The Kids Are All Right; Generation X and Y: Director Gus Van Sant and, below, the Teenage Cast of His Latest Film, Paranoid Park, Set in Portland, Oregon

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 28, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Kids Are All Right; Generation X and Y: Director Gus Van Sant and, below, the Teenage Cast of His Latest Film, Paranoid Park, Set in Portland, Oregon


Byline: NICK RODDICK

A ROOFTOP terrace in Cannes can be pretty nice on a bright if windy day.But it doesn't seem quite the right place for Gus Van Sant, whose habitat ofchoice is Portland, Oregon, ground zero of grunge and one of the wettest citiesin the US. Portland is also where the director's latest film, Paranoid Park, aRimbaud-like disquisition on disaffected youth, is set.

Van Sant's house even puts in an appearance: a pleasant, unassuming villaseparated from the sea by scrubland.

The film, he says, definitely has the feel of Portland, with its sense ofrestlessness and creativity amid all the drabness. "It could have been madesomewhere else, I suppose, but Portland has a thing about it. A lot of peoplehave moved there, especially musicians. It's part of the whole Seattle scene.But Seattle is the bigger citymore expensive. Portland is really easy to live in; the first people who movedthere told their friends, and now we really have an exodus." Van Sant, 55, grewup there. Although he was born in Kentucky, his ambitious salesman father wasconstantly on the move, washing up in Portland, where Gus went to school. Likemost teenagers he soon fled, moving to New York in 1970 to study at the RhodeIsland School of Design (David Byrne of Talking Heads was a fellow student),where he encountered the film work of such avant-garde pioneers as StanBrakhage and Jonas Mekas.

But it's what he did next that helps explain the curious contradictions of hiscareer. Van Sant has gone from mainstream Hollywood movies such as FindingForrester and Good Will Hunting (for which he got an Oscar nomination and forwhich Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won Best Screenplay) tostream-of-consciousness tales of disaffected and generally gay youth. Theseinclude My Own Private Idaho and Elephant, his strange, not very likeable takeon the Columbine massacre which won him a Palme d'Or at Cannes. Aftergraduating from art school, instead of divinglike his artistically oriented contemporariesinto Greenwich Village at his most fervid, Van Sant went to Los Angeles.

Admittedly, he gravitated towards the seedier side of Hollywood Boulevard, buthe eventually got into movies with Mala Noche, a dark story of a doomed loveaffair between a gay liquor store clerk and a Mexican immigrant. Looking backon it (it was recently released on DVD), it looks like essence of Van Sant; butit's actually based on a novel by a writer from Portland. And it was toPortland than Van Sant inevitably drifted back.

Paranoid Park is also based on a novel, by another local writer, Blake Nelson,and is set among the skateboarders who hang out under a freeway bridge in thecity's Burnside Park. (The real Paranoid Park, explains Van Sant, is a downtowndrug-dealing haunt but he liked the name.) Alex, a 16-year-old high schoolstudent played by a blank-eyed angel called Gabe Nevins, moves between hisdivorced parents, hangs out at the park and is one of the skaters questioned bythe police over the suspicious death of a railroad employee. The book, for allits youthculture savviness, plays like a police procedural with teen-grungedetails.

But Van Sant plays around with the chronology.

"It's not really about the death," he says. "I don't know if it's saying deathis on the mind of Americans." It was more a question, he says, of what wasgoing on in the mind of Alex..

The way the story was constructed, it would have needed a voiceover to get thestory acrossand Van Sant didn't want that. …

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