Screening Log #6: Mala Noche (1985)

I’ve always held a certain affection for Gus Van Sant‘s films, his variety of styles and openness with form and his ability to place the audience in a position to observe rather than to be proselytized at. From the openness of his death trilogy – Gerry, Elephant, and, Last Days – through to Milk, Van Sant has tackled difficult subject matter in a manner that, while at times off-putting, never spoke down to its audience. Having seen the majority of his films, it was interesting to watch Mala Noche from a perspective privy to what followed from the director.

Gus Van Sant’s first feature film stands both as a slender and lyrical examination of desire but also as a  demonstration  of the themes and motifs that Van Sant would explicate in his later films. Mala Noche follows Walt Curtis (Tim Streeter) in his romantic (or maybe more accurately, carnal) pursuit of a young Mexican immigrant, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who has come to Portland with his friend Roberto Pepper (Ray Monge). Walt tells the audience of his overwhelming desire for Johnny straight away, stating “I want to drink this Mexican boy … he makes my heart throb … when I see him”. Walt bluntly pursues the stand-offish Johnny to largely no avail, their encounters consisting mostly of time together with a third party present. Walt instead ends up developing a sort of relationship with Roberto when Johnny disappears and Roberto falls ill.

Mala Noche PosterWalt exists as a genial presence in the film; he appears affable, forthright and friendly, warm and welcoming. Van Sant  takes pains to show Walt walking down the street greeting people and introducing Robert to a large group of friends at one point. Walt’s desire for Johnny is not born from any sense of loneliness or desperation, but seems a genuine and physical hunger. That Walt’s desire for Johnny is so openly gay is treated matter-of-factly by Van Sant and is not sensationalized or treated as something novel; desire is desire regardless of what gender it traffics between, it is intrinsically and universally human. Despite his benevolent presence, however, Walt is generally unaffected by his engagement with the Mexican immigrants; Van Sant’s film is structured to mirror this disengagement, it’s opening focusing on the landscape and the Mexican boys riding the train, its closing shot shows Johnny fading into Walt’s rear-view mirror, both literally and metaphorically.

As in My Own Private Idaho the road and driving take up significant screen time here. The road becomes analogous to life’s journey and the car movement through life; the influence of Johnny on Walt’s life is given representation by Walt allowing Johnny to drive his car, giving over agency of his passage through life to his infatuation with the young man. Johnny drives fast and recklessly, mirroring his life – or at least how Walt perceives his life – and later, after Roberto drives Walt’s car off the road he tells him “You drive like you fuck”, one assume stubbornly and without taking direction. The connection between this film and My Own Private Idaho extends into the dialogue as well, with Walt stating that he thought Johnny had taken a vacation to Idaho when he had disappeared. That these connections exist should be unsurprising, Van Sant had been working on the script for Idaho in the mid to late 70’s, a full decade before this film was shot.

The black and white stock of the film is starkly contrasted during the night scenes, with little being indistinguishable outside the black and white objects presented. Van Sant frames things by-in-large rather tightly, however, a few prolonged follow tracking shots exist that nod to the detached style he employs in the Death Trilogy. Interestingly, at one point in the film, Walt purchases a video camera and the group film people on the street and themselves and this footage is inserted with colour stock into the film; the end credits of the film are also shown in colour. The black and white reality of Walt is contrasted with the coloured fiction filmed, the credits appearing in colour gesture towards connecting the preceding film with the artifice contained within it.

Mala Noche is an interesting study of desire on its own but when viewed in context within Van Sant’s larger body of work it strikes chords and themes that reverberate through much of his work and can been seen existing incipiently here.

Johnny Takes A Break from Driving

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Comments
One Response to “Screening Log #6: Mala Noche (1985)”
  1. Scott Simms says:

    Van Sant has done a terrific job as America’s premire voice in gay cinema.

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