Mala Noche Directed by Gus Van Sant
Lets Get Lost Directed by Bruce Weber
This weeks revival of Gus Van Sants 1985 Mala Noche (Bad Night) and Bruce Webers 1989 Lets Get Lost offers the chance to get our bearings on pop historyrethinking Van Sant and Webers 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 germinatedand with hindsight knowledge of where their idiosyncrasies ledneither Mala Noche nor Lets Get Lost justifies what once seemed their promise. Van Sants 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 Webers 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 Bakeran unprecedented celebrity paean, key to its acclaim.
These topics remain problematicespecially since both films are also landmarks of sexual expression. Mala Noche unabashedly romanticizes Walts gay attraction to Johnny. In Lets 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 Sants and Webers filmmaking prerogative because personal infatuationnot reality-check honestycovers 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 Walts chasing after Johnny now seems alarming: Its a story of unequaland unconcernedsocial transgression. Van Sant indulges Walts 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 Walts post-coital strut down Skid Row like Saturday Night Fever. Van Sants 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). Its still never a question for the hipster demimondeask Madonna. When Walt muses, All I wanted to do was caress him, hes elevating the low-down lust that Van Sant wont scrutinize.
Webers exploitation of the decrepit, aged Chet Baker displays a slightly different privilege. But theres no mistaking that some similar sexual gratification is being exchanged in Lets Get Lost; its not about music history any more than Mala Noche is about the history of illegal immigrants or Mexicos 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 Bakers participation by paying for his drug habit. In strange ways, Baker becomes incidental to Webers personal romanticizingthe fact of Bakers life is a pretext for justifying the fantasy that Weber and cinematographer Jeff Preiss photograph in sleek, seductive tones. Walts description of the incredible, beautiful, turned-on face of an ignorant Mexican teenager parallels Webers attraction/repulsion for Baker whose face went from Love Idol to Derelict.
Lets Get Lostso aptly titled--is a bizarrely self-aggrandizing piece of hagiography. It fits neatly into the mainstream medias 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.) Webers inability to probe Bakers self-destructiveness, or his art, is analogous to how Van Sant lets Walt disregard the source of his Mexican boys desperation. Thats the way these two pioneering movies abuse their gay privilege.
Mala Noches influence can be felt in films that transcend itfrom 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 Noches 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 Lets Get Lost expose the private infatuations that limit them both. In the 1980s, Van Sant and Webers 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 wasnt merely slumming as Van Sant and Weber are.