Gus Van Sant’s 1985 debut Mala Noche is like a myth or urban legend, often heard about, rarely seen. Virtually impossible to find outside of the odd special screening, Mala Noche is released on DVD for the first time by the Criterion Collection. With the impending release of Van Sant’s 12th film this winter, Paranoid Park, this DVD is quite timely, indeed.
Van Sant is a true American auteur, with a career that spans over 20 years and a filmography that includes both independent films and an Oscar winning picture. An art-school graduate turned filmmaker, Van Sant is a master of letting images tell the story. He is notoriously fascinated with those living on the fringe of society, and his films circle the same themes of apathy, alienation, and desire. Van Sant is often categorized as a ‘gay’ director, but homosexuality in his films is simply inherent and not the driving force of the story. Rather, his place is amongst Jim Jarmush, John Sayles, Spike Lee, and other American indie filmmakers who blossomed in the early to mid-‘80s.
Mala Noche‘s original trailer boasts that it is a story of power, sex, money, and death. They weren’t kidding. The film is the tale of the one-sided love affair between Walt and Johnny. Walt (Tim Streeter) is a corner-store cashier in a Portland neighborhood populated with pay-by-day hotels, hustlers, and drunks. He is desperately in love with Johnny, a Mexican teenager who crossed the border and rode the rails all the way up to Portland. Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) doesn’t speak any English, and Walt’s Spanish is not great, but they communicate nonetheless, forming a tenuous friendship. Johnny, though, is indifferent to Walt’s repeated romantic advances, leaving Walt to turn his advances on Pepper, Johnny’s friend. Pepper (Ray Monge) is just as indifferent to Walt, but wise enough to know that he can score a meal and a warm bed out of the deal.
And Walt freely offers what he can, be it a place to crash or a ride in his car. He understands that even as a poor American, he is still better off than the Mexicans. “A gringo like me has an easy life, a privileged life”, Walt says. But Johnny offers what he can, too. Every time he laughs at one of Walt’s jokes, or playfully wrestles with him, he’s selling something that Walt needs as desperately as Johnny and Pepper need his food and money. So Walt’s desire for Johnny keeps growing, leading the three of them to an explosive situation.
As fascinated as van Sant is with the down-and-out’s, he is equally fascinated with boys; young, beautiful, tragic boys who are in fraught relationships with other males, as also evident in My Own Private Idaho, To Die For, and Elephant. Van Sant tells stories about men and male-male relationships, but not the macho bull-headed caricatures that Hollywood spins out; rather he showcases the naiveté and awkwardness that is as strong as the passion between men. Streeter turns in a brilliant performance as the broken and lonely Walt, who is as optimistic as he is dejected.
Filmed in gritty black-and-white with such little lighting that everything looks shadowy and haunted, Mala Noche is most similar to Van Sant’s early films like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). However, all of Van Sant’s films carry the same signatures; the stop-motion clouds, extreme close-ups on random objects, deliberately abstract conversations, and the alt-country soundtrack that makes everything feel dreamlike. As Van Sant says in the supplementary interview, “…I’ve been paring down my filmmaking bad habits as a way to just get back to the way we worked on this film [Mala Noche].”
Mala Noche was filmed in one month, with a three person crew, and paid for with $25,000 of Van Sant’s own money. Upon its release in 1985, there was no immediate category that it fit into. It was too grimy to be art-house, too slow to be mainstream, and too gay to be everything else. It was notoriously rejected by the Sundance Film Festival (then called the US Film Festival). Mala Noche was then was tossed into the gay-movie category although it was unlike the other gay films of that era, such as Parting Glances or My Beautiful Launderette. Retrospectively, Van Sant has since become the de-facto daddy of the New Queer Cinema of the early ‘90s (Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes), and the granddaddy of contemporary American queer cinema.
For Van Sant fans, this DVD is a must-see. The sound and the quality of the black and white film are surprisingly good. Criterion Collection has put together an excellent release.
Some great extras are also included. A huge bonus is an interview with Van Sant, recorded exclusively for this DVD, in which he talks about Mala Noche from conception to conclusion. Another great bonus is the highly amusing, hour-long documentary by Bill Plympton, Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet. Curtis is the Portland street poet whose autobiographical chapbook, Mala Noche and other ‘Illegal’ Adventures, Van Sant based Mala Noche on. There is also a storyboard gallery, the original trailer, and an excellent essay by film critic Dennis Lim.