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Junk Movies.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

APRIL 26, 1999:  Call it the myth of the self-destructive artist—the more someone suffers for their art, the more "real" we think the art is. Whether it's Van Gogh or Kurt Cobain, we tend to lionize creative types who walk it like they talk it—the ones who live out their pain. There's some validity in the idea, but it has also given rise to a lot of poppycock. The fact is, most tortured artists do their best work before their self-immolation, not because of it.

The most common form of burnout, of course, is drugs. In certain fields, particularly jazz, literature, and entertainment, a serious habit of some sort still has a romantic allure; there's a sense of allowing the demons to come out so that they can be recognized and translated into creative expression.

The central absurdity of that notion is the subject of Permanent Midnight (1998, R), a dark but funny and even touching movie based on writer Jerry Stahl's autobiography of the same name. Stahl, who balanced a "serious" writing career with TV sitcom work in the 1980s, eventually gave his whole life over to his heroin addiction. The key to the movie is the lead performance of Ben Stiller, who (like Daniel Day-Lewis) reshapes himself for every role. In There's Something About Mary, he was a lovable lumpen nebbish; in Your Friends and Neighbors, he was all jutting chin and lying eyes as the pretentious, womanizing theater prof; here, he projects enough charisma and kinetic intelligence to make you see why Stahl's wife, friends, and co-workers keep cutting him breaks long after he deserves them. The film grounds Stahl's addiction in inherited self-loathing—both of his parents committed suicide—but never makes excuses for it. It finds black comedy both in the superficial L.A. showbiz world Stahl inhabits and in the basic inanity of a junkie's life (a scene where he shoots up while his wife is giving birth is as funny as it is disturbing). Crucially, Stiller never stops being likable even at his most reprehensible. He gets nice support from a cast that includes Elizabeth Hurley and (in a self-deprecating bit part) Cheryl Ladd.

Canadian fetishist David Cronenberg tackled some of the same territory in Naked Lunch (1991, R), his ambitious adaptation of William S. Burroughs' autobiographical beat classic. The protagonist, a writer named Bill (Peter Weller, as appropriately blank as ever), inhabits a metaphorical world filled with talking insects and addictive "bug powder." The film is more interesting than it is entertaining—it gets repetitive once its central points are established—but as a study of the interplay between creativity and surrender (to a muse, an addiction, or a lover), it's at least a unique and forceful vision.

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