playbook regarding how romance doesn’t always pan out the way you think it will (Walt starts having an affair with Johnny’s friend Roberto [Ray Monge]), and how a single action can change the course of one’s life forever.
Shot on black-and-white 16mm on a budget of $25,000, Mala Noche makes for independent filmmaking at its most evocative and carefree. Though clocking at a relatively brief 77 minutes, it captures so much about what makes your teenage years, as well as the first years of your 20s, so special. It explores the joys of sexual discovery, the joys of being young, the joys of living in the moment.
But like My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s similarly plotted character study that would come out just a few years later, the movie identifies both the virtues and the setbacks of being young and stupid. In both Idaho and Mala Noche’s cases, such a juxtaposition is presented with a certain lyrical poignancy.
The latter, though, is the more stylistically interesting. John Campbell’s cinematography, jangly but coffee-stained, turns poverty and hedonistic thrills into cinematic playthings. Van Sant’s screenplay, naturalistic but funny, reminds us that, while these characters might appear to have everything going for them, the carelessness of pleasure-seeking is but a fleeting thing.
Because it is so lo-fi and because so much of it is documentary-esque in its understatement, Mala Noche feels ever so slightly insubstantial. Taking its brevity and loose-fitting storytelling techniques into account, it’s unquestionably a no-frills filmmaking audition that hints at Van Sant’s future endeavors.
But Mala Noche is also sort of groundbreaking, for what it is. It feels very much like a precursor to the seemingly improvisatory indie films that would flourish in the next decade. Dazed and Confused (1993) and Clerks (1995) come to mind. It was also seminal in the normalization of LGBT cinema, rendering gay and bisexual characters as multifaceted individuals rather than rehashes of the stereotypes that had been popularized in the decades prior.
But above all, Mala Noche makes for a memorable way for Van Sant to have begun his acclaimed, ever-evolving career. He would, of course, make better: Idaho would expand upon the ideas presented here, and more accessible efforts like Drugstore Cowboy (1989) and Good Will Hunting (1997) would help him successfully make the transition from the arthouse to the mainstream without causing him to lose his indie cred. But few of his films have captured the same wild, likably curious spirit of Mala Noche — it’s a must for fans of the director, casual or otherwise. B
Gus Van Sant
1 Hr., 17 Mins.
Mala Noche November 21, 2017
ala Noche (1986), the directorial debut of indie favorite Gus Van Sant, is first about a sexual conquest, then about how tragedies can throw our lives into a tailspin without warning.
Throughout its introductory act, Mala Noche is about hapless store clerk Walt’s (Tim Streeter) desire to bed Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a handsome young immigrant with a penchant for troublemaking. But as it progresses, it devolves into something else entirely: it becomes a