Sunday, November 18, 2007

11/18: Mala Noche; Flirting With Disaster

[This review of Mala Noche is a contribution to the Queer Film Blog-a-Thon being hosted by Queering the Apparatus.]

I've always thought that there was a profound disconnection in Gus Van Sant's career between his more recent masterpieces starting with 2002's Gerry, and everything he'd made previously. Even Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, as worthwhile as they are, seem to have little to do with his recent spate of languid, existential tone poems — and this is to say nothing of the more commercial films he made in the intervening years. But seeing his debut feature, Mala Noche, for the first time is a truly revelatory experience in terms of Van Sant's career arc. This moody, lyrical ode to homosexual desire among the down and out in Portland is something of a missing link for those who, like me, had only seen the films Van Sant made after this point. In this film, Van Sant was already sowing the seeds that would flower into the thematic territory of films like Drugstore Cowboy, but more importantly this film represents the aesthetic foundation of Van Sant's mature style.

Evocative, elliptical, and narratively rootless, the film wanders aimlessly around a central love triangle involving a gay store clerk, Walt (Tim Streeter), and two illegal Mexican immigrants, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and Pepper (Ray Monge). Walt provides the film's narration, with a wry, self-deprecating wit and a knack for finding the poetic in his prosaic struggles to get laid. His first lines inform us that he wants Johnny, but he winds up sleeping with the much more readily accessible Pepper instead, while continuing to pine after his love. The film's aesthetic is dark, shadowy, its protagonists constantly lost in black with only fleeting flashes of light to illuminate their features. The high-contrast photography, truly black and white with very little gray in between, heightens the film's low-budget noir atmosphere. The noir reference serves as a metaphor for the outsider status of these characters, and the gun which gets passed between them is an icon of both death and sex.

But this should not imply that Mala Noche comes across as some kind of radical gay political statement. As in all of Van Sant's films, there are traces of social and political commentary, especially on society's treatment of its marginal and outsider figures. There's also a potent examination of race and immigration, and the sexual exploitation that can take advantage of desperation — although the issue is complicated by the question of whether Walt is exploiting his objects of desire, or whether they're exploiting him because his desire makes him need them. Of course, Van Sant never allows these political and social subtexts to overwhelm either his story or his chiaroscuro style. The film's most radical statement, in fact, is its casual acceptance of these characters' gay or borderline gay lifestyles as a simple matter of fact, without making it a point of explicit commentary. In Van Sant's later films, possibly excepting My Own Private Idaho, I've always felt that he has made homosexuality something of a peripheral matter, one facet among many in his complex aesthetic. It's an arguable subtext in Gerry, and it's given brief self-contained scenes — much mis-interpreted and endowed with greater significance by all quarters — in Last Days and Elephant.

It can also be said that Mala Noche avoids treating its gayness in the usual ways. Homosexual desire is the film's central theme, and this desire is explored in the most sumptuous, sensual manner possible, capturing the true feeling of desire and lust in the richly textured visuals. The film's most memorable scene is its only love scene, between Walt and Pepper, which Van Sant portrays in extremely tight close-ups that only rarely betray any sense of space. Instead, the scene is built around brightly lit areas of bare skin, flashes of facial expressions mingling pain and lust, bodies pressing together either fighting or loving. Surrounded by total darkness, and hidden by it, the two men come together for a night of near-violent desire, and the frisson between them is palpable on-screen in the flashing light-and-dark compositions that hardly reveal a thing. It's a deeply erotic scene, but the effect of the focus on bare skin and shadowy close-ups is to generalize this depiction of desire. In the absence of context — and without the mid-scene break for a Vaseline run — it could just as easily be a man and a woman, or two women for that matter. The important thing is all the bare skin touching, the hands grasping, the smiles and gasps, the shuffling around in the sheets. This is desire, pure and simple.

Indeed, there has hardly been any greater cinematic ode to desire than this one. Van Sant's grasp of this material is prodigious, and for a novice director he seems remarkably in control of every aspect of the film. The film's low budget occasionally shows through in its touch-and-go audio and the amateurish performances (actually its biggest asset), but the lush imagery and carefully paced visual storytelling make this an essential touchstone for all Van Sant admirers. I'd even venture to say that it's his finest film prior to his recent re-birth with Gerry, far surpassing his better-known early works.

David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster hilariously updates the screwball farce with a heavy dose of neuroticism and sexual tension. It's the story of Mel (Ben Stiller), who blames his neurotic problems, insecurity, and sexual hangups with his sexy wife Nancy (an irresistible Patricia Arquette) on his lifelong identity crisis, all stemming from the fact that he was adopted as an infant. Now, with his own new baby — five months old and still unnamed thanks to Mel's indecisiveness — Mel decides that it's time to track down his biological parents and settle the question of who he is once and for all. With the help of the statuesque psychologist and adoption counselor Tina (Téa Leoni), Mel and Nancy head out on the road in search of his parents, with many hilarious detours and mishaps along the way. Among these is the fact that Tina can't quite seem to figure out who Mel's parents are, and there are a handful of ridiculous mis-identifications before the real ones are located. Even more troubling is the growing awkward attraction between Tina and Mel, as Mel's own marriage begins to unravel under the strain of his neuroses. The situation accumulates even more pressure when the trio takes on two more passengers, the bisexual federal agent (and Nancy's high school friend) Tony (Josh Brolin) and his partner and husband, Paul (Richard Jenkins).

Obviously, the situation is ripe for all sorts of comic possibilities, and Russell exploits every opportunity for a gag, though he never takes a short-cut for an easy joke. Instead, all of the film's humor is intimately connected to its characters and their psychologies, which is probably why the film just keeps getting funnier and funnier as it goes along and we get to know these characters better and better. It helps that Russell has assembled a sparkling cast of comedic actors. In addition to the main five-some, the film is buoyed by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as Mel's neurotic Jewish adoptive parents, and Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda as his LSD-friendly hippie birth parents. It's hard to tell which parents are funnier, and the narrative sets the two couples on a literal collision course for each other.

Russell's film is packed with comedic moments, too many to even begin to mention — and I won't ruin the humor by simply quoting it or talking about it too much. But his real brilliance is to infuse so much of his humor with sexual undertones, driving forward the film's theme of confused sexuality even as he gets the laughs. In a typically hilarious sequence, Mel turns up at the house of a woman he thinks is his birth mother (Celia Weston), a blonde Southern belle and descendant of Confederate generals who's decorated her home with stained glass, a crystal Zodiac, and a pencilled portrait of Ronald Reagan in a cowboy hat. The scene begins unassumingly, but Russell quickly starts to pile on the absurdity, building up to a scene where Mel winds up knocking over a huge shelf of crystal animals just as Weston's blonde, bronzed twin daughters show up in tight-fitting swimsuits and embrace him as a brother. These athletic visions, straight from a beach volleyball game, underline Mel's considerable sexual tension, adding a level of semi-incestual desire to his awkwardness. This kind of scene, with its multiple undertones bolstering the surface comedy, is typical of Russell's complex approach to comedy, and it's the multitude of scenes like this that make Flirting With Disaster such a riot.


DavidEhrenstein said...

As a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's Independent/Experimental film and video committee I was responsible for awarding Mala Noche back in '87. Gus credits this award with getting him a greenlight to do Drugstore Cowboy.

Mala Noche is indeed a film about same-sex desire without "explanation" or apology. Its sad loveliness has not diminished over the years. A shame it never translated into a career for Tim Streeter.

David O. Russell is a mad genius. Ben Stiller has rarely been better than he is in Flirting with Disaster, Mary Tyler Moore too -- especially in her tirade about the bra.

Irocheez said...

More than a fair review for Van Sant's first film. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see a review for the old Russell's 'Spanking the Monkey'.