Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mala Noche

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/5/08.

With American cinema focusing on teen films and blockbusters by the 1980s, Hollywood was focusing its efforts in creating films more accessible to a wide audience as opposed to the low-budget, art films that dominated the 1970s. Yet, the influence of 1970s American cinema did become inspirational to a group of young filmmakers who refused to work under the Hollywood system. Directors like Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, and the Coen Brothers would emerge from the new underground world of independent cinema. Another director that was to emerge from that movement would also become one of the unlikely pioneers for Gay & Lesbian cinema in the U.S.

His name is Gus Van Sant, an openly-gay filmmaker from Portland, Oregon who spent his life traveling with his salesman father who explored the world while trying to find a subject to make his first film. In 1981, he made a film called Alice in Hollywood that remains unreleased. Living in Los Angeles for a few years, Van Sant would eventually raise $25,000 for a film that would eventually become his debut feature. It would also become one of the first feature films to depict homosexual relationships in a realistic way that was very anti-Hollywood as it was based on Walt Curtis' semi-autobiographical novel entitled Mala Noche (Bad Night).

Written for the screen, produced, edited & directed by Gus Van Sant, Mala Noche tells the story of a young man who falls for a Mexican immigrant in a strange relationship set in the streets of Portland, Oregon. The film explored the world of homosexuality and street life while conveying the themes of disappointments, heartbreak, and alienation that would define Van Sant's work in the years to come. Starring Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge, Sam Downey, Robert Lee Pitchlynn, and Nyla McCarthy. Mala Noche is a stark yet enchanting debut film from Gus Van Sant.

Working as convenience clerk by day and at times, a janitor a night, Walt (Tim Streeter) is a hopeless romantic trying to live his life without compromise when he meets a Mexican immigrant named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Walt falls for the young Mexican as he relentlessly went after the young man as he sees him at an arcade and asking him if he wants to hang out. Accompanying Johnny was his friend Roberto aka Pepper (Ray Monge) as he is locked out of their hotel since Johnny has the key as Walt and his friend Betty (Nyla McCarthy) invite them for dinner. Walt is hopelessly in love with Johnny as the two with Pepper go out on a night for a town until Johnny's love for driving fast nearly gets them in trouble. With Walt offering to sleep with Johnny for $15, Pepper thinks it's a good idea since they need the money. Instead, Johnny rejects Walt forcing Pepper to spend the night at his place.

After working for an hour as a janitor and returning home, Walt and Pepper have sex but Walt wakes up with $10 missing as he later learns that Pepper and Johnny used the money to buy a camera. After some more fun that involved going on a road trip of sorts, things start to get disheartening when Johnny's love for driving fast nearly gets him in trouble as suddenly, he leaves. Walt feels heartbroken until he learns that Pepper had been left behind. Walt takes Pepper in as he introduces him to numerous people and try to get him a job while waiting for Johnny to return. Though the two have a good time with each other, Walt misses Johnny as he learns he and Pepper aren't really compatible with Pepper more interested in girls and such. Yet, things become tense when finally, Walt's romantic persona is forced to deal with reality as he longs for Johnny more than ever.

Considering the time of the mid-1980s when homosexuality was now deemed as sinful due to the AIDS epidemic, a film like Mala Noche definitely seemed like a very shocking film back then. What was more shocking is Van Sant's portrayal of homosexuality in a way that wasn't politically or shown in a stereotypical way. Instead, there's a realism to the attraction as this young man, with this deadpan style of talking doesn't look or act like a stereotypical gay man. A lot of it is based on Walt Curtis' own life as he is this hopeless romantic, falling for this young, Mexican immigrant who might or might not be gay.

The openness of Walt may have seem shocking at the time when the film was made and later, released but it's the openness that is also an awakening of sorts. Through Gus Van Sant's stylish, low-budget direction, the film has a poetic quality led by the voice-over narration that is from Walt's perspective. While there's not much of a plot in the film, the looseness of the script as well as the misadventures Walt goes into with these two young men. Then there's Walt's perspective on romance and his longing for Johnny. Here is this man, wanting love from someone yet couldn't find fulfillment when Johnny isn't around so he turns to Pepper but that doesn't go well either. It's these themes of disappointments, unfulfilled love, and loneliness that would eventually be part of Van Sant's exploration in the years to come with his upcoming films.

The direction of Van Sant has a dream-like quality of sorts in its somewhat grainy, 16mm black-and-white footage along with a verite style where anything is about to happen. Also serving as the film's editor (that he would do in his recent films), the editing works to convey that loose style of direction though the pacing does lag a bit early on. Yet, when the film meanders a bit through Walt's musings, it does remain attentive into the hijinks and shenanigans that Walt and his friends go through. Van Sant's observant direction definitely carries the film as it works with a sense of style as well as its emphasis on realism.

Cinematographer John Campbell along with Eric Alan Edwards brings a lovely, haunting quality to the film's black-and-white photography. The look of the film may be inspired by European cinema but in its verite, hand-held work, gives it a loose feel and look that is truly amazing as its cinematography is one of the film's highlights. The sound by Pat Baum is excellent to convey that sense of rainy atmosphere of Portland along with the world of arcades, bars, and such as the sound is done naturally and such. The music of Creighton Lindsay is stylish for the film's various moods with a lot of mostly done in an acoustic, Mexican-ballad style with a bit of theremin in the background. The soundtrack is also filled with a variety of styles ranging from mariachi, ranchero, Mexican folk, classical, and alternative rock.

The cast that includes appearances from Matt Cooeyate as one of Johnny's friends from the train ride, Cristos Stoyos as a Greek singer, Don Chambers, Marty Christiansen, and Bad George Connor as a few bar friends. The film's novelist Walt Curtis also makes a cameo as bar patron while Eric Pedersen has a memorable role as a policeman who chases Johnny and Pepper. Sam Downey is good as a cantankerous hotel clerk as is Bob Pitchlynn as a drunken man whom Walt talks to. Nyla McCarthy is excellent as Walt's best friend Betty, though called Sarah in the film, as one of the few real friends of Walt who seems to accept his homosexuality. Ray Monge is excellent as the quiet Pepper who befriends Walt though at time, cheats him as he is later revealed to be something dangerous.

Doug Cooeyate is good as Johnny, the young Mexican who likes to drive fast and cause trouble yet is baffled by Walt’s attraction to him. Finally, there's Tim Streeter as Walt, the laid-back hopeless romantic who pines for Johnny. Yet, Streeter's performance is another highlight of the film as he brings a lot of life and humor to the character as it's a fantastic performance.

When the film was released in 1985, it was an underground hit though an attempt to get it into the 1986 Sundance Film Festival (then known as the U.S. Film Festival) was rejected. Yet, the film did get a release in 1987 as it brought a lot of attention to Van Sant who would eventually, become a revered auteur with such art-house hits as Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho to more mainstream films like To Die For and Good Will Hunting. By 2007, just as Van Sant's reputation as a director proved to be influential that was followed by his recent Death Trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. Mala Noche was rarely seen at the time since it was never available on video or DVD. Van Sant along with a few people including his current sound designer Leslie Shatz did a restoration of the film with a new high-definition transfer and remixed sound for the film to be premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. It was the screening that the time was right for the film to be seen by the public for the first time now on DVD.

The 2007 Region 1 Criterion DVD for Mala Noche features the film in its original, 1:33:1 aspect ration for the full-screen format with a remastered print and remixed sound. While the sound is in mono in Dolby Digital 1.0, it's to maintain the film in its original form as Van Sant supervised the restoration. Included in the Criterion DVD are a few special features. The first is a 25-minute interview from Gus Van Sant recorded in 2007 exclusively for the DVD.

Van Sant discusses his background as the son of a traveling salesman as well as his first film from the 1970s that he didn't he release that ended up being cut to 45 minutes. While working as a sound man in Portland, he discovered a book by Walt Curtis. He met Curtis and discovered the art scene in Portland that was a mix of its punk scene and poetry scene. Van Sant hoped to make a film on Curtis in his style while trying to find ideas on how to tell the story. His crew that included himself, cinematographer John Campbell and soundman Pat Baum since it was all shot in a small budget and a lot of visual style Van Sant admit came from David Lynch's Eraserhead, since that film was also low-budget. Walt Curtis was originally going to play himself but in the end, they decided to get Tim Streeter, a theater actor.

Van Sant then recalls getting the film at the 1987 Berlin Film Festival where his film got passed over in favor of Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Launderette as Van Sant wasn't surprised why it got picked. He also thought about the New Queer Cinema that was starting to come around at the time. He also discussed the spontaneous style of the film that he recently had been doing lately in his recent films that he admit, he got reinspired by the Dogme 95 films. He admits that in some ways, Mala Noche is a Dogme film since they didn't have a lot of money, they didn't use a lot of props and always shot on location.

The second big extra feature is a 63-minute documentary film by animator Bill Plympton entitled Walt Curtis: The Peckerneck Poet. The documentary is basically about the eccentric author as he talks about his love for men and his explicit, offbeat views on sex and such while reciting poems about ejaculation, Levis jeans, and such where at one moment, he gets stopped by the authority. With many scenes of Curtis talking about his background in the Northwest while reciting a poem with a fellow lover in a river. Driving around through towns in Oregon, he recites another poem about cars and sex. The documentary is fun to watch though at times, a bit boring. Plympton's documentary is a shot in a mix of video, 16mm, and all sorts of film as it's a strange documentary about this abrasive, wild, and sometimes, sexist poet.

Two minor special features arrive in the form of a storyboard gallery where Gus Van Sant shows many sketches of the scenes he's setting up and such as well as his idea of framing and compositions. The second minor feature is the film’s original trailer edited by Van Sant that plays to the film's melancholic tone. Accompanying the DVD is a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Dennis Lim of the Village Voice. Entitled Other Love, Lim discusses the film's seminal influence on the gay/lesbian film scene that would eventually become the New Queer Cinema of the early 90s that spawned such directors as Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki. Lim also goes into analysis on the film and its' story and it was considered groundbreaking for its openness in gay films at a time when AIDS was starting to get into the public consciousness. The overall work of the DVD is amazing and it's a must have for any fan of Gus Van Sant.

While not as accessible as arty masterpieces like Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho or his more accessible films like To Die For or Good Will Hunting, Mala Noche is still an interesting yet enchanting debut film from Gus Van Sant. Anyone looking for an idea of early gay cinema in the 1980s should check this film out while fans of Gus Van Sant will be happy to see that this film is out and would become a precursor to some of the films that he would follow. Though it's not perfect, Mala Noche is still an interesting yet lush portrayal of gay love and disappointments from the mind of its novelist Walt Curtis and director Gus Van Sant.

(C) thevoid99 2011

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