Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Gus Van Starts

Last night's film was Mala Noche, the rarely-seen directorial debut of Gus Van Sant, a sometimes interesting director, who drifts from art films to generic Hollywood product - and often from excellence to absolute shite - with disconcerting ease. The film, shot in monochrome, and filmed in Van Sant's adopted home of Portland, Oregon in 1985 concerns a gay convenience store clerk and his attempts to hustle the Mexican immigrants that frequent his store.

Like the early efforts of Van Sant's contemporaries - Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and Spike Lee - the film does admirably well on a poverty of means. The French media have been salivating over it since its release but it is really notable only for the glimpse it gives of a budding talent. There is too much there to indicate juvenilia - poor photography, flat mise en scène, stilted acting, over-earnest and over-written dialogue and voiceover. Van Sant's later successes are echoed however in the film's more likeable aspects: the endeavour, the enthusiasm and a general sense of intelligence and conviction that pervades the narrative. I can't say I will ever watch it again, unlike his recent masterpieces Elephant and Gerry, but Mala Noche is a worthy enough effort.

I also saw, at the weekend, Bamako, a Malian film directed by the Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, a curiosity that imagines a process pursued in the Malian courts against the IMF for its rapacity in demanding debt repayments from Africa and other developing countries. The central trial, in which the familiar charges against the IMF and other world bodies are levelled, is laced with more mundane stories, including a young Senegalese mother who appears to be homesick for Dakar and a young man who is learning Hebrew for some reason that is never made clear. Like the recent Dans Paris, I watched this while very tired on a Saturday afternoon and some of the plot points remain obscure, its entire point even. But the film has such a pleasant pace and the French spoken by the Malians so soft and so clear that watching it and allowing myself to doze off now and again without feeling any guilt was a balm in itself. I still don't really get what it was about but it was a nice experience watching it.