(22/05/08) – Is a film director’s early efforts a good place to start looking for clues that lead to his/her authorial hallmarks? In the case of Gus Van Sant, the answer seems to be yes.

Mala Noche, the uncompromising, openly gay American director’s 1985 first feature film, now restored to a gorgeous black-and while DVD edition, bears all the elements that have become associated with Van Sant: the poetic grunginess, the instability of the characters, the convoluted narrative and a love of all-out artiness that American independent cinema quite often shies away from. It was also half a decade ahead of the New Queer movement that launched the careers of openly gay directors such as Todd Haynes and Greg Araki in the early nineties.

Yet, labelling Van Sant gay somehow narrows the appreciation of his work. Surely his films boast a queer sensitivity, but it’s miles away from the narrative conventionalism that TV-like, mainstream gay cinema tends to favour. You won’t see a rainbow flag fluttering in the background of a Van Sant film. In fact, Mala Noche is often so dark it verges on noir and expressionism.

Adapted from the homonymous biography by street poet Walt Curtis (Curtis cameos in a short beatnik bar scene), the protagonist Walt is played by Tim Streeter, a shopkeeper in a rainy, urban American neighbourhood that is the antithesis of the neon-lit urban set-up that tends to serve as the geography of many 1980s films. Streeter, a sketch of River Phoenix’s Mike Waters in My Own Private Idaho (1992), longs for an illegal Mexican hustler called Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who accepts his advances and friendship while retaining his Latin butch distance. Gus Vant Sant ingeniously deconstructs potential cliché-making with this kind of set-up with a self-reflective voice-over by Walt, who acknowledges his position of power as the ‘gringo’. It’s done simply and casually, but it works.

Once this chaotic set-up is established, what follows is a sequence of scenes that look largely improvised, such as car trips out of town, apartment scenes, etc, which allows for the film to grow organically. It really is the product of talent: a lesser director would have made a mess of this but Van Sant’s sensitivity cobbles this shambolic universe into something of beauty and tenderness. The use of non-diegetic sound is used very ingeniously and makes the film appear much bigger than it is. Mala Noche is a handmade cinema gem.

Mala Noche is out now on Tartan. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.