Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 04, 2007 7:40 pm 
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A night bird playing with fire for the pure pleasure of losing

"Never again would Gus Van Sant address homosexuality in such a raw, head-on manner. Never would he embrace street life as in this journal of a night bird playing with fire for the pure pleasure of losing. . . We are witnessing the birth of an auteur." So critic Louis Guichard crooned in Télérama last fall when the film finally had its first theatrical presentation in Paris. In fact Mala Noche is one of those raw cinema experiences you can’t explain or justify, thick as it is with lonely nights and sleazy places that move you in ways more coherent and polished work does not. It’s back for a run at the IFC Center in lower Manhattan. Tim Streeter stars as Walt, the handsome young gay gringo clerking in a Portland skid row convenience store who declares to friends he’s fallen in love with Johnny, a skinny, angel-faced, underage Mexican illegal with tight jeans and a disdainful smile. Johnny will have none of this gringo “puto” but his freight-train-jumping partner Roberto AKA Pepper AKA Papas will, crudely, for money. Both crash at Walt's pad at times and ride and drive his big old Seventies car, whose carcass is too tough for them to destroy, even when, showing off or in sheer ineptitude, they crash it too.

This first feature made in 16 mm. 22 years ago by Gus Van Sant on $25,000 is grainy-gorgeous in a new 35 mm. theatrical print. If the French thought, seeing it, of Godard and the Thirties, I thought of Bruce Weber, whose similar vintage (1988) Let’s Get Lost (another black and white celluloid hymn to a beautiful loser) is about to get its screen revival. Walt is "maso"—he’s a masochist, playing with fire for the pleasure of losing—but Tim Streeter is not only pretty glamorous-looking for a lovelorn loser (what is he doing in a skid row liquor store? Sowing some kind of wild oats I guess--like Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho), but he’s surprisingly upbeat and resilient. I guess we have to accept that he really is in love. Nothing Johnny or his pal do can make him mad or fed up and no situation he gets into with them or because of them can frighten him. Another actor, with less panache, might make all this embarrassing and sordid, but with Streeter, it’s crazy and senseless but the romantic logic of it is clear.

No doubt about the fact that Van Sant too liked to hang out with Portland’s boys of the streets. Short footage of interviews (originally shown in a San Francisco theater with Mala Noche) and the supporting cast of My Own Private Idaho especially show that. But Mala Noche isn’t his personal story. It etches on celluloid the memoir of a Portland countercultural figure of the Seventies. Walt Curtis had a weekly poetry program on radio and spent his days on the streets from the age of twenty talking to transients. For Van Sant, Curtis was an "ancient Greek philosopher," an inspiration, who at the time when he dreamed of Johnny, clerked, indeed, in a skid row liquor store. (What happened to Doug Cooeyate, who plays Johnny? He has no further credits. Yet here he is, preening, taunting and being tickled, very much alive. Ray Monge, who plays Pepper, is apparently still around: he played a janitor in Elephant.)

Van Sant not only shows here where his emotional core comes from—the suburban white boy’s longing for rough trade youth in the bad part of town, the street boys and hustlers—but also the combination of poetry (time-lapse clouds), dreams of squalor, and numb desire. "It’s all there," you might say. But what’s not there later in the director’s best work, and not missed, is bad actors and bad acting, rough transitions, and somewhat arbitrary editing—though in truth, Walt’s haphazard existence and doomed love can have no tidy structure. It’s perfectly logical that as the film ends, Walt drives by a street corner and, to his wonderment, finds Johnny again and asks him to come by the store—almost as if the whole story was all going to repeat.

At times since Van Sant has retreated to the suburban—the popular—the acceptable—and lately, regaining his credibility—made a successful lunge at the aesthetic in the Bela Tarr-inspired trilogy, Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Here you get him raw: and hopeless gay desire has never been more straightforwardly displayed on the screen.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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