Love and Squalor in Gus Van Sant’s Transient Portland by M.G. Wood
Walt Curtis is a beat poet from Portland, Oregon with a loyal and dedicated group of followers, ranging from hippies to college students to the more liberal-minded cowboy poets of the Pacific-Northwest, not to mention his fellow street artists who continue to work the sidewalks of Portland.
In 1977 Curtis published MALA NOCHE: AND OTHER “Illegal” ADVENTURES, a colorful collection of vignettes about friends and lovers from the streets. The centerpiece of the collection, MALA NOCHE, focuses on Mr. Curtis’s own ill-fated love affair with a Mexican migrant worker.
In 1984, a young man named Gus Van Sant was living and working in and around Portland, dreaming of being a filmmaker. Fully entrenched within the underground art scene, Van Sant was already familiar with the legendary street poet Walt Curtis when he read MALA NOCHE.
Gus Van Sant had no way of knowing that over twenty years later his ragged black and white film of Walt Curtis’ story would be considered a landmark in gay cinema and a template for his most intimate and personal works DRUGSTORE COWBOY (1989) and MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991).
In the film MALA NOCHE, Walt works as a clerk in a liquor store, serving mostly transients and drunks, and the assorted odds and ends living on the street, when Johnny walks in. Johnny is a tall, dark and handsome James Dean-like character who likes to brood and run his fingers through his long hair while waiting to be noticed.
Walt tells us in narration that he is instantly attracted to the young Johnny and sets off to find a way to get closer. Walt makes a cringe-inducing attempt at paying Johnny $15 to sleep with him, only to be rejected. After repeated attempts, it becomes clear that either Johnny is not gay or Johnny is simply not interested.
Alas, Walt does sleep with Pepper, Johnny’s slightly more adept and amiable friend. The sex scenes are brilliantly choreographed, with very little movement, letting the light and shadow shape and control the action; Van Sant would later frame a similar sex scene in MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO with the actors positioning themselves in different still poses.
And then one day, Johnny is gone. In their desperate attempt to find Johnny, Walt and Pepper grow closer; but, tragedy soon strikes, placing an added tint of despair to the already candy apple gray proceedings.
There is nothing romantic about street life, but it is beautiful.
Walt Curtis’s story is rooted in the same garbage strewn and blood stained sidewalks that inspired Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby. And unless you’re looking for a straight documentary like the classic STREEWISE from 1984 (also shot in the Pacific Northwest), Van Sant’s down and dirty cinema-verite depiction of a life less lovely, shot for $25,000, is the sincerest piece of art found on film.