Their Own Private Infatuations

11 Nov 2014 | 01:36

    Mala Noche Directed by Gus Van Sant

    Let’s Get Lost Directed by Bruce Weber

    This week’s revival of Gus Van Sant’s 1985 Mala Noche (Bad Night) and Bruce Weber’s 1989 Let’s Get Lost offers the chance to get our bearings on pop history—rethinking Van Sant and Weber’s undeniable impact on movie culture. Both Film Forum and the IFC Center fulfill their purpose by prompting us to contemplate whether these revivals are confirmation of genius, or just The Return of Movie Reprobates?

    Long past the time in which these movies germinated—and with hindsight knowledge of where their idiosyncrasies led—neither Mala Noche nor Let’s Get Lost justifies what once seemed their promise. Van Sant’s movie first felt boldly original, confessing a fascination with the seedy underclass of Portland, Ore., where Walt (Tim Streeter), who works at a skid row convenience store, becomes infatuated with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a young, unemployed Mexican immigrant. But Weber’s movie took the homoeroticism of his fashion photography and little-seen debut film, Broken Noses, and applied it to the downward slide of jazz musician Chet Baker—an unprecedented celebrity paean, key to its acclaim.

    These topics remain problematic—especially since both films are also landmarks of sexual expression. Mala Noche unabashedly romanticizes Walt’s gay attraction to Johnny. In Let’s Get Lost, Weber submits himself to adoration for everything associated with Baker, starting with his looks, music, messed-up personal life and including his heroin addiction. These movies created an ’80s gay vanguard, principally through their acceptance by the mainstream as hip, liberated expressions. One New Yorker magazine rave cautioned that Weber was “shamelessly true to the (perhaps) universal experience of infatuation.” That “perhaps” loophole implied a moral condition that matters today; both these movies are revealed as disingenuous works. Each one is a dissipation of Van Sant’s and Weber’s filmmaking prerogative because personal infatuation—not reality-check honesty—covers up their odious concepts.

    It is clear now, after Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, Elephant and Last Days that Van Sant is our leading chicken-hawk filmmaker (rivaled only by Larry Clark). In this context, Mala Noche loses its carefree, semi-documentary aura, and what was always troublesome in Walt’s chasing after Johnny now seems alarming: It’s a story of unequal—and unconcerned—social transgression. Van Sant indulges Walt’s preying on youth, displaying blithe aplomb. Though low-budget, Mala Noche inventively shifts from B&W to color, using deliberate, Beat-era literary voice-over narration, even shooting Walt’s post-coital strut down Skid Row like Saturday Night Fever. Van Sant’s style suggests a subversive effrontery genuine to the lower-depths setting. Yet its brazen white privilege is never an issue in understanding Walt, Johnny or the intermittent crush, Roberto (Ray Monge). It’s still never a question for the hipster demimonde—ask Madonna. When Walt muses, “All I wanted to do was caress him,” he’s elevating the low-down lust that Van Sant won’t scrutinize.

    Weber’s exploitation of the decrepit, aged Chet Baker displays a slightly different privilege. But there’s no mistaking that some similar sexual gratification is being exchanged in Let’s Get Lost; it’s not about music history any more than Mala Noche is about the history of illegal immigrants or Mexico’s parallel juvenile delinquency problem. Weber stalks Baker with a cloying obsessiveness, attempting to get lost in a real-life fetish (and plainly failing at journalistic disinterest). This lush testimony becomes detestable when (between the lines) Weber secures Baker’s participation by paying for his drug habit. In strange ways, Baker becomes incidental to Weber’s personal romanticizing—the fact of Baker’s life is a pretext for justifying the fantasy that Weber and cinematographer Jeff Preiss photograph in sleek, seductive tones. Walt’s description of “the incredible, beautiful, turned-on face of an ignorant Mexican teenager” parallels Weber’s attraction/repulsion for Baker whose face went from Love Idol to Derelict. 

    Let’s Get Lost—so aptly titled--is a bizarrely self-aggrandizing piece of hagiography. It fits neatly into the mainstream media’s racist hierarchies of jazz, love idols and Calvin Klein ads. (Baker was no Miles Davis and Davis was a camera subject suitable for more than a teenage crush.) Weber’s inability to probe Baker’s self-destructiveness, or his art, is analogous to how Van Sant lets Walt disregard the source of his Mexican boys’ desperation. That’s the way these two pioneering movies abuse their gay privilege.

    Mala Noche’s influence can be felt in films that transcend it—from The Natural History of Parking Lots and The Delta to Terminal Station and A Thousand Clouds of Peace. They have the social emphasis that Van Sant refuses. He finessed politics in his best film, My Own Private Idaho, (which perfected Mala Noche’s lonely road and open sky imagery), but since then he has remained unpolitical and unprincipled. Sometimes Van Sant is even artier than Bruce Weber for whom subjectivity is all. But Mala Noche and Let’s Get Lost expose the private infatuations that limit them both. In the 1980s, Van Sant and Weber’s political incorrectness seemed uninhibited; now it stinks of race and class indifference. Their taste for trash could have made them American Pasolinis except political-humanist Pasolini wasn’t merely slumming as Van Sant and Weber are.