With its low budget and lush black-and-white imagery, Gus Van Sant’s debut feature Mala Noche heralded an idiosyncratic, provocative new voice in American independent film. Set in Van Sant’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, the film evokes a world of transient workers, dead-end day-shifters, and bars and seedy apartments bathed in a profound nighttime, as it follows a romantic deadbeat with a wayward crush on a handsome Mexican immigrant. Mala Noche was an important prelude to the New Queer Cinema of the nineties and is a fascinating time capsule from a time and place that continues to haunt its director’s work. —The Criterion Collection
A director who is capable of crafting both deeply unconventional independent films and mainstream crowd-pleasers, Gus Van Sant has managed to carve an enviable niche for himself in Hollywood. Since debuting in 1985 with Mala Noche, Van Sant has become one of the premiere bards of dysfunction, populating his films with a parade of hustlers, junkies, psychopathic weather girls, homicidal teens, and troubled geniuses.
The son of a traveling salesman, Van Sant was born in Louisville, KY, on July 24, 1952. One constant in the director’s early years was his interest in painting and Super-8 filmmaking. Van Sant’s artistic leanings took him to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1970, where introduction to Avant-Garde cinema quickly inspired him to change his major from painting to cinema. After mobving to LA, Van Sant became fascinated by the existence of the marginalized section of L.A.‘s population, especially in context with the more ordinary prosperous world that surrounded them… read more
High contrasted black & white, impossibility of love and sex, despair, beautiful mexican chicos, marginal characters, night trains, cheap hotels, neon lights, street walking, spanish music: Kerouac meets Louis Malle in a walk on the wild side. Not Van Sant's best but wonderfully full of heart and soul. An incontestable treasure of queer cinema. Tim Streeter, where have you been?
Captured in passing in the 8mm fragments of Drugstore, Idaho and Paranoid Park, Mala Noche proves the strongest distillation of Van Sant’s early aesthetic, stripped of any retroactive affectation: rough, frenetic editing, high contrast B+W, as well as the Portland milieu, gay lovers and earnest template of ambiguous relationships separated by sexuality and demography. Indeed, its earnestness emerges its most striking feature - a flurry of edits and grain, masking its constraints in niftily stitching together montage with teleplay. Resnais-esque?
I found the film remarkably free of gay cliches for when it was made. But while I appreciated the fact that Van Sant doesn't milk his sentimental streak at climaxes, I couldn't help but feel like there is a basic implausibility to the whole story: like an upper middle class white boy decided to imagine what a lower class white boy obsessed with an immigrant mexican would feel like...