When Judge Ben Saylor has a mala noche, it's usually because he's had a few too many Cheesy Gordita Crunches.
"If you f*** with the bull, you get the horn."—epigraph of Mala Noche
Few careers have been as varied as that of director Gus Van Sant, who has made some of modern film's most insightful, challenging works (To Die For, Elephant, Gerry) and also some of its more unfortunate offerings (the Psycho remake, anyone?). But before his excellent sophomore feature Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant made a little film called Mala Noche (Bad Night). Based on an autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis and shot in black-and-white on a shoestring budget, Noche is a memorable debut showcasing a filmmaker of immense promise.
Facts of the Case
Walt (Tim Streeter) works in a small store in Portland, Oregon. When he lays eyes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a young Mexican, it's love (or lust) at first sight. Johnny spurns Walt's affections, although he does allow him to tag along with him and his friend Roberto, a.k.a. "Pepper" (Ray Monge), who is more receptive (or less resistant) to Walt.
All right, I know what you're thinking: A three-sentence summary? What else happens? But really, that's about it. Walt wants Johnny, but Johnny's really not interested and disappears for a while, so Walt takes up with Roberto. It's like the Stephen Stills song "Love the One You're With."
Anyway, Mala Noche is a pretty strong debut. While it's obviously made on a low budget and the story is slight, it is a very assured film with energy that never flags during its scant 78-minute runtime (74 without credits).
When I started watching Noche, I was caught off guard by the rapid cutting and overall speed with which Van Sant moves the viewer into the narrative. Within five minutes Walt has met Johnny and unsuccessfully tried to kiss him. Walt's intentions are made clear even before the rebuffed kiss. In his beginning narration, he says, "I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo, from L.A. near Riverside." Later, he tells a friend, "I want to show him that—that I'm gay for him." The narration throughout the film is frequently as to-the-point as that first quote, which in most movies would be a grating drawback, but here it works because, as Van Sant himself notes in an interview on this DVD, the film is so subjective (from Walt's point of view) that we really need certain things spelled out in narration.
The unabashedly smitten Walt persists despite Johnny's unambiguous lack of interest. Walt even offers Johnny cash for sex, which he turns down despite Roberto's support of the idea. In a later scene, Walt climbs a fire escape in a comically desperate search for the object of his desire. In a way, Walt's hopeless romanticism foreshadows River Phoenix's character in My Own Private Idaho, and Walt's audacity runs hand-in-hand with Van Sant's own audacious filmmaking here. Without trivializing the proceedings, Van Sant's exuberant directorial hand makes this a distinctive work that's fun to watch. In one amusing sequence, a police officer chases Johnny, who hides behind a mailbox. Van Sant's camera hides with Johnny as he peeks around the corner to check if the coast is clear. This is not to say that the film is a lark; Van Sant stages a powerful flashback sequence where Roberto, Johnny, and a third man are ambushed by police officers when trying to sneak into the United States. The effective use of sound, lighting, and editing in this sequence is superb, and it also skillfully serves as a portent of what is to come later in the film.
While I don't know if anyone would mistake Streeter for a professional actor, he gives a solid performance as Walt. Neither Cooeyate nor Monge makes a particularly strong impression, but the movie really belongs to Streeter.
Van Sant's energetic camerawork is a big asset to Mala Noche; he varies his framing and moves the camera enough to keep things interesting. Director of photography John Campbell (who also shot the Van Sant films My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) gives the Portland locations an interesting film noir look (something else Van Sant touches on in the DVD interview). Sometimes the lighting is at a high enough contrast, with the camera at a skewed angle, that the look is almost German Expressionistic. While it is sometimes hard to make out what is going on, the look of the film is still a highlight.
The Criterion Collection has presented Mala Noche in what I'm guessing is the best possible transfer that could have been made from this film. Like the recent Criterion release of 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, the image is inevitably grainy, but this is still a fine-looking disc. The sound presentation handsomely shows off Creighton Lindsay's evocative music.
For extras, there is a new interview with Van Sant that runs about 25 minutes. Van Sant is very informative, and he has a lot of thoughtful things to say about his first film. The other substantial (in size, at least) feature is a documentary called Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet, a documentary about Curtis directed by himself and Bill Plympton. Running a trying 63 minutes, the film consists largely of Curtis performing his poems in various venues: at a rodeo; inside his car while driving (and drinking, sometimes); in a public restroom (where an unseen patron gives an unfriendly critique); and so on. This is interesting—for about 15 minutes. It's a bit of a chore watching the whole thing, although some of it is so out there that it (almost) has to be seen to be believed; at one point, the filmmakers record what appears to be Curtis masturbating (the framing is discreet, but Curtis leaves little to the imagination). In short, if you love explicit poems about anal sex (with accompanying sketches), this movie is for you. Also on the disc is a trailer for Mala Noche edited by Van Sant, which I wouldn't recommend seeing before the film itself. Finally, there is a storyboard gallery. The booklet contains an essay by film critic Dennis Lim.
While the story is slight and the acting is not quite on the level that is seen in later Van Sant films, Mala Noche has a vitality and low-key charm that makes it a must-see for fans of the director.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Director Gus Van Sant
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