Roots and Shoots

By Jerry White

mala-noche-gus-van-sant.jpgMala Noche, 1986

Gus Van Sant’s template debut Mala Noche is back

For an unreconstructed auteurist such as myself, few figures in contemporary American cinema are as vexing as Gus Van Sant. How can the filmmaker who crafted My Own Private Idaho also have made Finding Forrester (or, for that matter, Good Will Hunting)? How can the same person be responsible for both Gerry and the 1999 remake of Psycho? And don’t get me started about Even Cowgirls Get the Blues or To Die For.....

Nevertheless, there is a very distinct line that runs throughout Van Sant’s work, a line that he’s lately been rediscovering and augmenting with films like Elephant or Gerry. The basics of that line – smooth imagery, simmering homo-eroticism, the folly of youth, the vague sense that something ineffable is present – are all vividly on view in his first feature, 1985’s Mala Noche. For years that film went more or less unseen, but now it’s available on DVD, both from France's MK2 (region 2) and the US’s Criterion Collection (region 1; see announcement at

It helps us see Van Sant’s main line of work - to my mind comprised of Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, Gerry, Elephant, Last Days and Paranoid Park (the last is an informed guess; I haven’t yet seen it), plus numerous shorts and music videos – more vividly. The soggy, west-coast scuzziness of Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho is centre-stage here; Mala Noche’s Portland is one of cloudy days, crummy corner stores with guys in ragged t-shirts behind the counter and the casual, barely-remarked-upon presence of young street hustlers. The fluid tracking shots that so define Elephant pop up in Mala Noche every once in a while; one sequence shot in the countryside outside Portland features a gentle, probing movement down the small highway as our anti-hero Walt watches his two Mexican friends (and lust objects) playfully take off with his car. The quiet, sometimes painful aimlessness of Gerry is present here too, although in a more gentle way than what we see in that film’s barren desert wasteland. And the film’s cinematography seems, but only seems, unique in Van Sant's career; the incredibly dark, sometimes muddy imagery flirts with illegibility at times, but overall creates a sense of semi-abstraction that is actually the flipside of the all-white relentlessness of Elephant.

Putting Mala Noche back into the Van Sant catalogue also helps us understand him as a filmmaker engaged with place. In the early stages of his career he seemed to emerge as Portland’s cinema laureate; once he left for Hollywood, that sense faded. But films like Gerry and Elephant, just as much as Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and, I suspect, Paranoid Park (his latest return to Portland) are all trying to figure out their sense of place, whether it’s the desert that lies just outside Los Angeles or the suburbs of the American west. Dennis Lim’s liner notes to the Criterion edition argue for Mala Noche’s importance to both an emergent Queer cinema and to an independent American cinema that is now vanished; and it seems to me that, from that time, only Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch have lived up to their initial sense of innovative, rooted promise. Watching Mala Noche alongside Stranger than Paradise and perhaps Kelly Reichardt’s much more recent Old Joy is to conjure a vision of American narrative cinema that is now nearly extinct, but somehow stubbornly persists.

Jerry White writes and teaches in Canada.