|Gus Van Sant: He's gay, and a filmmaker, but not a gay filmmaker.|
Mala Noche (1985)
d. Gus Van Sant
Criterion Collection #407
Little seen upon its intitial release, the 2007 Criterion Collection edition of Mala Noche was the first time that a large-ish Audience actually saw what is commonly called Gus Van Sants' first film.(1) Mala Noche is based on the work of Portland-based Beat poet/author Walt Curtis. Curtis wrote Mala Noche in 1977, and it was the kind of episodic, wallowing in the mulch of junkies and queers type of material that had been well established by other Beat figures. In Mala Noche the object of gay affection for the white, educated protagonist are several non-English speaking illegal Mexican immigrants who may or may not be actually gay.
What stands out about Mala Noche is just how non-political it is. There are no important speeches, or deep conversations about what it means to be gay in 80s America. It's more like a simple depiction of complicated relationships that are self-evidently impacted by considerations surrounding race, class and (obviously) sexuality.
Van Sant self-financed Mala Noche for 25,000. Although the film never obtained a proper release, it did travel the film festival circuit to a degree and attracted Van Sant enough attention to get at least one offer from Hollywood. When the studio rejected his ideas for the scripts that would become Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant retreated to the Pacific Northwest and continued down an independent path.
Later, of course, Van Sant would make his peace with Hollywood and helm Good Will Hunting- which grossed more than 150 million dollars and launched the careers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as A-list Hollywood stars. Van Sant worked in Hollywood throughout the 90s, reeling off the Nicole Kidman starring To Die For, Good Will Hunting, a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and Finding Forrester before retreating back to the indieverse until the release of 2008's Harvey Milk biopic. He's followed a middle path between abandoning all pretenses of independence and doggedly hewing to the non-mainstream path, and the result is a career where he has become one of (if not the) most highly regarded, openly gay filmmakers in the world, while making films about gay subjects that appeal to a mainstream audience. That's nice work, if you can get it.
(1) Van Sant actually did make an earlier feature but it was unwatched and the filmmaker himself appears to have disowned it.