With its low budget and lush black-and-white imagery, Gus Van Sant's debut feature Mala Noche heralded an idiosyncratic, provocative new voice in American independent film. Set in Van Sant's hometown of Portland, Oregon, the film evokes a world of transient workers, dead-end day-shifters, and bars and seedy apartments bathed in a profound nighttime, as it follows a romantic deadbeat with a wayward crush on a handsome Mexican immigrant. Mala Noche was an important prelude to the New Queer Cinema of the nineties and is a fascinating time capsule from a time and place that continues to haunt its director's work.
The first thing that strikes you about Mala Noche
is the raw, beautiful cinematography--a high-contrast black-and-white that captures the gutters of Portland, OR, like the setting of a long-lost film noir
. Next, you'll be struck that the narrator, a convenience clerk named Walt (Tim Streeter), rhapsodizes about his love for a young Mexican hustler named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) without guilt or fear--perhaps reflecting the rare occasion of a movie by an openly gay filmmaker (Gus Van Sant, making his feature film debut) based on an openly gay autobiographical story (by Portland poet Walt Curtis). Though the movie doesn't have much of a plot--basically, Walt alternately tries to woo Johnny and his friend Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge), gaining little more than a suspicious, combative friendship and some fervid but isolated sex--but the rough but engaging flavor of the storytelling gives the movie momentum and a rich charm. The Criterion edition features two splendid extras: First, a low-key, unpretentious interview with Van Sant (who notes that the movie had the spontaneous and low-tech spirit of the Dogme 95 movement, though made several years earlier); and a ramshackle, pugnacious documentary by Portland-born animator Bill Plympton (I Married a Strange Person!
) about Walt Curtis, who proclaims himself a "jerk-off poet therapist." If there is a Portland aesthetic, this compilation captures it. --Bret Fetzer