The answer might please you.
In the film, Jared, Alex’s best friend, chews him out for buying a new skateboard without consulting him beforehand,
JARED: What’d you get a new board for?
ALEX: Because I wanted to try something new.
JARED: Why didn’t you tell me about this?
ALEX: Why would I tell you, it’s just a new board.
JARED: I can’t have some fag board riding next to me.
Jared stereotypically acts like a girlfriend who stereotypically complains to their significant other for not consulting them before making important decisions. Our next shot features Jared seductively staring at his passenger seat, at Alex. To further solidify the possibility of Paranoid Park being a queer allegory, Alex deflowers his girlfriend and shows no pleasure while doing so. Alex’s little brother even talks to him about a scene in Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon’s grandmother is at the dunes with her girlfriend, but tells her grandchildren she’s with a man.
There are numerous homosexual references in Paranoid Park, anyone familiar with Van Sant’s filmography knows these references are there for a reason. However, I want to argue that Paranoid Park is not simply an allegory for homosexuality, rather an allegory for initiation into a subculture, and the guilt and paranoia provoked by these experiences.
… parents get divorced. There’s other problems, bigger problems, like people dying in Iraq, starving kids in Africa. … You know what I mean, the little problems, they are all just so stupid … I just feel like there’s something outside of normal life, outside of teachers, breakups, girlfriends, like right out there, like outside, there’s different levels of stuff. (Van Sant, 2007)
Besides being a beautifully shot film, Paranoid Park helped me understand skater culture better. The film made me understand why friends believed me to have a skater’s flow, despite not even being able to ollie. As Alex’s dialogue states, skaters tend to be woke and rebellious. They are critical of mainstream culture, warfare, and the privileges we have because of others’ suffering.
Our relationship with our parents will forever change the way we act inside of society, they are our authority figures and representatives of mainstream culture. They either give us free reign to do as we will, or they pressure us until we explode in rebellion. If we rebel, we learn to do things by ourselves. Paranoid Park is not only an allegory about teenage homosexuality, it is an allegory about teenage rebellion. We all go through experiences which shape us, and make us different. Things we need to hide from our parents, that make us who we are. This is when we become adults.
As a cultural piece, Paranoid Park expresses incredible ideas. “They built the park illegally all by themselves. Train hoppers… guitar punks… skate drunks… throwaway kids… no matter how bad your family life was, these guys had it much worse” (Van Sant, 2007). Anyone outside of society’s approval is an outcast. Paranoid Park expresses how a dysfunctional family life can bring children into the light, which is to say, reality.
We were children who were forced to mature early, exposed to the darkest sides of society, with difficult choices to make. We could “follow our bliss” and struggle in the jungle, or we could follow the paths made for us by our parents; to live a long, boring, yet comfortable life.
Arguably, Paranoid Park’s most pivotal moment is when Alex decides to “ride a train” with a friend by the woods. Alex’s decision to “ride a train” can be interpreted as an initiation experience, when a person makes a choice which will forever change who they are. Certainly, the phrase has a certain homoerotic element to it, with the train being a phallic symbol.
These teenage initiation experiences can be innocent acts which help us find ourselves and to bond with other people. Our first sexual experience, our first time smoking reefer, our first time skateboarding together. They can also be more sinister acts which bind us together: our first time beating another person, our first act of armed robbery, or even an act of unintentional murder. Everyone who carries out an act which differs from the norm gets branded as an outcast. They become dehumanized and become paranoid, because becoming paranoid means becoming an adult in our sick society.
Secrecy is required for our safety. Notice how the skater who was with Alex during the accident never talked to the police. The entire ordeal made Alex an outcast, a member of the park, and simultaneously separated him from mainstream society. The events of the film could even serve as an allegory for a gang initiation, but it works best as an initiation into a subculture.
If you keep frequenting a place like Paranoid Park, eventually something will happen to you. What happened to Alex was one of the worst possible outcomes, his life changed forever as a result. He became disconnected from society, from school and the park claimed his life. As you might or might not have guessed, my friend’s sexuality was an eclectic mystery. She was quiet, and I wonder if she ever went through an experience like Alex’s in Paranoid Park. I can safely say that I did, and I attest to the fact that “nobody’s ever ready for Paranoid Park” (Van Sant, 2007), we just make it there.