As we finally reach the opening of Dark Night, Auckland Libraries’ guerrilla season of events exploring sex and sexuality, I’m blogging on the way that films and literature shape the way we think about relationships.
It’s a different take on the arguments I’ve been making in recent weeks, that libraries offer a place for us to immerse ourselves in culture and participate in a way unique from any other space.
The books we read and the movies we watch can have drastic effects on the lives we lead: in this third Dark Night post, I look at the way films skewed my take on romance and led to me poisoning myself for love at a London railway station.
My dad was what they call an early adopter. The first man on the street with every new gadget. He had been a sound technician and worked in television, so it wasn’t a great surprise. He was one of the first people to have a home video recorder.
It took these 8 millimetre video tapes. He hooked it up to the TV so we could record programmes. I don’t think you could buy videos in that format, but he always seemed to get hold of movies for us.
One of the first was Disney’s Robin Hood. 1973, I think. Maybe the first one after Walt himself died, or was that The Aristocats? It’s not seen as one of the classics. In fact, it was a cost-cutting production: they repurposed frames of animation from The Jungle Book and redressed them with bows, arrows, and suits of Lincoln green to suit the setting of Sherwood Forest.
I saw Robin Hood when I was four. I still think it’s great. There’s a country and western troubadour rooster who narrates, voiced by Roger Miller, and a big fat Scottish chicken – Maid Marian’s lady in waiting? – who plays an awesomely overenthusiastic game of badminton. And Robin, who is Disneyfied as a fox, was my hero. A trickster, a thinker, a cross-dresser, and a master of hiding in plain sight. A courtly hero; a shepherd knight. A young man among roses.
I didn’t choose him, Robin chose me. He was right up there with Roger Moore’s James Bond in my 1980s childhood. Suave, charming, dashing. Except Roger was spoiled for me in preschool days, when I realised that mirrors flip left and right when they reflect – and that my side parting was therefore on the opposite side to Rog’s. And hairstyles aside, gallant Robin was a more devoted and romantic figure than the bedhopping Bond. I liked that.
There’s a moment when Robin decides to disguise himself and enter an archery competition held by Prince John. The prize will be awarded by Maid Marian herself.
Little John – the Jungle Book’s Baloo in medieval garb – warns Robin against the venture. ‘You’re the best shot in the county, they’ll see through your disguise straight away,’ he tells his friend.
Robin smiles at John and says the fateful words: ‘Faint heart never won fair lady.’
I felt them going into my heart, searing themselves there as I sat too close to the television screen.
Sometimes I put the words away. Tamp them down, muffle them somehow. But they keep on rising to the surface.
Eight years old, at a piano recital: Fiona Gibson has prepared the same piece as I have for performance. Mrs Hammond hurries over to consult with me. ‘Is it all right for Fiona to play your piece, and you can do something else, Matthew?’ (It’s a big deal, this; as Mrs Hammond admits, I have little talent and my every true note is won through desperate effort).
Faint heart never won fair lady, says Robin, and my little heart swells with gallantry as I allow Fiona to play the piece. Of course, I totally screw up my turn at the keyboard.
Twenty years later, I’m walking to the train station after work with a girl I like. We’re chatting. It’s Saint David’s Day, the celebration of Wales’ patron saint, and I’m wearing a daffodil in his honour. I remember a children’s book, I think by Anne Fine, in which someone bites the head off a daffodil. If it’s in a children’s book, they can’t be poisonous, can they? I ask myself.
The girl I like is blonde and bubbly, a dancer, a goofball, but beneath it I can see she’s sad and serious. I want her to laugh – really laugh. I want her to go out with me.
Faint heart never won fair lady, says Robin, and I eat the daffodil before her eyes. It tastes like chives. She laughs, and laughs, until tears come to her eyes.
‘I kind of want to eat one now too,’ she says.
I stifle a sudden bubble of gas. ‘No…’ I say. ‘Don’t.’
We get on the train together, still chatting and laughing. She alights at the stop before mine. Just before we part, she asks: ‘Are you okay?’
I’m having trouble finishing my sentences, but then, it is Friday night. It has been a long week.
The girl gets off and my train makes it to the next station. I’m swaying a little as I walk the last few blocks to my apartment. In the front door, up the stairs, into my own hallway and then suddenly I’m vomiting explosively everywhere. It burns. I can’t see properly.
My brother texts me. ‘PUB?’
‘BIT SICK. ATE DAFFODIL.’ I text back. Faint heart. Faint stomach?
I remember him coming through the door of the apartment, leaning over me with real concern – a rarity from Oliver.
Then he’s googling the National Poisons Database. Asking if I ate a flower or a bulb. I’m still vomiting everywhere.
Next time Oliver’s leaning over me, he’s laughing, not unkindly, at my folly. I lose a weekend to the vomit and blinding pain. Make it through one hour of work on Monday morning before I have to return home to bed and bathroom.
The girl and I went out for a blissful summer of dancing, movies, cocktails, roadtrips and adventure – probably the best holiday I’ve had as an adult. We parted as friends and still keep in touch. She’s one of the few people on Earth I would do anything for.
A few weeks ago I was feeling pretty down when I stumbled upon a showing of Leos Carax’s movie Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. When you describe the film to someone, it sounds almost too French to be true: there’s this homeless fire-breather with a broken leg, and he falls for this artist who is gradually going blind, and they sleep on a bridge which has closed for maintenance during one long hot summer in Paris.
It’s an absurdly exuberant movie, romantic, compelling, brilliant. But the point is this: I was alone, far from home, sitting before the screen, enjoying that special sense of communion that you can only find in a cinema of hushed and appreciative strangers. The daft passion of Carax’s homeless Parisian lovers brought that mad daffodil summer back to me. It reminded me, the student of refugees, always wary of material possessions, that if I live to be one hundred, they’ll never be able to take away the memory of that blissfully happy time.
When I left the cinema, that best of all things happened: I walked out into the rain-slicked Auckland streets, a little high from the power of the film, and it was as if I was strolling home through the world of the movie.
Books and movies drove me to poison myself for love. Then, years later, a movie reminded me why it had all been worthwhile. That evening with Les Amants du Pont-Neuf was a Dark Night, too – but there was nothing sordid or despairing about it. Because darkness can also shelter romance.
Dark Night is Auckland Libraries’ season of events that question, challenge, and celebrate sex and sexuality on page, stage, and screen. Find out more about the Dark Night season online, or find more stuff I’ve written online.