Jumat, 20 Mei 2011
Gus Van Sant - Mala Noche aka Bad Night (1985)
Based on the Walt Curtis autobiographical novel of the same name, Mala Noche is a story of amour fou. Walt (Tim Streeter) is madly in love/lust with a young illegal Mexican immigrant. "I wanna show this Mexican kid that I'm gay for him", says Walt. However, the object of his unrequited affection doesn't even speak any English and finds Walt really strange and undesirable.
Travis Hoover wrote:
The most amazing thing about Gus Van Sant's debut feature Mala Noche is that it was made in the midst of the '80s. While mainstream cinema was building cruelly childish whirligigs and the arthouses were smugly preoccupied with the pastel nightmare of suburban life, Van Sant was in the skids, training his camera on the outcasts of society and judging no one. His hero, despite engaging in a one-sided amour fou with a Latino migrant worker that would normally raise some cultural hackles, is an understandable creature of misunderstood desire--the film refuses to denounce him even as it avoids backing up his obsession in toto. Like Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Mala Noche sets up shop in the space between the director's camera and his subjects--a halfway-meeting that would never otherwise have made it in the distanced and vindictive climate of the '80s.
The film deals with Walt (Tim Streeter), a young man who jockeys the register at a skid row mom-and-pop grocery, and his obsession, Johnny (Doug Cooyate), a migrant worker without papers or English-language skills who's accompanied by his friend Pepper (Ray Monge). One could speculate on the nature of Walt's hard crush, racially as it may be racially and colonially coloured; one could also make remarks about the one-sided friendship that is formed between the Portland gringo and the two Mexicans, as it appears to be based on mutual parasitism. But there's a grey region between the two sides that blooms into a begrudging respect, and it makes the various exploitations tolerable.
It's a respect that one can say of Van Sant as well, which separates him not only from the eighties but the nineties as well. His fascination with life on the skids may echo Walt/Streeter's obsession in its questionable nature, but it redeems itself through a surplus of sympathy and a minimum of shock. Unlike standard-issue heroin-chic, nothing is played for the sick eroticism of horror, and as the film follows Walt and his associates (including some bit players who will re-appear in subsequent films), it's prepared to go all the way to Hell with him instead of using him as cruel S&M theatre to be discarded immediately afterwards. Unlike, say, Larry Clark--whose photographs influenced Van Sant immeasurably (Kids was produced by the younger director), he's not trying to blow you away with his jaded and/or vindictive posturing, instead reminding you of a way of life that's normally swept under the rug, which as a result overwhelms you with its gentleness.
The only thing that holds Mala Noche back is its technical crudeness. It's clear that the film has been shot in black and white out of poverty, and Van Sant never quite makes the B&W images sing the way he could with colour--the images are murky and underlit, and the shots never cut together with anything approaching regularity. This might mean nothing to you if you're into a DIY aesthetic, but those familiar with the lush autumnal colours of My Own Private Idaho will be frustrated, especially as there are a few colour segments suggesting what the film might have been like had Van Sant had a few dollars more. Regrettably, the film never quite achieves a mood with its visuals, and suffers as a result.
But this shouldn't keep you from seeing Mala Noche: the flesh of the image may be week but the spirit of the film wins out in the end. It's also a fascinating (and rarely screened) work by one of America's greatest directors, making a comeback from the Miramax dead with his upcoming Gerry. I can't think of a better way to celebrate his latest triumph by revisiting his oldest, and measuring the distance in between.