Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For June, we celebrate the birthday (and the sensitive, insightful eye) of Gus Van Sant. Read the rest of our coverage here.
It’s safe to say that Gus Van Sant has had one of the more interesting careers as a Hollywood auteur. The fact that he’s an openly gay man is notable enough, let alone that, after achieving mainstream success, he prioritized artistically, rather than commercial, driven projects. He’s released critical darlings like My Own Private Idaho, major box office hits like Good Will Hunting, and atrocious flops like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. With such a storied filmography, what can a debut tell us?
Van Sant’s directorial debut, Mala Noche (a/k/a Bad Night), was an indie darling that opened the doors for the director to be welcomed into the Hollywood mainstream. In the later part of his career, Van Sant didn’t lose the unconventional sensibilities from the art house films he cut his teeth on. Mala Noche is the foundation on wich the budding director built his career.
Based on the eponymous novel by Portland street poet Walt Curtis, Mala Noche depicts a gay bodega clerk from Portland, Walt Curtis (Tim Streeter), and his obsession with a young undocumented immigrant, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). While Johnny constantly rebuffs Walt’s advances, and eventually leaves Portland, Walt becomes entangled with Johnny’s friend Roberto, a/k/a Pepper (Ray Monge). Pepper crashes at Walt’s apartment, occasionally engaging in sex with Walt. Despite their physical intimacy, their feelings towards another are ambiguous, varying wildly between a semblance of caring to hostility. While the two may share some form of kinship, in the end, Pepper views Walt as a source of material support, and Walt views Pepper as a stand-in for Johnny.
Mala Noche has the hallmarks of a low-budget indie: shot on grainy 16 mm in black and white, Van Sant is able to use limitation to an artistic advantage. A highly shadowed mise en scene tells half the story of the twilight existence on society’s fringe. Thus, a lack of lighting is used to create an atmosphere where everything is obscured, and nothing is clear. During multiple scenes, using Walt’s voice over for narration removes the need for sound equipment when filming on location. What ends up on screen masterfully fits with the story Van Sant is telling. It’s rough, it’s raw, it’s seedy, like the world its characters inhabit.
Shot on grainy 16 mm in black and white, Van Sant is able to use limitation to an artistic advantage.
The first act uses jump cuts and Dutch angles to disorient the viewer. Close-ups on random faces and the neon signs of the red light district give the feeling of intoxication and rash decisions. This is the titular “bad night,” where Walt snares Johnny and Pepper into his world. Once the three are enmeshed in each other’s lives, the cinematography mellows out. Van Sant indulges in long shots and moves the trio into the Oregon countryside to feature vistas of the Pacific Northwest. Time-lapsed clouds move across the horizon, advancing time yet keeping its characters in stasis, a shot Van Sant will revisit again in My Own Private Idaho. Creighton Lindsay’s score features lethargic Western guitar, again a precursor to the score cores of later films My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. Mexican ranchera and ballads are mixed in with the score, highlighting the difference in culture between its characters.
The visual and audio styles set the tone for our protagonists: living in a shadow world outside the mainstream, and a clash of cultures. While Mala Noche has sexuality at its forefront, it doesn’t focus on issues of the closet or the AIDS crisis, like many GLBT stories of the time. Homosexuality is just a fact of Walt’s character; race and class are the primary drivers of the story’s conflict. Van Sant highlights the way in which people of color and queer people are marginalized and have to exist in the fringe. However, by highlighting someone who is, to quote Van Sant, “certainly not a positive gay character,” Mala Noche is able to explore the intersection of sexuality, race, and class. Due to this, Mala Noche feels more relevant today than many of its contemporaries.
Walt is reminiscent of a less vile Humbert Humbert from Nabakov’s Lolita. Like Humbert, Walt seems to be in deep denial of his predatory behavior. He ignores Johnny’s explicit commands to not touch him and bribes Pepper and Johnny with gifts and money for intimacy. Walt is not as despicable as Humbert-few characters are-and there are some moments where he does display true empathy, such as when he cares for Pepper when Pepper has a dire illness. Despite this moment and a few other acts of kindness, Walt’s motivation can best be described through a reworked quote from Elizabeth Janeway’s take on Humbert Humbert: “[Walt] is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his [Johnny] so badly that it never occurs to him to consider [him] as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh.”
At the heart of his inability to grasp Johnny and Pepper’s agency is Walt’s very quotidian racism, and white privilege. Throughout the film, he seems to think the only reason a Latinx person wouldn’t want to interact with him is the fear of deportation. When he meets Johnny, who is simply trying to buy something at Walt’s store, Walt attempts to calm Johnny’s fears by telling him “he’s not immigration.” This line is repeated later when Walt attempts to break into Johnny’s hotel room by climbing a fire escape but finds himself at the wrong window. When a Latinx woman accosts him, he assures her that it’s ok because he’s not immigration-as if the only reason she would be upset by a stranger climbing up her fire escape is that she could be deported. This also illustrates Walt’s assumption that any Hispanic person is an illegal citizen.
Walt’s subtle white supremacist views are especially highlighted in the way he views his sexual desirability. Johnny and Pepper are shown with girlfriends, and Pepper is apparently able to make money hustling on the side. Walt on the other hand is not pursued by anyone. Despite this, he still views himself as innately desirable to Latinx people, ostensibly due to his whiteness. In his monologue after his first fuck with Pepper, Walt walks down the street, smirking. While his soliloquy bemoans getting fucked and being taken advantage of, his smirk belies his feeling of smug victory. And he says “Every street Mexican on Sixth will think he can stick it in me. Well, they’re wrong.” Despite his clear power over Pepper, Walt views his bottoming for Pepper as a violation.
Even in his own conception of his submission to Johnny, he views himself as a supplicant, but even in this fantasy he still holds power. In a fantasy sequence, Walt comes to Johnny, prostrate at the young man’s feet, with Johnny heralding Walt as “The Divine Saint.” Even if nothing happens, Walt hopes in voice over: “My point is being made, that I want to see him so badly? That must mean something. I mean how many gringos have acted that dramatically toward him ever?”
Walt is incapable of conceiving of the wants and desires of a Latinx person outside the purview of whiteness. Despite this, Walt still conceives of himself as a tolerant, non-racist person. He even has some sense of his level of privilege:
“A gringo like me has an easy life – a privileged life – and just because I see someone attractive like Johnny doesn’t mean I should be able to have him. To buy him or whatever, just because he’s hungry and on the street. Desperate. Good looking. That wasn’t my intention exactly, but it could be misunderstood this way.”
But in the end, Walt is lying to himself. He has, in essence, bought Johnny and Pepper’s companionship in his life with the money and food he provides them.
This transactional and consumerist view of life in general, as well as the casual racism, is Van Sant’s indictment of the American mentality. Close up of money, flags, and advertisements are used repeatedly throughout: everything is for sale, even intimacy. And this, more than anything, is what has kept Mala Noche relevant. A lot has changed in the intervening 35 years since it was released, and yet the troubling interactions between the characters feel depressingly current.
It’s a strong outing for any director, much less as a debut. In many ways, the themes of unrequited love, sexuality, and class were refined by Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho, almost like a spiritual remake of his debut – except it lacks the crucial theme of race. Although Idaho is by most accounts a better film, it lacks the raw effectiveness and pointed commentary of Mala Noche. With a president who condemns immigrants, it seems America has had plenty of “shit bad nights” since Mala Noche came out.