BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Van Sant debuts.

ITíS A LONG-HELD, creaky theory of mine that the 1980s were the golden age of popular music Ė when indie artists managed to transcend the financial limitations of recording music of previous decades and make stunning music from hip-hop to metal (no other decade was arguably as diverse). The 1980s was also the time when a number of filmmakers replicate the no-fi, lo-fi movements in music Ė filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee (by no means novel given figures like Charles Burnett and John Waters before them) gained huge success on low-budget, self-produced films. Gus Van Sant was another well-known auteur who started in a similar fashion. His debut film, Mala Noche, didnít have the same resonance that his later Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho had, but it broadcast a director who has proven remarkably hard to pin down (after all, heís made everything from Finding Forrester to the Psycho remake to Elephant). In fact, this effervescent, if slight film basically sets up Van Santís career Ė and itís easy to see his subsequent eclecticism resulting from it.

In another parallel to indie musicís key centres, Van Sant made Mala Noche in the Pacific North-West region Ė Portland. (Again this link is unsurprising, given Van Santís ĎKurt Cobainí film, Last Days). The grungy black and white visuals, and uncompromising obsession with mood rather than narrative, almost help define the indie film movement which would gain much more popular prominence as the decade progressed. Two friends from Mexico end up meeting up with shop assistant Walt (Tim Streeter). Walt instantly falls in love with Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), but Waltís obsession barely acknowledges the different paths the two follow. While this theme would become more explicit in Van Santís masterpiece My Own Private Idaho (which this film does act as a primer for, in terms of imagery and themes), the film is actually based on Walt Curtisí autobiographical novel.

Van Santís films rarely feature love ending well, and Mala Noche is no exception in that regard. But thereís something exhilarating nonetheless when Van Sant allows himself to be a bit reckless with form as he does in Mala Noche. And while Van Sant would become much more austere in his formal characteristics in his more challenging work, the film also captures the recklessness, and impetuosity of youth and their shaky loves. Racial and class conflicts are also at the fore in Mala Noche, and colour what ought to be simple sexual conflicts Ė while love is never that simple in Van Santís worldview, itís sure damn pretty to look at.