Gus Van Sant's "Mala Noche" won the L.A. Film Critics Assn.'s best independent feature award in 1987 and, more important, led to his next picture, "Drugstore Cowboy," starring Matt Dillon as a drug addict trying to go straight. It's due for release in August.
Except for a one-time screening in the 1987 Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival, "Mala Noche" has yet to play a Los Angeles theatrical engagement, which is more a comment on the commercial fate of gay-themed films than on the quality of this picture, which airs at 11:30 tonight on Channel 28. (Better late than never.)
A film of rare tenderness and longing, involving both humor and anguish, which was adapted and directed by Van Sant from an autobiographical novel by Walt Curtis, "Mala Noche," which is Spanish for "bad night," is set on Portland's Skid Row.
It stars Tim Streeter as Walt, who runs a small grocery store and who is one of the most self-accepting, laid-back gay men ever seen on the screen. A young man with a Don Johnson stubble, Walt is a completely masculine guy who could easily "pass" for straight but is instead open about his sexual orientation.
Consequently, when two teen-aged Mexican illegals, the angelic-looking Johnny (Doug Cooeyate) and the husky Roberto (Ray Monge) turn up on Skid Row, Walt does nothing to disguise his attraction to Johnny, with whom he falls instantly in love. Never mind that Johnny, steeped in machismo, is reflexibly homophobic; Walt is the persistent type.
Shot beautifully in black-and-white by John Campbell, "Mala Noche" has an easy, confident flow and is spontaneous and economical. In a voiceover, Walt tells us that he doesn't want to interfere in Johnny and Roberto's lives, but the Mexicans' desperate circumstances and Walt's desires inevitably accommodate each other, if only fleetingly.
The friendship between Walt and the teen-agers is edgy, full of skirmishes, sometimes tense, other times playful. It could be argued that Walt exploits the Mexicans, but it could also be countered that they exploit him, too. What's important is that Walt, a caring man, is honest with himself and with them.
Van Sant is terrific with his cast, and Streeter couldn't be better as the resilient, risk-taking Walt, a man who's utterly realistic and even humorous about his own romanticism.
For all its frisky, good-natured quality, "Mala Noche" has a dark undertow of danger and is serious about the plight of illegals. The language is blunt, but the sex is discreet, and "Mala Noche" is a highly ingratiating film for sophisticated adult audiences.