Washing Away the Guilt in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park
Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007) tells the tentative tale of Alex, a teen skater who, following an altercation, accidentally kills a security guard. Alex is then forced to deal with the consequential guilt and inner turmoil surrounding the event, and this is most poignantly portrayed in the shot directly following the incident itself, in which Alex strips himself of the blood-soiled clothes he is wearing and showers.
Whilst the sequence appears to deal explicitly with the concept of guilt as a result of the accident, it is also indicative of further struggles that appear to be encompassing Alex. The death of the security guard acts as somewhat of a catalyst for Alex - prior to this event, he is characterised by passivity; a lacklustre, dreary state of existence, staunchly rooted in the space between adolescence and adulthood. Within this space, Alex faces several external conflicts that he feels he cannot control; most notably the strained and resentful relationship he shares with his mother. For Alex, the boredom and monotony of teenage life are encapsulated in the idea of the family home; at home, he is forced to deal with not only the repercussions of his parents' separation, but also the demanding and sexually curious nature of his girlfriend, Jenny. This stifling environment ultimately heightens the yearning for something more, something bigger and better. It is through Paranoid Park (the skate park) that Alex finds solace - it represents all that his real life does not: danger, experimentation, aversion and deviation. Alex's experiences at Paranoid Park are treated visually within the film as almost drug induced hallucinations; Van Sant manipulates both 35mm film and Super 8, with particular emphasis on slow motion effects throughout. The treatment of the skating sequences within the film visually underlines the disparity between this and Alex's reality, characterised by a mundane, restless helplessness. This divergence, however, is complicated by the death of the security guard, as it occurs in close proximity to Paranoid Park. Another conflict is born out of this circumstance; the veiled danger of the skate park is no longer transient and ultimately anodyne for Alex. It has become real and concrete, and this signals a further step toward adulthood and away from childhood and adolescence. The shot begins with a close up of Alex, profiled, in the shower. He slumps his shoulders and his head droops slowly, however he is predominantly motionless. It becomes clear immediately that we are acting privy to some kind of emotional conflict or turmoil - the beauty of this identification is that it is recognised outside of the context of the film as a whole. Van Sant accomplishes this through a deliberated and precise manipulation of the formal elements of film in an attempt to expose and highlight Alex's conflicted psychological state.
The treatment of sound within the shot is crucial in achieving this - as the shot commences, the only sound to be heard is the steady, unbroken stream of water encompassing Alex. Initially, sound appears to be solely diegetic; the mise en scene corresponds with the running water making it relatively forthright for the scene to become located both temporally and spatially. However, the gradual rise of what appears to be a conglomeration of rainforest and bird sounds begins to shroud the sequence in a dream like atmosphere - the running water is slowly overpowered by the distant hum of the rainforest and birds chirping. This subtle transition from diegetic to non-diegetic sound effectively displaces all prior sense of reality within the shot; the non-diegetic sounds increase, and the tranquil tone created by the running water and soothing hum of the birds is gradually replaced by a specific ringing that rises in pitch as the sequence progresses.
The familiar flow of shower water develops into heavy, torrential rain, and this is used in conjunction with various types of birds twittering intermittently as well as the singular, indistinctive ringing. This largely unidentifiable ringing is extremely proficient in establishing the particular tone of the scene; one that reflects the conflicted, guilt stricken conscience of protagonist Alex. As the sounds culminate, the ringing reaches its loudest volume capacity, distinctively overpowering the consistent resonance of the rain, and as the shot itself concludes, all other noise with the exception of the ringing is cut abruptly, leaving nothing but the now ominous, shrill squealing.
Van Sant's use of light, shadow and specific direction of framing within the shot, similarly emphasise Alex's internal struggle. As the shot begins, Alex is profiled; he is centred within the frame, his head lolls and he is (for the most part) immobile. There is an immaculate and heavily crafted use of light here - the light itself pours in from the top, left hand corner of the frame, illuminating Alex's dewy skin, and highlighting his adolescent frame. The right side of the frame however is predominantly cloaked in darkness, amplifying the droplets of water falling from the tips of his chin and nose (it is also interesting to note that we are able to glimpse a view of the bird themed wallpaper that lines the bathroom, a distinct foreshadowing of the use of sound within the shot).
As the camera slowly pans, Alex's face becomes backlit against the chrome tiles, and a shadow formed by the positioning of his drooped head creates an aesthetic contrast between his own luminescent skin and the darkness of the shadow itself. The beads of water descending from Alex's body shimmer in the light, and the once entirely visible stream of water from the showerhead is now obstructed mostly from view. It is at this point that a sudden shift in the light acts as the catalyst for the remainder of the scene; the light rapidly dims to an almost state of darkness, the only remaining semblance cast against the tiles and contouring Alex's neck. The effect of this darkness is monumental, as it is at this point within the scene that the sound of the shower is replaced with external sounds. From here, the camera pans down, and any light once present against Alex's body vanishes - he becomes a silhouette against the shower tiles, his ultimate defeat and surrender now explicit as he allows his entire body to sag forward. The water cascading from Alex's face falls in torrents, and he motionless for a few bleak moments. However, it is not long before the light steadily floods back in, again elucidating a striking combination of light and shade and creating a dim shadow in the lower half of the frame.
At this point in the sequence, Alex raises his hands to his face and turns, for the first time, to look toward the camera. His movements are captured in slow motion, rendering them slightly protracted and drawn out. We are still not yet privy to Alex's face as his hands obscure it from view, and the lingering nature of this gesture appears to enhance the conflict occurring within his head. As Alex slithers down the shower wall, it becomes apparent that this is the climactic point of crisis within the scene; the camera shifts perspective and we view Alex from the floor of the shower. As he surrenders entirely, he holds his head in his hands and curls his torso, and the contrast of soft, white light almost immediately fading to cold, dim backlighting is repeated. This is then followed by a gradual fade to black, and the sequence concludes with Alex hunched on the shower floor in complete darkness: the ultimate admission of defeat.
Through this sequence, Alex unravels as his silent passivity and shrouded feelings of guilt are externalised. Although he attempts to wash away his guilt, the water intensifies his emotional state, building to a breaking point. His resolve is broken as he is submerged in the water, almost as though the constraints keeping his guilt concealed are, too, broken. At the end of the shot, he slumps against the wall, bracing himself against his feelings. He surrenders to them because he has no other choice and is ultimately defeated.