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Mala Noche

Mala Noche(1986)

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Gus Van Sant's intimate black and white tale of l'amour fou has been hailed as a precursor to the American wave of queer cinema that started to swell in the late eighties. Its credentials are established in the opening lines as Walt (Tim Streeter), a counter jockey at a hole-in-the-wall liquor store, gazes upon Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant with fleshy lips, a wide, youthful grin, and a streak of juvenile machismo. "I want to drink this Mexican boy, Johnny Alonzo," he rhapsodizes in voice-over, and he spends the rest of the movie doing all he can to get next to this beautiful boy ("He says he's 18, but he's probably 16," Walt confesses). Johnny is full of attitude and sass and contempt for his gay admirer, but not too proud to take advantage of Walt's desire for his company to score a handout at the store or a turn behind the wheel of Walt's car (which he pilots with the reckless mania of a teenager on a video game).

Walt's homosexuality isn't a statement, it's a given, and the sexual politics are presented with such matter-of-fact directness that they simply become part of the cultural chasm between Walt and Johnny and the social landscape of the skid row of Van Sant's adopted Portland, Oregon, home. The film is a study in infatuation and rejection, euphoria and frustration, and Van Sant observes their dance of desire and dismissal and wary coexistence without judgment. But it's also a portrait in life on the streets, of survival on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

Mala Noche also harkens from a time when independent cinema was often regional cinema and films could grow from within a community, drawing identity and color from the crucible of local culture and the physical world of its environs. Shot for $25,000 on 16mm black-and-white film, it captures the physical and social atmosphere of Portland's run down Northwest area, of transient motels and liquor in corner stores and a homeless population loitering in the streets, with such vivid detail that you can recognize the authenticity without ever having set foot in the real life location.

Mala Noche was Van Sant's debut feature, though by his own admission it wasn't his first attempt at a feature. He shot a comedy in Los Angeles in the seventies called Alice in Hollywood, which he ended up cutting down to under an hour and then just gave up on. "It really didn't get anywhere, it wasn't that good," he confesses in a 2007 interview. It was a comedy and it really wasn't that funny." After getting some attention with a short called The Discipline of D.E., adapted from the William Burroughs short story, he headed to Portland, Oregon (where he had spent some time during his childhood, one of the many places his salesman father moved the family for his job). After meeting Portland "street poet" Walt Curtis on a film job, serving as a sound recordist on a 1979 film called Property, he read his quasi-autobiographical novel "Mala Noche" and decided to adapt his work.

Curtis was originally slated to play himself but Van Sant started having second thoughts as the shooting neared. He thought that, though Curtis is a good screen presences, "it's a little schizophrenic paying yourself" and decided to cast around. He found his Walt in Tim Streeter, who had been performing locally in a Sam Shepard. Doug Cooeyate, who looks so perfect in the part of the young Mexican immigrant Johnny, was actually a Native American high school kid from the middle class Portland suburb of Beaverton who simply showed up at a casting call. He didn't speak a word of Spanish and his dialogue was all dubbed (which explains the curious credit: Arturo Torres as the voice of Johnny). Ray Monge, who plays Johnny's buddy "Pepper," was found in a Portland boxing club.

Van Sant shot on the streets of Northwest Portland and rural areas outside the city, scouting locations on the fly and shooting as they went with a minimal crew – for the most part limited to Van Sant, cinematographer John Campbell, and sound recordist Pat Baum – and the small cast. In his own words, "It was pretty unorganized." He describes his adaptation more as a sketch than a conventional script and he worked largely from storyboards. Rehearsals were minimal and lighting, limited to a small collection of spotlights and a soft fill light, was kept simple and practical. For the dusky store interiors and night scenes, it resulted in a high contrast look, a small island of hard light on the action while the rest of the image faded into inky blackness. It gives the film a dramatic palette that pushes the largely handheld camerawork and loose, improvisational performances into a state of heightened naturalism.

The 1984 production never had real theatrical distribution or a home video release until Criterion, working with Van Sant, brought it to DVD in it's "Director-Approved" edition. The high definition transfer is, in a word, gorgeous, revealing a crisply shot daytime scenes with a wide range of gray tones, and high contrast night scenes and interiors with a dynamic chiaroscuro palette. Van Sant sits down for a 24-minute interview recorded for the DVD, where he describes the origins of the project and the production of the film, and briefly talks about the culture of gay cinema of the time and the direction of his career. He describes his most recent films - Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park - as a return to the freedom and evocative simplicity of Mala Noche.

The disc also features Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet, a 1997 documentary feature on the author of the novel Mala Noche by Portland animator and filmmaker Bill Plympton, a gallery of Gus Van Sant's storyboards, and the original trailer, which Van Sant edited himself. The accompanying booklet features a new essay by film critic Dennis Lim.

For more information about Mala Noche, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Mala Noche, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker