RIORI Vol 3, Installment 37: Patrick Stettner’s “The Night Listener” (2006)


The Players…

Robin Williams, Toni Colette, Joe Morton, Bobby Cannavale and Sandra Oh, with Rory Culkin and John Cullum.

The Story…

Two odd stories—one within and the other without—coincide with radio personality Gabe Noone’s fractured life. The first story is about the loss in Gabe’s life. The second is about loss in the abstract, which Gabe can really sympathize. If not obsess over.

Abused child? Compelling manuscript? Empty nest? And utterly unable to separate work from reality? Gabe’s life is awash in uncertainty and confusion. All it took was a few words on air and down the rabbit hole he went. What to do to get some sanity back?

Stay tuned.

The Rant…

Hey, you know what? This here’s the first installment at RIORI that’s exceeded the number of previous volume’s installments. I guess that’s a milestone. Maybe a testament to my wounded attention span’s slow mending. Or whatever. Most FaceBook posts are still a blur to me even 30 minutes after. Thought I’d say something, though.

Anyway, now it is time I once again recall my radio days. I’ve touched on it before back with the Pirate Radio installment, but I don’t think I really cut into the meat of the matter. Y’know, beside screaming vitriolic about how can Gwen Stefani still have a “career” in music and “earn” accolades courtesy the pages of Us Weekly on her fashion sense and how her new album’s production standards (it’s amazing what one can glean from their doctor’s waiting room pile of mags) exceed the next viral phenom from Canada’s many suburban basements.

Just kidding. Most Torontan’s have attics, too, sans the skins of fallen fanboys, hides shimmering in the new dawn’s light.

Christ, that was grisly. I must really hate…everyone. Moving on:

So forgetting my bilious dislike of Journey for a breath, I was raised on radio.

I grew up in a patch of Pennsylvania that was squarely aimed between radio broadcasts from both Philly and NYC. Dotted between those markets were a panoply of local affiliates (then untouched from the winding tentacles of ClearChannel) which thrilled me with their broadcasts of music, news, talk shows and the occasional Bible thumping that scared me back into bed faster than a Wes Craven movie in 4D. Needless to say, I got me a lot of bang from my boombox. And pissed through a lot of double-As.

Back in the 80s, everyone had a Walkman, including me. Used to strap that thing on my belt all the time, if not for the radio than the monthly Weird Al release. I was always curious about the radio programmers (never deejays; a term a pox on any respectable radio personality). They would talk and talk, always in bright, upbeat tones regardless of how lame the last single might have been or how horrible the war in Lebanon was (is). To me, it was precognition. The programmers’ words dictated where the day would go. The idea of voices floating out into the ether and landing on whatever ears they could (including my maligned radar rings) fascinated—later disturbed me.

The notion of free-floating vapors as voices more or less got me into radio, if only for the briefest moment. Before my times on air, I was once a kid who’d stay up late and tune into the local college stations. As you may know, those broadcasts are tad more eclectic and loose in their programming. Any college kid working on a broadcast journalism degree, hyped up on coffee, knocked loose on window box weed and powered by a healthy does of misguided musical hubris would only have the gall to spin Miles Davis into the Beastie Boys into the Minutemen into Brian Eno into the drone of an angle grinder. Good times for a geeky, insomniac teen like me. Hell, maybe you, too.

Must’ve been the hour. When the rest of the world had gone to sleep, there I was in the dead of night, ear pressed against the stereo. I mean pressed. The walls of my house were like tissue paper, and if mom or dad heard any noise from my bedroom after midnight, it was inviting a raid, safeties off (they f*cking hated Eno. Must’ve been that second Talking Heads album, them upset by their wrangling of the Al Green tune. Picky, picky). Strange sounds from the radio entered my brain, and I was entranced how these weird college kids got away with playing what they did, saying what they said. It was a far cry from how the local Top 40 station conducted itself. Me being cracked in the head, hard up and quite tired of—if ever awake to—Ace Of Base, the mumblings of these ne’er-do-wells and the odd tunes they played was nothing less than a revelation.

Wait. That’s not quite right. Not a revelation. An obsession. Late at night these voice wafted froth from my stereo and I often wondered where they came from. I knew a studio. I ain’t that dinged in the head (not quite). Just who were these folks and what was their damage? Did they really consider their audience, or did they just babble hoping their music selections and the random errata that only endlessly cracked cans of PBR could coax? Yeah, yeah. Both, I know. Still, got me to wonder.

Fast forward a lifetime. It was my custom (and still is) to tune into the radio for my morning shower. Rest assured I do bathe, almost daily. Sometimes I even use soap. Amidst my sudsing up, I get my news and the odd rhythms that being up well before sunrise provide. A habit from back in the day, when my day began at 1 PM and my aim was to scrub the alcohol-soaked sins of the night away. I got sick of the commercial stations, buffeting my stinging ears with that week’s American Idol caterwauling. I decided on bleary day that, f*ck it, I was gonna tune down to way left of the dial and scroll up until I found a decent playlist, something that stank of my adolescent midnights with the stereo and the angle grinder.

I didn’t have to go far.

One click above the the butt end of the FM buzz I struck upon a really decent pop tune, by some artist I didn’t know. It was an earnest, sunny song recalling summer and picnics, but not cloying. It was decidedly not Ace Of Base. The sphincter loosened. It was followed by that jaunty Beatles song “Drive My Car” and flowed naturally. That piano vamp and Ringo’s cowbell (if you yell “More cowbell!” after reading that you are a dick) really brightened my shower. I even flossed in the tub. Between my toes, mind you. I ain’t that weird.

Needless to say, I tuned into that curious station everyday from then on (BTW, the sunny song I spoke of I later learned was Sam Roberts’ “Every Part Of Me” from his We Were Born In A Flame album. Yes, I own the thing. Now. Duh). Everyday that station had a different host, and with their personality came reflecting songs. The show was (is) called The Blend, on WDIY FM 88.1, Lehigh Valley’s Community Radio station. I was entranced, both by the eclectic variety of rock, blues and obscura that got spun, but also the voices of the folks on the other end of the mic. Reminded me of those blissful, lonely nights again, securing trip wires five feet from my bedroom door (that Heads cover was awesome, by the by. My folks were just Al Green purists is all. They liked basketball a lot).

One fateful broadcast, the folks at WDIY let out a casting call. Volunteers to be on air programmers (again, the more pro term for deejays. Radio folks deem the title as a pejorative, reserved for guys still donned in Jncos and spinning Skrillex at 11 for sweaty chicks saturated with ecstasy. The drug, not the rapture. Maybe both actually). They needed capable bodies who knew music. Against my lukewarm receptions at karaoke nights and my unfeasible record collection, I think I might’ve met the requirements. What the hell. Play music? On the radio? Where those voices came from? Ha ha ha. The source! I called immediately.

The long and the short of it was I spent five years on the air as the Friday host of The Blend. Nate, your friend in The Blend, Eeyore On Prozac was my handle. Well, I thought it was clever, and partially accurate. I got to see how the sausage was made. I got to spin my tunes as well as exposed to more new music than any sane person should. Day one when I met with the operations manager Neil (the man behind the curtain), my position was secured by the two massive CD wallets of endless mix discs that served as my resume. Neil was a Sham 69 fan, and the handshake cliched the position.

Everything old, new, borrowed and blue was The Blend’s tagline. And there I was, one of the voices, playing all sorts of eclectic sh*t both within and outside my comfort zone. I learned to be cagey. As a listener, I hated how commercial programmers seemed to be in love with their own voices. They’d talk and talk, interrupting every third song for either a plug or a wisecrack. Some would always, always yak over the instrumental intro to a song before the mandatory station ID. Imagine the speedy prattle over Jimmy Page’s delicate guitar work on “Stairway To Heaven” before Robert Plant tells us about a lady she knows. Yeah, that. Puke. I did not tune in to hear that voice. I tuned in for the songs and either the hazy or witty repartee from the programmer without intruding on the music.

I know, right?

I kept it brief. The best part of left-of-the-dial radio after the music by the unscripted dialogue from the programmers. Those distant voices. I learned from my late nights tuning in. Keep it short, or at least interesting. My ultimately goal was to jam in 50 songs within the three-hour running time of The Blend. The closest I ever got was 47. Commercial stations can barely squeeze in 20 songs within a single hour, what with the ads and blathering from the DJs’ irritable colon. Not I. Barring station identification (mandated by those fun folks at the FCC), I kept my on air babble along the curve of Mel Gibson’s lines in The Road Warrior. I understood there was a voice necessary to tether the show, but based on my experiences it was far better to speak frankly at the right moments for the right reasons.

My laconic sensibilities once proved fruitful. Once. I got a kind email of appreciation from a fan, thanking me for airing some fresh tracks from the then new Belle & Sebastian album. She told me she always tuned in to my show to accompany her studies at a local college. She also appreciated the brevity of my demanded on air spiel. Short and simple, just say enough to get out there and onto the next track.

But that was it during my five-year stint as Eeyore On Prozac at WDIY. One casual, friendly blurb. It was the lone letter of gratitude I ever got from a fan for my efforts, meager as they were. Once more a naivety let me down. Folks out there weren’t as interested in the voices as much as I was. Or as I hoped. Still, I did consider who might be out there, tuning in, and what they were getting out of listening. There is an entire human audience out there in radio listener land. I kept thinking about who might be on the receiving end. A single email from a fan was all I knew.

I guess the voices didn’t travel as far as I thought.

More like heard…

Gabriel Noone (Williams) tells stories. He’s an on air broadcaster at WNYH, telling tales and spinning yarns for the proud few that tune in. On the radio, his tales are a warm comfort for the millions of silent ears out there in listener land. At home…well, Gabe’s having a bit of it leaving work at work.

What else is leaving? His boyfriend Jess (Cannavale), has had his fill of Gabe’s woolgathering and increasing distance. Theirs was once a nurturing relationship. Turned out Jess being HIV positive and Gabe’s total sensitivity to all that entailed only went so far. Jess didn’t want to be a terminal pity case, and Gabe with his Florence Nightingale syndrome something had to give.

What didn’t give was Gabe’s drive for sympathy to others. Misguided sympathy to be sure, but akin to his endless firesides on the microphone, keenly aware of the audience out there listening. Out there it matters to someone, the tales he tells.

Turns out he has a fan.

One day Gabe’s publishing agent friend Ashe (Morton) presents him with an unsolicited manuscript of a bio from some abused kid. Quite the fan of Gabe’s radio show Ashe assures him. He thumbs through the pages and a dull-burning spark licks the embers of his brain. Here’s a kid who’s a real head case. He needs a friend. Later phone correspondence proves this true. The boy’s caretaker Donna (Colette) tells him of the boy’s dire circumstances, and the illness that is killing him. Out comes the apocryphal plea:

“It would mean a lot if he could meet you.”

Screw it. Jess is gone. The on air audience is hiding. Here’s an opportunity to get in touch with a true listener. Someone who gives a real sh*t about what Gabe’s been sending out forever.

In kind, the man sets out for forever. He may never get back…

This was a tricky watch. By tricky I mean, “What the f*ck?”

I was merely confused and a bit bored with the first act. Only later I didn’t know what the f*ck was up. Later still I wanted to kick the screen in for the movie cheating me. No, I didn’t enjoy The Night Listener. I tried to. My resolve ain’t broken that quickly (except around mint chocolate chip ice cream). It was a long ride to not enjoy The Night Listener. Took some attention, though.

Watching Night was like waiting for tea to brew. Iced tea. You know. Dunk those speciality teabags in cold water and let them do their duty, slowly. Gradually the water turns brown and murky over a few hours, not like hot tea. That stuff’s immediate. Five minutes and boom: chai for your gullet. Ice tea takes a lot longer. And solar tea? Break out your dusty copy of War And Peace. Christ, just pop a bottle of Snapple already.

Despite Night being a relatively short movie (hour twenty to be exact), the waters got brown and murky pretty fast. The plot was wobbly and the execution fractured enough to be baffling instead of intriguing as I suppose director Stettner intended. It was handily directed, though, albeit in a hurried fashion. As well as in an unsophisticated fashion. This was a mystery film like an onion; many layers to peel away. Those layers just weren’t pared down in a considerate fashion. We brewed a pot of hot tea here and the bags tore.

Some specifics. The key issue I had with Night: that nagging feeling that this had been done before. I dismantled Flightplan years ago. There’s a touch of The Sixth Sense here. Hitchcock’s unimpeachable Rear Window gets ransacked by Night. Little girl lost. Someone who was never there. Was there a crime at all? Dribs and drabs from psychological thrillers of yore, sprinkled over the muddle here. Homage or rip-off? You figure it out. I couldn’t. Ultimately, I think it was ignorance on the director’s behalf of how to pull this thing off that made this crap come off the rails.

We can thank the interesting cast for trying to keep Night on track. I’ve always considered Williams in dramatic roles almost always more satisfying than his comedic ones (think The Fisher King or even Good Will Hunting. Stop groaning; he did get an Oscar for that thing). His Gabe is a haunted, desperate character. He appears useless, dismissed. Lonesome. Not lonely, mind you. All alone with himself, despite people seemingly concerned for his well being. There was a disconnect; Gabe’s fragility belies a need to be wanted. His quest to help the invalid child—which may or may not exist, in Gabe’s mind or otherwise—we could follow a futile search. Williams’ timorous delivery and an appearance of massive insecurity clinched a convincing angst. Best stuff in the whole film I think. Better than the copycat plot.

An aside: I’d probably be remiss in my duties to not mention that Williams was in recovery, owing up to a crippling addiction to booze while filming Night. One could only wonder if the anxiety his Gabe delivered on screen was magnified under the strain of rehab. Not The Method I would want to use in fleshing out a character. Worked though.

Anyway, most of the rest of the cast also stood well by Williams’ performance. Joe Morton is a fine character actor. Always a cool customer, even after Sarah Connor blew out his arm (run through your cinematic mental Rolodex, people. Does anyone even use, let alone know what a Rolodex is these days?). Morton is the the only actor I know of that gets younger every successive film he’s in, and his natural energy is always snappy and warm. His Ashe might’ve gotten Gabe into his mess, his somewhat casual passive-aggressiveness almost appealing to Gabe’s neurosis, the impetus for Gabe’s decline.  Morton didn’t get a lot of screen time, but he made the best of it.

However (and there’s always at least one here), not every member of the decent cast was actually cast well. Toni Colette is a fine actress, almost always in roles demanding a left-of-center kind of aesthetic. She’s pretty solid. But you know what she’s not good at? Hamming it up. Her Donna was a low-rent version of Kathy Bates’ performance as the demented Annie Wilkes in Misery. It was pretty apparent at the outset that Donna was a wingnut, always changing her story, vague in her motives and just as desperate as Gabe to be needed. The only difference with Colette was a lack of subtlety against Williams sober (so to speak) performance. It’s far better to be an antagonist that doesn’t twirl their mustache. Or failure to see.

Night attempted to be creepy, but with a soft sell. It’s a stalker film, but in reverse. We’re never sure who’s listening to whom, and what their quarry is. Is this a film about obsession really? If so, over what? All those things are peppered throughout the movie, making it a confusing melange of old mystery tropes that Stettner either clearly was dedicated to, or completely oblivious to Hitchcock’s work and every damn stereotype in a psycho thriller. His parents must be so proud.

I walked away with a dissatisfied feeling in my tummy. I kept asking myself “What’s going on here?” Being convoluted does not a convincing mystery make. Night was like either an early Cluster album and/or a Danielle Steele bestseller: very little to hold on to. We learned Gabe was grasping at straws, trying to establish sense against both his fractured mind and uncovered odd circumstances. That much was certain. But the “what the hell for?” aspect was either screamingly cliche or way too murky to appreciate. Like so much dingy hot tea.

Too much was going on to follow, despite the short running time. Then again, too little was flopping about, too, like the running time was a stopwatch. Night was a confusing, unpleasant mess. Nothing lined up. Mysteries should not bewilder. Confound maybe. But not leave you scratching your head come credits time like lice were feeding directly on your cerebral cortex. Especially if you got hoodwinked as to the real purpose of the show.

Night was an example of what I entertained back in my radio days. Someone out there heard me. Maybe they cared. A voice on the wing managing to connect. I didn’t get no invisible, sickly, junior writers describing their abuse with sounds, feathers, so much lube and bacon on inappropriate parts.

Might’ve been cool, though. On both fronts.

Hey. Was that Cluster bit too far reaching? Go hear the album then, you philistine. Yay angle grinders!

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Not surprisingly, relent it. I think I’m getting sick of derivative psychological thrillers. I’m also getting sick of chicken. For real. They have a tendency to explode when I f*ck them. Duct tape, folks. Always duct tape. That and don’t watch this movie.

Stray Observations…

  • Pirandello Press, percursor of the Theatre Of The Absurd. English degree. You’re welcome.
  • “Do you have to make everything filthy?”
  • Denial is denial, not matter which way you swing (I should’ve worked for Hallmark).
  • “Go play with Tiny Tim!” Tiptoe…
  • I can’t remember a Hollywood take on a May/November relationship—gay or straight—that wasn’t rotten with stereotypes. And these guys were a couple, really?
  • “It’s a hideous way to promote a bank.”
  • Admittedly, Colette made for a convincing blind person from what I saw (so to speak. Ha!).
  • “You’ve done something for flight attendants?”

Next Installment…

Bradley Cooper is a strung-out, Burnt-out chef, desperately searching out a few old recipes from the Silver Linings Cookbook to get his life back in order. Excelsior!

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