The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Girlfriend Experience

Noted screenwriter/director Paul Schrader wrote a very interesting piece in the Guardian the other day in which he suggests that viewers are suffering from narrative exhaustion. He speculates that the average thirty-year-old has already watched 35,000 hours of audio-visual narratives. Given the limited number of possible storylines, today’s media-makers have resorted to other strategies to make their work seem fresh and less predictable. This has given rise to the popularity of such forms as reality television, documentaries, videogames, short-format pieces created specifically for cellphones, and what Schrader calls “anecdotal narrative.” In discussing this last term, he explains: “The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behaviour unencumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not ‘fake,’ not ‘contrived’ (although of course it is).”

Like a number of Gus Van Sant’s recent films or Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience represents a similar attempt by a major American filmmaker to create an alternative to conventional narrative by eschewing a fully-realized screenplay in favor of a brief (six- to seven-page) outline, the use of mostly non-professional actors and structured improvisation. Shot quickly with a small crew and a high-definition Red camera over several weeks, Soderbergh’s film is a portrait of a high-priced escort. Chelsea, played by porn star Sasha Grey, is a different breed of prostitute. While trafficking in sex, what she really offers is the simulation of a personal love experience.

Set during the heat of the presidential election and the financial meltdown last fall, The Girlfriend Experience documents the excess of wealth that fuels the GFE phenomenon – extravagant lifestyles involving art, high fashion, chic restaurants, and weekend junkets to Las Vegas on private jets. The film suggests that, as the discrepancy between rich and poor widens, sexuality for the super rich has become another commodity. Indeed, Chelsea narrates her various appointments in terms of designer outfits and other status markers, while also noting client’s financial anxieties involving friends, business, and an economy suddenly in free fall. Sessions often begin with questions about spouses and children, who are addressed on a first-name basis, providing the veneer of intimacy.

Chelsea is also involved in a relationship with a live-in boyfriend named Chris (Chris Santos). He’s a personal trainer at an upscale gym – another service industry for people with too much cash to burn. We watch Chris at work as he uses his charm to con his clients into signing up for additional sessions by developing his own ersatz relationship with them. Chris is also on the make – he also attempts to peddle a new line of clothes and angles for a cut of his gym’s business.

If the film examines the contradictions of paid escorts as intimate personal relationships, it also delves into similar conundrums involved in living with a prostitute. For both parties, it necessitates compartmentalizing their lives. When one of his clients suggests that Chris join a group of business guys for a weekend in Vegas, he initially declines out of deference to Chelsea. She’s into “personology” books – an irrational system Chelsea relies on to make decisions about clients and to cope with the dangers implicit in her line of work. It leads Chelsea to decide to spend a weekend with a new client on a whim, but this violates the “rules”of her relationship with Chris. When she breaks the news to him, Chris lashes out at her in very frank terms that belie the mutual deception at the heart of their arrangement.

Throughout her interactions, Chelsea projects an image of a woman in control of her emotions, or someone who shows very little affect. Her blankness is part of her allure to these men, allowing them to project their own fantasies onto her. Yet fissures eventually develop in her armor. Despite her belief that she’s the best at what she does, Chelsea nevertheless gets jealous when she sees a client with a new competitor. She also gets victimized by a sleazy operator (played by film critic Glenn Kenny) of an online Web site, entitled The Erotic Connoisseur. Under the guise of raising her profile to even greater heights within the profession, he hustles her into giving him a freebie in exchange for promotion. His review of her performance is a brutal and devastating putdown. After Chelsea breaks up with Chris because of feelings for a new client, a screenwriter named David, her intuition turns out to be misguided. As Chris has predicted, the client dumps her in order to return home to his wife and two young daughters, which leaves Chelsea stranded and in tears.

Although The Girlfriend Experience was apparently shot chronologically, Soderbergh scrambles time in order to create greater narrative complexity. We move back and forth between Chelsea and Chris. We observe Chelsea’s various interactions – with numerous clients, the operator of the erotic Web site, a business manager, and a magazine journalist who asks her probing personal questions about her line of work. Soderbergh confounds the story by having an adult sex star play a Manhattan call girl and by casting nonprofessional actors to play characters who bear some resemblance to themselves in real life. In a sense, the performers become the characters. The collapse between actor and role and the use of controlled improvisation lends a degree of authenticity to the film.

Soderbergh shoots mostly with available light, resulting in scenes that have either warm orange-red or cool blue tones. At times he plays with focus to give the image a greater sense of abstraction. Andy Warhol rather than Cassavetes proves to be the stronger influence here. Soderbergh told Filmmaker that he has become more interested in “this fusion of real people and real stories with a fictional story.” He elaborates: “I guess it’s something that grows out of my frustration with the norms of cinema narrative storytelling and the fact that I’m convinced that the gains that can be achieved through presenting something that seems like it is really happening in front of you are more significant than the gains you get from something that doesn’t seem real but is better constructed.”

In sex, lies, and videotape (1989), Soderbergh managed to capture the Zeitgeist of the time – people’s fear of sex in an age of AIDS – by exploring issues about intimacy and pornography. It’s hardly surprising that he would use a porn star to explore issues of intimacy in his new film. Even though the outline for The Girlfriend Experience was written by David Levian and Brian Koppelman in 2006, Soderbergh has managed to create an snapshot of a period in which America appears to be on the verge of change and late capitalism feels as if it is finally unraveling. This timeliness turns out to be one of the major advantages of Soderbergh’s more open and flexible method of making a film.

Postscript:

It is ironic that Columbia Pictures has placed Soderbergh’s $50 million film Moneyball in limited turnaround, a mere four days before it was scheduled to begin production, even though the film has actor Brad Pitt attached. What’s interesting is that Columbia head Amy Pascal was unhappy with Soderbergh’s re-working of the script. According to Variety: “The move came after Pascal read a rewrite that Soderbergh did to Steven Zaillian’s script and found it very different from the earlier scripts she championed. Pascal was uncomfortable enough with how the vision had changed that she applied the brakes.” The article goes on to say: “Even though it was approved by Major League Baseball, the script doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of most sports yarns.”

In the same Filmmmaker interview from which I quoted earlier, Soderbergh indicates that Moneyball was going to be his “most extreme attempt” at combining reality and fiction. Based on this recent development at Columbia, it would appear that Soderbergh’s current artistic interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Hollywood, especially regarding the primacy of the script. Is anyone surprised?

Posted 23 June, 2009

Adapting Paranoid Park

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Gus Van Sant discusses his adaptation of Blake Nelson’s teen novel into the film version of Paranoid Park. According to Van Sant: “I wrote it quickly, in two days. I outlined the parts I wanted, wrote it out script style, transposing in some ways, not even rewriting. I would take the descriptions and make those scene headings, and then I would take dialogue and make it dialogue. It was almost like Xeroxing the story. Then I shifted it around and got rid of some of the parts.”

I was intrigued enough by Van Sant’s comments that I decided to read the novel in order to better understand its transposition to the screen. It turns out that Van Sant’s description of the process is pretty accurate. As one might imagine, the novel provides a great deal more exposition, especially about the interior panic of its unnamed protagonist once he accidentally kills a train guard. In the book, he’s sixteen or slightly older than the actor (Gabe Nevins) who plays him, as well as a lot more forthcoming and articulate about his feelings. In Nelson’s novel, the teenager has a revelation about himself while lying in bed one night: “I was a bad person.” He explains: “Character is fate. My English teacher had written it on the board at the beginning of school. I had a bad character, I was a bad person, and now my fate had caught up to me.”

The book follows a diary-like format. Although I was somewhat confused by scenes of Alex at the beach in the film, the novel makes it clear that he’s at his Uncle Tommy’s beach house, where he’s writing the story over winter break. We learn more about the other characters as well, especially Macy. Nelson’s protagonist describes her as having had a crush on him in sixth grade. In one scene that’s not in the film, she wants him to help her friend buy a skateboard for her boyfriend – an idea that he finds idiotic. The narrator comments: “It was so ridiculous about girls. They get these schoolgirl crushes on you, and you can do no wrong. Then they stop liking you and they want to boss you around, like you were once their boyfriend, which you never were. You never even liked them.” He changes his mind, however, and helps them buy a skateboard at a store downtown. He and Macy eventually get closer, especially when she intuits that he harbors a dark secret. In fact, he starts to fall in love with her by the end.

Even though Van Sant’s film is decidedly non-linear, he also takes the liberty of shifting scenes around. In the film, for instance, the sex scene with Jennifer does not occur after they go ice skating, but actually happens earlier. The order of the interrogation scenes are also reversed in the film. Van Sant has Detective Lu interview Alex first, then later as part of a larger group of skateboarders. In the novel, Detective Brady pushes his individual questioning much further than in the film by asking the teenager to imagine what he would do if he had committed the crime. Detective Brady shows up a third time and drives the narrator downtown. He discusses his breakup with Jennifer with the detective, and spots Scratch’s friend, Paisley, among a group of street kids Brady asks him to identify.

Van Sant also eliminates still another scene in which the protagonist returns to Paranoid Park with several friends, including Jared. He’s recognized by Paisley, who confronts him about Scratch and the police crackdown. A group of her street friends then chase after him and start to beat him up, before the narrator gets rescued by Detective Brady. He decides to bare his soul to Brady, but discovers that the detective has lied to him about his own parents being divorced.

Like the work of Dreyer, Van Sant’s elliptical rendering of the novel benefits from subtraction – less somehow ends up being more. Alex becomes more inscrutable as a result of Van Sant choosing to remove exposition as well as certain suspenseful and dramatic scenes, while sticking to the surface. Even the breakup between Alex and Jennifer is presented without dialogue. In my previous post, I suggested that Van Sant focuses on the face of Alex throughout Paranoid Park. The real surprise, for me, has to do with the fact that this idea derives from the book’s epigraph. It’s from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Young man,” he went on, raising his head again, “in your face I seem to read some trouble of mind.” Because Gabe Nevins’s face is not transparent, Van Sant’s close scrutiny of it, and its lack of disclosure, only serves to imbue the teenage protagonist with an even greater sense of mystery.

Posted 17 March, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (2007) confirms Gus Van Sant’s status as one of the top American independent filmmakers working today. If his last two films, Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) were loosely based on already well-known figures and events – the Columbine shootings and the demise of rock star Kurt Cobain – Van Sant’s superb new film, adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel, focuses on a shy and disaffected teenage skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), who accidentally kills a security guard while hitching trains one night. In this latest film, Van Sant moves even further away from the dialogue-driven script – he completed the adaptation in a mere two days – toward a film that relies heavily on visual storytelling

Paranoid Park is more boldly free-form than Van Sant’s previous trilogy, but it borrows some of the same strategies for a somewhat different effect. Van Sant still plays with temporality by scrambling time as the film shifts the chronology of events to explore the guilt-ridden psyche of its teenage protagonist, who’s clearly gotten himself into a situation that’s way over his head. Alex is barely able to negotiate everyday life, never mind a crisis of this magnitude. Van Sant creates an impressionistic look at this introverted kid’s world – his relationships with his estranged parents, friends, and his jealous and demanding girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). Van Sant speeds up and slows down time, giving equal weight to long lyrical passages of kids skateboarding. Sounds of birds once again suggest the inner turmoil of Alex, connecting him to the troubled shooter of the same name in Elephant.

On a surface level, Van Sant shows the same fascination with the world of teenage outcasts as Larry Clark. Whereas Clark’s Wassup Rockers (2005) and his subsequent photo show of its lead actor, Jonathan Velasquez, felt voyeuristic and ultimately exploitative, Van Sant avoids fixating on teenage bodies in the same leering way. Instead, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li’s camera focuses more heavily on the light that illuminates the protagonist’s angelic face, linking Alex – with his eyes raised toward heaven – more directly to the history of painting.

Paranoid Park opens with a shot of the massive steel bridge straddling the river in the city of Portland, as we watch cars in fast motion traverse the expanse, with the city in the background and gray clouds in the sky. Alex writes the words “Paranoid Park” in a lined notebook. We see him walking in a field with a dog. As Van Sant does so often in Elephant, Van Sant follows his subject from behind as Alex strides toward the beach, where he sits on a bench with his notebook and reflects. In voiceover, he describes Jared (Jake Miller) and the skateboard haven known as Paranoid Park. Alex doesn’t believe he’s ready to go there, but Jared convinces him otherwise. About a month later, Alex gets called out of class at school.

Once inside the main office, Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu) questions Alex about his whereabouts on a particular September evening. Alex is more articulate in describing the contents of a Subway sandwich than in providing other details of the night in question. Lu’s line of questioning suggest a shared rapport with the teenager, when, in fact, there’s an enormous chasm between them. In a subsequent scene, Lu calls in the various skateboarders. He suggests that they can call him “Rich,” and discusses his desire to make contact with this particular “community” – a concept that completely eludes these kids. When Alex later wonders about Lu’s suspicions, one of his friends remarks that cops are paid “the same as a janitor.”

In the first scene with Lu, we learn certain background information about Alex, namely, that his parents are in the process of getting a divorce, as well as the fact that he has a younger brother and girlfriend. When Lu indicates that a skateboarder from Paranoid Park was most likely at the scene of a horrific crime, the camera slowly moves in closer toward Alex, eventually framing the blank reaction on his face, as we hear the sound of a loud scream from offscreen.

After Alex returns to class in a slow-motion tracking shot down the school hallway, we see documentary shots of skateboarders and other people, whose faces have been blacked out. Jared announces his desire to go to Paranoid Park the next day. Alex also explains the issues with his cheerleader girlfriend. He claims that Jennifer is nice, but she’s still a virgin. Alex knows that sooner of later they’ll have sex and things will get a lot more complicated as a result.

Alex borrows his mother’s car and heads to Paranoid Park, where he meets a hardcore skateboarder named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green). Alex thinks the park is great, but he also worries about his parents and the stress their impending divorce is having on his younger brother. He also wishes that he and Jennifer had more in common, but he really wants to ride the freight trains with the other train hoppers from Paranoid Park.

We learn from a female neighbor friend named Macy (Lauren McKinney) that Alex has broken up with Jennifer. Macy also suspects that he harbors a dark secret. She flat out asks him, “Did something happen to you?” Alex does end up acknowledging that something has happened. It is only at the end of the film that we realize that Macy is the one who has convinced Alex to write down the events that he narrates as a way of purging himself of what’s weighing on him. She tells him, “Write it to me.” He does, but burns the evidence.

The weight of the crime causes Alex to lie on a number of occasions – to Detective Lu, his mother, Jared, and even to Macy, who seems to know when he’s being untruthful. There’s a scene where Alex’s mother asks him about a phone call to his Uncle Tommy, with whom his father is staying. When it turns out that the call was made at 4:35 in the morning, Alex suggests that he was “half-asleep” or “maybe even sleepwalking.” It’s the kind of preposterous lie that teenagers continually tell, as if most adults are completely stupid. His mother doesn’t call him on it, which makes its own sad statement.

Alex says of the crime, “I tried to put that part out of my mind,” but Lu’s pictures of the victim’s severed body bring it vividly back to mind. We see Scratch and Alex hopping the freight train and the security guard running after them. After the gruesome accident occurs, Van Sant cuts from the victim’s face as he crawls toward them, to two different shots of Alex, to Detective Lu, then back to the security guard and Alex’s startled reaction. As Alex flees the train yard afterwards, we hear his confused internal monologue – the rationalizations and jumble of thoughts flooding his mind. In the film’s most spectacular visual sequence, Alex showers in an attempt to wash away the crime. We see his lowered face as water spills over his hair. As a result of Van Sant changing the camera speed, narrowing the shutter angle, and moving a hand-held 2K light, the scene darkens and brightens. Images of birds decorate the wallpaper in the background as Alex slowly slides down in the shower and the sounds of birds keep getting louder.

After ice skating one afternoon, Jennifer seduces Alex. He lies there impassively in a lovemaking scene that’s rendered as light reflected off her blond hair and his deadpan face. Afterwards, she suggests getting more condoms. At school the next day, she asks whether Alex has gotten them. When he indicates that it was her idea, this elicits an angry response, but Alex appeases her by suggesting that he thought they would get them together. Alex later breaks up with Jennifer in a scene in which the diegetic sound of their argument has been replaced by music.

Paranoid Park explores the strange confusion of being a teenager, compounded by the burden of guilt and hidden secrets. Van Sant’s elliptical storytelling reflects Alex’s fragmentary attempts to tell his story, while managing somehow to render this transitional period of being a teenager with more depth and complexity than would seem possible. The scrambled subjective narration and use of repetition prevents Paranoid Park from ever becoming predictable, while the broad range of tonal shifts – the abstract interplay between image and sound – show Van Sant to be able to make a great work with an economy of means.

Posted 9 March, 2008

Mala Noche

Still from Mala NocheUnavailable for a number of years now, Gus Van Sant’s first feature Mala Noche (1985) will be re-released theatrically by Janus Films within the next couple of weeks. Originally shot in 16mm format, the film has been restored and blown up to 35mm. Mala Noche premiered as the concluding film in the Spotlight Film and Video Series I curated at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art this spring, thanks to the generosity and efforts of Sarah Finklea at Janus, the film’s U. S. distributor. Mala Noche is a landmark film in the history of American independent cinema. Its re-release simply reconfirms the status of Gus Van Sant as one of the very best indie directors.

Set on skid row in Van Sant’s home town of Portland, the regionally-flavored Mala Noche is based on a novella by local poet Walt Curtis. It presents the story of a hapless store clerk, Walt (Tim Streeter), and his infatuation with a young Mexican illegal immigrant named Johnny Alonzo. It’s the story of unrequited love as well as the clash between different cultures, as exemplified by the huge gulf that separates these two individuals. Through his voiceover narration, Walt exudes an air of gringo superiority, despite the fact that he’s clearly down and out himself. While continually declaring his love for Johnny, Walt seems unaware of the contradictions of his own veiled bigotry. Walt’s sexual desire for Johnny in turn makes him an object of derision to the young macho Mexicans, especially when he prostrates himself in front of Johnny and his sidekick, Roberto, like a groveling dog. Walt persists in pursuing Johnny throughout the film, only to encounter rejection, humiliation, and hostility.

Walt ends up instead having vicarious sex with Roberto, who becomes Johnny’s surrogate, not only in terms of their relationship, but also in terms of the narrative structure itself. The main plotline of Mala Noche – Walt’s romantic pursuit of Johnny – gets sidetracked into what initially seems like a subplot when Johnny mysteriously disappears forty minutes into the film. As a result, the film focuses more on the tensions of this equally doomed relationship. Walt defines the film’s structure in sexual terms: “Roberto’s cock fucks Johnny, fucked me. That’s about as close to Johnny as I’ll ever get unless I had the money. Poor boys never win. Who fucks whom. Mala Noche.” Power relations in various forms – racial, sexual, and cultural – remain at the core of film. After his first sexual encounter with Roberto, Walt complains: “Chingalo, my ass is sore! It’s true. I think he tried to use his cock like a weapon on me. Macho fucking prick!”

Mala Noche begins with a wide shot of a train moving through the rural landscape. Inside one of the pitch-black box cars, we get high-contrast shots of Johnny Alonzo (Doug Cooeyate) and Roberto (Ray Monge) as they journey to Portland, Oregon. After hand-written titles, there’s an epigraph: “If you fuck with the bull, you get the horn.” Matted home-movie images of derelicts on skid row follow, as well as of shot of a beer bottle being tossed into a puddle in the gutter. Walt’s narration begins: “Working in the store Sunday all day, I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo from LA near Riverside” Walt aggressively teases Johnny about the hickeys on his neck. Johnny’s response is to steal from the store, thereby establishing the dynamic of their relationship. When Walt sees Johnny on the street after work, he tries unsuccessfully to befriend him. Walt confides his feelings about Johnny to a female friend, who offers to invite them to dinner. For Walt, his love for Johnny represents an affirmation of his gay identity and beat sensibility. He tells her: “I don’t care. Even if it jeopardizes working at the store, I have to show him that I’m gay for him, to show him how I feel.” Johnny’s later response is to blow cigarette smoke in Walt’s face, but Walt succeeds in getting Johnny, another friend, and Roberto to come for dinner.

The dinner becomes an occasion to learn about the abuse experienced by illegal aliens, as the Mexicans describe a friend being beaten by the cops on their journey north. On the way home, Johnny drives like a madman. Walt offers to give Roberto fifteen dollars if he can sleep with Johnny, who adamantly refuses. Johnny retreats to his hotel, leaving Roberto and Walt locked out, so they are forced to go to Walt’s place for the night. As the sound of trains and church bells can be heard on the soundtrack, Walt takes off his clothes and slides down next to Roberto, who has already gone to bed. As Walt caresses his body, the camera causes the image of Roberto’s face, bathed in light and shadow, to spin around. Roberto maneuvers behind to penetrate Walt. Roberto steals ten dollars from Walt’s pants pocket on the way out. Acknowledging the Mexican boys need money, Walt nevertheless reflects: “I hope they got it, though I was upset that I’d been fucked, violated, and lost the money too. For a few moments thinking about it in the morning, of the Mexicans gloating over having fucked the gringo puto [faggot] and got his money too, talking about it and laughing, my ass sore.”

In the middle act, Johnny and Roberto continue to harass Walt, who attempts to ingratiate himself with them. Walt takes home movies – as the stark black and white suddenly switches to color – even though Johnny doesn’t want to participate. Walt also watches helplessly from the store as a cop chases after Johnny and Roberto. Johnny returns with a gun, and later crashes Walt’s car into the guard rail while speeding recklessly down a rural road. Johnny also fires the gun out the window, and he and Roberto later steal Walt’s car keys and then the car. Undaunted, Walt continues his amorous pursuit of Johnny by climbing up the fire escape of their hotel, but winds up frightening a young Chicana woman instead. “No, I’m not the immigration,” he tells her, totally missing the point. While searching for Johnny, Walt finds Roberto, who tells him that Johnny and his other friends have left. Walt later turns his attention to Roberto, who maintains his distance. As we watch Roberto walk down the street, Walt responds: “Fuck it, do I need them that badly? Am I that desperate? Of course, I am.”

Walt’s efforts to befriend Roberto also fail miserably, but Walt attends to Roberto when he becomes ill. As Walt caresses Roberto’s head, we get flashbacks of Johnny and Roberto, before Roberto demands that Walt buy him a milk shake. Once Roberto recovers, Walt tries to help him get work. Later that night, the two get stoned and roll together on the bed before Walt goes down on him. Walt later tries to be playful, but Roberto retaliates roughly. Walt takes Roberto for a driving lesson, but the car ends up in a ditch. Completely flustered, Walt yells: “You drive like you fuck.” Roberto retaliates by flirting with a woman outside the store. One night, however, the police shoot Roberto, when he brandishes the gun. The impact sends his body crashing through a window to the wet ground below, where Walt eventually holds Roberto’s lifeless body in his arms.

Shortly afterwards, Johnny finally turns up one rainy night and explains that he was picked up by immigration and deported back to Mexico. As the two drink together, Johnny asks about Roberto, only to learn that he’s been killed. Johnny initially thinks it’s a joke, but then turns on Walt. On the way out, Johnny uses his knife to inscribe the word “puto” on Walt’s door. Walt drives around town with his female friend looking for him, and finally spies Johnny standing on a corner. Walt asks Johnny to come by the store to see him. As Walt watches Johnny in the rear-view mirror, his woman friend applies lipstick. The car disappears down the street, as an upbeat song by the Neo Boys, plays on the soundtrack. The credits roll over color home movie footage of the cast smoking dope and clowning for the camera.

Originally shot for a mere $25,000 and using a cast of non-professional locals, Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche represents an impressive debut feature. John Campbell’s grainy cinematography at times recalls the look and ambience of film noir. It creates a poetic realism that captures the grittiness of life as it’s lived by those on its margins. The store, in which Walt works, serves as a major focal point, as various derelicts make cameo appearances as they parade in and out. Mala Noche feels more like a filmic prose poem than a plot-driven narrative. Walt’s obsessive insistence on his own gay identity and sexual desire drives the film forward, but Mala Noche is essentially episodic rather than dramatic, deliberately fractured rather than fluid. Van Sant abstracts and fragments the narrative through the use of canted angles, striking compositions, and synecdoche.

The film works as an accumulation of poetic images: packs of cigarettes, money exchanging hands, a gush of exhaled smoke, an assortment of pills in a hand, clear liquid filling a glass, the texture of wet streets, accelerated billowing clouds, a shot of headlight of a moving car, vintage advertising, or water boiling in a pot. An especially good example of Van Sant’s approach is the first sex scene between Walt and Roberto, which contains a series of abstract closeups of their clasped hands, faces, and bodies writhing together. Mala Noche is ultimately a meditation on light, especially in how it illuminates male bodies and faces. It recalls early Larry Clark photographs, Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, with some Jack Kerouac-inspired riffs thrown into the mix, but Van Sant still manages to establish his own distinct visual style.

Like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), the brand new remastered 35mm print of Mala Noche is simply not to be missed when it begins its threatrical run on June 1 at the IFC Center in New York.

Posted 25 April, 2007