Physically and spiritually, the characters of Mala Noche are in constant stasis, whether en route from Mexico to the States or from one dank apartment room to the next. Gus Van Sant’s gritty, dirty, lyrical, altogether sensual debut feature frames their homosexual existence as one of nomadic isolation, an identity constantly in flux and only preserved through a perpetual sense of redefinition; life is a crapshoot and its many necessities (food, shelter, love, companionship) are but luxuries that some win, some lose. The title is explicitly invoked by the narrating protagonist the morning after a rough one night stand, but the film goes one further and suggests that his existence as a whole is not unlike one prolonged act of fumbling in the dark.
As adapted from the biographical novel of the same name by the poet Walt Curtis (who briefly cameos in a barroom scene), Van Sant’s film approaches its material with an appropriately disorganized narrative, one as reliant on chance as its easygoing main character. Walt (Tim Streeter, in a brilliant performance that remains the only one of his career)—a lower-class shopkeeper who lives a necessarily minimal existence—longs for the young Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a Mexican boy who frequents his store and is by turns repulsed and intrigued by his friendly advances. Prone to tangents of thought and chance social encounters, Mala Noche ebbs and flows with the currents of its rain-soaked urban environment, while the occasional trip to the countryside is like a much-needed moment of clarity away from the barely restrained madness of it all. Van Sant and his cast left much to chance during production, often forgoing the specifics of the script and allowing the film to piece itself together, already taking on a life of its own. The result is a film that feels less like a manmade work than it does a naturally formed document observing a niche of the human experience from the sidelines, approaching it from different perspectives and uncovering subtleties unknown even to its subjects.
Even at this stage in his career, Van Sant can be seen masterfully weaving image and sound—often through subtle, repetitious use of the latter (in the form of a rumbling air conditioner, rainfall, passing escalator trains) to complement a hazy montage of the former—as a means of creating a distinct physical and emotional space to be shared by both his characters and the audience. Unable to share his love with Johnny (an attempt to buy sex from him falls flat), Walt settles for a late-night fuck with Johnny’s friend Roberto (Ray Monge), who slips a 10-dollar bill from Walt’s pants after the fact and doesn’t even acknowledge their encounter in the following days. Like the wandering souls searching for salvation in his incomparable “death trilogy,” Van Sant juxtaposes these individuals onto their habitat like creatures lost in a barely navigable jungle, users and abusers but also friends and lovers. In retrospect, the modesty of Mala Noche only adds to its revolutionary qualities, not only paving the way for the likes of Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki but permanently establishing its maker as a profound presence to be reckoned with. That the bulk of our film culture still doesn’t know what to do with Van Sant is indicative of his importance to the medium.
This transfer of Mala Noche is nothing short of remarkable given its low-budget 16mm source, with an image that remains relatively spotless save for the occasional, unavoidable celluloid scratch down the center of the screen. The black-and-white cinematography retains the rich depth of its lusty blacks and just the right amount of grain (cigarette smoke has rarely looked so good as when it emanates from Tim Streeter's nostrils). Sound is similarly impressive for a mono track-the simple nature of which suits the film aesthetically-and even though this isn't exactly something you'll want to use to show off your surround system, dialogue is crystal clear and every guitar twang reverberates beautifully through the soundtrack.
Central to this disc's extras is the hour-long documentary "Walt Curtis, the Peckerneck Poet," a fascinating look at the author behind Mala Noche's source material that proves almost as edifying as the film itself. Curtis's antics are of the formally off-putting, gnarly kind, but they speak profoundly to art as life, particularly during an encounter when his enthusiastic reading of a poem is mistaken for pornography by an offended onlooker. Lacking is a feature-length commentary for the film but the soft-spoken director is likely better suited to the shorter format of the Criterion-exclusive interview available here, in which he discusses his influences, the production of Mala Noche, and the touch-and-go nature of the script. Cinephiles will want to check out Van Sant's sketchy yet comprehensive notes in the storyboard gallery, plus the original trailer as edited by the director himself. Located in the liner notes is an illuminating essay on the film, and Van Sant's career to date, by critic Dennis Lim.
Before hitching up with Jack and Ennis, be sure to check out the true roots of queer cinema via this fabulous package courtesy of Criterion.