Geoff Pevere: The Dark

Sometimes I know why a certain song has been selected for heavy rotation in my subliminal playlist and sometimes I don’t. When I started running Badfinger’s We’re for the Dark” over and over again in my head, I knew.

I love the song, to put it mildly, and the band is one of my more enduring obsessions. The song is one of the late Pete Ham’s most gorgeous and haunting compositions, a lover’s declaration of safety, commitment and refuge that nevertheless holds teeth in its embrace: I love you, it’s saying, like nobody loves you. I’ll protect you, it says, but only by holding you so tightly no one else can get near us. Our love will be oblivion, it suggests, a place unattainable, impenetrable and final. We’re for the dark.

Ham, as you may already know, committed suicide in 1975 just days before his 28th birthday, leaving behind a pregnant wife and unborn daughter. At the time, it was widely suggested that he committed suicide because he was especially pissed at his band’s manager, Stan Polley, for bilking Badfinger out of its due rewards.

I’ve always doubted that. Not about Polley, but about Polley as the reason why Pete Ham killed himself. As much as I understand the rage, impotence and violation any artist must feel when confronted with the spectacle of their own abuse and exploitation, it cannot justify the act of extinguishing one’s own life and creating a pregnant widow in the process. That’s a darkness much blacker than the ink you’ll find in any ledger, and I’ve always thought that song might be a hinge into Ham’s own psychic cellar.  I love you. Let’s go someplace where no one can ever reach us.

What nudged the song to the number one spot in my brain this time was the coincidental screening of two movies that have very dark cellars deeply cemented into their conceptual foundations: David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and David Fincher’s Zodiac. I’ve seen both more than once – in the case of Videodrome, many times more than once – and the excuses to return this time were ostensibly practical: I’m writing about Videodrome for a book proposal I’m working on, and I chose Zodiac as the movie I wanted to talk about for a Toronto screening series called Talkies. This is how it works for me: if I’m obsessed with something – and I always am, it’s what I do – I’ll be constantly scanning for opportunities to indulge that obsession wherever they may occur. The book proposal and Talkies invitation provided that opportunity this time around, and this column has handed me another. Meet the opportunistic predator that is my passion: it will spring at any chance for expression.

At their core, both Videodrome and Zodiac are about madness. Their protagonists are people engaged in an investigation that leads them ultimately nowhere but the dead end of their own delusional drives, but it’s a dead end in terms of narrative resolution only: the end of both movies depicts our travellers arriving at the realisation they can go no further, but the roads themselves stretch tantalizingly beyond those final credits. If anything, they could go on forever. The roads, I mean. The heroes, so to speak, are another matter. They’ve gone as far as they can, and the movies leave them there, staring down the infinite.

If I haven’t mentioned much about what these movies are about, it’s because the plots themselves matter much less than the impression of existential vertigo they create, but it’s probably only fair to acknowledge that the vertigo in the case of Cronenberg’s amazing literal mindfucker of a movie is induced by the hunt for the source of a malevolent broadcasting signal, and in the case of Zodiac – director David Fincher’s most accomplished, unsettling and underappreciated movie – by the true-life-inspired hunt for a serial killer who only becomes more elusively unapprehendable – like a dissolving dream memory – the closer his pursuers seem to get.

In both movies, madness is posited as the threshold crossed when obsession itself supersedes its object: it becomes an end in itself, but with the especially perverse proviso that it’s an end which by definition has none. Ergo, insanity ensues. There ain’t nowhere to go but crazy.

It’s also fascinating (to me, anyway, but don’t say I didn’t warn you) that both films adopt a strategy of gradual fragmentation. Videodrome begins as a kind of especially paranoid conspiracy thriller with a Philip K. Dick twistedness, but eventually dissembles into a full-blown first person hallucinatory vortex. Zodiac starts with the investigation into a killer of young couples who displays an all-too-familiar fondness for his own public profile – even going so far as to brand himself ‘The Zodiac’ with a gunsight graphic – but inexorably moves away from the mystery’s resolution (the real Zodiac was never caught) and deeper into mystery itself. Each clue only opens upon other clues, and many flatly contradict each other. Ultimately, Zodiac himself collapses into a flurry of maddeningly incoherent signs, letters, graphics, testimonies and rumours. He falls apart, and with him goes those who try to track the traces.

So that’s how that song got summoned forth again. I think both Videodrome and Zodiac themselves are in love with the dark – they’re both films noir by any standards — or at least understand its seductive allure. Myself, I think there’s something almost unspeakably alluring about things I can’t figure out: why a movie won’t let me go, why a certain song won’t stop playing in my head, why I need to write thoughts like this down. But that’s why I’ve stopped looking for answers and have learned to love the questions. Some things can only be understood at the risk of sanity. Meanwhile, keep on humming.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, teaching and broadcasting about media, pop culture and movies for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. 

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