October 10, 2007
Mala Noche (1985) was Gus Van Sant’s feature film debut and an early example of what would become known as New Queer Cinema in the 1990s. More significantly, it was the first film in an informal trilogy set in Portland, Oregon that would also include Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and My Own Private Idaho (1991). One can see, in retrospect, Mala Noche as the thematic blueprint for these two other films: a fascination with street life and the characters that inhabit it – hustlers, store clerks and street kids.
Walt (Streeter) works the register at a scuzzy liquor store. One day, he encounters a young Mexican immigrant named Johnny (Cooeyate) and is immediately smitten. Walt invites Johnny over to his place and makes dinner for him and his friend Pepper (Monge) with the help of his friend Betty (McCarthy). After dinner, they all dance in the kitchen and one is immediately struck by the intimacy of this scene that evokes the personal films of John Cassavetes or the black and white minimalism of Jim Jarmusch’s early work. Walt spends the film pining for Johnny and thinking up excuses to see him.
While working as a soundman on a Portland-based independent film called Property, Van Sant met Walt Curtis, a local poet acting in the film. He read Curtis’ semi-autobiographical chapbook Mala Noche but it was years before he decided to make it into a film. Van Sant shot it in 16mm with $25,000 of his own money. The film has a gritty look thanks to the murky black and white cinematography of John Campbell (who would work with Van Sant again on My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) that suggests film noir (with skewed angles and everything filmed in shadows) but because it’s a Gus Van Sant film there is a Beat poet vibe as the characters reside in cheap, run-down apartments, seedy liquor stores and the grungy, rainy streets of Portland.
Tim Streeter does an excellent job as Walt, the quintessential Van Sant protagonist cursed with too much self-awareness. He has street smarts and an endearing romantic streak that the actor conveys so well. Streeter has a real presence – you can’t take your eyes off him – that makes him interesting to watch. Aside from a guest spot on 21 Jump Street and an appearance in a Sam Shepard play, he has done no other film or television work which is a real shame because he showed such promise with Mala Noche.
Watching Mala Noche now, it is striking to see the echoes and traces of this film in Van Sant’s subsequent work, especially his two other Portland films. Walt narrates his own story, like Bob (Matt Dillon) in Drugstore Cowboy while his unrequited love for a heterosexual guy is reminiscent of Mike’s (River Phoenix) relationship with Scott (Keanu Reeves) in My Own Private Idaho. In some respects, there are aspects of Walt in both Bob and Mike. Bob has the same streetwise savvy while Mike has Walt’s hopeless romanticism. Mala Noche even juxtaposes gritty Portland streets with beautiful, pastoral shots of the open, country road like in Private Idaho. Because Mala Noche was Van Sant’s first film, it has a rough-around-the-edges feel and a certain vitality and energy that was carried through his two other Portland films but seemed to disappear once he dabbled for awhile in Hollywood. Fortunately, his recent trilogy of death-obsessed films, Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005) sees a return to his looser, more experimental roots.
“Gus Van Sant Interview” is a typically low-key extra that features the filmmaker talking about a variety of topics, including his early filmmaking effort and how it led to making Mala Noche. He also talks about Walt Curtis and the poets’ scene that existed at the time he made the film. Van Sant also talks about the screenwriting process and how reading Stanley Kubrick’s scripts influenced his own. The director talks at length about making the film with his own money and with a very small cast and crew.
“Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet” is a 1995, hour-long documentary by animator/filmmaker Bill Plympton about Curtis. The poet describes himself as “a kind of jerk-off poet therapist,” reads his work and offers observations about life in a very colourful way.
Also included is a “Storyboard Gallery” with copies of the boards that Van Sant used while filming.
Finally, there is a trailer.