Image Credit: ‘Mala Noche,’ The Criterion Channel

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we’re revisiting 1986’s Mala Noche, the directorial debut of New Queer Cinema filmmaker Gus Van Sant.

It’s unfortunately not uncommon for queer filmmakers to be forced to step away from centering openly queer narratives and characters as soon as they cross into the mainstream. Although their body of work doesn’t necessarily lose its queer lens or sensibility, bigger budgets and release platforms usually come hand-in-hand with bigger creative restraints, as there are now bigger powers to respond to.

Even if a director is able to continue telling stories about queer characters, the radical nature of their early films that comes with shoestring budgets and very limited resources—constraints which ultimately make so many independent films feel so new and refreshing—tends to get lost.

But there are some that are able to keep the elements that made their early films feel alive and revolutionary throughout their careers, regardless of their platform, size, and scope. This week we’ll be talking about one of those directors: Gus Van Sant, one of the most prominent and consistently working directors of the last forty years. 

The Set-Up

Van Sant’s film debut, the 1986 indie Mala Noche, effectively employs the roughness and DIY value of its production in its favor, using those same qualities to elevate its murky and complicated portrayal of queerness. Its limitations effectively give it a visibly radical dimension that Van Sant maintained throughout his work, albeit in much subtler or restrained ways as his productions and budgets grew.

Mala Noche follows the relationship between Walt (Tim Streeter), a white, openly gay store clerk, and two Mexican boys, Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and Roberto (Ray Monge). Walt becomes infatuated with Johnny the moment he sees him walk through the door of his store, and even though there is a very clear language, race, and wealth barrier, he’s set on winning him over. So Walt decides to invite him and Roberto for dinner.

This sets off a series of encounters and entanglements which put the trio in a complicated power dynamic over sex, romance, desire, and possession. Roberto takes a fraternal role with Johnny and continuously stops Walt’s advances, even opting to have sex with him himself rather than allowing him to go after Johnny.

Johnny does not seem to be interested in Walt in a romantic—or even sexual—way, but knows that tying himself with him will give him social advancement. And Walt seems to be getting off on how this dynamic subverts the power balance that he’s used to in society, without actually having to give up his own privilege: he is, in a way, “owned” by these two boys (giving into their every whim, submitting sexually to whoever allows him to), but he can, at any point, reclaim the superiority that his class and ethnicity give him.

Body Language

Image Credit: ‘Mala Noche,’ The Criterion Channel

The film is thin on plot, and it’s more a fascinating and thorny exploration of the role that race, wealth, and language play in relationships, particularly queer relationships at that point in time; when open desire and love had to be subdued and repressed, gay encounters were more transactional than platonic or romantic, and questions of who holds power come up to the surface much more vividly.

Johnny sees Walt as superior because society has designated him so. Walt sees Johnny as his own personal goal to conquer; an actual challenge in a life without many of them. He gives in sexually to Roberto because he seems to be the only one willing to not put him on a pedestal, and Roberto subdues Walt because no one else in his life lets him. 

These dynamics are exacerbated by the fact that these boys are barely able to talk to each other. So they do so with their bodies, their movements, their gestures. The little signals that for many years queer people used to find each other—for them, it’s the only way to communicate.

An Emerging Visionary

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Mala Noche is shot in gorgeous 16mm film, with black and white cinematography, and pulls a lot of stylistic flares from genres like the film noir, using light and shadows to hide people’s identities and desires in the dark, lurking and waiting. It’s Van Sant’s unbridled, uncensored view of the world; an undeniably queer mission statement for what he wants to keep exploring in his films.

As his career grew, Van Sant never stepped away from thorny characters in complicated relationships, or from openly queer narratives. He became one of the most prominent figures in the New Queer Cinema movement that took over the American independent scene in the mid 1900s, alongside filmmakers like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Derek Jarman, and Cheryl Dunye. His next three movies, Drugstore Cowboy, the landmark My Own Private Idaho, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues are considered seminal works of queer cinema.

Van Sant hit the mainstream more prominently in 1995 with To Die For, which many consider to be Nicole Kidman’s catapult into critical success and burgeoning movie stardom. And he was cemented as one of Hollywood’s next big directors with 1997’s Good Will Hunting, which became a worldwide hit and earned him a Best Director nomination. Since then, Van Sant has gone back and forth from mainstream movies that have hit and resonated with audiences and critics alike (like 2008’s Milk), have become under-seen gems that put complex and misunderstood characters at their centers (2003’s Elephant or 2007’s Paranoid Park), or have been big swings that have missed the mark completely (his last three movies have barely managed to make a mark).

The Road Forward

Image Credit: ‘Mala Noche,’ The Criterion Channel

However, Van Sant has never lost the edge that Mala Noche carries with it. Although the productions have much higher value, and the stars have lined up to work with him, his fascination with unlikely groups of people coming together, and the ramifications of their relationships (both toxic and fulfilling), have remained front and center.

There is a direct line from Mala Noche to the latest season of Feud: Capote Vs The Swans (which he directed most episodes for, including the finale that just aired this past week). In both of these projects, the protagonists use and manipulate the people around them for their own gain; they use wealth and desire and power as chess pieces, as a means to grasp and cope with the world around them; a world that seems to completely misunderstand them. Van Sant understands that some things never change.

Mala Noche is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and available for digital rental/purchase via Amazon prime Video and Apple TV.

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