When I was in film school (studies not production!), I was curious about “the festival film,” which to me manifested as a particular style of image and story. In classes, we discussed the festival circuit as an alternative, international distribution venue for non-commercial or international film and were very excited by all the resistant political implications we spun out of this possibility. These festivals were where artists working outside the system showed films that mattered and that made a difference. Even if I didn’t very much enjoy attending festival screenings, the queer cinema that I was drawn to often bore the festival style and moved through this circuit.
Watching Mala Noche and Seashore recently, I had a very different thought. These are new filmmakers’ films, young filmmakers’ films, and their mannered style and small, familiar plots suggest a young artist’s reach toward technical fluency and reflect the limited means available to the unproven in an expensive medium. They are, in other words, late-stage apprentice work. This description won’t apply universally, but it captures something true about a subset that I’m drawn to.
Thinking in this way, I see better how Van Sant’s Mala Noche stands out from the crowd: it operates within the same technical and financial constraints but offers up an extensive and varied physical world where a story plays out that is neither familiar nor easy and which does not recount an individual’s coming of age or coming out. The result is a film that is pro- and e- vocative.
Set beside Van Sant’s film, a movie like Seashore, which is a rather straightforward coming out story focused on two very young men, feels quite literally like a ritual, with all the aesthetic and emotional implications that might conjure.