08 June 2007

Mala Noche (1985)

Written & Directed by: Gus van Sant

Grade: B-

"I have to show him that I'm gay for him," Walt (Tim Streeter) says of his object of affection early on in Gus Van Sant's debut, Mala Noche, a film that, with a line like that, might be laughable if not for its low-budget sincerity. Shot on high-contrast, black and white 16mm, it's tough to tell whether its shadowy look is a consequence of deliberate artistic intention or unfortunate budget constraints; either way (though most likely the latter) its look, along with an accompanying sarcastic-poetic voice-over from Walt, makesMala Noche play like, as Nathan Lee termed it, "slacker-noir". Set in the streets and flophouses of skid-row Portland, nothing actually sinister happens—save for an act of violence in the third act—although the primarily chiaroscuro lighting and smoky interiors seem to constantly threaten that it will, while the role of femme fatale is filled, defying convention queerly, by a harmless Mexican drifter by the name of Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who claims to be eighteen, but Walt figures he may be as young as sixteen. His age is beside the point—with that boydumb face and Jim Morrison hair, Walt falls in love at first sight despite, at the very least, their language barrier, to say nothing of the cultural barrier that exists between a Mexican migrant and a puto gringo.

What follows is a rambling (one-sided) love story that feels at once earnest and disingenuous; when rejected or abandoned by Johnny, Walt seems just as happy to take up with Juancito's buddy, Pepper (Ray Monge), who, as Walt the maric√≥n describes in narration, seems to use his dick as a weapon, a satisfying and specific expression of revenge against his otherwise abstract American oppressors. But Walt says it with a bemused and knowing acceptance—if all's fair in love and war, why not in war-like lovemaking?—that seems to betray a sort of sodomitical masochism. Is his attraction to Johnny, or Pepper, a result of their virile, irrepressible youth? Or is it informed by some sort of misguided liberal guilt over the undue savagery of the (illegal) immigrant-experience of police brutality and pitiful living conditions? Are his feelings respectful or condescending? Walt obviously thrives off of surrounding himself with the downtrodden, paying the rent (and for his muchachos) by manning the counter at what appears to be a small convenience store, though it's only patronized by bums and winos and the only thing they want to buy is Night Train.

As shown by a brief visit to the supermarket, where he insists on buying cakemix in lieu of "good food", Johnny's a "sugarfreak" (as one of Walt's friends calls him; does that make Walt his sugar daddy?) Or, put more simply, he's just a boy, an unavoidable truth for which Walt is constantly admonishing him; "driving's not a game for kids!" he shouts after letting Johnny drive his car, which he does so rather recklessly; later he scolds, "that's not a toy!" in reference to Johnny's new pistol. Freudian implications would seem unavoidable with that last one, but van Sant manages to eschew them. It's 7-Up, in its sugary ebullience, that becomes an iconic representation of azucarado Johnny, whether it appears as a can of soda being drunk by a Mexican or as a imposing billboard looming over a forsaken Walt; a doorsign at Walt's store reads, "7-Up Likes You", ironically taunting him while reflecting his deepest sexual desires.

But other than these small, practically accidental character-defining details and symbols, van Sant, in typical van Sant fashion, seems entirely unconcerned with Walt's or anyone else's motivations, focusing instead on the bare day-to-day intricacies of the characters' complex relationships to one another. Van Sant explicitly avoids any moralizing or psychologizing, forcing the viewer to follow suit or succumb to dead-ended, frustrating speculation, such as I briefly engaged in above. Mala Noche has an awkward and discomfiting relationship at its center, and yet van Sant avoids ever making it problematic or offensive, at least not for the obvious reasons, as he similarly did two decades later with a school shooting in Elephant.

At turns intriguing, absorbing, and dull, Mala Noche sports, at the very least, a share of great moments; the intercutting of a speedy joy ride with shots of a video racing game, for example, or the lyrically-edited scene of lovemaking, set to the sound of a passing freight train, in which you see nothing and yet see everything. But Mala Noche's only real claim at significance is that it announces a major talent, a vibrant new film artist with a powerful sensibility. Essentially, it functions as a love letter of sorts to the West Coast Mexican immigrant experience and the Oregonian underbelly of 1980's, or at least as a primer for the man's work to come; in particular for My Own Private Idaho, for which it seems like a photocopied rough draft, with its Portland hustlers and gorgeous landscape shots in which the screen is full of timelapse clouds that move forward as quickly and aimlessly as the characters and film itself. There is even a long stretch of straight road that van Sant must have returned to for filming the bookending scenes of My Own Private Idaho; otherwise, the country must be full of such tucked away two-lanes, though I suspect there could only be one road like that, just as there's surely only one Gus van Sant. "Fuck it, do I need him?" Walt asks near Mala Noche's end, "am I really that desperate? (beat) Of course I am." Fuck it, I need you too van Sant. I'm gay for your movies, just not so much this one.


Clayton L. White said...

You know, Elephant was a huge surprise for me, because I wasn't particularly fond of van Sant's early work, the exception being To Die For, simply because of Nicole Kidman and the Cronenberg cameo. I think that he has just now figured out where he wants to be as a filmmaker, and he's really redefined himself for the better.

Anonymous said...

Yeah van Sant had his Hollywood pimping period, with Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, but after a brief time off he came back with Gerry and firmly established himself as one of my favorite filmmakers...at least ones that are still working. Paranoid Park just played at Cannes at word is it's great, better than Elephant! I can't wait.

As far as his early stuff: I was a fan when I was a teenager, but it doesn't hold up so well now that I'm older, although they're still good. Drugstore Cowboy has its moments as does My Own Private Idaho, which is just such a far out film...and it has some of the best sex scenes ever!