Monday, September 10, 2007

Van Sant's Obscure Object of Desire

(Gus Van Sant, US, 1985, 35mm, 78 mins.)

This has been a fantastic year to catch up with old favorites.

American iconoclasts Allison Anders, Jim Jarmusch, and Gus Van Sant
came to fame in the 1980s, their debuts didn't arrive on DVD until 2007, all thanks to the Criterion Collection. (Criterion has also made it possible to partake of Alfonso Cuarón's debut, Sólo con Tu Pareja.)

First, there was Anders' Border Radio (1987; co-directed with Kurt Voss
and Dean Lent), then Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation (1980), now Van
Sant's Mala Noche (1985). Many people probably consider Gas, Food
and Lodging
(1992), Stranger Than Paradise (1984), and Drugstore Cowboy
(1989) first films. On the contrary, they were breakthroughs. (Criterion
has packaged Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise together).

All three prove my rather cynical theory about talent: Some have it, some don't. (And those who don't never will.) I haven't seen Permanent Vacation, so I don't know how it holds up, but if Border Radio and Mala Noche are rough around the edges, the innate ability of their makers shines through. After two decades, Anders and Jarmusch are also as wild about music as ever, while Van Sant remains obsessed with miscommunication.

In Van Sant's Paris Je T'aime short film ("Le Marais"), a Frenchman (Gaspard Ulliel) tries to communicate with an American (Christian Bramsen). The attraction appears to be one-sided. If they spoke the same language, maybe things would be different. The same conflict drives Mala Noche. In this case, Walt (Tim Streeter), a Yank, is attracted to Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a Mexican illegal. Walt speaks a little Spanish, but Johnny doesn't speak any English. Walt is gay, while Johnny is straight.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis, the film is set in Portland, populated by non-professionals, and shot in high-contrast black and white (with a couple of color interludes). While queer cinema is filled with tired tales about gay men pining for unattainable straights, Mala Noche never feels cliched--and I don't mean to single out gay films; they're just echoing the creaky template of all those hetero flicks about neurotic gals pining for unattainable gents. In this case, though, Walt doesn't really pine. Unlike recent Van Sant protagonists who have little to say--see the semi-silent Last Days (2005)--Walt's a talkative fellow. He tells Johnny, in no uncertain terms, that he's interested. Johnny may not understand English, but he gets the picture. The feeling isn't mutual.

Walt doesn't give up, and the two establish a tentative friendship, which
includes a little fooling around. It's hardly a romance, but Walt tries to
convince himself otherwise. If anything, Johnny and his friend, Roberto (Ray
Monge), aren't even very nice to their gringo patron, like the time they lock
him out of his car and drive off. They pick Walt up later, but not after mak-
ing him jump through a few humiliating hoops. When Johnny disappears, Walt takes up with Roberto more out of necessity than desire. Roberto needs a place to crash, Walt has a roach-infested apartment to offer. Does Walt see him as a unique individual or a convenient replacement? Either way, he can blame it on language, class, or other barriers, but he can't make Roberto love him--and even bigger problems lie ahead.

Does Walt learn from the experience? It's hard to say. Though refreshingly un-conflicted about his sexual orientation, there's nothing intrinsically queer about the central dilemma: Wanting something you can't have. It could be anything--even talent. And Van Sant has squandered his at times: Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Psycho, Finding Forrester--take your pick--but even his worst films bear his imprint. And Mala Noche is far from bad. Sensitive, but never sentimental, it's the work of a born filmmaker.

Luis Buñuel claims two of the world's finest film titles: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. Mala Noche, in a new 35mm print, opens at the Northwest Film Forum on Fri., 9/21. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. In case you missed it during SIFF, Paris Je T'aime is currently playing at the Metro Cinemas. The Metro is located at 4500 9th Ave. NE. For more information, please click here or call 206-781-5755. Images from Google Images and Allocine.


  1. I think you'll like Permanent Vacation. It's a little more surreal than his other films, but the pacing and characters are definitely his and the final scene could be a Paris Je T'aime short!

  2. I've been wanting to see it for a long time. "Stranger Than Paradise" was a revelation. I'd never witnessed anything that minimalist, yet hilarious before (I was only familiar with austerity as a signifier of "seriousness"). It was love at first sight. Criterion deserves credit for giving the same white-glove treatment to these scrappy indies as to art house classics, like "Children of Paradise" and "L'Avventura."