Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 5

Posted in Movie of the week on January 31st, 2014 by bill


The aerial attack sequence, set to the tune of Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” is one for which Apocalypse Now is justly famous. In a way it is the emotional high point of the movie; it is certainly the most adrenalized scene, the one time we get a glimpse into the other side of war — the exciting part — and start to understand what makes a gung-ho lunatic like Kilgore tick. Kilgore refers to the music as “Psy War Op,” or psychological warfare operations. I have written before about the military use of music, but in that case it was for torture; this is more a form of intimidation. “Ride of the Valkyries” is stirring, aggressive, and very Western; you can imagine how it might be a little scary in this context. And the fact that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer adds a whole other layer, a minor-key overtone. Combined with the visual (literal) pyrotechnics, it makes for pretty exciting cinema. Once the action starts, this scene is not unlike the Death Star attack in Star Wars, except that these are (admittedly heavily armed) peasant farmers who are being shot at, not Imperial Stormtroopers. It’s horrible too, of course. In a matter of minutes a peaceful-looking village where children are playing is turned into a theater of carnage. Minutes after that, Kilgore has his troops on the ground and orders his designated surfers to change. Here is a man who brings new meaning to the phrase “work hard, play hard.” I love the way Duvall looks around as if the explosions happening all around him are mere annoyances, worthy of his attention only because they might interrupt him in midsentence. And the way he really can’t seem to understand why people might not want to surf just because they’re getting shelled. “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, Captain, it’s safe to surf this beach,” he says, as if that ought to settle the matter. It reminds me somehow of Withnail standing in his living room bellowing “I demand to have some booze!” Then he calls in a napalm strike and, hey presto, it gets pretty quiet in the neighborhood. Cue the famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” speech. As he waxes lyrical, we realize that Kilgore has probably never been as happy in his life as he is in Vietnam, and probably never will again. This is his proper time and place, where he truly belongs. “Someday this war’s gonna end,” he concludes ruefully, drawing a look of priceless incredulity from Martin Sheen, and exits stage left. In the meantime, the boat has arrived, and that was why we were here in the first place, wasn’t it? It’s a little hard to remember now. Notes: In the Redux version of Apocalypse Now, this scene concludes with Willard and crew stealing Kilgore’s personal surfboard, much to the Colonel’s consternation. Of all the scenes restored to create Redux, this is one of the few that actually would have improved the original movie, IMHO. R. Lee Ermey, would would later play a Marine drill sergeant so memorably in Full Metal Jacket, appears very briefly as a helicopter pilot; keep your eyes open at 37:20 and 41:33.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 4

Posted in Movie of the week on January 28th, 2014 by bill


This is where Apocalypse Now really turns into a war movie. The action and insanity come hard and fast; the boat hits the beach and is instantly surrounded by copters, boats, soldiers, and bedraggled civilians. An amphibious vehicle crawls up out of the water and topples a building. Then we hear a voice saying “Don’t look at the camera”; the shot pans and there is Francis Coppola himself, along with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Dean Tavoularis, playing a TV crew. Out of all this chaos emerges a larger-than-life figure: Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore, commanding officer of the Air Cavalry unit that is supposed to escort Willard and his crew to the Nung River. IMDB says that Duvall is only 5' 8½", but in this context, he seems to be about 8 feet tall; that’s acting, I guess, and Duvall is certainly a Master Thespian. (Synchronicity alert: After writing that last sentence, I took a lunch break, during which I read the following in an Esquire profile of Danny DeVito: “This man is a giant. He wasn’t born that way. That’s why they call it acting.”) Kilgore seems to be everywhere, doing everything: throwing down death cards, herding civilians into a carrier, giving a wounded Vietcong water from his own canteen. But he has no interest in Willard or the mission until he finds out that Lance is there. Then suddenly it’s all, “You can cut out the ‘sir’ crap, Lance, I’m Bill Kilgore, I’m a goofyfoot. This guy with you?” In Hearts of Darkness, John Milius (who wrote the original screenplay) says:
It was a combination of not just Heart of Darkness but...The Odyssey. Kilgore was like the cyclops...he was something that had to be overcome, you know, had to be tricked.
And as luck would have it, one of the few places where they can get access to the river just happens to offer the best surfing anywhere around. “Tube City,” as Johnny from Malibu describes it. And so surfing saves the day again. Kilgore is now willing to commit his entire unit to a risky attack on a North Vietnamese strongpoint, not because it is strategically necessary or even advisable, but because there are killer waves there.
Johnny: I don’t know, sir.... It’s pretty hairy in there. It’s Charlie’s point.” Kilgore: Charlie don't surf!

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 3

Posted in Movie of the week on January 22nd, 2014 by bill


In this scene Willard begins his trip upriver and we meet the crew of the boat, who will be his companions (and ours) for the rest of the journey. As with Sheen/Willard, the overlap between the actors and the characters is significant. This can be attributed to careful casting, but also, I think, to the fact that these actors spent much, much longer in a single role than is customary for a movie. A few thoughts on each:

Mr. Clean (Larry Fishburne)

Fishburne, often credited as Laurence, went on to have a long and distinguished career including the Matrix movies and the chronically underrated Deep Cover. But when he began his role as Mr. Clean, he was a youth of 14 (by the time filming was completed, he was 17, Clean’s stated age in the movie). In Hearts of Darkness, Fishburne says:
I think what it was that was me that was Clean was just that I was a kid. And that’s I think what my role is about, I mean, it’s about the kids who were over there...who didn’t know anything about anything.
To wit, there is also a clip in HoD of young Larry, circa 1976, sharing his thoughts about the war:
The whole thing is really fun. I mean the war is fun, shit. You can do anything you want to, that’s why Vietnam must have been so much fun for the guys that were out there.
Although he is a gifted thespian, I don’t know if Fishburne is acting in Apocalypse Now so much as honestly reacting to what’s going on around him. Making this surreal, endless movie in the Philippines with a cast and crew of adults can’t have been much less bizarre for him than fighting in Vietnam would have been... though it was at least somewhat less dangerous.

Lance (Sam Bottoms)

Lance is a surfer, and like the surfers I have known, that colors his approach to everything. He just goes with the flow, and as a result fits right in wherever he is, whatever happens. He is stuck in a patrol boat in Vietnam, so in this scene we see him (a) working on his tan and (b) water-skiing behind the boat. As the movie goes on, his surroundings become darker and weirder, and Lance adapts, following a strict drug regimen and perhaps going slightly nuts, but quietly. This may be camouflage more than anything; while sanity would stand out against this background, insanity blends right in. Actor Sam Bottoms, blond and perfectly burnished, seems ideally suited to this part. Interviewed in Hearts of Darkness, he seems just like a slightly older version of Lance, totally at ease with himself and casually honest about his experience: Sam Bottoms: Most of my character was done under the influence of pot. We smoked a lot of that...you know, the film crew just became our guests upriver with us. Interviewer: Did you drop any acid? Bottoms: Sure. Interviewer: Did you drop any acid during filming? Bottoms: Sure. Interviewer: At Do Lung Bridge? Bottoms: Uh, no, I did something else at Do Lung Bridge. I didn’t take any acid there. I did something else. Interviewer: What did you do? Bottoms: I was doing speed then. We were working lots of nights and I wanted a speedy sort of edge...and marijuana...and alcohol. We were bad. We were just bad boys. It is his surfer’s ability to adapt that enables Lance (spoiler alert!) to survive the journey to Cambodia, the only member of the boat’s crew to make it out alive. In a sad twist, as of this writing, Bottoms is the only one of the four actors to have died, of a brain tumor in 2008.

Chef (Frederic Forrest)

Although Chef is from New Orleans, he is described in the voiceover as “wrapped too tight for Vietnam” — a curious description, if you ask me. Chef is a little nervous sometimes, but he’s in the middle of the fucking Vietnam war, headed upriver to an undisclosed location for reasons unknown to him — why shouldn’t he be nervous? Lance’s Zen reactions to everything may be healthier, but Chef’s freakouts are more reasonable. His most famous scene, of course, is the one with the tiger. More about that when we get to it.

Chief (Albert Hall)

Chief is the grown-up in this crowd, serving as a father figure to these “rock’n’rollers with one foot in the grave.” From his accent you would peg him as West Indian, an immigrant or the son of immigrants, a hardworking type who for reasons beyond his control finds himself in command of a plastic boat, responsible for the lives of three younger men. He is under a lot of stress. The only time we see him smile is in this scene, where the danger is still to come and the boat crew is at ease; Clean dancing around to “Satisfaction,” Chef reading, Lance skiing. It is a rare moment of repose, and Willard uses it to start going over the dossier he has been given on Kurtz. There is mention of a report Kurtz wrote after visiting Vietnam in 1964, which was suppressed. I always wonder what he had to say; I imagine something to the effect of, “We shouldn’t be in this war in the first place, but if we want to fight it and win it, we’re going about it all wrong.” The opportunity for recreation and reflection doesn’t last long. A B-52 strike is heard, then helicopters, and pretty soon we’re right in the middle of, what do you know, a war.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 2

Posted in Movie of the week on January 16th, 2014 by bill


One of the stranger meta-moments in Apocalypse Now occurs 10 minutes in, after Willard has been roused out of bed, cleaned up, and brought by helicopter to receive his mission. He opens the door to a trailer and there stands...Han Solo. His hair is cut short and he’s wearing glasses and fatigues, but it’s him all right. It’s a strange twist of history that while Apocalypse Now and Star Wars both began shooting in March 1976, Apocalypse would not be released until two years after Star Wars. Francis Coppola had no way of knowing that by the time his movie came out, Harrison Ford would be instantly recognizable to pretty much everyone on Earth as a roguish space mercenary. If he had, he might have gone a different route; Ford’s appearance adds a slightly discordant note, bringing us temporarily out of the illusion and reminding us that we’re watching a movie. It’s not the only Star Wars connection in this scene, though. Toward the end of the briefing, G.D. Spradlin as General Corman says:
There's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. The good does not always triumph. Sometimes the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”
Emphasis, of course, on “the dark side.” And in fact the connection goes much deeper than these two superficial examples. At an early stage, the projected director of Apocalypse Now had been George Lucas, not Francis Coppola. According to Peter Cowie’s The Apocalypse Now Book,
He planned to shoot it like a documentary, up in the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, working quickly and economically on 16mm. His friend and business partner, Gary Kurtz, even flew to the Philippines in search of suitable locations.
(Hmmm...Gary Kurtz...another superficial connection there....) Lucas ultimately decided to make another movie first: American Graffiti, the success of which gave him massive commercial clout. But even so, he couldn’t sell studios on a Vietnam movie, so, says Kurtz,
He asked himself the question, ‘What is it about Apocalypse that I am really interested in making?’ It was the story of how a small group of people, the Vietnamese, could possibly withstand the entire might of the US ranged against them, and in the end come out victorious. What does that say about the human spirit? And since it was not possible for him to make Apocalypse, he transformed that story and set it in a galaxy long ago and far away. So Star Wars is George’s version of Apocalypse Now, rewritten in an other-worldly context. The rebels in Star Wars are the Vietnamese, and the Empire is the United States.
So on second thought maybe it’s entirely appropriate that Harrison Ford is in both movies, and in a way his presence just adds to the quiet surrealism of the whole briefing scene, with its closeups of giant shrimp, roast beef, and Budweiser cans. Lurking around the edges the whole time is Jerry Ziesmer, the assistant director of Apocalypse Now, who plays a character listed in the credits as simply “Civilian” — presumably an intelligence agent of some kind, perhaps South Vietnamese, since he looks vaguely Asian. This would give him the most significant Asian role in the movie, though mostly he just hangs around looking glassy-eyed and — if you’ll excuse my use of the term — inscrutable. He only gets one line, toward the end of the scene, but it is a doozy, and granted him immediate cinematic immortality:
Terminate — with extreme prejudice.
It may seem odd that there is so little Asian presence in a movie set in Vietnam, but it should be remembered that Apocalypse Now is really about the American experience in Vietnam — and I think that many of the Americans who were there didn’t actually know much about the people they were theoretically fighting for. Which was part of the problem. But of all the strange things in this scene, perhaps the strangest is the looming presence of the enigma at the heart of this story: Colonel Kurtz, a.k.a. Marlon Brando. We see his photo and hear his voice in rambling monologues about “slithering along the edge of a straight razor” and “when the assassins accuse the assassin.” This is what seduces Willard, who takes the mission because he now has questions he must answer about Kurtz, what he is doing out there in the jungle, and how he got to be the way he is.
I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 1

Posted in Movie of the week on January 15th, 2014 by bill


For its first four minutes, Apocalypse Now is basically a music video for The Doors’ “The End” — possibly, though this is impossible to calculate or verify, the most expensive music video ever made. For a stretch nothing seems to be happening; we get static shots of a peaceful jungle, the only movement that of leaves swaying in the breeze. At :25 a military helicopter flies through the frame from left to right and some colored smoke appears, gradually intensifying until, at 1:15, Jim Morrison’s voice comes in and the jungle explodes into flame. And so it begins. The first human face we see is Martin Sheen’s (or is it Captain Willard’s? — more on that later), upside-down, superimposed over what’s left of the jungle as flames leap and flare. The implication is clear: His head is in the jungle, and the jungle is on fire. His body, however, is in a hotel room in Saigon, and that is the first word spoken in Apocalypse Now: “Saigon,” says Sheen/Willard in voiceover at 4:20. “Shit. I’m still only in Saigon. Every time I think I’m going to wake up back in the jungle.” Before we go any further, it’s worth asking the question, whose face are we looking at here? Captain Willard is the character, Martin Sheen is the actor; but at some level, more so than in most movies, they are one and the same. At one point in Hearts of Darkness, Sheen says:
I said to (Francis Ford Coppola), “I don’t know who this guy is. Who is this Willard?” And Francis just looked me square in the eye and he said, “He’s you. Whoever you are. Whatever we’re filming at the time. You are that character.”
Willard is an odd character in that he is clearly the movie’s protagonist — its journey is his journey, and he is in every scene — but he is in some ways a cipher. An ex-wife is mentioned in this opening scene, and a photo of her is glimpsed briefly before being burned with a cigarette. Much later it is mentioned that he’s from Toledo, but we never find out much about him; does he have passions, education, kids, political or religious beliefs, etc.? But there is a reason for this, I think — because for the duration of the movie, Willard is us, the audience. He is intentionally left blank in many respects so we can project ourselves onto him, experience things through him. With the voiceover, it’s like we’re living in his head. Especially in this opening scene, where he is alone in his room, surrounded by the detritus of his life, a lost soul. “Waiting,” as he says, “for a mission.” This sensation is a familiar one to those of us who have spent periods of our lives adrift, looking for a direction. Willard is an extreme case, no doubt; a man who has seen and done unspeakable things, who no longer has a home to go to, no longer has an identity outside of whatever his superiors have in mind for him. But still — I can relate. Willard is a soldier and needs a battle to fight, so left alone with his thoughts, he ends up at war with himself. The closing minutes of this sequence — showing him drunk and naked, prancing, howling, smashing a mirror, bleeding, and weeping — are difficult to watch, especially after you see Hearts of Darkness and learn that this is not “acting” as we generally understand the term. That blood you see is not movie blood. “I was in a chaotic spiritual state,” Sheen says, and Coppola took advantage of this by getting him drunk and pointing the camera at him without telling him what to do. In HoD we see the parts that didn’t make it into Apocalypse Now, where Sheen lays back across the bed, crying and dripping blood, and moans “My heart is broken.” Then he turns angry and looks ready to attack the camera and/or director, who could with some justification be accused of exploiting his personal pain for the sake of the movie. But, says Sheen,
Francis tried to stop it. And he called for a doctor, there was a nurse standing by. And I said no, let it go. I want to have this out right here and now. It had to do with facing my worst enemy: myself.
An interesting sidenote here is that the man Sheen replaced in the part of Willard, Harvey Keitel, would later appear in a very similar scene in Bad Lieutenant that became notorious in its own right. In retrospect, it seems like Sheen was destined to play Willard, but it truth Coppola had a very difficult time casting the part. Initially he wanted to use a bankable star, perhaps thinking that this would help him raise money. The role of Willard was offered to Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson, all of whom turned it down. There were even rumors Clint Eastwood was interested (think about that one for a minute — imagine what a different movie Apocalypse Now would have been with Clint Eastwood — or any of those guys for that matter). In the end Keitel got the part, but after a week of shooting Coppola decided that he wasn’t cutting it and opted to start over with a new lead actor. This is one of many parallels between Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, in which Jason Robards was replaced by Klaus Kinski (in this case because he was unable to withstand the physical rigors of the shoot). Fitzcarraldo is also the subject of a great making-of documentary, Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams. But that is a whole other tangle of thread, and I have enough to deal with here, so I think that’s planty for today.

Movie of the week: “Apocalypse Now”/”Hearts of Darkness”

Posted in Movie of the week on January 12th, 2014 by bill
This is one of the big ones. I am genetically incapable of committing to a favorite movie, but anytime the subject comes up, Apocalypse Now is going to be in the conversation. (The Conversation, of course, is an entirely different movie by Francis Ford Coppola...but let’s stick to the subject at hand.) Part of what fascinates me about Apocalypse Now is the story of its making, which is the subject of the phenomenal 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness. Coincidentally last night I watched an episode of the TV show Community that riffed on this subject, and while I don't agree with Abed that Hearts of Darkness is better than Apocalypse Now, I do think that the two are really inseparable parts of a larger story. A story that also involves Orson Welles, who was the first of many to try to turn Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness into a movie. Before making Citizen Kane, Welles got as far as preproduction on his version — he was going to play Kurtz — before the studio pulled the plug, nervous about costs getting out of control. Funny, that, considering that Apocalypse Now would become legendary for going gazillions of dollars over budget. It wouldn't be out of line to say there seems to be a curse on anyone who tries to film Heart of Darkness. A short list of the obstacles Coppola had to deal with in making Apocalypse Now: typhoons, heart attacks, civil wars, replacing his lead actor in the middle of filming, and of course Marlon Brando (not to mention Dennis Hopper, in the craziest phase of his crazy life). The outcome was by no means guaranteed. "My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it,” Coppola says in HOD. “And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from... the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.... I'm thinking of shooting myself." And yet he persevered. I, for one, take comfort in that. I've been sitting here trying to figure out whether I would recommend to the uninitiated that they see Apocalypse — theoretically the text — or Hearts of Darkness, the commentary, first. And on balance I'd probably say the latter. Spoilers aren’t really an issue in Apocalypse Now (hint: we lost the war). But if this applies to you, you need to get busy, and quick. As do I. I've been pondering an approach to this subject for quite some time (in fact most of this post was written in 2011; hence the reference to an episode of Community that aired two and a half years ago). I think that the only way to go is to take it scene by scene and just let it roll.

Album of the Year 2013

Posted in Because he's David Bowie, that's why, Dancing about architecture on January 8th, 2014 by bill
[caption id="attachment_4756" align="alignnone" width="470" caption="Guess who?"][/caption]It was one year ago today that David Bowie broke a long silence with the release of “Where Are We Now.” Which makes this as good a time as any to ask... well, where are we now? It’s 2014 now, in case you haven’t gotten the memo. I suppose this happens to everyone with the passage of time, but the numbers attached to the years we’re living in seem more and more surreal to me. I can remember when the arrival of 1976 was a big deal. Then 1984, then 1999...9/11 seems like a relatively recent event to me, but all these are now receding into the distant past. There are only two responses to this. One is to panic, and the other is to focus on the present moment and forget all about the numbers. Which brings us back to Bowie, because the moment has arrived for me to name my album of the year for 2013. I am giving it to David for The Next Day, as there was little doubt I would, though I had to at least go through the charade of considering others. I was a little tempted to give the nod Kanye West’s Yeezus, mostly just because Kanye pisses people off so bad, and I love him for that. Plus one of the last things Lou Reed wrote before his demise was an effusively positive review of this album. But in truth Yeezus is, not an afterthought exactly, but only one prong in Yeezy’s ongoing multi-front battle for world domination. He no longer wants to be classified in the realm of musicians, but now thinks of himself somewhere in the sphere of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and of course Jesus the Christ. Which is crazy, granted. But I wonder, how many times in 2013 did people ask the question “What would Jesus do?”, and how many times did someone say “I wonder what Yeezus is doing right now?” And unlike the former, the latter was easy to answer, as long as you had your phone at hand. I was also quite fond of Wise Up Ghost by Elvis Costello and the Roots. Both of these artists have sort of drifted off my radar in recent years, but this album plays up their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses; the result is heavy on both groove and melody. Even so it’s unlikely to have much long-term emotional resonance, which is an important consideration for an album of the year. Though to be perfectly frank I’m not sure that The Next Day will either. “Where Are We Now” aside, it seems intentionally designed to avoid any warm and fuzzy feelings. The music is tight-wound and snarling. Lyrically, references to war, pain, alienation, and death abound, and the album’s emotional centerpiece is probably “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die,” as perverse a piece of music as you’re likely to hear this century. The backing track is grand, swelling, and lush, complete with quotes from “The Supermen” and “Five Years.” The words are an absolutely vicious kiss-off to some unredeemable villain: “I can see you as a corpse/hanging from a beam”; “Death alone shall love you/I bet you'll feel so lonely you could die.” But I have to give David credit; it would have been all too easy to go in the nostalgia direction hinted at by “Where Are We Now,” but he chose a much more difficult path. The difference between an artist and an entertainer is that an entertainer gives the people what they want; an artist gives them what he or she thinks they ought to have. David Bowie née Jones is unquestionably an artist and today, on his 67th birthday, I salute him for that.