"I wanna show him that I'm gay for him," Walt (Tim Streeter) says early on in Mala Noche. He's in love with a fresh-off-the-train Mexican named Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), but of course that isn't true. In writer/director Gus Van Sant's world, love is a sad, funny whimper, spoken for affect, as when River Phoenix huddles next to Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho, trying to express feeling in a hustler's cold language: "I really wanna kiss you, man." Real love is never satisfied, and sex is always painful, which is Van Sant's tragic-poetic view of gay culture condensed into an image, from the two disillusioned youths soaping each other up in Elephant to the anxious physical encounter between two friends lost in the desert in Gerry. You can't find love until you find home, and none of Van Sant's characters can even find themselves.
Armond White recently wrote that Mala Noche "unabashedly romanticizes Walt's gay attraction to Johnny." To be sure, it's Van Sant's most picturesque work: Shot in stark black and white, the movie plays like a reverie to Walt's white, privileged lust. A simmering pot of water and the dewy surfaces of Portland become wistful metaphors for Walt's unrequited crush. His daydreaming voiceover is echoed in the textures of city life, a la Woody Allen's Manhattan, but while, almost 30 years later, Allen's best film still feels like a pretty paean to his own ego, Mala Noche packs intellectual honesty. Van Sant understands how Walt's presumptuous come-ons—offering Johnny $15 for a night's fuck—are wound up in the destructiveness of the gay underclass, and so his story moves with the cyclical motions of a bad night (mala noche) or, more appropriately, a bad dream.
Walt buys an old film camera and uses it to record his playful adventures with Johnny, a sign that Van Sant is complicit in his characters' transgressions, editing them into precious visual poems. White and other critics have accused the director of "race and class indifference," but Van Sant's approach has always been personal and deeply confessional, if not outwardly political. When Walt shamelessly exploits Johnny's friend Roberto for a cheap fuck, Roberto returns the favor by leaving his ass bruised the next morning. Walt's grating recap reaffirms the way gay men delude themselves with petty ideas about sexuality and race: "Macho motherfucker. They'll all have a good laugh about how they fucked the gringo."
Criterion's new DVD release of Mala Noche doesn't try to shed much contemporary light on Van Sant's first feature, instead pitching it as a "time capsule." As an introduction to the New Queer Cinema movement, it is. But Mala Noche has also given modern gay films (from Mysterious Skin to Hellbent) a language through which to frame gay existence. Lonely and disconnected but deeply in need of human contact, these are the men Annie Proulx meant to characterize in Brokeback Mountain but which Ang Lee senselessly whitewashed. To call Van Sant's seminal film trashy or backward—or simply a "time capsule"—is to ignore the insights into gay life it still holds today, when it's more or less impossible to point out a single "tasteful" gay film that's worth watching.
Image/Sound/Extras: I still have trouble believing Johnny is every bit as attractive as Walt thinks he is, but Criterion's digital transfer of Mala Noche (supervised by Van Sant) is gorgeous for sure—still lush, inky and grainy in all the right places with no annoying artifacts or edge enhancement to speak of. Sound is equally full and impressive, especially for a low-budget first feature.
Van Sant speaks calmly and deliberately on the interview recorded for this Criterion edition, like an artist who knows his own skill and has no need to flaunt it—or, if you buy Armond White's argument, like a chicken hawk afraid to speak off-the-cuff. What's actually going on in the director's head is still something of a mystery, but at least he provides some incisive commentary on how Mala Noche's boldness helped launch New Queer Cinema and the hobo-poet's paradise (Portland, Oregon) that is his shooting ground. Much less informative is Walt Curtis, the Peckerneck Poet the 1995 documentary on the author whose memoir laid the groundwork for the film. No wonder Van Sant ultimately decided not to cast the Portland writer in his own role: he's a completely obnoxious character. The first 10 minutes should give you a substantive enough look at Curtis's art-on-the-edge-of-madness; then you'll want to take a long shower.
Paul Schrodt is a sophomore in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He writes for Slant Magazine, North by Northwestern, and Stranger Song, a blog he runs with fellow House contributor Robert Humanick.