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November 16, 2007

A bad night and a city of light

Gus Van Sant’s oldest and newest are out on DVD

In the pantheon of queer directors, one can pass effortlessly between the worlds of Hollywood marketability and independent street credibility.

Nominated for an Academy Award for best director for Good Will Hunting, Gus Van Sant first made his name with the fiercely left-field film My Own Private Idaho. Two mainstream dreamboats, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, mixed with a cast of Portland hustlers and homeless people in that film. Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy portrayed Matt Dillon, Kelly Lynch and a host of other hip young stars as pharmacy-robbing drug addicts.

Before Van Sant’s dalliances with Hollywood, before his most recent spate of genre-defying musings on society, came his first film, Mala Noche, now available from the Criterion Collection on DVD after living in limbo for decades, making the rounds of college campuses.

The movie, whose title means “bad night” in Spanish, was first released in 1985. It is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis, Portland’s “unofficial poet laureate.”

In both the book and novel, Walt is obsessed with Johnny, an illegal Mexican immigrant who hopped a freight train in California to find work in Portland.

Every attempt he makes to get into Johnny’s pants, however, is deflected onto Roberto, another Mexican youth who seems more willing to give Walt what he wants, for a little while, at least.

When Johnny disappears, Walt is left to care for an ailing Roberto, until an encounter with the police takes Roberto away.

Aside from containing the single greatest line in the history of cinema--Walt’s disgusted “You drive like you fuck!”--it also contains a lush sex scene that exemplifies the eroticism of what is not shown. There’s very little nudity and certainly no Bruce LaBruce-style flat-out penetrations, but Walt’s attainment of his second-best is a classic example of what a few close-up shots of a hand on a shoulder, two heads facing the same way and a wince can do.

Mala Noche is also a study in shadow, shot in black and white on 16mm film and now digitally restored. Much of the film is sparsely lit, illustrating the darkness of Walt’s actions, which in reality revolve around exploiting an underclass, and his own exploitation by that underclass. He is a willing participant as they use him for money, sex, food, driving lessons.

However, as he is driving through the city, the scenes are brightly lit. When he and Roberto and Angel drive out towards the ocean, the sun is directly overhead. These are the good times, three friends being happy, and the sun is not afraid to show its face.

The DVD release also includes George Plympton’s one-hour documentary about the film’s novelist, Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet, along with an interview with Van Sant, the original trailer, and an essay by Dennis Lim, film critic and editorial director of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.

Lim laments that Tim Streeter as Walt has barely acted on film since Mala Noche; his one Internet Movie Database listing other than the movie is an episode of Fox’s 21 Jump Street. He was handsome, open, likable and pitiable and sexy and dejected.

Of course, both Doug Cooeyate as Johnny and Ray Monge as Roberto also never received the careers they should have had, based on the promise they showed in Mala Noche, although Monge did appear in Van Sant’s Elephant, playing a high school janitor.

Those problems will most likely not plague the case of Van Sant’s contribution to the anthology film Paris, Je T’aime, now out on DVD from First Look Home Entertainment.

Van Sant provided the clip “Le Marais” to the film of vignettes about different neighborhoods of the City of Light, a compendium of views presented by some of the best directors from around the world, featuring some of the top actors of three generations.

His dedication to actors who have been in a previous film shines through here, as Elias McConnell (from Elephant) plays Elie, a young American working in a printing shop. Gaspard Ulliel plays Gaspard, a young Parisian escorting an artist to the print shop, as well as providing some translation for her.

Gaspard (who is far more likable here than as a young Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising) keeps staring at Elie, finally plucking up the courage to speak. When he does, it’s an almost-incoherent rant about auras, soul-mates and the need he felt to speak to Elie.

Van Sant throws in a final twist that is charming and gratifying, cementing “Le Marais” as one of the top segments in an anthology filled with nothing but the best.

The fact that the artist Ulliel escorts to the print shop is played by Marianne Faithfull is icing on the cake. Her brief appearance is almost as divine as her portrayal of God in Absolutely Fabulous.

In the interest of fairness, despite a focus here on Van Sant’s work, other vignettes and performances must be mentioned. The Coen Brothers’ “Les Tuilleries” is sublime, presenting Steve Buscemi in the type of outsider role in which he excels. As in Fargo, he is an eternal victim, although in that film, he was also the victimizer.

Gurinder Chadha’s “Quais de Seine” is a classic look at first love, culture clash and peer pressure, and is utterly charming. The ending of the story of the meeting between a Muslim girl and a white, presumably Christian French boy illustrates that appearances can be deceiving, and that people have far more in common than they have differences.

In its 18 scenes, the film covers first meetings, last glances and everything in between, young love, old love, maternal love and the very love of love. Paris is, after all, a romantic city.

Of course, the reason Paris, Je T’Aime is here is because of Van Sant’s gratifying contribution, but it’s all worthwhile.

Van Sant’s Paranoid Park should be starting in theaters early next year, another of his offbeat west-coast films. One can only imagine, however, that it will be a strong continuation of the excellence he has shown since the creation of Mala Noche.


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