I’m a big fan of Gus Van Sant’s films. Be it the films themselves, the courage he shows in hop-scotching styles and genre or the simple power of the images and stories he brings forth, Van Sant never ceases to follow his muse. I also love the way he dares to make non-mainstream fare and then back it up with a studio project. I don’t know why more filmmakers don’t do that. Aside from boo-boo’s like the pointless “”Psycho” remake and the inherently doomed “”Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” Van Sant always brings something interesting to the screen. However I’ve noticed a rather disturbing trend in some of his recent films and I want to see what everyone else has to say.
I’m going to come right out and say something that might not be popular or politically correct but I have to ask, what’s up with Van Sant’s fetishising of teenage boys and why is it acceptable? The shower scene in Van Sant’s Columbine inspired “”Elephant” where the two young, unknown actors strip down, take a shower together while making out seemed oddly tacked on and rather lecherous. Now in Van Sant’s latest film “”Paranoid Park” the director chooses to show his star, young Gabe Nevins (another unknown teen actor who was apparently cast via some myspace ads looking for young actors”¦gross) stripping down and taking a nice, long hot shower. The camera lingers on his wet face and hair and travels down his body with the streams of water. It just feels kind of wrong to me and yet no one else seems to care or feel it’s inappropriate. Or maybe they do and don’t feel comfortable saying something about the elephant in the room. Pun intended.
After “”Paranoid Park” ended, I started to walk home and tried to tell myself I was just being too overcritical and sensitive. There was nothing to what I had just seen and what I had seen in “”Elephant” I thought. Plus it feels homophobic to even say such a thing which is a shame because there’s nothing homophobic about not being thrilled at seeing sinewy teenage boys in various states of undress. I wouldn’t want to see teenage girls portrayed this way either. Yet, as I walked on I realized I had also caught something in the shooting style of “”Paranoid Park” that was equally off-putting and finally lead me to write this piece.
As someone who spends way too much time studying film, I caught some pretty clear references in “”Paranoid Park” to Kenneth Anger’s “”Scorpio Rising” which is a really cool, Brechtian styled short film from the 1960’s. In the film Anger features popular music of the day with really languid, fetishised shots of greaser guys working on and riding their motorcycles. “”Scorpio Rising” is like a sexless gay porn featuring the Fonz or better, a really arty Queen video and it’s very clear in its intentions.
Yet the homosexual overtones of “”Scorpio Rising” don’t bother me because the men in the film are just that, adult men and they consented to looking sexy for Anger as they slowly lubed a chassis or their hair or shined some chrome. Cut to “”Paranoid Park” and Van Sant repeatedly uses similar techniques as Anger as we see toned young boys skating shirtless in slow-motion or we see Alex’s face softly lit and focused on like a film star from the 1950’s. In another scene a conflicted Alex slowly walks down the hallway, the camera focused on his face while Billy Swan’s classic seventies pop song “”I Can Help” croons in the background. These are all clear parallels to “”Scorpio Rising” yet here the focus is on young boys instead of young men. The males in the frame are not yet at the age of consent so by definition (and, well, law) they cannot be considered able to consent. Can they?
I hate to come off like a neo-con, but Van Sant’s use and eye for young teenage boys seems exploitative and it’s really starting to creep me out. These are teenage boys under the age of 18 and I don’t see why this camera gaze is acceptable or at least not questioned. Again, maybe I’m just being too sensitive or maybe even reading too much into the film. But then again, a pattern is a pattern and an homage is supposed to speak to it’s predecessor and I feel “”Paranoid Park” and “”Scorpio Rising” are too similar for it to be a mistake. What do you say Film Threat readers?