Whit Stillman’s “Homicide: Life On The Street” Episode: “The Heart Of A Saturday Night” (1996)

The year 1996 saw Whit Stillman branch out from the world of cinema and try his hand at the television medium.  Interestingly enough, this maker of old-money parlor dramas chose to take a stab at that classic lynchpin of primitive TV: the police procedural.

I vaguely remember HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS airing around that timeframe, which would put me at around 10 years old.  I never watched it, and having watched only this episode sixteen years after its release, the show’s age is immediately apparent.  The whole thing feels creaky and low-budget, like a generously-funded student film.  It’s clear that the series hails from a time before the recent renaissance of television content and quality.  The Baltimore setting ofHOMICIDE brings to mind the gritty reboot of the “schlocky crime/detective procedural” genre that would happen only a few years later in THE WIRE.

Where film is a director’s medium, television is a producer’s medium.  The director of a TV episode has to adhere to a pre-established look and tone (unless he or she is directing the pilot episode and is part of the creation of said look).  When Stillman came aboard in 1996 to direct his episode, “THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT”, the series was well into its fifth season.  As such, it’s interesting to watch Stillman appropriate the documentary/handheld aesthetic that the series embraces, while still imbuing his own sense of characterization into the story.

THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT uses a group murder counseling session as its framing device in the exploration of the emotional damage wrought by three random murders.  Jude Silvio (Stillman reportory performer Chris Eigeman) is a cynical, affluent man whose wife was murdered by a random carjacker, and his three year old daughter  (who was in the car with her) kidnapped.  Caroline Widmer (Rosanna Arquette) can’t bring herself to forgive her philandering husband, who she was planning on leaving before his throat was slashed with a beer bottle in a drunken bar brawl.  Tom Rath and his wife (Tom Quinn and Polly Holliday) are a working-class couple who grapple with the feelings of resentment towards their murdered daughter’s past as a drug addict and prostitute.  These vignettes frame the main narrative as it unfolds for the Baltimore homicide division, led by Yaphet Kotto.  As the night wears on, and the number of John and Jane Does keep coming in, the detectives find themselves strained to deliver justice quickly and efficiently.

Mid-90’s television isn’t known as a bastion of compelling performances.  With its cliched cop-speak dialogue and pulpy subject matter, HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET doesn’t exactly bring out the best of its performers, but the episode is surprisingly stocked with a respectable ensemble cast of character actors.  Besides the aforementioned Eigeman, Arquette, Quinn, and Kotto, a young Melissa Leo shows up as one of the key detectives.  Richard Belzer, who seems to be in every cop procedural show on television, is a strong, yet distracting presence as another detective.  However, THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is really the victims’ show, and they all convey an effective pathos in their respective circumstances.  Eigeman perhaps benefits the most, having collaborated with Stillman previously on METROPOLITAN (1989) and BARCELONA (1994).  My bet is that Eigeman’s casting was Stillman’s doing, probably after envisioning him spouting out Silvio’s acerbic, impatient dialogue.  Indeed, it’s Eigeman’s presence that’s the only suggestion that Stillman had a hand in the creation of this episode.

As lensed by Director of Photography Jean de Segonzarac, the episode’s visual look is a drastic departure from Stillman’s previous works, albeit I suspect that its because of his responsibility to adhere to a pre-ordained aesthetic.  The 4:3 aspect ratio frames a 16mm image composed of high contrast, naturalistic colors, and a thick layer of grain.  The quickly-edited camerawork is mostly handheld and framing is done in close-ups to convey a documentary style, which ends up feeling hollow due to the clunkiness of the writing.  Stillman finds an opportunity to stylize the film further by desaturating the colors in the counseling session vignettes.    He knows this isn’t his show, but it’s interesting to see Stillman try to match a look that’s pretty much the opposite of what he’s known for.

As an hour-long episode of television, THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is pretty unmemorable and almost entirely disposable.  That said, it’s probably one of the best episodes of HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET due to Stillman’s artistic inclinations and sensibilities (take that with a boulder of salt, since I haven’t seen any of the other episodes) .  For me, it’s going to be most memorable for the inclusion of a crackhead character who comes off as a serious, dramatic version of David Chappelle’s Tyrone Biggums character.  There’s also a strange slow-motion montage in the middle of the episode scored by a weird grunge rock song that seems entirely out of character for Stillman.  Again, however, it’s probably best to chalk that up to the demands of the producers and the show bible.

THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT is certainly not Stillman’s strongest work, and remains a curious oddity in the filmmaker’s relatively sparse oeuvre.  It’s really only of interest for hardcore Stillman fans, but even then it would be hard to honestly recommend it.  It makes some compelling arguments and delivers thought-provoking insights into the emotional wreckage of murder, but ultimately it’s all undone by the dated cheesiness of the television format.

HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREETS: “THE HEART OF A SATURDAY NIGHT” is currently available on DVD via Netflix.