We live in an era of personal problems made public, an "Oprah" age where
people seek attention and absolution by hauling the results of their poor
decision-making skills in front of the nearest spotlight. Using the media
as an ersatz confession booth, they pour out the intimate details of
their obsessions, compulsions and other assorted demons; expecting, and
generally receiving, forgiving applause following their "daring" displays
Once reserved for celebrities, this peculiar form of self-flagellation is
now available to anyone willing to sacrifice their privacy and dignity in
exchange for attention. After a local television newsreader was arrested
for driving while intoxicated, she spoke with the print media and
received a couple of splashy profiles. In both stories the notion of
lives endangered by a drunk tooling erratically down the interstate
became secondary, eclipsed by her sad tale of how family losses, bouts
with depression and a near-suicidal state of mind led to her brush with
the law. Cue the string section, flip on the applause sign, and let's all
pray she stays sober.
"Permanent Midnight" recounts the true story of Jerry Stahl, a writer who
routinely earned upwards of $5,000 a week creating scripts for shows like
"Alf" and "Moonlighting," while spending $6,500 a week on heroin and
cocaine. He eventually hit bottom, of course. That's what junkies do.
Told in flashbacks, the film covers his descent to the depths of
addiction and his work on recovery, culminating in scenes of Stahl
appearing on various daytime talk shows, baring his soul while promoting
his tell-all autobiography.
Let's pause and look at Stahl's accomplishments. From his addiction he
spun a book, lots of television and print exposure, a feature film in
which he makes a cameo appearance, and more interviews to promote the
film. Nice work, Jerry! What's next, action figures?
Within this massive exercise in self-exploitation lies a solid, if
unexceptional, movie. "Permanent Midnight" offers nothing we haven't seen
before, but as far as harrowing portrayals of junkies go, this one is
unflinching and well-acted. Ben Stiller gives a strong performance as
Stahl, making heroin addiction look as ghastly as we already knew it was.
The film shows entertainment industry types willing to make allowances
for Stahl's outrageous behavior, as long as he kept cranking out material.
The scenes are interesting, but certainly not surprising.
Stahl's tale, like most calculated tell-all's, remains firmly focused on
him. As with the aforementioned newsreader, the effects of Stahl's
behavior on others is far less important than his pain, his loss of
esteem, his shame. You see, in "Oprah-land," the confessor is the star,
always remaining the center figure in their real-life soap opera; with
everyone around them fretting over the confessor's tragic self-
destructive behavior. Stahl's horrible actions are presented graphically
because audiences require that. After all, what good is a public
confession without juicy details about personal degradation?
Aside from Ben Stiller's acting, the only thing that really stands out
about "Permanent Midnight" is the sheer callousness behind its creation.
Adding even more irony to the cynical proceedings is the appearance of
"NewsRadio's" Andy Dick as a junkie discussing his habit alongside Stahl
during the talk show montage that closes the film. In real life, Dick is
almost as well known for his struggles with substance abuse as he is for
his comedic skills. The spectacle of a real Hollywood addict playing a
confessional addict onscreen is borderline surreal and unquestionably sad.
So what message does "Permanent Midnight" send? It's an anti-drug film,
to be sure, but who among us doesn't already know what addiction can do
to the human soul? Ultimately, I think the film's message is this: if
you're plagued by personal demons, get yourself a good agent, because
there's gold in them thar hills.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott