Restored '90s Addiction Drama Debuts on Amazon Prime

By Paul Gaita 10/30/17

The movie follows a former logger in recovery from drug dependence who returns to the Pacific Northwest to launch a film project.

a scene from Where The Air Is Cool And Dark
photo by Robert Jett Barkley

A critically praised but long-unseen independent film from the 1990s about dependency and the marijuana industry in the Pacific Northwest has been remastered and is now available on Amazon Prime.

The 1997 film Where the Air is Cool and Dark, which marked the feature debut of writer/producer/director Brion Rockwell, drew high marks from the media during its initial release for its location shooting in the Olympic Peninsula, a soundtrack by Seattle favorites The Walkabouts and for its honest depiction of recovery from substance dependency. But other than brief runs on VHS and DVD, Air has been difficult to see until Film Media restored the film in a 2K transfer.

With issues of dependency and legalization in almost constant rotation in the media, the re-emergence of this film couldn't be more timely.

photo by Robert Jett Barkley

Where the Air is Cool and Dark follows a former logger (Emmanuel Malcolm Martinez) in recovery from drug addiction who returns to the Pacific Northwest to launch a film project. To finance the film, he takes a job as a caretaker on a friend's marijuana grow, but soon finds that the job, as well as a revived relationship with an ex-girlfriend dealing with her own dependency issues, threatens both his sobriety and his safety.

photo by Robert Jett Barkley

The path of Martinez's character draws close parallels with Rockwell's own life. Like his main character, Rockwell was a logger in the Olympic Mountains before taking up writing and later filmmaking, which he studied through a scholarship to New York University's School of the Arts, Evergreen State College, and the graduate creative writing program at Syracuse University. 

photo by Robert Jett Barkley

"The origins of the script came from three short stories I wrote while at Syracuse," Rockwell tells The Fix. "Those stories were based on my experiences as a logger and pot grower and drug addict. I was clean but not sober. I knew I wasn't doing the work needed to stay sober, but generally, I was enjoying life."

He found help in 12-step programs, but also noted that he "could have done more within AA than I ever did. Though I liked hearing other people's stories, in which at every meeting at least one person would move me and make me feel more peaceful. But I had difficult articulating my own story as a speaker, so I felt like an AA failure."

Rockwell's studies and his own desire for a film career kept him from following in the footsteps of his main character. "The fear of panic attacks kept me off hard drugs, and the adrenaline of school, of learning to write and make films kept me in a pretty good place in those days," he recalls.

After completing a year at Syracuse, he returned to Seattle and worked in local filmmaking before raising the funds to make Where the Air is Cool and Dark. The film was chosen by the Independent Feature Project/West for a New Visions screening at the Writers' Guild Theater before going on to worldwide distribution.

Rockwell, who has made several other features and short films, including 2017's Not the Most Careful of Girls – which is also set in Seattle – is pleased that Air can now be seen by a new audience. "I'm excited that [Film Media founder] Michael Raso took the time and spent the money to make such a beautiful 2K transfer of the film," he says. "It's not a perfect film by any means, but there are real moments of power, and the photography of the Olympic Peninsula is as haunting and beautiful as anything out there."

As for the timing of the film's revival in the midst of the opioid epidemic and growing support for marijuana legalization, Rockwell believes that his film may serves as evidence of "the way not to live." His take on substances of all kinds is two-fold: "My view is that they should all be legalized – people who are going to use drugs are going to use drugs," he notes. "And like anything positive, to slow the epidemic down, the best way to reach someone is to offer a glimpse of a world that is clean and positive, such as AA or NA." 

Where the Air is Cool and Dark is currently available for free to Amazon Prime members; non-members may rent or buy the film in high-definition for $1.99 or $4.99, respectively. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.