Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Matthew Chapman's Heart of Midnight (1988)

From her uncle Fletcher, Carol inherits a nightclub that is located in a shitty part of town. It is quite a nice building, architecturally, reminiscent of 1930s and 1940s club scene where crooners and big-band jazz probably swung. Carol, likewise, has a romantic idea for its restoration and makes it her goal. Unfortunately, she is probably not suited for such a task. Carol has suffered a recent breakdown and, according to her mother, any stress will cause irreparable harm to her very sensitive psychiatric condition. Carol moves into the living quarters atop of the club, and those quarters of several rooms are weird. While trying on a neglected party dress in a cluttered room, three young men watch her changing. The three young men enter the building to rape Carol, and she is saved by one of the three who has a change of heart.

Carol is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, an actress most often identified by her unconventional role choices. When her career ends one day, few will be able to dispute the fact that Leigh took serious artistic risks in her role choices. While the quality and success of the films in which she appeared may waver, Leigh's determination to pick roles very different from her contemporaries is quite admirable. Her presence and performance in a film, subsequently, are often its main attraction. Hence a recent viewing of the rather obscure and seemingly missing from region-one DVD film, Heart of Midnight (1988), directed by Matthew Chapman.

The most notable feature of the first act of Heart of Midnight, beyond its exposition and character introduction, is its very mechanical nature (which never wavers for its duration). The mechanical wins over the director's attempts at methodical, for for the second and final acts of the film, the themes of the film shift with the second act being a viewer witnessing a woman possibly detach from reality and descend into madness while the final act is revelation and plot-driven (so if Heart of Midnight is either a mystery, thriller, or character portrait, the viewer will know then). The conservative, mechanical structure of the film allows for a provocative canvas for its themes and imagery. Unfortunately, the mechanical structure again wins, as any wilful and provocative motifs or set-ups are not quite incendiary enough to cause a stir.

Carol's uncle Fletcher was quite the scumbag, and the living quarters above the club housed themed rooms of sexual deviancy. Visually, rendering these rooms would be potentially interesting and a creative opportunity. However, stencilling the words "master" and "slave" on opposing walls while a mannequin is posed in the room's center donned in fetish garb is far from creative or provocative. The set design is overwhelmingly conservative, as if its artist watched Andrew Blake's or Rinse Dream's films on fast forward for a day. Perhaps such contrived compositions should at least instill emotions of either arousal or repulsion, instead of looking strained.

Uniquely, most viewers with Heart of Midnight will never experience being handheld through disorientation, in this manner. A cursory read of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" should at least set a blueprint. When Carol's mind begins to slip in the second act and trippy things begin to appear around the nightclub (Heart almost never leaves the club), rarely will a viewer witness such contrived attempts to let him/her know that "appearances" are changing. There is a scene of Leigh's Carol dumping all of her psychiatric medicine into the garbage, so hint, hint. When very handsome Detective Sharpe (Peter Coyote) comes for a follow-up investigation with Carol, any disorienting effect by this storyline is undercut by a later scene of another Detective Sharpe visiting. It does not help the film either when Frank Stallone's detective character takes every opportunity to refer to Carol as a "psycho" and roll his eyes whenever he is in her presence. Although, watching Frank and company rock out with a country music tune, later, is still staying with me.

The biggest, perverse thrill in Heart of Midnight is in watching Leigh give another whole-hearted, engrossing performance. Thankfully, she is not deterred from anything else in the film from always being compelling. The devil is truly in the details in her character, and if the viewer can focus on her, then Heart is well worth seeing. Leigh's performance is really the only organic, breathing aspect of the film. The little, subtle features which a talented actress brings to a performance are all here with Leigh. Leigh's character is saddled with a walking cast through most of the film, and her character having one is really not that important. Leigh never forgets her character is wearing one and shapes her performance with it. Some of the delirium scenes are quite effective as in an overt one when Carol is riding a bicycle alone in the hallway; or in a subtle scene where Carol finds a symbolic apple in an empty refrigerator. Leigh and Coyote have a strong chemistry together, and unfortunately, the plot deters the two actors from interacting meaningfully. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as she is often able to do, pulls a coup d'etat with her performance and steals the film.

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