What Woody Allen is to New York, Gus Van Sant is to Portland. A longtime Oregonian, Van Sant demonstrates in his films an almost preternatural synchronicity with the city’s various shades, contours, and general atmosphere. The films in the top tier of his oeuvre, such as Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), and Paranoid Park (2007), are all set in and around Portland. Even when the city doesn’t take center stage (his best film, Elephant, was shot and is set in the suburb of Tigard), its mossy, tree-laden ambience seems to pervade the action, imbuing it with an allusive, almost otherworldly quality.
It’s often said that Allen treats New York City like a character unto itself; indeed, what is Manhattan if not a literalist ode to NYC? Conversely, the Van Sant film in which Portland feels the most “alive” is his debut feature Mala Noche, a stunningly photographed 16mm drama about a gay store clerk’s infatuation with a young Mexican drifter. It’s perhaps his most Allenesque treatment of Portland, favoring a more faithful representation over the abstract, ethereal nature of later films like Paranoid Park. The rain-soaked streets, looming streetlamps, and gray skies are shrewdly rendered in the film’s stark black-and-white cinematography, and the cast is peppered with local eccentrics and non-actors playing bit parts; Don Chambers and George Conner appear, most notably.
The overall product is an ideal time capsule of Portland in the mid-’80s, a pre-Portlandia account of the city’s counterculture. It primarily focuses on an area once known as Skid Row, a formerly crummy section of West Burnside now inhabited by such mainstream attractions as Voodoo Doughnut and Powell’s City of Books. The neighborhood’s name derives from the late 1800s, when loggers tasked with working the city’s west hills built “skid roads,” quite literally roads lined with greased skids, which enabled the logs to slide down the hills with greater ease. Skid roads subsequently became associated with areas where loggers lived, characterized by a plethora of seedy bars and flophouses. The skid roads gave way to Skid Row, both a euphemism and an actual place where people of slender means and dangerous habits comingled.
Mala Noche takes place almost entirely in Skid Row, faithfully depicting the grittiness of the neighborhood and the lifestyles of its residents, which ranged from homeless gay youths to successful artists and musicians. The script is an adaptation of an autobiographical novella written by Walt Curtis, a Beat poet whose work is often overlooked in favor of Ginsburg and Kerouac’s, despite his more precise lyricism and superior wit. Curtis spent ample time on Skid Row, where he ran an open-mike poetry night at Satyricon, the legendary punk rock nightclub opened in 1983. Van Sant, whose elliptical use of montage and loose narrative structure beautifully mirrors Curtis’s breezy, occasionally erratic prose, faithfully adapts the story, keeping intact the Bukowskian air of glamorized grunge.
In the film, Walt (Tim Streeter, a longtime Portland theater actor) tries and fails to woo the young Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), an illegal Mexican immigrant who’s arrived in Portland with two friends in tow. The romantic obsession presented in the film seems ripped from Hollywood melodrama (immediately upon meeting him, Walt claims to love Johnny and is undeterred by the fact that Johnny doesn’t speak a word of English, among other seemingly impenetrable cultural and social barriers), yet is wholly a product of its seamy Skid Row milieu. Van Sant doesn’t shy away from the grime of the neighborhood or the heedlessness of his characters: The first night Walt tries to bed Johnny, he settles for Johnny’s friend, Pepper. The subsequent love scene (if you can even call it that) takes place on a grubby sofa and is so devoid of affection or sentiment that Walt finds it proper to momentarily pause the session halfway through so he can grab a tube of Vaseline from his dingy bathroom.
But the sensuous manner in which Van Sant shoots the scene is altogether alluring. Extreme close-ups of indiscernible flesh, bathed in expressionistic black and white, are contrasted by the sounds of the city outside. Cars whizz by and passing trains ring their bells; the constant churn of the city encompasses the scene, reminding us of its relentless presence.
This heightened mixture of lush imagery with squalid content speaks to Van Sant’s infatuation with and veneration of Skid Row. He never looks down or even pities his characters; in fact, he’s quit taken with them and their quirks. (In many ways the film is the New Queer Cinema’s idea of a comedy of manners.) Indeed, the film stands as a testament to a bygone era, a romanticized but nevertheless faithful record of Portland cultural history.