Monday, September 10, 2007

That Obscure Object of Desire

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


This has been a fantastic year to catch up with old favorites. Though
American iconoclasts Allison Anders, Jim Jarmusch, and Gus Vant Sant
came to fame in the 1980s, their debuts didn't hit DVD until 2007. All
thanks to the Criterion Collection. (And while I'm at it, Criterion has also
made it possible to partake of Alfonso Cuar/>=n's debut, S/>=lo 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 yet, so I have
no idea how it holds up. Border Radio and Mala Noche, however, may be rough
around the edges, but there's no denying the innate ability of their makers. It's
also worth noting that after over two decades, Anders and Jarmusch are just as wild about music as ever, while Van Sant remains obsessed with miscommunication.

In Van Sant's Paris Je T'aime short ("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. You could hardly call it 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 making him jump through a few humiliating hoops.
When Johnny disappears, Walt takes up with Roberto, but that's out of necessity more than desire. Roberto needs a place to crash, Walt has a roach"nfested apartment to offer. Does Walt see him as a unique individual or a convenient replacement? Either way, he can blame it on language, class, cultural, 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 unconflicted 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 you could argue that 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 Bu/+/-uel 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."