When Walter Benjamin wrote that "the eternal is in any case far more a ruffle on a dress than some idea," he was, of course, challenging Plato's view of beauty as a form of remembering. When one sees something beautiful in Plato's world it is something that helps the mind remember its lost perfection, its place in heaven, in the realm of pure ideas. The beautiful is a form of anamnesia, the end to amnesia, the moment you remember who you were before your birth, your materialization, your fall. With Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant returns cinema to the philosophical inquiry of beauty. What is it? What makes a young man, a sound, an article of clothing, an expression in a song a thing of beauty? Van Sant locates his answers exactly between Benjamin's ruffled dress and Plato's eternal idea.
What I mean is this: Platonic beauty is inseparable from the good and the just. A human cannot be naturally attracted to what changes constantly. The beautiful—like the human soul, the good, and the law—is fixed in time. Benjamin believed the very opposite. The transitory is beautiful because it vanishes. The ruffle on a dress will eventually be lost forever in the flow of time. But in sequence after sequence of Paranoid Park, Van Sant shows us that a fleeting gesture, look, fold on a shirt, flight and fall of a skateboarder—these are beautiful because, in their captured brevity, they isolate the eternal. Imperfection (rather than perfection) is the way to the all that is happening in the now.
Based on a young-adult novel by Blake Nelson, the movie's story concerns a teen named Alex (Gabe Nevins), who is caught in the moment between departure and arrival. He is leaving boyhood and entering manhood. He is breaking from his broken family and becoming an individual. He has left the shores of virginity and is looking for the new world of sexual awakening. These journeys are not easy, and this difficulty is expressed in the film by a violent death. Someone at some time in the night murdered a rail-yard guard. The police believe a skateboard was the weapon. Skaters in the high schools around Portland are under suspicion. One of the suspects is Alex. Around the time the police recovered a skateboard from the banks of the Willamette River, not far from the scene of the crime, Alex lost his old skateboard and bought a new one. Is he hiding something? Will the cops crack the case?
But what Alex is hiding is not a murder but the condition of his soul, which is in a state of uncertainty. What is going to happen to his family (which is breaking apart) and to his sexuality (which is not fully determined)? He may or may not be gay; or it may simply be a question of not liking the girl he is dating. There are other girls in his life. But what kind of girls are they? Just friends or possible lovers? Alex is split in two.
To capture the confusion and enchantment of Alex's transition, Van Sant hired Wong Kar Wai's leading cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, and his protégé, Rain Kathy Li (Van Sant worked with Doyle a decade ago on a bad Hollywood project). In Paranoid Park, the photography, music, and editing (rather than the acting and writing) are mostly responsible for capturing the fleeting and timeless moments. The camera relentlessly searches for them, and when it finds them, the editing sacrifices the movement of the plot and the dialogue for a moment with someone's soft lips, golden hair, knowing eyes, stride down the hall, drive through the rain, run across a bridge, ride on the side of a train, glide down a concrete wall, and walk toward a beach, toward the Pacific Ocean, toward the end of the world. We are imperfect but we have our shining moments.