THE ACTORS weren't paid, the budget was low, but the originality in "Mala Noche" was, and remains, priceless. Director Gus Van Sant's first feature, which was shot in 1985 for $25,000, is a richly beguiling experience.
Poetic, moody and impressionistic, this black-and-white film -- the title is Spanish for "bad night" -- is something to savor for the squalid world it introduces, and the way it presents its story, rather than for the specifics of that story. Like Van Sant's more famous follow-up, "Drugstore Cowboy," the film is set in the seamy backstreets of Portland, Ore. In this hopeless place, loneliness and poverty exist on every level and, unlike "Pretty Woman," the misery isn't going to be swept away in time for the ending. The characters seem to know this and live for the moment, taking spiritual relief in whatever form they can.
For Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), a handsome, 18-year-old Mexican who ducks immigration officials and hangs around a seedy grocery store, that relief comes in playing video games. For Walt (Tim Streeter), the lonely store owner, and the movie's central character, the relief is obtained in lustful encounters with male customers. When Walt sets eyes on Johnny, he's passionately attracted. But over the course of the movie, that passion becomes something tenacious (and unrequitedly) romantic. Johnny becomes, in Walt's view, a tantalizing specter.
Johnny accepts Walt's food and shelter but resists his advances. To Johnny and his macho friend Pepper (Ray Monge), Walt is merely an annoyance, someone to milk for one thing and avoid for another. Johnny almost succumbs to Walt's outright cash offer of $15 but holds out for $25. Later, when the teenager vanishes, Walt has to content himself with Pepper, who's not so picky about sleeping with him.
There is nothing lurid about this film, however, homosexual or otherwise. Walt (whose voice is frequently heard as narration) is straightforward about his desires and his quid pro quo approach to both Johnny and Pepper. Within the boundaries of this film (and in the deft hands of writer/director Van Sant) Walt's love for Johnny becomes touching, selfless.
Original, "offbeat" films such as "Mala Noche" -- the kind that reflect authentic lifestyles without glorification or stereotyping -- come few and far between. It's always a pleasure to see them.