Mala Noche

Criterion Collection,

Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant
Based on the novella by Walt Curtis

Tim Streeter,
Doug Cooeyate,
Ray Monge,
Nyla McCarthy,
Robert Lee Pitchlynn,
Marty Christiansen,
Walt Curtis

Unrated, 78 minutes


My Own Private Idaho

Criterian Collection,

Gus Van Sant

Gus Van Sant
Partially based on Henry IV Pt.1 by William Shakespeare

River Phoenix,
Keanu Reeves,
William Richert,
James Russo,
Rodney Harvey,
Chiara Caselli,
Tom Troupe,
Udo Kier

Rated R, 104 minutes

My Own Private Oregon
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, August-September, 2009

Mala Noche (1985), renowned director Gus Van Sant's first film, launched a career that includes My Own Private Idaho and Milk. Queer films were just emerging in those days and Mala Noche, sadly, never had much of a release. That same year it was overshadowed by two other groundbreakers; My Beautiful Laundrette and Kiss Of The Spider Woman. Until two years ago, Mala Noche had never been available on home video, despite always being included in documentaries about queer films. This crime against cinema was finally repaired with a stunning Criterion DVD, featuring a superb transfer, of Van Sant's freshman foray into filmmaking.

Based on a 1977 cult novella by Oregon author, Walt Curtis, Mala Noche is a black & white Film Noir filtered through Jack Kerouac and the Beats. Tim Streeter plays Walt, a lusty and overly romantic liquor store clerk. He is unable to take his eyes off of Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a young immigrant who hopped a train to Portland with some friends. "I want to drink this Mexican boy," his thoughts trumpet to the audience, "He makes my heart throb when I see him. Thumpitty bump bump bump."

Walt strikes out when he tries to get the kid to come home with him. His friend, Betty, suggests having Johnny over for a good homecooked meal. Johnny agrees but only if he can bring two friends. When Walt drives them back to the skid row flophouse where they are crashing, he offers them $15 if he can sleep with Johnny. The others tell Johnny to take the money but he refuses; he doesn't do it with "faggots." Johnny's best friend, Pepper, gets locked out in the rain and Walt offers him a place to sleep. Walt doesn't get to do it with Johnny but fate allows him to score with his best amigo. Pepper tops him and steals his money on the way out. "I think he used his cock as a weapon," Walt ponders the next morning, while also thinking about how Johnny and his friends are probably having a good laugh at the dumb gringo's expense.

Mala Noche, which translates as Bad Night, is a tale of unrequited love (or lust) that was pretty daring, to say the least, on its first release. Amazing, for its time, is how unapologetic Mala Noche is concerning its queer subject. Completely devoid of political statements, Mala Noche is simply the story of a young gay man on the make. Van Sant isn't coy about it; we know Walt's bent immediately when his thoughts reveal his unabashed longing for Johnny. His "Mexican Boy" is the forbidden fruit beyond both gender and class lines. Not the brightest bulb on the planet, Walt thinks with his dick and repeatedly makes a fool of himself. Johnny's gang learns quickly how to pull his strings. Walt might be the elder here, but he is certainly not the one in control.

It is suggested that the boys could be underaged, but the ages of Johnny and his pals are never known for sure. Walt tells Betty that Johnny "says he's eighteen." It hardly matters because the boys are in charge; they know that Walt is at their beck and call and they take advantage at every opportunity. Walt isn't quite as pathetic as he sounds. His ineptitude has a charm of its own and his clumsiness eventually becomes enduring. He does nothing right. One night he climbs a fire escape to Johnny's room, only to find that Johnny is gone and a screaming Mexican woman, who thinks he's from Immigration, resides there now. It's easier to identify with someone who isn't Don Juan and Walt blows it every time. Van Sant wisely cast a young actor as Walt to avoid the more unsavory air of "a dirty old man."
Mala Noche feels like a Beat Generation novel. The same raw sense of spontaneity and jazz rhythms are shared; Walt Curtis hung out with many of the Beats and there is a definite crossover in styles to both the film and its source material. Curtis also knew Ken Kesey, the more famous author associated with Oregon (who also put his own spin on the Beat tradition for the 1960s) and the film version of Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - specifically its background score - is evoked as a sad version of "Home On The Range" is played on a saw. The Oregon setting, also Van Sant's home, is a character in its own right.
Many of Van Sant's films channel the Beats and he is a kindred spirit. He collaborated on a few short films with queer Beat writer William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch - 1959) and, in an inspired piece of casting, hired Burroughs to play a junkie ex-priest in his next film, Drugstore Cowboys (1989). The images of Walt walking the dirty streets in an overcoat could easily have been a pulp paperback cover of Burrough's Junky (1953) - similar photographs of James Dean are also recalled. Van Sant's influences are certainly mined from maverick and adventurous territory. Think On The Road, but rewritten so Sal Paradise has sex with Dean Moriarity.

Sitting halfway between David Lynch's Eraserhead and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise on one end, and bookended by Todd Hayne's Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon on the other, Mala Noche is an important entry in the annals of independent cinema. All of these films feature stunning black & white photography and radical styles. The images in Mala Noche are stark, high contrast, gritty and dirty. Street bums become Depression-era photographs. Events are often cut up into a series of close-ups until we are left with only impressions. Long takes dominate on a lonely country road. Van Sant would return to these techniques throughout his career - ditto for the time lapse photography of clouds which also make their first appearance here.

Mala Noche is especially interesting as we watch Van Sant's emerging style. With few exceptions (his inexplicable and pointless remake of Hitchcock's Psycho for one), Van Sant would rarely stray from his passion for those on the margins, on the fringe of society. Judgment is never passed, be the characters hustlers, immigrants, savants, addicts who rob pharmacies, or homosexuals. Walt is not a conventional hero, and was certainly atypical in 1985.

Without question, this film broke much new ground. Usually, when writing about queer faire from the early to mid 1980s, it is common to "ooh" and "ahh" over two men sharing a kiss. We see much more than that in Mala Noche. Walt's full frontal nudity is surprising, as is the amount of intimacy shown when he brings Pepper home. Walt is actually allowed to get laid. Their sex seems, for the time, explicit but much of it is extreme close-ups, rapidly cut together. You don't see the mechanics but you know what they are doing - especially when Walt tells Pepper to slow down and then goes into the bathroom to grab a jar of Vaseline. The sounds of distant trains, rather than distracting music, adds to the hot, yet haunting, scene's effectiveness. There is also much homoerotic horseplay between Johnny and his friends, not to mention gratuitous beefcake. While not a masterpiece, Mala Noche was quite a gutsy film in its day.

It is also a very low budget film, and it often shows. A few big dramatic peaks lack the kick that they could have had, but the film still benefits from the chances that were being taken by a naive first time filmmaker. Aside from the more polished Milk (2008), Van Sant's recent films continue to explore his love for the experimental, the enigmatic and the fractured narrative. Mala Noche clearly comes from the same mold, when you think about it, as Gerry (2002) and Last Days (2005). It is a mystery to me why Mala Noche remained out of the public eye for as long as it did, but I certainly welcome its return. Maybe it's not as earth shattering as when Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo came out of the vaults, but there are still a few tremors.

The Criterion DVD also includes a lengthy interview with Van Sant, as well as a 1997 documentary about Curtis, entitled Walt Curtis, The Peckerneck Poet.


Mala Noche caught the attention of several studios and Van Sant found himself being courted with movie offers. When asked what film he would like to make, he described the story of My Own Private Idaho... to which each studio head responded: what else have you got?
The subsequent success of Drugstore Cowboy (1989) enabled Van Sant to make My Own Private Idaho (1991). Queer films weren't exactly a dime a dozen in those days and there was a lot of buzz surrounding the film prior to its release. Much of the buzz was, like Brokeback Mountain a decade later, centered around the casting of two hot young rising stars who were (gasp!) "risking their careers" by playing gay in a movie when they should have remained teen idols instead - Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix. (Queer rumors would follow Reeves for years, most notably the bizarre urban legend that he married out producer David Geffen.)
My Own Private Idaho is many things.. It is John Rechy's City Of Night crossed with the Beats, perhaps a Sam Shepard play, and re-set in Portland. It a revisionist Western, it is a road movie, it is an update of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One. Finally, it is a new Midnight Cowboy for the 90s in which the queer dimension is decidedly more visible.
The movie opens with the definition of Narcolepsy in a dictionary. Mike Waters (Phoenix) is a young hustler who suffers from this condition; at times of stress he is unable to keep from falling into a deep sleep. As the film begins, Mike is standing on the side of a barren country road in Idaho. He knows this road, he has seen it before, it is his road. There is a "fucked up face" in the landscape and the camera narrows into a iris to show it to us. The panoramic shots of Mike dwarfed by the empty road carry an air of menace, all the more so because the shots are so reminiscent of the crop-dusting plane scene in Hitchcock's North By Northwest. Mike suffers an attack and falls asleep in the middle of the road. He imagines his lost mother, time lapse clouds rush past in the sky, a country song croons on the soundtrack, a kitschy giant cowboy statue smiles down at the camera. The film's titles are interspersed. Cut to a close-up of Mike's face, twitching and then moaning. Is he still collapsed on the road? No, the camera pulls back and he is leaning back in a chair while being fellated by a john in a hotel room. His orgasm is accompanied by the bizarre image of a barn crashing into the middle of his road.
This was a quite an evocative and daring (for its time) way to begin a very unconventional movie. The bulk of My Own Private Idaho follows the adventures of two hustlers, Mike and his best friend Scott Favor (Reeves). Scott is actually the Mayor of Portland's son, and this is where Shakespeare's Henry IV comes in. Scott, like the Bard's Prince Hal, angers his father (the King/Mayor) by slumming it as a street vagabond until he comes into his inheritance. Furthering the Globe Theatre connection is the fatherly love Scott feels for Bob Pigeon (William Richert), a petty thief who is the mentor of a gang of street criminals and hustlers. "Fat Bob" is, of course, based on Shakespeare's beloved Falstaff, only in this case the drunken knight is also queer. Scott, like Prince Hal, will also break his Falstaff's heart when he turns 21, returns to the life that he was groomed for, and rejects his surrogate father.
Using Shakespeare (and also the classic Orson Welles film about Falstaff, Chimes At Midnight) provides a unique structure and an anchor to what would otherwise be a very episodic road movie. Scott's search for a father figure is complimented by Mike's search for the mother who abandoned him. This journey will take the lads from Portland to Idaho, and then to Italy and back again.
Scott delivers a contemporary soliloquy from the cover of a porn magazine to clarify that he is not queer but, as a hustler, he isn't picky what sex his clients are as long as they can pay. Mike, however, is in love with Scott. This heir apparent might be gay for pay but he also harbors deep feelings of friendship for Mike. Scott is often seen taking care of his sleeping friend when the Narcoleptic fits incapacitate him. One such scene, in which Scott cradles Mike beneath a Portland fountain, resembles a pieta. These scenes are very touching, as are the moments shared between Scott and Fat Bob. "He is my true father," Scott orates in streetwise iambic pentameter.
The pivotal episode occurs at night by a campfire. A flood of emotion is released during this legendary scene, which was improvised by River Phoenix. Mike, clutching his knees in almost a fetal position, awkwardly confesses his love. Scott insists that two men can't love one another; he can only do it for money. Scott finally hugs Mike, and holds him by the fire, but we never discover if this moment of affection goes any further. The scene evokes countless confessional campfires from Westerns in which two cowboys would share their pasts or their darkest secrets. Critic Leslie Fiedler famously wrote about hidden and coded homosexuality in Westerns and director Van Sant brings this right out into the forefront during his campfire scene. My Own Private Idaho, until Brokeback Mountain, was the boldest such statement to occur in all of cinema.
The Western themes register repeatedly... the images of the open road, Scott wearing a cowboy hat on that porn magazine cover, a hyperactive hustler posing as Billy the Kid with a pair of pistols. Road movies from Hope and Crosby to Easy Rider are recalled. The influence of Shakespeare has already been discussed. Van Sant even channels a bit of Stanley Kubrick in the mise-en-scene and color schemes of several interiors, as well as the film's titles which mimic the credits to A Clockwork Orange.
Despite these rich traditions from literature and cinema that Van Sant brings to My Own Private Idaho, the film is hardly a dry exercise and the director doesn't forget to be funny. For example, it shares with Midnight Cowboy, and almost all other hustler movies ever made, an assortment of eccentric and sometimes repulsive johns to add comic relief. Mike goes home with an elderly clean-freak who dances like Fred Astaire and then strips to an old Rudy Vallee recording from the 1920s while Mike, dressed as the Little Dutch Boy, scrubs his apartment. There's also the German, Hans - who has this "now's the time on Sprockets ven ve dance!" moment as he entertains our boys while prancing around with a large lamp that lights his face from below as he lip-synchs to a Teutonic techno tape. Their subsequent threeway becomes a comic tableaux as the participants freeze in absurd sexual positions, some with handcuffs. Some of the humor is more subtle - Fat Bob's modern Falstaff attire includes a bathrobe and a codpiece.
The film's approach is episodic with various peaks, both dramatic and comic, scattered throughout. Things get a little heavy when Scott offers to help Mike find his mother. Leaving Portland behind, they head to Idaho to see Mike's brother. Along the way their motorcycle breaks down - on that same road from the opening scene - followed by the confessional campfire scene. At his brother's trailer, Mike demands to know who his real father is and the resulting confrontation, worthy of a Shepard play, is one where neither can handle the truth. The trail eventually leads to Italy and two devastating blows for Mike.
It's interesting to note that, while improvising the campfire interlude, Phoenix decided to make explicit what was only implied in the original script and declared his love openly to Scott. With Mike firmly identified as queer, we are left with the ambiguous sexuality of his best friend. When Scott falls in love with an Italian girl, their love scene is also composed, like the threeway with Hans, with frozen tableaux. By equating this moment with the earlier scene's silliness, can we surmise that he really just wants her as a trophy wife to go along with his new position of privilege? His previous relationship with Mike was teasingly homoerotic. Our Prince Hal continually showed compassion and charity to Mike. During one comic sequence, a police raid finds Scott in bed, playacting with Mike. Scott pulls Mike's nipple and Mike playfully slaps his friend's hand. When Scott confronts his real father, he is shirtless under a tight vest and wears a dog collar around his neck. It is also certainly implied that there may have been a relationship between Scott and his Falstaff. Bob, of course, is in love with Scott. At one point Bob actually kisses Scott on the mouth. Yet Scott can betray both of the men who love him and the climax of this theme sure packs an emotional wallop.
The acting throughout is exceptional. Phoenix had already won acclaim as a teen in Mosquito Coast and (especially) Stand By Me. My Own Private Idaho was a major leap into the often terrifying territory of adult roles. Reeves was best known, at that point, for Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure and so both actors were certainly entering unknown terrain here. Van Sant, again and again, knows when to trust his actors and Phoenix, at times, seems to be the reincarnation of James Dean as he fully inhabits his character and makes it his own. Richert's seedy and flamboyant Fat Bob is also a unique creation and he commands every scene in which he appears.
My Own Private Idaho shares, along with Mala Noche, an affection for its street characters while exploring a tragicomic tale of unrequited love. It is also another valentine to Portland. As noted in the earlier essay, Mala Noche showcased the genesis of Van Sant's filmic style and a clear refinement is evident in My Own Private Idaho. The hallmarks are here again, the gritty realism contrasted with artsy images to reflect interior states - the time lapse clouds, the jerky home movies, the images of desolate roads. There is also an inspired use of music, coupled with an artful respect for the power of silence. Sound is used effectively; a background symphony that accompanies the campfire scene includes wind, a train in the distance and quiet Native American chants.
The Criterion DVD is a must for anyone who appreciates this film. The bonus disc's many extras includes a documentary, a lengthy audio interview between Van Sant and fellow out filmmaker Todd Haynes (Poison, Far From Heaven), and a handful of deleted scenes - two of them quite remarkable. Three of these scenes were cut from the conclusion, all of them deemed expendable by the director who desired a far more open ending. One identifies the man, who stops on the road to pick up the sleeping Mike, as his brother. Another shows Mike waking up in a hospital ward and trying to check himself out. The interview includes many revelations surrounding the campfire scene and we also learn that the crashing barn was based on an image that Van Sant painted numerous times in his youth. The film transfer is, like the Mala Noche disc, superb.

The film is bookended with a return to that same road, completing a circle yet ending on a note of ambiguity. I've always admired My Own Private Idaho but I didn't fall in love with it on its first release almost two decades ago. Even so, it haunted me for a long time. Over the years, many things have deepened my appreciation; a greater intimacy with Shakespeare's Falstaff plays, a profound disappointment with certain later mainstream queer films, a long awaited introduction to Mala Noche, excitement over his latest film, Milk. I do love it now; some films require repeated viewings and that's just the nature of the beast. We call it art. It is an amazing film, tantalizingly experimental and rife with raw emotion. It is one of the landmarks of queer cinema.


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