I saw Mala Noche, by Gus Van Sant, the night before. A bit of a co-incidence because I’d just finished shooting my first short, also about a gay couple, the other day.
I think the b/w cinematography was quite ironic because nothing in the film is really b/w, in terms of characterization. Walt is a good guy, sure, but he tries to buy Johnny out in the beginning, bargaining hard, fully aware of Johnny’s poor circumstances. Pepper, Johnny’s friend, is gay but he refuses to acknowledge his first fuck with Walt, also stealing a ten dollar bill from Walt who lets it be. Later on, as Johnny disappears, and Walt and Pepper have something which is more like an affair, Pepper almost hits Walt while he is trying to seduce him in the morning after they have made love the night before. Still, Walt helps him later on with more money and cares for him when he is ill. Johnny himself shows a sort of disgust towards Walt’s tendencies. However, he keeps getting drwan to him.
But I did have a problem with the narration. I don’t think it was necessary. For example, after that seduction-leading-to-violence scene, Walt tells us that for Pepper sex was an aggresive act that he preferred at nights and that his sexual desires were sterotypical, while Walt’s were more sophisticated. This is not necessarily true. Pepper’s violence can be seen in the context of his humiliation which comes from being in a realtionship not purely out of love and choice but also dependencey since is poor and on the streets literally. He is not gay per se, he is bi-sexual since as we are shown in film, he does have girlfriends. Also, the narration makes us see the film through Walt’s perspective – twice over, for he is, in the technical sense, the protagonist although he doesn’t make everything happen in the film – and for a film that has such beautiful characterization, it makes it biased. The images do speak for themselves very eloquently here.
Some scenes are so well-done you gasp thinking it is a first time director. For example, when Walt, Johnny and Pepper are in the car and Johnny leaves Walt stranded on the deserted street after locking him out of the car, then drives off, not going away, waiting for Johnny to approach, then drives away again, leaving Walt completely exasperated and fuming. It expresses their realtionship perfectly wherein Johnny plays around with Walt hurting him on purpose knowing fully well that Walt is smitten with him but taking care not to push him over the wall for he feels something for him too. For Johnny, it is probably a new and amusing experience and he had never had another person so much in his power. He is becoming more aware of himself and his sexuality where as for Walt, it is a frustating – but rewarding in different, non-sexual ways – affair.
Structure wise, the film is non-conventional, I think. I would call it episodic. You could say it is divided in three parts, starting with Johnny’s entry, his disappearnce and final re-appearance; Johnny’s the pivot around which the script revolves, him being the object of desire of the protagonist, Walt. The drama comes not primarily from conflicts b/w the characters but rather from within their own selves which then create situations to which they react, individually and collectively.
The dialogues are part of the mise-en-scene, evoking the mood rather than taking the narration forward, working obliquely but revealingly. For example, when Walt is reading the paper aloud about a murder of passion with homosexual attraction and its being spurned as the chief motive and the final bit when Walt calls Johnny a bull after he has come back swimming,defying the forced deportation, neatly tying in with the motto of the film – If you fuck with a bull, you get the horn.
It is one film where the camera and the editing are fully in sync with the script but not dependent on it. I don’t know how Gus Van Sant achieved that but I would love to know