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Permanent Midnight


‘…while a little woolly in trems of narrative, Permanent Midnight does a persuasive job of depicting the high personal cost of addiction…’

What were the seismic events of the 20th century? The era that spawned two world wars, the invention of planes, cars, television, the internet, and the atomic bomb had many key moments to reflect upon, but I’m sure that we can all agree that for most of us, the genuine high point was the creation of the popular tv programme ALF. The acronym stood for Alien Life Form and took the form of popular puppet ALF, a cat-eating, anteater-shaped visitor from the planet Melmac. It’s hard to register what the kind of exhausting creative process was behind bringing a character like ALF to life and into our front rooms, but writer/director stepped up the plate with Permanent Midnight, a 1998 bio-pic of sorts about writer Jerry Stahl, who worked on the ALF tv show.

Taking Stahl’s own memoir as inspiration, Permanent Midnight examines the intense pressure and strain that was involved with the creation of ALF. For copyright reasons, Alf doesn’t appear here, but his place is taken by Mr Chompers, who has a similar look and comedy style. Mr Chompers haunts the dreams and nightmares of writer Jerry Stahl, played by Ben Stiller, in what seems like a fairly accurate picture of what writing in LA was like in the 90’s. This is a warts and all story, with Stahl involved in habitual drug use; we first meet him working in a fast-food outlet where he meets Kitty (Maria Bello) and looks back over a very chequered career. Stahl had talent and money, and a wife Sandra (Elizabeth Hurley) and a little girl Nina, but Stahl’s use of drugs such as heroin, crack cocaine and Dilaudid eventually come to destroy his professional and social relationships.

Stiller lost a lot of weight to achieve the strung-out look required to play Stahl, an evasive character who also wrote for thirtysomething and Twin Peaks, and recognises that ‘I’m better at moving out’ than in. ‘Are you coming back?’ is a question that rings around his ears as Stahl shirks responsibility after responsibility; in a city full of users of different kinds, Jerry Stahl becomes the worst kind of self-absorbed car-crash of a user. ‘There’s a party going on out here, you know…’ Sandra admonished him with a backward look; whatever Stahl’s work should have earned him goes for nothing when the writer can’t keep things together, leading to getting arrested for intoxication with his own baby in the car. Whatever hypocritical message Hollywood sends out about itself, the unspoken truth is that most television and film production is awash with performative drug-taking; it takes more to escape from the chemical cosh than downing wheatgrass juice and explaining away the injuries from getting beaten up while scoring as having ‘slipped at the gym.’ Stiller contorts his features into a Nosferatu of gurning angst, and while a little woolly in trems of narrative, Permanent Midnight does a persuasive job of depicting the high personal cost of addiction.

Drugs are no laughing matter, and Permanent Midnight does a frank, painfully honest job of showing how the flaws in Stahl’s personality are magnified by his dependence of narcotics of various varieties. There’s pitch-perfect support from Owen Wilson, Cheryl Ladd, Janeane Garofolo, Sandra Oh and Fred Willard as Hollywood types, and even Gilmore Girls star Liz Torres in a surprisingly murky role as one of Stahl’s grimy off-the-street pushers. Permanent Midnight isn’t a lot of laughs, and doesn’t have the pop-culture popularity of the Zoolander films which features some of the same actors, but it’s also a salutary lesson about not getting high on your own supply; Hollywood is a dark and dangerous place to work if you don’t take care, and Volez’s caustic, unlikable, apologetic film depicts exactly why that is.


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  1. Never sa the ALF and not such a big fan of Stiller to check this out. His strung-out screen personality worked okay in the comedies but generally too much for a serious picture.

  2. So someone made a movie–starring a bunch of comics mind you–that was about drugs, the seedy side of Hollywood and, pretty blatantly, “Alf”? Why has this not been rebooted?

    • I’d been keen to see a ten movie franchise about how and why ALF was created.

  3. I remember ALF. We never watched it though, so all of my memories of it are second hand. It is one of those shows I’d like to watch now, just to see.
    aaaaaand it’s on prime for free. Perfect. yet another background show to have 😀

    So is this one of those fictional biopics that are very loosely based on real life but are still completely fake? Or is it really a biopic of the writer?

    • It’s the writers own account of what it was like working on tv shows and getting wasted; he screwed up his life pretty badly. So it’s not a sympathetic film, although Stahl does appear as a doctor. But it’s a pretty grim warning about how drug use can magnify the flaws in a personality, with results that damage many, many people.

  4. I vaguely remember the Alf programs, not surprised he was a creation of a junkie mind. This sounds like a right downer so I’ll nope it. Has Stiller realised he’s not a funny man in the slightest and trying to do straight stuff?

    • Stiller really does a great job here. Stahl didn’t create ALF, but was a key writer on the show. The overall effect of the film is quite a downer, it depicts issues that aren’t easily solved.

  5. A Hollywood biopic on the guy who wrote Alf?

    Did you ever cross paths with this guy when you were housesitting in L.A. in the ’90s? Did you ever share a hot tub with Alf?

    • Sigh. I certainly recognise a lot about this film from writing in LA. Did the dishes with Hurley the year this came out, I washed, she dried. FacT!

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