#108. Midnight Song (1937)

I didn’t know what the hell was going on here for like the first twenty minutes because the only version of Midnight Song I could find was a grainy transfer on YouTube, which was cracklesome and nostalgic (pleasant in that sense) but it was also hard to see. Also, worse yet, the subtitles appear to be word-for-word translations from the original. English words formatted in Chinese grammar. So we get sentences like, “We allows the enemy’s account excels fierce beasts of that year,” which goes noplace near even making a little bit of sense, and, “It stops rain now, we can do not beat the umbrella.” So the prospect of following the story and writing an essay was daunting and seemed doomed, like I’d have to rely on Wikipedia for a plot summary again.

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It’s at least as funny as it is disorienting but ultimately a story does begin to take shape. The fractured syntax and nonsequitors pick up a strange rhythm, like a secret language between yourself and the movie, and eventually the dialogue starts to ebb just over the line of coherence.

The story is a spin on Phantom of the Opera. A troupe of actors settle into a dusty old theater to prepare for a major performance. Their perfectionist male lead, whose name I can’t find, struggles through rehearsals, starts working on the apparently-challenging role by himself late at night, whereupon, being overheard by a slouching shadowy figure who sings well and was allegedly once a performer of enormous repute, a tutor comes forth, and counsels the young man, until eventually he achieves perfection and the performance is a great success – and while that’s totally ow I remember the movie playing out, I also feel like I’m missing something. I probably am. But I figure the wonky subtitles gave me at least 70% of the story.

phantom mask gif.gif
Lon Chaney’s unmasking in Phantom of the Opera

Anyway. Eventually the cloaked figure is unmasked (cued by a wonderfully cheesy crash of thunder and lightening) and we see that he’s disfigured. It’s not the demonic disfigurement of Lon Chaney in the source material. Our guy here is disfigured by acid and his face has the droopy, melted-wax quality that – though fleshier than the outcome of an actual acid attack – pretty well achieves the look. It’s shocking, and upsetting, but not horrifying. And now we get the flashback to how it all happened. This is how Midnight Song surpasses Phantom of the Opera. Because even with the ridiculous subtitles, and the awful picture quality, the scene in which the disfigured anti-hero, following the attack that deforms him (which I think he’s made target of on account of political subversion[?]), removes his bandages and sees his face for the first time is one of the most powerful scenes, some of the most remarkable acting, to grace the List so far. I can confidently recommend Midnight Song on the basis of those two minutes alone.

Is it a good movie aside from that? Yes. But I think it only barely pulls enough weight to warrant its place on the List (though there’s something to be said about the East being under-represented up to now – it also begs the question of whether a feature-length movie should be included on the List only because of a single outstanding scene). It makes for an informative contrast against Phantom of the Opera, which is a weaker movie ine very respect. For all of that earlier movie’s mood and powerful images, and its pleasant abundance of Lon Chaney, the iconography of Phantom resides in one or two images, not the whole movie. I’m strongly of the opinion that most people who say that they really like the movie aren’t actually fans of the film overall but, rather, of its camp, and a couple of well-accomplished scenes. Midnight Song is supplied, twice over, with the heart that was missing from Phantom. Maybe that’s not such a fair comparison to make, because one had the privilege of sound and the other didn’t (although that’s not always a default excuse, the use of sound does give a skilled director an extra tool), but Phantom of the Opera is pretty clearly meant to shock its audience more than move them. That’s the whole premise of its quality: it’s socking. But time has stripped it of shock value. So what’s left?

Also, Phantom of the Opera is just a clusterfuck of a movie. It’s got four directors and no momentum.

Midnight Song gets kinda weird in its second half. The phantom believes that his ex-girlfriend – to whom he long ago faked his death so that she would never have to see his deformity – will be able to finally cope with his passing if she’s visited, and consoled, by his ghost. So he goes to his young protégé and says, basically, “Dess like me, talk like me, and go console her, at midnight, as though you were my wandering spirit.” And it goes on from there.

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A personal weakness when it comes to evaluating a movie is that I’m a sucker for well-crafted mentor/protégé relationships. Whether it’s a father-son or master-pupil thing, there’s something about that dynamic that I find really compelling. We don’t get much of it here, with the phantom coaching the young actor, and even though they’re essentially peers, working in the same field and not so far apart in age, there’s an Old Master quality to the phantom. But eventually the old master proves needy. His air of authority crumbles under that neediness.

This is gonna prompt another tangent, forgive me: there’s an older guy I work with, his name’s Bill, and Bill’s a sweetheart, he’s always bending over backward to help people out and he’s been doing that kind of thing his whole life. What’s his is yours. That kinda guy. The thing is this, though: Bill doesn’t drive, on account of he’s 81 and can’t see so well (actually gets routine injections in his eyeballs), and as a result of this he’s constantly bumming rides from people. Students, mainly. But when a student isn’t around, he comes to me. There was a period where I was taking him home almost every night for several months. And the conversation was always pleasant, and stopping by his house didn’t call for much of a detour from my usual route, but it did mean that I’d get home at 9 p.m. instead of 8:30 – which is kind of a big deal when you’re waking up early (at the time I was both a high school substitute and a tutor at the college, so I’d wake up at 5 a.m. four days of the week). But he was so nice that it felt monstrous to refuse himt he service.

But then he started asking to stop at Walgreens on the way home. And at Starbucks. And at Don Pan (a chain of bakeries down here in Miami). If I told him I didn’t wanna stop, that I had to get home, he’d say, “Well then just drop me off and I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

OK, Bill. Sure. You’re fucking 81 tears old and I’m gonna have you walk two miles in the dark with your arms fulla shit you just bought.

Eventually I boiled the proposition down to a quick phrase. He’d ask for a ride and I’d say sure – “no stops, though.” He’d balk at this sometimes, get condescending; on more than one occasion he stormed outta the room. Eventually he stopped asking.

But Bill came in here this past Saturday, there was a little over an hour left in my shift, and he’d just finished with his classes fr the day and he was ready to go home. He starts drumming his fingers on the counter, making small talk with my colleague, glancing over at me. I’m editing an essay. I know he needs a ride. But I’m doing work so I just keep my eyes on the page. Speak when spoken to.

After a couple minutes he said bye and left. My colleague and I exchanged looks.

“Think he wanted a ride?”

I shrugged, and kept working.

There’s a part of me that self-flagellates whenever I turn Bill down, or dodge his questions or just keep away from him because I don’t even wanna be asked, but there’s another part of me, the busy part, that feels no shame at all. Feels with resolve that if he wants a ride from me he’s gonna choose one destination.

Not sure what the right course of action might be here. Or if there is one. But I’m definitely compelled to give him the ride just outta fondness for the guy, as it doesn’t cost me much more than my time, but I’m impaled on the fence of whether or not it makes me a rotten person to delineate what might be rudely strict parameters on that generosity. If I compare the degree of inconvenience these rides impose upon me to the convenience they provide for Bill, the answer should be obvious: give him the ride! Don’t make this dude take the bus again. Don’t put him in the situation of having to call everybody on his phone to see who’s willing to come by and give him a ride.

But at the same time: fuck. I don’t wanna make all these stops.

Anyway. Midnight Song is good, I can see myself watching it again, but I think I’ll go for the official translation next time.

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