Directed by Gus Van Sant
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 78 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English/Spanish
Subtitles: English, SDH
Release Date: October 9, 2007
Review Date: October 2, 2007
Gus Van Sant’s early ode to unrequited love/lust is recounted in Mala Noche, a moody tone poem that’s the true definition of an independent film. Made for $20,000 with a three man crew and a few inexperienced actors, whatever props were already present on the locations selected on the fly for the film, and shot with a handheld camera using only a few spotlights and natural lighting, Male Noche often looks crude and composed of unfinished ideas and spotty logic. Yet, despite its crudity, it manages to grip one’s attention. Van Sant explored the unrequited buddy relationships to better, more professional effect in My Own Private Idaho and even to a certain extent in Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, and To Die For, but Mala Noche got there first, and for that reason, it’s important.
Tim Streeter plays Walt, sweet natured habitué of Portland, Oregon, and a liquor store clerk who’s no pushover when it comes to dealing with many of the homeless vagrants who come into the doorway of the shop looking for sanctuary. However, he does become a pushover when he falls for street kid/illegal alien Johnny (Doug Cooeyate). Johnny’s not interested in being an object of adoration or even a sex object, but he doesn’t mind granting his friend Pepper (Ray Monge) entry into Johnny’s room if that means they might make off with a few dollars, some free smokes, or gain access to a car for some carefree joyriding. After the introductions of these three main characters, the film becomes merely a series of encounters as Walt is continually frustrated by his interest in Johnny but who also comes to have a fondness for Pepper, too, especially when he nurses him through a case of the flu.
In constructing his screenplay from Walt Curtis’ memoir, Van Sant uses a scattershot approach having occasional narration by Walt, watching Johnny and Pepper in their various guises as street punks brandishing a gun, dealing drugs, and generally looking for handouts, or placing the three of them in situations without much explanation. With the title of the film and that gun in the hands of two dangerously unstable young guys, one has a sense of dread throughout the entire movie, especially since narrator Walt is so accommodating and sweet with these guys who take advantage of him (even calling him derogatory names). Violence always seems just around the corner, but it‘s the thwarted desire that‘s at the root of the film and gives it its poignancy.
John Campbell’s black and white photography as directed by Van Sant definitely echoes shots from The Third Man with its tilted camera shooting wet city streets as people scurry down them and into the shadowy darkness. There’s no zither music on the soundtrack, but a plaintive guitar often strums in the background to lend the image a melancholy mood.
Tim Streeter’s performance as Walt is likeably ingratiating, and he’s matched by Nyla McCarthy as Walt’s gal pal Betty. Of the two street punks. Van Sant, like Walt himself, seems to favor Doug Cooeyate’s Johnny with the camera often lovingly examining every square inch of his upper torso (he‘s the only character featured on the Criterion cover art for the DVD, too). Roy Monge’s simple, contemplative Pepper, however, does the more interesting work of the two in the film.
The 1.33:1 aspect ratio of the original film is presented in a cleaned and buffed DVD transfer. Truthfully, the film has probably never looked so good, but there is a still a stray hair, intermittent grain, and some light scratches near the end of the movie. The black and white photography varies from very sharp to very soft with lots of crushed blacks (probably inherent in the original photography). Shadows are deep, but shadow detail is limited by the stark lighting. Read fast or have a quick remote trigger finger because subtitles often fly by. The film has been divided into 21 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track has light hiss, but given that some dialog was recorded on a tape recorder, this is probably the best it could ever sound. Fidelity is extremely limited by undeniably primitive source elements.
Gus Van Sant interview lasts almost 25 minutes and allows the filmmaker to explain in his own words how the film came to be, how he cast the main parts, how he wrote the script, how the low budget allowed for “on the fly” location shooting, and how the film was received. The featurette is presented in anamorphic video.
“Walt Curtis: A Peckerneck Poet” is a 63-minute self-indulgent documentary featuring the philosophies, the poetry, the artwork, and the sexual fantasies of the Portland, Oregon, writer who penned the original book on which Van Sant based his script. Filmed in 4:3 by Curtis’s friend filmmaker Bill Plympton, this documentary was produced in 1995.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in 4:3 black and white and features images from the film with title cards but no narration. It runs about 1½ minutes.
In his interview, Van Sant admitted that there was a film script but that he relied more often than not on intricate storyboards which he had drawn himself prior to filming. The DVD provides these storyboards in a step-through gallery.
The enclosed 14-page booklet offers an essay on the film by critic Dennis Lim and a nice selection of stills.
Every filmmaker has to start some place, and Mala Noche is Gus Van Sant’s first professional stab at his own lyrical brand of storytelling. The miniscule budget and inexperienced film actors are offset somewhat by inventive camera angles and at the core a sweet, open central character. Not for all tastes certainly, but fans of Van Sant’s more avant-garde work will want to see where it all began.