Mala Noche ***
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Not Rated-Sex, Language, Brief Violence
I'll admit, I pretty much despise the newer films of Gus van Sant. I have only seen two-the last two-"Elephant" and "Last Days." I hated them both. I just think that van Sant makes these films about subjects that are pretty much outdated, and yet he finds them "daring and cool" probably because this young crowd he wants to attract would find them "daring and cool." It's really "daring" of him to make a film about Columbine years after the fact, and then a film about Kurt Cobain's suicide nearly a decade later. And lets not ever mention the words "Columbine" or "Kurt Cobain" in the film, and instead just get people and situations that are similar to a "T." And so when IFC Center in downtown Manhattan was reviving "Mala Noche," the first film by Gus van Sant, I was a little apprehensive about seeing it. But seeing how Janus went through the trouble to fund this revival, and the fact that this is pretty much a rare screening because nobody has access to a print except van Sant himself, I figured it was worth my ticket price. And while "Mala Noche" is not a perfect film, and does have slight traces of van Sant being full of himself, there is this fresh taste of innocence in the film, and a promising start to a film maker whose career I could seriously live without sometimes.
"Mala Noche" is a simple story of a store owner named Walt, (played by a man named Tim Streeter, who after this only did a single episode of "Twenty One Jump Street") who meets a Mexican immigrant named Johnny and does everything that he can to try and sleep with him. When that fails he ends up in a little affair with Johnny's friend Robert Pepper. These are basically little vignette adventures that the three have, as well as some with Walt's friend Betty. This is an extremely minimal film-no plot so to speak, not much background on any of the characters-but it does stay with you to a point. Van Sant has always been a minimal film maker, especially in characters, and while he seems to think that less is more, in "Mala Noche" I could actually see what he means. This is a believable coming of age tale more so than any of his recent work pretends to be. It also helps to have the photography of John J. Campbell, who manages to make every single shot look like a different piece of art. The choice of black and white was probably because of the ten dollar budget, but this works in black and white more than it would in color, and Campbell really does take advantage of this. I was impressed that I did not hate "Mala Noche," and I feared that I would be dying to leave the screening room because it was an 11:45pm showing, but it does stay with you and it is even fun to watch. The tragic part is that van Sant showed that he had a certain amount of promise-and the innocence and care that seems to have gone into every shot is missing from all of his newer work which just anger me with their unoriginality, pretentiousness, and "poser" qualities. Van Sant needs to stop making films about topics that do not need to be mentioned anymore, and make something more personal, something more like his first film.