AP Film Studies: Portland's Poet

Walt Curtis on Mala Noche, Portland's literary history and Hollywood dildos.

A ROOM OF HIS OWN: Poet Walt Curtis at his home in Kerns.

Poet Walt Curtis sits in a tiny room in his shared house in Kerns, amid stacks of books and papers and an in-progress abstract nude painting. As the smell of grilled meat wafts in from the Mexican restaurant next door, the 73-year-old opens a bottle of white wine, offers me a glass and produces a tiny tea cup from the pocket of his winter jacket. 

Mala Noche

A striking, black-and-white exercise in minimalist filmmaking, Mala Noche is the story of Curtis' relationship with Pepper and Johnny, two undocumented young men from Mexico. It's a simple tale that spans from tender romance to borderline obsession. It's also a look back at a bygone era of Portland, set in the crumbling apartments of Old Town, defunct tavern Satyricon and a grimy convenience store. Today, many of the locations are clubs or condos.

"I think the mass culture, they don't think about nature, nor do they think about historical place," Curtis says. "I've always been a little obsessed and distraught that all these things have been forgotten."

In person, Curtis alternates between rants and thoughtful asides. One moment, he calmly remembers his days as a street poet in Old Town. The next, he explodes in agitation, eyes bulging, ribbons of white hair sticking up as he rips a red winter hat from his mostly bald head to decry Portland's overlooked legacies.

Curtis has been a vocal advocate for the gay community and a loud voice against gentrification. You're as likely to see him on the street practicing his unique form of social disruption—which generally involves a lot of yelling—as presiding over the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, which he co-founded in 1991, in part to preserve Portland's literary roots.

He and fellow former Satyricon bouncer Bruno will present Mala Noche at 7:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 29, at Portland State's 5th Avenue Cinema. On a windy Wednesday afternoon, AP Film Studies visited Curtis at his house to talk about the making of Mala Noche and his own legacy. 

On Mala Noche's inception:

"The story goes that the chapbook was handed to Gus [by director Penny Allen]. He got intrigued. He said to me, 'Walt, I'd thought about making a film about John Rechy's City of Night, but I really like your book.' I always felt that Gus, with this movie, was coming out. That may be right or wrong. It was one of the first gay movies of this era."

On the film's budget:

"We negotiated. There was a $20,000 budget. We did a simple contract. Gus would give me $300 in three payments. I'm very honored that it happened. To have a small-press chapbook, and have somebody make a film of it…I thank Gus very much for that. And we're still in touch, off and on."

On the film's historical importance:

"The movie is a historical document. All those Skid Row hotels are in there. The entire scene. The persons coming into [the convenience store] were real persons on the street. It has a large level of authenticity. A large part of the film was shot in my apartment. It's become a condo now. We would go over to Satyricon, and I believe in the film there's [author] Don Chambers, Marty Christensen the poet, there's a musician singing in Greek, and there's myself. It's a historical document of Portland that no longer exists."

On the book vs. the film:

"Seventy percent of it is from the book, then Gus created various scenes. In the chapbook, I was worried that these young Mexicans were going to get shot, or the cops were going to arrest them, but we realized that that wasn't enough for a movie. Somebody had to die, so we sacrificed Pepper."

On misconceptions about the film's sexual relationships:

"There's a lot of sweetness [to our relationship], and I feel as though the critics categorized me as a pervert. I was as poor as [Johnny and Pepper] were. These were really my friends. It was just a weird time near Satyricon on Skid Row."

On Van Sant's other work:

"Drugstore Cowboy had a lot more money. It was an excellent, interesting script. Gus Van Sant got power out of doing Mala Noche. It allowed him to get power to do Drugstore Cowboy. I liked Gus bringing Matt Dillon back. Matt Dillon was a dildo, but he was good in Drugstore Cowboy. And Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting. Gus got something out of Robin Williams, and I think he's a fucking dildo, too, but he got a great performance out of him. He got Sean Connery with that silly writers movie [Finding Forrester]. Horseshit. He gave Matt Damon a career and a fucking Oscar."

On Portland's literary history:

"Portland is being overwhelmed by newcomers. They don't know anything about our regional literature. All these people coming here are from a weird, amorphized, generic, corporate, sound-bite, idiot reality. If you don't know your roots, or what the history of your place is—I'm not gonna get stupid here, I don't want to hear about Grandma's washing tub or something. If you don't know the history—for example, that Charles Erskine Wood founded the library and argued before the Supreme Court and was a friend of Chief Joseph. How can you connect to your community if you don't have a sense of it?"

On his own legacy:

"I personally feel all this knowledge I have is underutilized. We all have to die at a certain point—blah blah blah, who cares. It's fucking offensive to me [that Oregon's literary history is ignored], and I'm a serious fucker. I'm not a joker. This pisses me off. You don't have to wear people out on it. Just give them somewhere to go. It's not putting people down, it's saying, 'Look into this.' Before I die, I think it's important that there becomes a curriculum [about Portland's literary history]. I have all this at my mental fingertips before the stroke hits.” 

Also Showing: 

  1. Film historian Dennis Nyback presents a program called Lindy Hop, Jumpin’ Jazz & Jitterbug, a collection of 16 mm music-and-dance films from the ’40s and ’50s. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Nov. 26.
  1. The Joy’s free Weird Wednesday series unearths Fun in Balloon Land, a 1965 schlockfest about a kid who wakes up in a land of giant balloons. Joy Cinema. 9:15 pm Wednesday, Nov. 26.
  1. In Rocky IV, Sly Stallone defeats communism and wins the Cold War through the power of poorly choreographed punches. Hecklevision, do your worst. Stallone sure did. Hollywood Theatre. 9:30 pm Friday, Nov. 28.
  1. The NW Film Center’s film noir series includes Orson Welles’ The Stranger, the Joseph Cotten-Marilyn Monroe vehicle Niagara and overlooked Bogart classic Dark Passage. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Nov. 28-30. See nwfilm.org for full listings.
  1. It’s Thanksgiving weekend, which means your incessant Yuletide-themed enema is about to begin. Kick it off with a little bloodshed in Gremlins. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7 and 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, Nov. 28-30.
  1. Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd remind us they used to be two of comedy’s greatest stars, in Trading Places. What the hell happened? Academy Theater. Nov. 28-Dec. 4.
  1. In Good Will Hunting, see Walt Curtis’ favorite performance by “a fucking dildo.” Laurelhurst Theater. Nov. 28-Dec. 4.
  1. In Say Anything…, John Cusack proves you can win hearts through a combination of devastating handsomeness and borderline sociopathic persistence. Kiggins Theatre. Opens Friday, Nov. 28.
  1. As fantasy cinema gets more violent and creepily sexual, The Princess Bride remains timeless for its balance of wit, whimsy, old-fashioned romance and rodents—and French wrestlers—of unusual size. Kiggins Theatre. Opens Friday, Nov. 28.
  1. Organist Dean Lemire provides a live organ score to accompany Buster Keaton’s classic The Navigator. Hollywood Theatre. 1 pm Saturday, Nov. 29.
  1. B-Movie Bingo goes all out with Deadly Target, a film rife with misogyny, bullets, ethnic stereotypes and, um, shit-eating? Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Dec. 2. 

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