Watership Down

It's nostalgic DVD discount day at the blog

Yesterday was one of those special days of the year when The Criterion Collection marks all of their DVDs half-off, and you get to look at all the movies you would buy if you didn’t already have credit-card debt and know that at least two of whatever you bought would get dusty while you took a couple weeks to marathon the back half of Stargate SG-1 so you could finally move on to seeing if Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe were at least unintentionally funny.

(Here is where I mention that I intended to write about the Conservative Political Action conference but got slowed down by a misbehaving child getting sent home from school, because if his day’s already borked, mine might as well be too. I may still write about it; even if the attendees look year by year like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox pixellating into a grotesque of itself, the whole thing works as a decent barometer for the press, and, anyway, if you’re already two days late, you might as well be three.)

Even with movies like Repo Man on it, browsing The Criterion Collection always feels like being in one of those cluttered used book shops that are dangerous to wear a backpack in and seem to specialize in having the complete bibliography of Hugh Trevor-Roper and a literature section whose lowest speed hovers around all the other stuff from Thackeray. If there’s ever a 200-minute cut of Pendennis, it will be in The Criterion Collection, and I will treat it as I do most of the rest of it: Thoughtfully browsing another title that will doubtless challenge my brain and enrich my life, before sheepishly buying one movie that I hope my slovenly brain will elect to pull off the shelf instead of watching Spinal Tap again. Assuming I have a casual $20, which I probably don’t—in which case the nice thing about closing a tab on a website is that you don’t have to slink past the shrewd grad student reading on a stool beside the register and debate whether to give her a sternly preoccupied refusal to make eye contact or either the shrug of dammit everything looks nice but I probably need to buy toddler shoes tomorrow and then a day or so after that for some reason or the dad-idiot glance of I didn’t see anything from my favorite author Dean Clancy, I’ll show myself out before anyone gives me a pamphlet.

All of which hopefully satisfactorily explains why I spent two minutes staring at the Criterion page for the 1978 film version of Watership Down before clicking away. It had been in the back of my mind because I spend a lot of time looking at Netflix in the hopes that it will drive out whatever’s in the front of my mind, and for a while the streaming service hyped a miniseries adaptation of the novel. I’ve so far avoided it, out of a suspicion that it will somehow depress me, or else just be another iteration of the Peak TV phenomenon of taking something you like and making it prettier and longer—like how Downton Abbey seemed to spring from the elevator pitch of “what if you could spend years of your life watching Gosford Park but respect it less?”

When the future looks like ash, you get protective of your nostalgia. Not in any “I need to threaten Leslie Jones under the pretext of defending a 30-year-old Ivan Reitman film” way, but in knowing that you don’t have to experience recreational media if you don’t want to, because you’re a normal person. You can save a reboot for a moment when its semi-familiarity is tonally perfect, you’re feeling perfectly lazy, and you’re in the mood to be surprised and open-minded. I’ll get to it, because ultimately television is much easier than finishing, say, Pendennis, which I got only 100 pages through, 22 years ago.

I liked Watership Down. I liked it when I was on a college trip with a friend, and limping around on my fucked-up knee created a fuck-up cascade that fucked up my foot, and it couldn’t fit in a shoe for days, and I spent the better part of a week waking up and hobbling to buy a new book at a little second-hand store with a Mutilated Moistened ‘n’ Dried book section, and I spent one day floating in a hammock and later sitting with my leg propped up in a bar, reading it and drinking a trough of Carling Black Label. And I liked it when I saw the film adaptation when I was seven.

In the same way that everyone in my generation seems to have seen the Challenger explode, it feels like a disproportionate number of people have stories of accidentally seeing Watership Down when they thought they were instead about to see a bunny version of Lady and the Tramp. This might have been started by stories of moms heedlessly taking their children to see it in the theater, and this too seems statistically overrepresented. Surely not everybody saw the three-minute trailer for the movie, but if abridged versions were tonally anything like the full one, anybody pleading ignorance is either very dim or thinks you are.

The full version contains the words “tyranny” and “mortal fear,” a field turning to blood, a rabid-looking rabbit, another getting shot, others being attacked by cats and dogs, another carried away by an owl. Just in case it’s not clear, the voiceover sounds like an early 1980s PSA about not going swimming in the orange river next to the factory or in any water clearly studded with discarded oil drums and rusted concertina wire. If you can’t see the trailer because you are in 1978, the newspaper is about three times larger than it is today, and they review these things in there.

If you were my mom, you remembered this; if you weren’t, you could ask the video store clerk. For all its other dystopia, 1984 was a good year for the video store clerk. There was still a future there. There were more than two companies in the country you could rent things from, and they didn’t make everyone dress like a non-starting Michigan shooting guard behind the speaker at an alumni ceremony. We could afford to hire real nerds. By God, there was craft. Speaking of The Criterion Collection, it is my firm belief that everyone who works there is either literally or spiritually the 17-year-old clerk recommending that a ten-year-old me rent Eating Raoul.

So I went home with a VHS copy of Watership Down, and of course it halfway scared the shit out of me.

But I was a latchkey kid by then, and everything scared me. I was not to answer the door, and I obsessed over elaborate scenarios and escape routes for the day when someone knocked and kept knocking and then started to yank at the handle. My parents were separated, and my dad was a jerk. I was in the fourth house and fourth neighborhood I could remember. I was afraid of two houses on my street. I got beat up for being the new kid, then I got beat up for being the thin kid. In the afternoons, sometimes I would run across the few other kids who likewise weren’t among the affluence tier of playdating junior psychopaths but who were every bit equally their victims, and they would chase me home or into a creek, whichever was closer. Every scene of every horror-movie commercial that I saw for the Friday Night Movie on the UHF station before I could leap up and snap the TV off reappeared in the dark—even the ones that it shouldn’t have made any sense to be afraid of, like what appeared to be a beach that ate people.

It made sense at the time to watch the movie and be afraid of being eaten by dogs or cats or run over by a train. The fields were probably not going to start bleeding, but in a small and mean enough world, and with a big enough imagination, tomorrow can always find a way to be worse. I over-empathized (and still do) with whatever was on the screen, catching myself mirroring the calm and anxiety I saw, and, while not facile enough to think that I was actually a rabbit, it made sense to assume that, to one degree or other, sometimes somebody wakes up in the morning, goes outside and gets eaten by an owl.

So I kept watching. And I liked it. It was comforting. Even though it unsettled me every time and continued to frighten me now and again, I re-rented it nearly a dozen times over the next few years, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. In my mind, it’s been conflated with animation from The Wall, and the fields bleed after being plucked up by a black eagle’s talons, and “Goodbye, Blue Sky” starts. But, although I am certain I did much less with my life than I could with this information, it helped at the time to finally know that, even if they all had different reasons, now and again everything else had a reason to be terrified too.

Image via jvoves.