Mala Noche: First Queer Film?

Gus Van Sant’s very first feature, “Mala Noche” (“Bad Night”), put him on the map of the then nascent independent cinema. “Mala Noche” follows the doomed infatuation of Walt (Tim Streeter), a clerk in a skid-row convenience store, with a Mexican immigrant and street hustler, Johnny (played by the Native American Pueblo Indian Doug Cooeyate), who barely understands one word of English. The source material is a novella by Walt Curtis, a Portland street poet. Van Sant kept the manuscript, which was “sexually explicit like a dirty book,” under his bed for years, reading and rereading it, eagerly waiting for the time he could translate it into a more personal film.

Walt is played by the plain, chubby ordinary-looking Tim Street, a Seattle stage actor. Van Sant cast local Portland figures in the leads that do not look like Hollywood actors playing male hustlers, such as Richard Gere in Paul Schrader’s “American Gigolo.”

“Mala Noche” begins with images of young outsiders, down-and-out characters in the marginalized section of Portland’s inner city. After the credits, there is a slogan, “If you fuck with the bull, you get the horn.” Walt, a thirtysomething white man who works as a manager of a liquor store, is a well-adjusted homosexual who likes the company of ethnic migrant workers.

The main thread of the plot is Walt’s sexual attraction to Johnny, an illegal newcomer who wanders into the shop. Van Sant shows the landscape of the Northwest from Johnny’s P.O.V., from the first act, in which he is seen on a railroad boxcar. The narrative, which is slight in ideas but rich in imagery, unfolds as a variation of “amour fou,” a one-sided love affair between a mature Caucasian man, first infatuated and then obsessed with a Mexican youngster who simply doesn’t care about him. By standards of most characters in American cinema, Walt is a loser–he is unkempt, unshaven, wearing an old and dirty raincoat, spending time in seedy bars drinking. He proudly declares to a female friend: “I’m in love with this boy. I don’t care even if it jeopardizes working at the store. I have to show him I’m gay for him.”

In contrast, Johnny, like other runaways and street hustlers, enjoys playing with his buddies in a video arcade. Insisting he is straight, Johnny says he has no use for “putos,” a pejorative for homosexuals; the Spaniard Almodovar uses the equally pejorative term “maricones.” Nonetheless, Johnny makes exceptions if the gringos have money–cash money—and cars. Socializing with white gay men is tolerated so long as they provide materialistic favors, proving to be “friends with benefits.” Essentially, Johnny exploits Walt, eating at his expense, driving around in his car. Never mind that the vehicle is ramshackle, it still enables Johnny to move around and show off to his Mexican mates who are poorer and in worse positions.

Prominent among Johnny’s buddies is Pepper, played by the local amateur boxer, Ray Mongue. Based on mutual exploitation, the relationship between Walt, as the older mentor-tutor, and Johnny and Pepper, as the uneducated but desirable simpletons, is peculiar to say the least. It is defined by occasional sexual encounters, laced with touches of sado-masochism. When Walt allows Pepper to drive his car, the boy proves to be a lousy driver, landing the car in a ditch, despite Walt’s careful instruction and repeated warning. “You drive like you fuck,” Walt says, exasperated.

Speaking of sex, it’s hard to describe Walt’s encounters with Pepper as real love-making, reflecting Van San’t shy personality, conservative upbringing, and the refusal of his “actors” to be shown naked, or engaged in explicit sexual positions. There’s extreme cautiousness in showing briefly frontal nudity, when Walt strips off his clothes. Van Sant just shows Pepper spread on a sleeping bag on the floor. Through meticulous editing and darkly-shadowed intercuts, Van Sant creates the illusion of intercourse, while focusing on the participants’ faces rather than bodies. This ultra-careful approach to sex would continue to characterize Van Sant’s films, even when they concern straight love-making, such as the oral sex between Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix in “To Die For.”

Van Sant’s motivation behind “Mala Noche” was to make an honest, non-judgmental movie about a subject that mainstream Hollywood could never make. Self-financed, it was shot on cut-rate stock in black-and-white. The meager $25,000 budget came from Van Sant’s savings after years of working at an advertising agency in New York. Low as its price was, however, it took almost a decade to recoup the film’s expense.

An admirer of Andy Warhol’s underground movies, Van Sant said that the making of “Mala Noche” was inspired, among other things, by the commercial appeal of the 1981 gay movie, “Taxi Zum Klo” (“Taxi to the Toilet”), which screened at the New York Film Festival and then played commercially in New York’s Cinema Studio (my neighborhood) for six months. In that personal movie, the German director Frank Ripploe chronicles in graphic detail and with dark yet realistic humor, the sexual adventures of a gay schoolteacher in West Berlin, boldly culminating in a coming out-scene (in drag) in front of his pupils. Other artistic influences on van Sant at the time included David Lynch, who shot his first two movies, the underground “Eraserhead” in 1977, and the 1980 studio-financed, star-driven “The Elephant Man” in heightened black-and-white contrasts. Lynch’s 1977 AFI-made debut was particularly influential in its lighting style and expressionist visuals. “Mala Noche” contains expressive close-ups of the Mexican youth, of dark shots of ashtrays, cigarettes, and smoke, which fit the tale’s nocturnal nature.

The locations in “Mala Noche” are grim sites of Portland’s Burnside region, depicting shabby buildings, rundown motels, cheap grocery stores, and dark, filthy streets. Mixing distinctive exterior and interior vistas of the Pacific Northwestern locale with nihilistic, darkly humorous sensibility marked the arrival of an exciting talent.

The “New Yorker” critic, Pauline Kael, singled out the film’s “authentic grungy beauty,” and its “wonderfully fluid, grainy look,” which she found expressionist yet made with improvised feel that recall Jean Genet’s short film, “Un Chant D’Amour.” (Genet proved to be inspirational figure to all the filmmakers in this book). “Mala Noche” received scant attention before winning the L.A. Film Critics Association Award for Best Independent Film, in appreciation of its authentically personal nature. This recognition emphasized the importance of critics for the promotion of esoteric fare, turning “Mala Noche” into a staple of the festival and art-house circuits.

It took years for “Mala Noche” to get a legit theatrical distribution–in December 1989, to be exact–beyond the festival circuit. By that time, Van Sant was already in his late 30s and about to release his next feature, “Drugstore Cowboy.” Following Kael, the other critics responded favorably, as evident in Peter Rainer, a Kael protégé, in his Los Angeles Times review: “The ardor in this film isn’t only in its love story; it’s also in Van Sant’s experimental, poetic use of the medium.” Rainer stated that “Van Sant can’t pretend true nihilism, because he is too enraptured in the possibilities of his new-found art.” Other critics also singled out Van Sant’s penchant for depicting the romanticism of losers, without succumbing to soft-headedness or sentimentalism. In the “Washington Post,” Hal Hinson observed: “Van Sant is fascinated by the poetic allure of poor beautiful boys riding the rail into the promised land and ending up dead, crumpled on the pavement in the middle of a street, thousands of miles away from home.”

“Mala Noche” still remains a model of romantic film grunge for young independent directors. The film displays ideas and themes that would recur in Van Sant’s future works: unfulfilled love, unrequited romantic yearning, and a vivid sense of life’s ironies and absurdities. Most relevant to this book’s concerns is Van Sant’s refusal, from the beginning of his career, to treat homosexuality (and sexual orientation) as a “problem,” or a phenomenon that needs to be discussed or judged—in any explicit way. The sexual orientation (lesbians and straights included), sexual practices, and sexual identities of his characters are taken as given, alongside other social attributes. In fact, Johnny and Pepper’s national background, ethnic minority, social class, and outsiders’ position are far more important in “Mala Noche” than whether or not they sleep with Walt, or how they perceive themselves. Van Sant doesn’t bother to define precisely Johnny or Pepper as male prostitutes or street hustlers who would sleep with anyone.
Earning acclaim beyond the festival circuit, “Mala Noche” soon attracted Hollywood interest, and Van Sant was courted by major studios, such as Universal. He pitched some ideas (which would come to fruition in his features, “Drugstore Cowboy” and “My Own Private Idaho”), but the established companies showed no interest. Van Sant would direct the studio-financed “Psycho,” a remake of Hitchcock’s 1960 classic, in 1998, after the success of “Good Will Hunting.”