Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 9

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


Another interstitial section, but this one has a slightly different tone. The boat has gone farther up the river and deeper into no-man’s-land, and the sense of menace is palpable. Everyone seems a little jumpy when they encounter another boat, but it turns out to contain friendlies, one of whom shoots the moon at our boys. It is followed by another boat that ups the ante prankwise, tossing a burning flare onto the PBR’s canopy. This is a little over the top as pranks go; the flare starts a fire, there are a few panicky moments, and soon Lance is covering the roof of the boat with palm fronds like it was Sukkot or something. But the real importance of this event is not the damage it causes; rather it sets the stage for what is to come the next time the PBR encounters another boat. Back in high school we used to call this foreshadowing, if I remember correctly. There’s an important piece of business here where Willard tells the Chief where they’re headed: “Upriver about 75 klicks above the Do Lung bridge." When Chief protests, saying “That’s Cambodia, Captain,” Willard responds:
That’s classified. We’re not supposed to be in Cambodia but that's where I’m going.
We were in Cambodia, of course, conducting secret bombing raids there and in Laos (not so secret, as the old joke goes, to the people who were being bombed). Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger generally take the rap for this, but the U.S. started bombing Cambodia way back in 1965, during the Johnson administration; Dick and Hank just escalated it, while of course denying they were doing anything of the kind. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the letter from Kurtz to his son, read in voiceover later in this scene:
I’ve been officially accused of murder by the army. The alleged victims were four Vietnamese double agents. We spent months uncovering and accumulating evidence. When absolute proof was completed, we acted, we acted like soldiers. The charges are unjustified. They are in fact, under the circumstances of this conflict, quite completely insane. In a war there are many moments for compassion and tender action. There are many moments for ruthless action, for what is often called ruthless, what may in many circumstances be only clarity; seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it directly, quickly, aware... looking at it.
The letter in turn is juxtaposed with images of the aftermath of a battle, apparently very recent: corpses strewn hither and yon, a flaming helicopter in the trees. Though clearly this is the result of human action, the way it is presented, it is almost as though nature itself were fighting back against the foreign incursion. And here we start to get into Heart of Darkness territory; the suggestion is that some primordial force lurks out there in the jungle, waiting to swallow up anyone foolish enough to probe too deeply into its mysteries. No wonder Chief is unhappy. Any sane person would turn back now; but then we would have a very short movie on our hands, and Francis Coppola would have given Marlon Brando three million dollars for nothing.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 8

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


[caption id="attachment_4889" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Image assembled by Eduardo Saboya"][/caption]
“Sending girls like me to Vietnam to entertain the troops is like teasing a caged lion with a piece of raw meat.” — Raquel Welch
This is one of the most unsettling scenes in Apocalypse Now; it is the proverbial dream that turns into a nightmare. At first the boat seems to have drifted into some sort of shangri-la; we see lighted domes and giant glowing columns that look like lipstick tubes. “This sho nuff is a bizarre sight in the middle of this shit,” says Mr. Clean with his usual understated eloquence. At ground level, the place looks like a Vietnam War Costco, stocked with everything a soldier might dream of, from motorcycles to centerfolds to liquor. Chef asks the supply sergeant for Panama Red — not just weed, specifically Panama Red — and the guy says sure, no problem. The one thing they do have a little trouble getting is what they’re actually there for, fuel for the boat. Willard has to grab the sergeant by the collar and throw him around a little bit to get his attention; oddly, he seems to enjoy it, and responds with free booze and press box tickets to the upcoming show. Ah, yes, the show; a very loud bar band cranks out a tasty version of “Suzie Q” as a copter lands and out steps Bill Graham himself, ideally cast in the role of MC/pimp. He tries to whip up some excitement, but the response is lukewarm until the crowd sees what he has brought them: girls. They are a rare commodity in these parts; in fact, the three Bunnies who dance in this scene are the only named female characters in the whole movie. (Kurtz has a “wife” who stays completely in the background; there was a larger female role, that of Roxanne, played by Aurore Clement, in the French Plantation scene that got cut. You can watch it in Redux, complete with a romantic interlude that seems to belong in a different movie altogether.) Apocalypse Now would definitely not pass the Bechdel Test. Meanwhile, just outside the perimeter, perplexed Vietnamese are pressed against the fence watching a scene that must look like it’s being broadcast from another planet. As Willard observes,
Charlie didn't get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: Death, or victory.
But the American soldiers don’t end up getting much USO either. There’s an invisible wall that separates the performers from the audience in this type of situation, and we call that wall “civilization.” It’s thinner and less sturdy than we’d like to believe. In this case it holds for less than the length of a song; in three shakes of a Bunny’s tail the atmosphere turns from risqué entertainment to incipient gang rape. Bill Graham, who had pretty much seen it all in his time (read the biography Bill Graham Presents sometime, it is tremendous), is very convincing here as a guy who can tell which way the wind is blowing. He wastes no time laying down a cover of smoke and skedaddling the heck out of there with his meal tickets, pausing only to throw up a pair of deeply cynical peace signs. I wonder who among the stuntmen got the job of hanging onto the helicopter skids and dropping into the water at the last feasible second. Looks like fun. Redux also includes a follow-up to this scene where the crew comes across the Bunnies’ wrecked helicopter and trades some of their fuel for sexual favors. This is even more disturbing than the other scene, more intimate, more twisted. It makes you like the guys on the boat much less and for that reason I think it was a good cut, though it did reduce the number of naked breasts in the movie significantly. Some trades are worth making.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 7

Posted in Movie of the week on February 11th, 2014 by bill


This brief interstitial scene doesn’t really belong with the sequences immediately before or after it. It’s more a continuation of the scene just before the mango-tiger incident, with Willard reviewing the dossier on Kurtz as the rest of the crew relaxes. The information given here starts to fill in the the nuances of Kurtz’s situation. He is a brilliant if stubborn officer who has “gotten off the boat,” i.e., started doing things his own way and getting results, but stepping on toes in the process. Willard admits in so many words that he is starting to admire the man he is supposed to kill. As much as anything, this scene is a showcase for the movie’s design department, who put together all the documents seen here and many more. Peter Cowie says that they created “tax returns for Kurtz, a driver’s license for his putative wife, Janet, and countless letters from the colonel to his wife and son.” None of these actually appear in the film, except for a single letter, but one must admire the attention to detail. However, as a professional editor, I am compelled to point out that this scene contains a glaring error that bothers me every time I hear it. Re Kurtz taking airborne training, Willard says “The next youngest guy in his class was half his age,” when he really means “The next oldest guy in his class was half his age.” Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 6

Posted in Movie of the week on February 7th, 2014 by bill


After all the noise and bad craziness of the Kilgore scenes, things quiet down a bit here as the boat begins moving upriver. Chief is piloting, presumably, as Clean, Lance, and Chef enjoy a smoke, while Willard retreats to his little hideaway to partake of his preferred intoxicant, good old alcohol. For a moment things seem almost peaceful, but there is a sense of foreboding too. We are heading now into the heart of darkness, beginning the journey backward in time. We hear Chef saying:
I’m not here. I’m walking through the jungle looking for mangoes.
Which is an echo, apparently, of dialogue from the set, where the actors were going bonkers from being stuck in the Philippines for so long. In Hearts of Darkness Frederic Forrest says:
We felt like, after awhile, we really weren’t there. It was like you were in a dream or something.... We’d say to Francis, I’m not here Francis, I’m in Montana with Jack Nicholson. So they’d say “Where are you today, Freddie?” I’d be in Waco, I could be in Des Moines, wherever I wanted to be. And you would just go through your day — you weren’t in that place.
But instead of leaving it as a daydream, Chef decides to actually go look for mangoes, inspired no doubt by the vision he’s just had of making a mango cream pie and sharing it with Raquel Welch. Right off you can tell this is a mistake; Chef is the last person who ought to be heading off alone into the jungle, and perhaps sensing this, Willard opts to accompany him — maybe to make sure he comes back, maybe just for something to do; in the current state of things, this is what passes for a mission. This is the one time in Apocalypse Now that we really get off deep into the woods, surrounded by giant trees and other vegetation, human figures dwarfed and obscured by nature run riot. Even before anything happens the atmosphere is ominous, and one wonders why Chef, usually so high-strung, seems so carefree; just high, maybe, single-minded in pursuit of mangoes. As Chef tells his tale — saucier training, navy cook school — we see Willard suddenly come alert. Something is out there in the jungle. There are some tense moments as we wonder if maybe this is an ambush, and then... It’s sort of amazing to think how much trouble they went through to shoot this very short piece, where the tiger is visible for maybe 12 frames. In Hearts of Darkness Forrest describes how the tiger handler — who had lots of scars from various occupational misfortunes — would show up with a hungry cat on a leash, causing much discomfort to cast and crew. Even getting the tiger there seems to have been quite an adventure. From Eleanor Coppola’s Notes:
This morning Dennis told me the story about transporting the tiger on the airplane. He said that the passengers were in their seats when they put the tiger’s carrying box on the plane. They placed a chicken by the door of the box, but when they walked the tiger on, instead of taking the chicken and going into it, he jumped on top of the box and was staring down at the passengers. Everyone ran into the front compartment and locked the door. The pilot climbed out his window and just sat there, refusing to fly.
All that for a scene that’s over in the blink of an eye. But the tiger does carry an important symbolic weight, representing as it does the savagery, the implacable menace of the jungle. I can’t help but think, again, of Werner Herzog, who had his own struggles with the jungle during the making of Fitzcarraldo. In Burden of Dreams Herzog pontificates about the jungle as follows:
Kinski always says [the jungle] is full of erotic elements. I don’t see it as so much erotic...I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotic here...I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just... rotting away.
But in Apocalypse Now the aftermath of the tiger encounter is played for laughs, with Chef having a conniption fit and chanting his new mantra — “Never get out of the boat” — as Lance tries to calm him down.
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way.