Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Overlooked Classics: Permanent Midnight (1998)

I first saw David Veloz’s Permanent Midnight during its brief theatrical run in the late summer of 1998. It was in Louisville and I was with an ex-girlfriend named Casey. Al I remember is that she got up half way through the movie to make a phone call and that I liked but didn’t love the film. I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that night that it would be a work I would return to over and over again during the past ten years.

Honestly, the real reason I remember wanting to see Permanent Midnight was due to Maria Bello, an actress that I had really become bewitched by during her stint on E.R. as Dr. Del Amico. The film marked Bello’s first role after that show, which marks it as the big screen start to what I think is a very special career…but more on Bello later.

A couple of years went by before I watched Veloz’s film again, this time courtesy of its DVD. I liked it more but it still didn’t totally captivate me and I didn’t expect to watch it again. I still to this day can’t put my finger on when Permanent Midnight became one of my ‘go to movies’. Sometimes it just happens that way…a movie goes from being just one you like to suddenly being one you love and watch over an over again, and that’s what happened with me and Permanent Midnight.

For those who haven’t seen it or aren’t aware of it, Permanent Midnight is based on the memoirs of Jerry Stahl, a Hollywood screenwriter who spiraled out of control in the eighties due to heroin addiction. Playing Stahl, in a career best performance, is an actor more known for his great comedic work rather than his dramatic chops, Ben Stiller. It is in fact Stiller’s wit that separates Permanent Midnight from almost any other drug movie ever made, and I think elevates it from a great film to one of the key films of the late nineties.

Early on into Permanent Midnight’s incredibly short running time (it clocks in just over 80 minutes without credits) we are treated to a brief snatch of the classic "Young Man Blues". It’s not the version by The Who but is instead the original by jazz great Mose Allison. While we only hear a few seconds of it, and it is just one of several powerful songs featured, I can’t hear the song now without seeing images of Ben Stiller in this film…lonely, lost, willfully destructive but with something obviously good inside of him.

I can’t completely put my finger on what it is that I love so much about Permanent Midnight. There is just something just significant and sincere about it…and something remarkably plain. As much as I admire the shock value of drug films from The Man With The Golden Arm (1955) to Requiem For A Dream (2000), it is the casual annihilation that Permanent Midnight manages to capture that I find so incredibly captivating.

Permanent Midnight remains the only film directed by Veloz and that’s a real surprise as it’s a really smashing debut work. Veloz, probably best known as the co-screenwriter on Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, doesn’t make any of the mistakes most first time directors do and his first film is a refreshingly economical, humorous and moving take on one of the most difficult subjects to capture on film.

A remarkable cast of often surprising choices including Bello, Elizabeth Hurley, Owen Wilson, Jay Paulson, Janeane Garofalo, Cheryl Ladd, Connie Nielson and Fred Willard fill out the film, and they all deliver some of their finest work here. As the women in Stahl’s life, Bello is really touching as Kitty, the recovering addict he meets up with to recall his story to and Hurley has never been better, giving a rich and textured performance suggesting she might have developed into a really great actress. The real scene stealers though are Wilson, who manages to be funny, touching and disturbing all at once and a ferocious Connie Nielson who features in one of the film’s most unforgettable and strangest scenes to Hooverphonic’s "2 Wicky".

The film belongs, rightfully so, to Stiller though who is an absolute revelation as the spiraling screenwriter. It’s a tough role that would have been made completely unlikable by most of the ‘great’ dramatic actors who might have been cast in it, but Stiller plays it with a extraordinarily relaxed ease that even in the films harshest moments there is still something about him we like. Of course the key to Permanent Midnight isn’t necessarily liking Jerry Stahl but instead understanding him and by the end of the film, when he speaks of how hard the drudgery of daily life is compared to the life of an addict, anyone who has ever experienced even a slight taste of what he is talking about will nod their head in sad agreement.

Even though Stahl’s story is set in the eighties, Permanent Midnight is an absolutely nineties work. From the pulsing strains of Prodigy’s ferocious "Smack By Bitch Up" to the unforgettable sun soaked photography by frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Robert D. Yeoman, Permanent Midnight belongs to the decade that produced it which I suspect might date it for some but will only continue to make it resonate more with me.

Despite being a best selling book, the film version of Permanent Midnight never really caught fire. Critically it was fairly well received but hardly anyone went and saw it (it ended up grossing just over a million) and I don’t think it’s had any real kind of cult build up since its release on DVD. It lacks the flash of something like Requiem For A Dream and belongs instead with a movie like Harold Becker’s devastating The Boost (1988), another little seen ‘drug’ film that manages to capture the manic and powerful pull of addiction.

The DVD can be found fairly cheaply and it features an engaging commentary with Veloz and a couple of funny deleted scenes (including one favorite that chronicles Stahl’s time with Hustler). I think the film demands repeated viewings, which is something that I suspect most haven’t given it. I have introduced it to a few people over the years but I haven’t met anyone who engages with it as much as I do so I would be curious to hear other reactions.

Jerry Stahl published another well-received book last year, a collection of short stories called Love Without, and I hope he is doing well. I have no idea what his reactions are to the movie version (in which he has a cameo in) of his rather harrowing time are, but Permanent Midnight remains one of my favorite films of the late nineties…I hope it finds more of an audience someday.


Rogue Spy 007 said...

I hate to say this, but I had never even heard of this film. How I missed it I don't know. I'll definitely have to be on the lookout for it.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
Give it a look...I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Brandon Colvin said...

technical issue: the title of the entry says "1988" instead of "1998"

Hovet is working you too hard. Haha.

relevant to the film: I saw this on television a few years ago and wasn't hugely impressed. I had trouble buying Ben Stiller's performance. That might be an unjust bias though.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Brandon for noticing another one of my dumbass typos...I am exhausted and I know it is showing. I appreciate all the help I can get.

Funny, Stiller's performance is my favorite part of the film but as always I like hearing your thoughts...

thanks again for the heads up on the misprint...I've fixed it...

J.D. said...

Whatever happened to the serious side of Ben Stiller? I guess the commercial failure of this film and the serio-comic ZERO EFFECT made him think twice about doing anything remotely challenging?

It's a shame because, as you point out, he was so good in this film. He really shows the spiraling out-of-control nature of his character as he descends into drug-addled oblivion. The scene where he and (the underrated) Peter Green run and smash themselves up against office windows to Prodigy is exhilirating and terrifying and kinda pathetic all at once.

Nice write-up on this underrated gem.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks J.D.
Glad to hear I am not the only one who admires this film and Stiller's work in it. I love his comedic work but I thought this role would really begin a strong dramatic career for him as well...anyway, thanks again for the very nice words.