Dark Rooms, Dark Hearts, and Dark Films

Part One: The Films that Changed my Life

One film above any other made a profound impression on me as a kid. It was 1987 and I was twelve years old. I watched it on VHS with a bunch of other kids in a dark room on a twenty-two inch TV at the small Christian primary school I attended as a youngster. It was night time. Our parents were holding a big, annual PTA meeting in the Assembly Room way down the other end of the school. They put us in the school’s AV Room with a video of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (or some equally inoffensive Disney-esque fare) to keep us harmlessly occupied.

They really should have known better.

One of the older boys had smuggled in a video-tape, which he produced from his bag the moment the adults left the room. We all rose and tilted forward in our chairs as he held aloft the contraband film.
‘What’s that?’ I asked. I remember seeing the cover. A deep orange sunset, silhouettes of helicopters, the unsettling, jagged title font.

‘This is what we’re gonna watch kids,’ the older boy told us, putting the video into the machine. ‘But don’t tell no-one or I’ll kick your arses.’ Of course we all immediately assured him of our silence. The cover, that title! Suddenly the prospect of being stuck in a small, dull room for three hours seemed like a grand adventure. The air was beginning to buzz with electricity. We were clearly, deliciously in breach of some unwritten, yet fully understood agreement between us and our parents about which kinds of films were taboo and which were allowed. Films with a “R18+” on the cover were not allowed. We all knew that, and the high risk of being caught in our endeavour made the experience all the more thrilling. Good kids watched The Neverending Story and Herbie Goes Bananas.

Bad kids watched Apocalypse Now.

How could I not fall in love, sitting there in the dark? All that brooding, dreamy, horizontal movement as the troubled Captain Willard journeyed down the river in a swirl of liquefied shadows and sunlight, being sucked towards god-knew-what. Seas of flames and American atrocities. American soldiers, who had been the ‘good guys’ in every other movie I had ever seen, were now frightened, spaced out, lost, or completely insane men who couldn’t even see the ‘bad guys’ they were shooting at. Of course, we were the generation of kids whose fathers were conscripted to Vietnam. We were acutely aware of the ‘wrongness’ of the war and familiar with all the horror stories it produced. Nevertheless, seeing Americans portrayed like this on screen made quite an impression. It pushed buttons. It flicked switches in my head that will never be un-flicked.

Looking back, I know that these revelations had nothing to do with life. They were all about cinema. What cinema could do. What cinema could be. There was, and still is, something beautiful, majestic, and subversive about Apocalypse Now. Hell, I didn’t know who Coppola was when I was twelve, let alone Vittorio Storaro, the man responsible for all that light and darkness. I knew Spielberg and Lucas, but I was unaware of the family of New Hollywood directors of whom Coppola was the Superbrat-in-Chief. I did sense something audacious in Apocalypse Now, though. I understood that it was a big, brave film, and far too adult for any of the adults I knew. It was saying things that the adults in my life didn’t like to be said. It was ‘big’ but not like Star Wars ‘big’. Star Wars was big and enjoyable and safe to watch in front of adults. It had clear notions of morality that even your grandma could agree with. You didn’t have to sneak off to a friend’s house to watch A New Hope.

More than anything, I guess Apocalypse Now spoke to that part of me that has been constant for as long as I remember. I’m not sure I can name it. It’s a personality thing. Perhaps it has something to do with being a Scorpio. I’m drawn to dark tales. I love stories that admit to the muddiness of morality. I love the Sergio Leone films because they portray very likeable men being complete and utter bastards. I have an unhealthy fascination with the P.T. Anderson film, There Will Be Blood, because its protagonist is so divided between impulses of good and evil that he is unfathomable. He is unfathomable to the extent that it is baffling to the audience. I love that he is like that, and that Anderson doesn’t provide any resolution to his duality (perhaps because he won’t, but probably because he just can’t). There is no obvious doorway into the mind of Daniel Plainview, no concrete interpretation of his actions, no predictable arc to his journey.

More films like this, please.

It was the crime of the decade and we got away with it, us naughty kids. The film was over well before any adult came to check on us. No one confessed to it ever as far as I know and if anyone suspected anything, they never said so. I wonder what a modern child psychologist would make of it? Impressionable kids watching an R rated war film right under their parent’s noses at a Christian primary school? Remember that this was in an era before the Internet and camera phones. Childhood lasted a lot longer back then. We had limited access to adult information and material. Hell, not even my parents watched R rated films. They weren’t safe for human consumption.

At any rate, that one night was the beginning of my relationship with Apocalypse Now. What started as a secret affair has long since been declared in public and I love the film even more now than the day we first met. When the ‘Redux’ was released in 2001 I finally got to see the film as it should be seen – on the big screen at the Astor Theatre. Then I got the DVD. This year I got the Blu-Ray (the special edition with the fantastic Hearts of Darkness documentary included). If I could afford a 35mm print of it and a private theatre to play it in, I’d get both.

Did I mention that I love his film?

Coppola (the crazy megalomaniacal genius!) envisaged building a special theatre on a mountaintop somewhere where Apocalypse Now would be played exclusively. People (he thought) would make pilgrimages from all over the world to go and see it.

How audacious! How fantastically arrogant! And how completely unnecessary. A small TV set and a decrepit VHS recorder was all the film needed to win my dark little heart.