Mala Noche (1985)

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Released 9-Jul-2008

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Audio Commentary-Claire Perkins, Assistant Lecturer in Film & TV, Monash Uni.
Interviews-Crew-An Interview with Gus Van Sant
Theatrical Trailer-New trailer directed by Gus Van Sant
Trailer-Paranoid Park by Gus Van Sant
Trailer-Gerry by Gus Van Sant
Trailer-Night On Earth by Jim Jarmusch
Trailer-Grizzly Man by Werner Herzog
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1985
Running Time 74:41 (Case: 78)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (67:07) Cast & Crew
Start Up Ads Then Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Gus Van Sant
MK2 Productions
Madman Entertainment
Starring Tim Streeter
Doug Cooeyate
Ray Monge
Nyla McCarthy
Sam Downey
Robert Lee Pitchlynn
Eric Pedersen
George Conner
Don Chambers
Walt Curtis
Conde Benavides
Cristo Stoyos
Matt Cooeyate
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $29.95 Music Peter Dammann
Karen Kitchen
Creighton Lindsay

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
English Audio Commentary Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English (Burned In) Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, 8mm Home-Video colour footage during credits

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Plot Synopsis

Before Gus Van Sant brought us mainstream fare such as Good Will Hunting and Milk, he was busy developing his craft on smaller budget films such as Drugstore Cowboy and his debut feature, Mala Noche. Well, strictly speaking, Alice in Hollywood would be his first film that he tried to distribute in 1981, but it was cut down from 90 minutes to 45 minutes and in Van Sant's words, "it was a comedy that wasn't funny". Consequently, he couldn't get a distribution deal. Mala Noche is an adaptation of Walt Curtis' novella of the same name chronicling his experiences with two Mexican illegal immigrants he got to know in his hometown, Portland, Oregon in the late 1970s.

Portland, Oregon is the setting of Van Sant's first four films: Mala Noche, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowgirls get the Blues. All these films deal with familiar Van Sant themes such as stories that focus on marginalised characters, atypical families and unrequited love. Mala Noche (or Bad Night in English) certainly contains these themes. It was shot with Van Sant's own money that he saved up while working in an advertising agency for two years, $20000 (or $25000 depending on the source). The film was completed after a month-long shoot, using six cast and crew: Tim Streeter as Walt, Doug Cooeyate as Johnny, Ray Monge as Roberto/Pepper, Cameraman John Campbell, Sound Recordist Pat Baum and Director (and all the other left over production jobs!) Gus Van Sant. Supporting actors where used as needed when the budget could cater for it.

    The low budget explains why the film was shot in black-and-white with a stylised look. Cameraman John Campbell used his own spotlights and one soft light to shoot the film. Walt Curtis, the autobiographical author of the novella Mala Noche, from which Gus Van Sant adapted a 500 page storyboard concept over 2 years prior to making the film, is referred to by Van Sant as a beatnik poet, hence the rhythmical dialogue employed by Tim Streeter throughout the film, especially during his voiceover narrative sequences.

    Mala Noche is not a straightforward narrative with a self-contained plot in three acts like a standard Hollywood feature. You will get a lot more out of the film after you've viewed it a few times. Walt has a genuine empathy towards the two illegal Mexican immigrants, Johnny and Roberto throughout the film, it's just that these two marginalised characters have ended up in Portland, Oregon and maybe they should be heading for Idaho (a Van Sant metaphor for Heaven). Walt mentions this fact in the film, and Van Sant explored this Utopian theme further in his subsequent films after Mala Noche in Drugstore Cowboy starring Matt Dillon and My Own Private Idaho starring Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix.

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Transfer Quality


    Mala Noche was shot on a small budget with a skeleton crew. The stylised night-time scenes where characters are frequently shot in shadow, darkness or in spotlight was due to cameraman John Campbell utitlising only three spotlights and one softlight during the shoot. Mala Noche was also shot using handheld cameras onto 16mm film. Therefore, Mala Noche cannot be compared to modern 35mm or digital films.

    The aspect ratio of the film is 1:33:1 fullscreen. It is not 16x9 enhanced for widescreen televisions.

    I was genuinely surprised, for a film shot on a low budget with 16mm film, that the transfer was reasonably sharp and did not contain low level noise. The average bitrate for the film is 7.46mb/sec, although the film hovers mostly around 9mb/sec. Mk2 Productions, the same French independent film company that undertook restoration work on Charlie Chaplin's and Buster Keaton's films, may have cleaned up the transfer, as the same transfer appears on the Criterion Collection Region 1 release from 2007.

    Mala Noche was shot in black-and-white due to budgetary reasons. There are some colour scenes in the film, around the 21:00 mark and also during the end credits.

    MPEG artefacts are extensive, but minor, even though the film contains many instances of lines across the image and dirt and dust. Having witnessed on Fritz Lang's M and Buster Keaton's The General what is involved in digitally restoring film that has extensive film artefacts, I can understand why Mk2 productions and/or The Criterion Collection in America did not undertake digital restoration on the film, after all, unlike M or The General, Mala Noche is not yet a historical cornerstone of cinema or a candidate for the National Film Registry (a film body in the USA that nominates 25 films are year to preserve). Specific instances of film artefacts occur at 2:16, 4:07, 8:59, 9:29, 11:16, 14:58, 15:31, 16:32, 17:37, 22:16, 22:39, 25:06, 28:15, 28:30, 33:25, 34:42, 37:40, 37:43, 37:59, 40:11, 40:41, 40:58, 41:11, 41:39, 43:12, 46:14, 48:59, 58:41, 58:55, 59:51, 60:48, 62:11, 63:07, 65:38, 67:08, 67:15, 67:30 and 68:30. There is a reel change mark at 28:56. There is a black line at the top of the image from 54:48 - 55:48. White lines form across the image at 53:36 - 54:01, 62:19 - 63:05 and 68:43 - 68:57.

    Subtitles are burned in, used sparingly when the Mexican characters speak in Spanish, which is not often. Otherwise, the film has no optional subtitles.

    RSDL change occurs at 67:07. This is during a dark scene, so it's not too noticeable.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    Sound was recorded by Pat Baum. The movie opens with a mellow acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment, and this is the main musical theme used during the film.

    There are two audio soundtracks. The first is an English track with occasional Spanish dialogue, the second is an audio commentary track. Both soundtracks are Dolby Digital 2.0 encoded at 224kbps.

    Dialogue is clear but not synchronised as Doug Cooeyate, who plays the Mexican immigrant, Johnny could not speak any Spanish, so his dialogue was dubbed in post-production by Arturo Torres. There are a few other examples were audio has been re-dubbed in post-production during the film.

    Background music varies throughout the film. Apart from the main acoustic guitar and piano folk accompaniment, there is also Mexican folk music, jazz percussion effects, a classical choral piece, Silent Night played to the sound of church bells and even a scene where a traditional Greek folk song is sung. With the theme of the film centering on the identification of the two young Mexican immigrants, and Walt (and the audience's) struggle to get to know them, it perhaps is not surprising that Van Sant opted to include a lot of distinct folk music in the soundtrack to the film.

    There is no surround channel usage as the Dolby Digital 2.0 track is in mono.

    The Subwoofer is not utilised on this soundtrack.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Audio Commentary - by Claire Perkins, Assistant Lecturer in Film and Television, Monash University

This academic commentary by Claire Perkins is equal in quality with other excellent Directors Suite commentaries and is well-paced. I especially appreciated the comparison of Mala Noche within the scope of Gus Van Sant's career. Themes that Perkins mentions include Walt as the atypical Gus Van Sant type hero, the student/mentor relationship between Walt and Johnny, marginalised characters, home-video footage, shots of rolling clouds, issues that concern teenagers in Van Sant's Gerry and Elephant and how they contrast in Mala Noche and the Utopian idea of Idaho. Perkins also mentions stylistic references to Orson Welles movies such as The Third Man and Touch of Evil which I hadn't noticed until they were mentioned. Overall, this is a wonderful bonus feature.

Interviews-Crew - No Cutting, No Stars, No Script:An Interview with Gus Van Sant (26:03)

This is another great feature supporting the film, a real quality extra. This interview with Gus Van Sant is identical to the interview on the Region 1 Criterion Collection version of Mala Noche, only it's about 1 minute longer and unlike the Criterion Collection version, it's cropped. The Region 1 version is 16x9 enhanced for widescreen televisions whereas the Region 4 Directors Suite release is not. No matter, the interview with Van Sant himself contains a wealth of knowledge about Mala Noche and his career.

Van Sant discusses his unsuccessful debut film, Alice in Hollywood, the original Walt Curtis novella of Mala Noche and it's adaptation into storyboards, the two-and-a-half year commitment to save $20000 to make the movie, the skeleton crew and resources, shooting "on-the-fly" and continuity, comparisons to the Dogme95 movement (see my review on Thomas Vinterberg's Festen for more information on this late 1990s filmmaking movement) and finally the themes of the film. From the way that Van Sant discusses Mala Noche you can tell that the film is special to him, motivating him to somewhat parody it's style and themes in his recent works such as Elephant and Paranoid Park.

Theatrical Trailer

This is the theatrical trailer that was shot for the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

Mala Noche has been released in Region 1 (USA) by the Criterion Collection. That version contains the following which is not on the Region 4 Australian Directors Suite Release:

* Walt Curtis, the Peckerneck Poet: a documentary about the author of the book Mala Noche, directed by animator and friend Bill Plympton.

* Gus Van Sant's original storyboard gallery.

* An essay by film critic Dennis Lim.

The Region 4 Directors Suite release contains the following not on the Region 1 Criterion Collection release:

* Audio commentary by Claire Perkins, Assistant Lecturer in Film and Television, Monash University.

Personally, I would rather have an audio commentary rather that a 1 hour feature on the writer of Mala Noche, Walt Curtis. Overall, the extras balance themselves out and therefore I would call it a draw.


    For many years, Mala Noche was an unknown debut feature film of Gus Van Sant's that was not widely known because it was not available on DVD. The 2007 Region 1 Criterion Collection and 2008 Region 4 Madman Directors Suite releases has allowed this independent feature to be viewed by audiences familiar with Van Sant's later works.

    In academic circles, the film is seen as a pioneer of the Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s, however, Mala Noche should be seen more as an example of the themes that Van Sant's explores in his films such as the study of marginalised characters, atypical families or student/mentor relationships. These themes can be found in nearly all his films. Mala Noche represents another quality release from Madman's Directors Suite label.

Ratings (out of 5)


© John Stivaktas (I like my bio)
Thursday, June 11, 2009
Review Equipment
DVDSony BDP-S550 (Firmware updated Version 019), using HDMI output
DisplaySamsung LA46A650 46 Inch LCD TV Series 6 FullHD 1080P 100Hz. Calibrated with THX Optimizer. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderSony STR-K1000P. Calibrated with THX Optimizer.
AmplificationSony HTDDW1000
SpeakersSony 6.2 Surround (Left, Front, Right, Surround Left, Surround Back, Surround Right, 2 subwoofers)

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