First Time’s the Charm
Jeff Reichert on Mala Noche

What right does the critic have to step beyond examination of a single artistic artifact and into a larger discussion of that object’s place within an entire body of work? Perhaps more simply put: how acceptable is it to criticize not merely an artist’s choices vis a vis the success of an individual piece of art, but the choice to make that piece, or a group of similar pieces, at all? Do we not look to our artists to follow their whims and inspirations, reporting the world as they see it back to us via whatever lenses they find appropriate at any given moment? Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast analytical rules surrounding these points, and flabby criticism is just as real a prospect as flabby artmaking (we’re all only human, and merely trying to perform our respective roles with grace and dignity, using whatever tools are available). Context, of course, is one of the critic’s most ready aids and bouncing a filmmaker’s most recent work off against similar or dissonant tendencies exhibited in earlier attempts is easy shorthand, and can produce valuable insight, but still may not necessarily be fair or right. Thus, feeling the need to call out a filmmaker for streaks of disingenuous behavior is an uncomfortable position, but such is the case with Gus Van Sant, especially when looking back on his first feature, Mala Noche, which portends a very different filmmaking career than the one we’re now witnessing.

The consistently elusive nature of Gus Van Sant presents difficulties in trying to locate him within the body of American Independent cinema. He’s generally considered an important figure for the movement, but why, exactly? Is it solely for injecting a queer sensibility into the landscape via films like Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho? Or is it for providing a model of success that found him jumping from scrappy beginnings to a place at the small table of success that found independent cinema marginally profitable (albeit briefly), to flirtation with major studio films. Either way, there are few careers that look quite like Van Sant’s. Even now, his Béla Tarr-aping trilogy of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days seems to be morphing into something else with Paranoid Park, which surely will only transmogrify into another avenue further down the road. Is Gus Van Sant a restless experimentalist in the best traditions of independent moviemaking? It remains unclear. Contrasted against someone like Todd Haynes, whose career tangents have all stemmed from the re-application of a fairly rigorous theoretical bent stemming from the intersection of pop and deconstructionism, Van Sant seems intellectually undemanding. Richard Linklater’s tried out just as many modes and genres as Van Sant, but his warm, questioning humanism is always recognizable—we always can tell exactly who made his films. Before Sunset is as much recognizably Linklater’s as A Scanner Darkly or The Bad News Bears. Finding links between Finding Forrester, Psycho, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a somewhat more difficult endeavor.

How did it happen that Van Sant became one of the leading lights of the moment that birthed Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, and others? His first film, Mala Noche is a perhaps too-ready answer. Classic “indie” to the core, Van Sant’s debut is ultra low-budget, features grainy black-and-white cinematography, a queer storyline, and a little punk rock playing over the closing credits for good measure. It doesn’t hurt that the film’s set in Portland, Oregon, lending the whole thing a touch of the regional unfamiliar—a hallmark of the movement’s geographic dispersion and Van Sant’s often Pacific Northwest-based cinema. The seemingly hand-scrawled opening credits play over quick glimpses of the town and its inhabitants: a bottle rolling off the curb into a puddle, a trio of folks posing for the camera, more people waiting in what might be a welfare line. The first card after “Directed by Gus Van Sant” reads “Portland, Oregon” and in John Campbell’s lonesome black-and-white photography, this early-80s vision seems a place far out of time. The general store protagonist that Walt (a believable, low-key Tim Streeter) works in might as well be an ancient saloon. The streets he walks on might as well be those of a frontier mining or logging town.

Mala Noche’s opening, with its murkily impressionist landscapes, lightly plucked guitar arpeggio and beautiful boys in transit follows the blueprint recently adopted by Brokeback Mountain
—love and longing rendered as a force of the natural world. Resonating on that theme, Walt’s first bit of voiceover narration quickly establishes the film’s central dynamic: “Working in the store Sunday all day…I want to drink this Mexican boy Johnny Alonso from LA, near Riverside. He makes my heart throb bum ba de bum bum bump when I see him…All I want to do is caress him, I want to hold him.” The overall sense in these first few minutes is of moody lovelorn pastoral—D.H. Lawrence in denim. This gives way quickly to a grittier, potentially dangerous Portland, but the film makes a point of heading back out of the city for air several times over the course of its brief length (these rural detours are marked with a similar sense of abandoned shackles that characterized the ending of Good Will Hunting, the same spaces that by Last Days were wet with the stink of decay).

After his initial advances in the store frighten off Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), Walt tracks him to a local arcade and convinces the boy to accompany him and gal pal Betty (Nyla McCarthy) home for dinner. The scenes in the arcade take on the quality of a less oppressive Eraserhead—not nightmarish, but still lit chiaroscuro and featuring loud, mildly disorienting sound design. Van Sant and Campbell show their hands as wannabe stylists here and expand on these effects through the film. Not content with merely establishing the kind of clean traditionalism suggested by shot/reverse shots, establishing setups, and whatever other bits of the classic storytelling model that can be cobbled together on a micro-budget with post-recorded dialogue (storyboards included on the new Criterion DVD suggest the extent to which a seemingly offhanded film was actually meticulously planned), nighttime driving sequences during and after dinner work much like early Lynch, using creative lighting to build to a surrealistic effect. It’s a dichotomy explored throughout the film—accessible storytelling mechanics bleeding into more mannered sequences (Walt emerging into a room surrounded by a cloud of smoke late in the film remains particularly notable, and a signpost towards the affectations of My Own Private Idaho). After Walt finds himself locked out of Johnny’s building with Roberto Pepper, another immigrant living in the same apartment, twirling cameras and extreme lighting capture their shadowy, aggressive sex. Voiceover reveals soon after that the title Mala Noche refers to this first night depicted in the film: Walt, in an attempt to seduce Johnny, ends up bedding Pepper who returns the favor by stealing money from his wallet and openly mocking him amongst the tight-knit illegal community.

It’s at this initial dinner, where Walt first interacts with Johnny and his friends, that Van Sant first raises the questions of race that the rest of the film, with its main focus on lovesickness, attempts to gloss over. Walt uses his mediocre Spanish to interpret the story of Johnny’s entrance to the U.S., which was marred by a brutal police assault—will Mala Noche make a forceful plea for amnesty towards illegals? Later in the film, Walt scans a newspaper article about a local rendezvous with a transient similar to his evening with Pepper that ended with violence—a murderous flipside to his own mala noche. But even though there’s a continual misapprehension of language throughout the film—how much do any of the three youths at the center understand what they’re saying to each other—Mala Noche never gets political beyond vague feints in this direction. Walt acknowledges: “A gringo like me has an easy life—a privileged life,” but Johnny and Pepper continually toy with him; Walt’s desire affords them considerable power (which they continually abuse—his car even ends up in a ditch thanks to their clowning). And it’s in the heat of this desire that larger questions of racial objectification and class get subsumed. But even though Van Sant’s swooning shots of his young Mexican characters (shots of beautiful lads resonate throughout his filmography), so fully filtered through the perspective of the film’s lily white protagonist, should raise eyebrows, there’s an easy geniality about the film—a good natured desire to charm that blunts critique. In the end, Mala Noche survives the unanswered racial and sexual questions it raises by being simply, hokey.

The courtship continues. Johnny leaves town, Pepper grows ill, and Walt cares for him. Johnny returns suddenly, more interested in romance. Mala Noche is, on the whole, a much warmer and gentler experience than one might expect from a tale of a queer storekeeper lusting after an illegal immigrant directed by an allegedly outsider director. Old-fashioned in his way, Van Sant balances his aesthetic and his politics on a razor’s edge of accessibility, a pattern that would repeat itself in his breakthrough Drugstore Cowboy. Mala Noche, for all its “indie” qualities, is not much more than a generally sweet tale set in a non-mainstream milieu, a mold that’s become tired, worn, and often worthy of ridicule by now. Like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester—and much of the rest of his career in retrospect—Van Sant’s first feature aims mainly to please, which only seems troublesome in light of how those later films push past pleasure to ingratiation. Even his most recent trio, for all of their distancing effects, have merely ceased attempting audience ingratiation in favor of a more active outreach to the critical community at large. Taken as a product of its time, Mala Noche is a minor triumph, even if it never answers the DIY question: Is the goal of such filmmaking to provide images for an underserved audience, or should it be considered a vehicle for indoctrinating the “mainstream” into the variety of American subcultures? Even so, for all the intellectual confusion Mala Noche engenders, it might just remain Van Sant’s best, most honest movie.