Gus van Sant’s films are as thick as the Oregon sky. Swept with dreamy remove and elliptical narration, his work strikes me as being the cinematic equivalent of shoegaze music (sorry, Sofia). Now that the writer-director seems to have given up middlebrow commercial filmmaking (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to return to the art house (Elephant, Last Days), it feels like the right time for a revival of his shoestring 16mm debut, Mala Noche. Originally released in 1985, the understated story of a scraggly Portland liquor store clerk infatuated with a Mexican street youth is based on poet Walt Curtis’s novella of the same name, with the author’s beat-tinged style re-created in actor Tim Streeter’s affecting, wise voice-over.
Novellas may be easier to adapt than poems, but it’s still important that van Sant is working from a poet’s material, as he possesses a penchant for pure lyricism that puts him in league with Terrance Malick. Mala Noche has the woozy, restless rhythm of hanging around, playing hard to get. A couple of voice-overs on white privilege aside, van Sant’s rendering doesn’t feel like it’s about anything in particular not inconsequential, considering its chronicling of a gay, biracial love triangle (Streeter’s Walt loves Johnny but ends up sleeping with his friend Roberto). Instead of identity politics, we get longing, laughter, working-class blues, weather. There are dramatic elements here, to be sure disappearances, lockouts, even death but they float by, washed out in wistfulness. The narration inevitably sags in places, though John J. Campbell’s low-key black-and-white cinematography is frequently stunning, imbuing van Sant’s handheld close-ups with surprising depth (reason enough for the new print from Janus Films). With a crooked smile and a purring voice, Streeter’s character is every bit the likable asshole, and the object of his desire (Doug Cooeyate) is magnetic. It’s easy enough to see Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho coming, though one doesn’t necessarily want to leave this Mala Noche.