Movie Review
Mala Noche
1985
Director: Gus Van Sant
Cast: Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge, Tim Streeter
A-


hobos! Shot in 1985 for $25,000 on 16mm (and now regrettably blown-up to grainy 35mm), Gus Van Sant’s first feature remains a home movie of the best sort, with jittery black and white shots that fly by so fast they’re barely more than photographs—to start off with: mountains, boys in a boxcar, and a bottle thrown into a puddle. On the soundtrack there’s some Ry Cooderish guitar twanging, and immediately Mala Noche registers as a scrappier variant of Jim Jarmusch’s languid first, Stranger than Paradise, or even Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (all from about the same year), as another piece of ’80s Americana that actually owes most of its outlook to the myths of everyday living from the Great Depression. This despite the fact that Mala Noche concerns urban bohemians, Mexicans, and homosexuals—and makes all of them all-American.

Walt (Tim Streeter) is a white, gay liquor-store worker in Portland, Oregon with a deep, bumbling voice like future Van Sant star Keanu Reeves, and a couple of unrequited crushes he nurses in his spare time on local Mexicans Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), and Pepper (Ray Monge), who tease him openly (if not so sexually) at a distance. When he can, Walt tries paying them for sex, and sometimes succeeds; money, it turns out, may or may not able to buy dreams, though in any case, Walt’s mostly broke. But really, as he more or less confesses over the voice-over (intercut, splinter-like, with dialogue), he just wants to convince the Mexicans how much he’s in love with them. Shot in and with extreme close-ups, visual contrast, and poverty, for all its grunge spirit, Mala Noche’s romanticism thankfully lacks almost all angst together, recognizing even heartbreak and destitution as exhilarating, and youth as too impatient to concentrate on any one feeling for too long; even a voice-over about how angry Walt is plays over a clip of him walking down the street, laughing.


Like Jonas Mekas’ experimental film journals, the movie’s seemingly off-the-cuff shooting and editing, in the glimpses of minute living and the questionably hyperbolic commentary, make for the perfect approximation of a diary, better, even, than the similarly clipped stream-of-consciousness of Walt Curtis’ source short story (“On to Multnomah. The inn there. People. Second highest waterfalls in the U.S.A. An incredible thing. They realize it. Multnomah Falls is a spiritual place.”). And so, as it turns out, the world outside of Walt is hinted at, but not really shown. In one shot, for example, he acknowledges everyone at a bar without the camera seeing a single one of them—but more to the point, the Mexicans deliberately refuse to come into focus. Objects of Walt’s extreme desire, they hang out in the background, somewhat bored and amused by their ability to manipulate Walt, especially in a series of car rides to the country that leave Walt abandoned in the car, abandoned on the side of the road, and eventually involved in a car crash, all, it seems, for the hell of it.

Fringe fantasia, scrapbook romance, Mala Noche, even more dashed-off than its mishmash successors Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, falls perfectly into the über-American autobiographical debut line-up of patchwork films like Killer of Sheep, Badlands, and George Washington (and the not-so-American early movies of Wong Kar-Wai), as it feels improvised in every stage, throwing together bits and pieces of downtime moments (someone waiting for dinner tapping silverware against a glass, someone else shooting a gun wildly out a car at nothing in particular) into a free-wheeling collage, a pulpy crime story, and an ode to being young and unconstrained. Which is all Americana myth, of course—hell if I’d know what it’s like to be in a place where it’s harder to get a paycheck than laid—but it’s Mala Noche’s primary accomplishment that a film limited in every way, in budget, perspective, and subject, is generous as can be to all the nuances of getting by second-to-second. Love and death are thrown into the mix for good measure, suggesting that the film’s real concern is the problem of conquering loneliness in a world where everyone and everyone else is too frightened to appear scared. But first and finally, its achievement is in turning the potentially wearisome, frightening, and humiliating parts of quotidian life into a folk tale radiating swagger and bliss.

Mala Noche is touring the country in a restored print, and will be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD by the end of the year.



By: David Pratt-Robson
Published on: 2007-06-22
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