Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rough trade, distant trains and sumptuous darkness: Gus Van Sant's beguiling debut

Now is a pretty-much perfect moment to celebrate Gus Van Sant. Van Sant’s films entered the cultural consciousness when I was still in my teens, and I for one can trace my response to his work from my complete marvel at the winsome singular stylings and melancholy infatuation with marginalized young hipsters and hustlers that marked Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (91), to my increasing disappointment over Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (93) and To Die For (95), my exclusively abstract admiration for his Xerox of Psycho (98), and my sense of outright betrayal over the unapologetically commercial Good Will Hunting (97) and Finding Forrester (2000), to my ongoing fascination with his return to form(alism) with Gerry (02), Elephant (03) and Last Days (05). This leads us finally to Paranoid Park, his latest and in many ways finest film, which gleans a revitalized sense of humour and dreaminess from his earliest work and weds it to the time-curling narrative schemes of the recent preceding “death” trilogy, capping a diverse and adventuresome two decades of making movies in and out of the Hollywood system.

The movie that started it all however is one I’ve only just seen after many years of hearing about it. Mala Noche (85) was Van Sant’s feature debut and the film that put him on the map. Though based on the autobiographical novella by Portland, Oregon street poet Walt Curtis, Mala Noche feels distinctly indebted to Jack Kerouac –not to mention Robert Frank– in its youthful tale of longing, aimlessness, wry Americana and skid row communion. It’s seductively oneiric, flat-out gorgeous to gaze at, decidedly loose with narrative but utterly assured with tone, a jewel in the crown of 80s indie cinema, impressively resourceful in its imaginative use of a miniscule budget (personally financed by Van Sant) and non-existent gear. And its now available in a lovely new package from The Criterion Collection.

Shot by John Campbell like some primitive noir, with hard white spots illuminating faces and objects amidst pools of sumptuous darkness, Mala Noche imparts mood from the get-go, with fetching, stubbly liquor store clerk Walt (Tim Streeter) telling us through elegant voice-over of his overwhelming crush for a Mexican drifter named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Johnny speaks no English but he gets the gist of Walt’s cheerful advances with little trouble. Walt quickly surmises that his chances of beguiling Johnny into any sort of sexual union are way slim, and opts for offering up a straight money for sex exchange. Johnny still doesn’t bite (maybe because Walt only offered $15), but he does go along for numerous rides through the country in Walt’s beat-to-shit sedan, so long as his traveling companion Roberto (Ray Monge) is in tow. They also share a gleeful night of drinking, eating and dancing in the kitchen of Walt’s apartment before Johnny disappears as casually as he arrived.

In the end, bedding Roberto –a one-night stand of sweaty, coarse man love, conveyed in tight close-ups of fields of dimly-lit flesh and one filthy-looking jar of Vaseline, unfolding to the strangely soothing sounds of distant trains and church bells– is about as close as Walt ever gets to the object of his affection. But in truth Johnny is a remote if ferally charismatic figure, more a type than a fully realized person. Even Walt himself admits his awareness to being drawn to Johnny at least partly through sheer exoticism and racial fetish: this shaggy-haired wetback makes for a certain cliché of dark-skinned rough trade and easy exploitation, yet there’s no denying the romantic sense of connection Walt, the self-confessed (comparatively) rich gringo, aspires toward. His story, however slight with regard to events, is as thoughtful as it is coolly audacious, and a sheer pleasure to sink into for its 77-minute running time.

Criterion’s disc comes with a good, hour-long doc on Curtis as well as terrific interview with Van Sant, who regales with stories about the winding road that led him to filmmaking, his relationship with Curtis and the Portland poetry scene, his enthrallment over reading weirdly formatted Stanley Kubrick screenplays at the American Film Institute, and the unique conditions under which Mala Noche was made. There’s also a very good essay on the film by Dennis Lim, who does a remarkable job of contextualizing Van Sant’s impact on gay cinema and the almost singular universality of his approach to gay themes.

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