Gus Van Sant’s first movie feels like an unrequited first love; jagged around the edges, tingling with expectation and inevitably, gorgeously, unsatisfying. Titled “Mala Noche (Bad Night)” and based on the autobiographical novel by Oregon’s cult novelist Walt Curtis, the film is so unabashedly poignant that each frame seems to tremble with held-back sobs. Could Van Sant have ever been so . . . uncalculating, so vulnerable, so walking-open-wounded. Though shot throughout in raw, unpolished monochrome with lighting so bad the film has bouts of black-out, “Mala Noche” feels awash with color, giddy with the rainbow hues of its emotions.

Made in late 1984 and briefly released in 1985, “Mala Noche” sank into oblivion until resurfacing 21 years later during Director’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival. Van Sant said that this was the work he tries to keep coming back to, and indeed fragments of the ghost can be witnessed in almost every one of his films from “Drugstore Cowboy” to “Elephant.” There is however, a hard, glittering truth to “Mala Noche” lacking in all the works that followed it, demonstrating that while some things can be recalled, they just can’t be repeated.

Set in a nether-district of Portland (Van Sant’s favorite city), “Mala Noche” is all about lust and money and being thwarted on both counts. The protagonist is a young, rumpled bartender/shopkeeper named Walt (Tim Streeter) who deals with the city derelicts and scumbags who crowd into his little store from early morning, demanding cigarettes and whiskey. Walt is hail-fellow with everyone in the neighborhood and leads a happy, ambitionless existence until one day Mexican teenager Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) walks in and stands at the counter. Walt immediately falls for this dark vicious-looking boy, obviously having just crossed the border and absolutely broke. Walt turns into a babble-machine, offering the use of his apartment, his car and a basket of hardboiled eggs he sells for breakfast. He gets nowhere since Johnny makes it clear from the get-go that he finds gay men disgusting (pretending to barf on the pavement is his specialty). Unfazed, Walt tries harder and invites Johnny and his stalwart companion Pepper (Ray Monge) over for a vegetarian dinner, cooked by woman friend, Betty (Nyla McCarthy), who chatters about how the boys should “eat better food and take care of yourselves!” Johnny likes Betty, but she’s obviously too old for him and the four spend the evening just trying to communicate, which isn’t easy since the Mexicans don’t speak English and Walt knows only the most rudimentary Spanish. After that, Johnny thaws enough to visit the shop on occasion and accept Walt’s gifts of snacks and coffee, while still not saying much except to declare that he will not sleep with Walt. Beside himself with ardor, Walt bumblingly offers cash (“What if I gave you 25 bucks?”) and even scales the fire escape in Johnny’s fleabag hotel in an attempt to get into his room.

Mala Noche
Director Gus Van Sant
Run Time 78 minutes
Language English and Spanish
Opens Opens July 21, 2007

Walt, in fact, does all the stupid stuff guys usually do when they’re hot in pursuit of a love object and knowing all too well what buttons to push, while Johnny strings him along like a poodle on a particularly painful leash. At the end of the day however, Johnny comes off the victim/loser; he’s homeless, cashless and has zero prospects for the future. Cruising the streets by day and disappearing on mysterious errands at night, Johnny looks more bruised by life with each passing day. And then inexplicably, he disappears. Out of despair, Walt takes Pepper under his wing and consummates the relationship. It’s his way of holding on to Johnny, and Pepper — knowing that he’s just a substitute — takes full advantage of Walt’s generosity.

“Mala Noche” was shot in the space of four weeks on a budget of $20,000 saved up by Van Sant when he was working for an ad agency. He didn’t have the money to hire professional actors, and everyone in the film is more or less new to the game, especially Doug Cooeyate, who had never acted in his life. Unlike Johnny he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish but his dark, penetrating stare and a willingness to work on a salary of 20 bucks a day (this, when illegal Mexican workers in Portland were pulling in $500 a week) got him the role. His Johnny is mindful of a wild animal: uncommitted and ruthless. But the freedom that he thought was his keeps eluding him. Walt reminds Johnny often that in order to survive in the U.S. he needs money, a job and a passport — the means to be free calls for an incarceration Johnny isn’t ready for.

For all his moaning over the cold Mexican boy, Walt is the one who has his freedom and security. And when the memory of Johnny has faded, he’ll find someone else to offer gifts and share his mattress on the floor. The last, wordless look they exchange is an acknowledgment of all these things and for this one time, it looks like it’s Johnny, and not Walt, who’s choking back tears.

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