I’m prepping to teach a course on love and sexuality in film this spring, so I was due to re-watch Gus van Sant’s Mala Noche (1985)—one of my favorite of the New Queer films, and still seems to me one of the most effortless and lyrical things van Sant has ever done—even though I had already carved out a place for it on my syllabus. It’s a beautifully rough and bittersweet gay love story, a triangulated romance between the white hipster Walt (Tim Streeter); Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), the Mexican street hustler with whom he is besotted; and Johnny’s friend Roberto (Ray Monge), with whom Walt enters into a relationship of sorts, though it’s doomed by their cultural difference and Roberto’s marginalized status as an undocumented immigrant.
|A very natural thing: Tim Streeter as Walt in Mala Noche.|
Walt. A version of Walt Curtis, the Portland-based author of the autobiographical novel on which the film is based. He cuts an ambiguous figure. A queer cousin to the straight slacker dudes that populate the films of Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater, he spends his afternoons gently shooing away the homeless folks who wander into his convenience store and his evenings scouring the streets for his beloved Johnny. Walt’s affability and generosity keep running up against his entitlement as a white guy cruising for men of color; determined to get into Johnny’s pants, he offers him $15, and his casual racism comes out in a later scene when, having been fucked (and robbed) by Roberto, he expresses humiliation, imagining himself the victim of an act of ethnic aggression. Walt’s acts of goodwill toward Roberto and Johnny, however well intentioned, are always colored by self-interest. And yet as he moves through the film his very un-self-consciousness is powerfully sexy. Laconic and scruffy, bumming around Portland in his flannel shirts, jeans, and trenchcoat, sick with love, Walt doesn’t really look or act like any other gay character in film. He’s perhaps the closest thing in the movies to the kind of queer Romanticism espoused by Beat Poets like Ginsberg. Freed of the affectations of earlier gay “types” (the sissy, the martyr, the closet case, the basket case), Walt’s homosexuality is simply a matter of fact—or, to quote the title of another touchstone in the history of gay cinema, a very natural thing.
|Posing: Doug Cooeyate as Johnny.|
Johnny. The street angel. The obscure object of Walt’s desire. He poses in the mirror like Brando. Is he sixteen or eighteen? Is he gay or straight, Roberto’s lover or only his friend? He barely speaks at all in the film and when he does his voice is dubbed by that of another actor. Impulsive and reckless, he drives like a maniac and carries a gun in the pocket of his jean jacket. His boyish smile is as broad and pure as the sun. He is a lost boy, his fate at the end of the film—glimpsed on the street from the window of Walt’s passing car—another one of the enigmas that attend him.
Roberto. How many homosexuals are in this text? It’s a trick question. Walt tells us that Roberto goes through the motions when they have sex, that he has girlfriends even though the two men live together in a queer, squalid domesticity that carries its own Romantic caché. His homosexuality may be situational, his relationship with Walt an act of self-preservation akin to prostitution (a profession at which he also considers trying his hand). And the scene in which he first fucks Walt may be either a scene of love or the act of ethnic aggression Walt imagines it to be—an opportunity to fuck the gringo puto who wanted to fuck his friend who is also maybe his lover. In any case that scene is surely one of the most evocative of gay love scenes, as shadow and light play out over the bodies of two men whose fates are now, for better or worse, locked together.