The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

I never figured out what the French whispers were about

with 16 comments

When I went to journalist school, they always said that we should write articles like you would draw a fish. You start with a hook. That’s essential. Without the hook – no reader. Then comes the head. That’s where you get the jest of it.

Ideally people will follow you through the body of the article to enjoy your elegant finish, the tail. But don’t count on it. Most of them are fine with just heads.

The beginning is everything in journalism. Of course books and movies are different entities than articles and the fish model doesn’t quite apply there. Nevertheless I think you make things quite a bit easier if you offer something remotely tasty from the start, something that tickles you in some way and raises your curiosity.

Gus van Sant apparently doesn’t agree and won’t cuddle with the viewers, tricking them to get involved in the story of Paranoid Park.

Super 8 film

After showing the credits in front of a bridge, which takes ages, we get to watch a teenage boy writing in a book and having a stroll close to the sea. We assume that this is the guy the movie probably is about, but we’re still pretty much clueless about anything. There’s no hook so to say. That’s when the skateboarding starts. There’s a several mintues long sequence of a super 8 film, picturing unknown people riding skateboards, while you hear a voice whispering something you don’t understand, more than it sounds like French.

That was the point where I lost my 17 year old. No matter how I begged her to give it a chance, reassuring that the movie would start “Really Soon Now ™”, she wouldn’t believe me. “This movie sucks”, she said bluntly and walked away.

Such a pity! Because in the end it turned out to be a fantastic movie, which I think she could have enjoyed, even including its slower parts. I figure sometimes the fish swallows the hook and you won’t get across it until you’ve eaten your way through the head. Those movies just require some patience.

There was so much to love in this movie: the photo, the music, the editing, the non-linear storytelling, which feels like peeling onion all the way, layer after layer, until you finally reach the core.

Most of the time Alex, a teenage boy who carries the world on his shoulders in the form of a secret he can’t share with anyone, shows a blank face. Van Sant isn’t over-explicit about what’s going on in his mind, but somehow we figure it out anyway. We see it in the images, we hear it in the score; we can sense it as we watch him taking an endless shower or walking to the beach.

Not a crime story
While we’re vaguely wondering about if he’s secret will be discovered or not, and won’t know until the very end, this perspective isn’t the essence of the movie. It’s not a crime story; it’s a story about the struggles of a young soul, about his loneliness and alienation, which I think many people who are or ever have been a teenager can relate to.

I think Paranoid Park could work fine for an audience such as my 17 year old and her classmates. I can imagine how it would spark discussions about morals, about guilt, about the rift of distrust between the adult world and the world they live in and how you could overcome it.

It would work if it only wasn’t for the whispering French voices. I still don’t get what that was all about. Not that it matters to me. I loved it. And since I haven’t yet seen Gerry, Elephant or Milk, I’d dare say that I probably have a lot to look forward to.

Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant, US, 2007). My rating: 4,5/5

Written by Jessica

August 29, 2011 at 1:00 am

Posted in Paranoid Park

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16 Responses

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  1. I’m not the biggest fan of Gus Van Sant, not being overly impressed by My Own Private Idaho. But Good Will Hunting and Elephant are great films. I have been recommended this film (and Gerry) before, though, so I am interested in checking it out. I think it works as a companion to Elephant. Nice review Jessica.

    Andrew Buckle

    August 29, 2011 at 2:07 am

    • Thanks Andrew! I haven’t seen My Own Private Idaho, and from what you say I guess there’s no need to rush for it. I want to see Elephant though, and Milk, which I’ve heard good things about. At the point when I watched Good Will Hunting I never payed any attention to who had directed it, but I remember it as good, so I suppose there’s a good chance that I’ll like other works by Gus Van Sant as a director. Paranoid Park was really well crafted.


      August 29, 2011 at 7:15 am

      • Andy – How could you not like My Own Private Idaho? It is a masterpiece! Though Elephant is a great film, it is a lot less surreal than Idaho, and the same goes for Good Will Hunting (from what I have seen of it, anyway.)

        I have heard a mixed response to Paranoid Park over the years, but I guess all of Van Sant’s films have that reaction.

        Either way, great review, Jessica. You should definitely check out Van Sant’s work (minus the Psycho remake, but we don’t speak about that one…). He is an awesome director.


        August 29, 2011 at 9:42 am

        • Thanks Cherokee! I hope to get to more of his movies, even though my queue of “movies I’ve missed out over the years and want to catch up with” is rather long at the moment. And all those new movies that keep coming, competing for my attention… Hm… what about if they made a new movie-free year so we could catch up a bit? 😉


          August 29, 2011 at 9:58 am

          • Cherokee, I didn’t really get all that absorbed into it when I watched it last year. I remember feeling like it was a bit slow and was a bit misguided in its agenda. River Phoenix gives a great performance though. I should watch it again. Van Sant is a director I haven’t really got the appeal for, overall. But I would like to give MOPI another chance, and a few of his other films too.

            Andrew Buckle

            August 31, 2011 at 6:42 am

  2. This is not a film that I can really say I enjoyed because it was sure as hell moody, but I like the Van Sant approached this material and made it more stylized than you would expect. However, it just didn’t have me emotionally captivated.

    Nice Review!


    August 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    • I guess it depends on what you mean by “enjoy”. There are a lot of movies that are quite moody but which I like a lot nevertheless. I prefer them though if they’re not entirely black, but if there’s a glimpse of light somewhere, although just a tiny one. It doesn’t need to be a happy-ending of course (as a matter if fact it can get rather tiresome if you fell that it’s the result of some poll by the marketing dept), but at least some kind of opening. If there isn’t… well then it’s not likely that I’ll want to watch the movie again. Even though I might think it was a “good one”.


      August 29, 2011 at 5:26 pm

      • If I spend all those hours I played WoW watching movies I’d have seen two thousand movies more 😉

        And although these are great films I have to be in the mood for them. They’re not the ideal movies to relax after a hard days work.


        August 29, 2011 at 5:30 pm

        • Oh, I agree about that. Dark and heavy movies rarely fit well after a stressful day at work. But it’s just like food, isn’t it? You don’t really want to eat lasagna for breakfast, but it’s absolutely fantastic as a dinner.

          And don’t talk to me about the time I spent there… Sigh. But I’ve moved on now.


          August 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm

  3. Gus van Sant is a great director daring to do his own thing. I really liked Paranoid Park and his Elephant, Milk and Good Will Hunting are ever better.

    You can’t tell if a movie is going to be good in ten minutes. Elephant doesn’t hook you but when you walk away from the theater, you’ll feel the movie running through your veins for days to come. When watching Solaris, the begin scenes seemed to last forever. It’s however a movie that’s stuck in your brain and will remain there forever.


    August 29, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    • That’s true, both about that it takes time for some movies to introduce themselves and that good movies linger in your mind for long. Often you can’t tell right after you’ve seen a movie how good it was. You’ll have to let it sink in and digest it and eventually you’ll know. If it keeps coming back to you, it’s a sign that it worked.

      I loved Solaris. The original, that will say. I haven’t watched the remake.


      August 29, 2011 at 5:32 pm

      • Yeah, it’s weird. Sometimes I see a movie and think that it’s great… but a year later I’ve forgotten 90% about it. And other times a movie just hooks into your brain and I can still remember it years after. You can only really tell if a movie is great a year after you’ve seen it.


        August 30, 2011 at 1:03 am

  4. I agree with you wholeheartedly about Paranoid Park. It’s a beautiful, nuanced film. I actually got my sister to watch it back when she was still 15 or 16. The slowness of the beginning was hard to get through on a surface level, but once the narrative begins to kick in she was totally engaged.

    Corey Atad

    August 29, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    • Well done with your sister! Oddly enough my daughter who gave up on Paranoid Park was pretty enthusiastic about Fish Tank, way more than I was. And didn’t complain about it being slow. Again: I think it was the French whispers and the super 8 camera she didn’t get. Fish Tank had a more ordinary camera in comparsion. But I won’t talk about Fish Tank right now. It will come later this week.


      August 29, 2011 at 9:27 pm

  5. this film just missed out on my top 100–still re-ordering the list.

    harvey zissou

    August 31, 2011 at 3:46 am

    • I tossed together my list before watching this, but yes, it’s definitely a candidate for next year. It has kept coming back into my mind, which is a good sign of it’s being a good movie in the long run, not just for the moment.


      August 31, 2011 at 10:37 am

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