Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 12

Posted in Movie of the week on March 25th, 2014 by bill


Apocalypse Now is not exactly loaded with sentimentality, and one of the rare moments of overt — you might even say cheap — sentiment comes when Clean is killed by a tracer round fired from the jungle. At the moment of his demise he is listening to an audio letter sent by his mother, whose voice can be heard waxing optimistic about future grandchildren as her son’s corpse lies sprawled on the deck. (Kudos, by the way, to Hattie James, who I’m told is Larry Fishburne’s actual mother. She does an amazing job of sounding just like somebody’s mom would on a tape like this — stilted cadence, self-conscious laughter, and all.) Some might call this instant (or at least rapid) karma, since it was Clean’s itchy trigger finger that set off the sampan massacre. Others might just say, eh, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you. What you think probably says something about how you view the workings of this universe we live in. I prefer to leave it up in the air, which definitely says something about me. The crew’s reaction says a lot about them, too. Chef of course is emotional, shouting “You can’t die, you fucker!”; Lance detaches from reality, preferring to worry about the puppy instead; and Chief puts on a mask of quiet dignity, but you can tell that he’s suffering. Then the mask slips and we see a man grieving as if for his own son. This is the first sign that Chief, up until now a model of composure, may be starting to crack under the stress. It’s both very poignant and faintly ridiculous the way he pours all his anguish into one word: “Cleeeeaaaaan....” Willard, meanwhile, has received some disturbing news: he is not the first man to have been sent on this mission. But the original assassin, Captain Colby, has joined Kurtz instead of killing him. Which of course has to raise some doubts in Willard’s mind: What did Colby see that unhinged him, caused him to tell his wife to “Sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids...I’m never coming back”? Was he tortured, drugged, brainwashed, or just swayed by Kurtz’s personal charisma? Will it happen to me too? At this point, Kurtz seems less like a military officer than a cult leader...speaking of which, Charlie Manson pops up in this scene, in a newspaper clipping included with Chef’s letter from home. That is one of the few indications of when exactly Apocalypse Now takes place — if the Manson murders were in August 1969, the movie must be set in late 69, or if the mail was very slow to arrive (quite possible), early 1970. I wonder if Charlie Manson saw this movie in prison. I wonder what he thought of it. I wonder if he thought it was about him. Probably.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 11

Posted in Movie of the week on March 14th, 2014 by bill


Fresh from the nightmare of the sampan, the boys on the boat find themselves in a different kind of nightmare at Do Lung Bridge. This time it’s dark and has a psychedelic quality; we are invited to view the proceedings through the eyes of Lance, who has indulged in that last hit of acid he was saving for a special occasion. Not everyone would consider passing through a remote army outpost that is a favorite and frequent North Vietnamese target a special occasion, but Lance and his ilk are a breed apart. They like to take hallucinogens under what most people would consider the worst possible circumstances. The idea, I guess, is that if you are going to endure a harrowing, life-threatening ordeal, you might as well make it seem as much like a dream as possible. It should be less frightening that way, in theory at least. And at first the scene at Do Lung Bridge does somewhat resemble a Pink Floyd show viewed from the nosebleeds: lights in the sky, fire, smoke, distant rumbling. But it very quickly takes a turn for the horrific as the boat is accosted by desperate soldiers, lost souls looking for any way out of this awful place. They come across like zombies, moving slowly forward, easy enough to avoid but not without feeling a little sick. Out of the shadows, with sudden, dreamlike clarity, emerges one poor bastard who’s been sent there with a message for Captain Willard. With admirable attention to detail, he’s also carrying mail for the boat, which will play a part in the next scene. Then he’s gone again, most likely to his death, with these parting words: “You’re in the asshole of the world, Captain.” (I always thought that was New Jersey. But to be fair, this place looks a damn sight worse than Jersey, even on its worst day.) The tragicomic odyssey that follows, where Willard and Lance try fruitlessly to locate the post’s commanding officer, is a sort of microcosm of the American misadventure in Vietnam. Everyone is stumbling around in the dark with no clear objective other than to stay alive for the next 10 minutes, and maybe kill anyone who gets on their nerves in the meantime. It’s worth noting that almost everyone they meet at Do Lung Bridge is black. And of course that’s who would get stuck with this shit detail. In contrast to World War II — where they had to fight to get into the armed forces — in this less popular war, African-Americans were disproportionately well-represented, making up 12.6% of the soldiers and 14.9% of the casualties. And while almost everyone involved in the Vietnam war got a raw deal, you could argue that they got the rawest deal of all. Here were the descendants of people who had been hauled from Africa to America in chains being dragged halfway around the world again to kill and be killed by Asian people who, for the most part, they had nothing against. (Or as Muhammad Ali put it so succinctly: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”) After encountering four guys sitting in the dark looking for all the world like they’ve always been there and always will, Willard and Lance find two African-American soldiers listening to Hendrixian guitar music while trying to silence the last survivor of a wave of attackers. A minute later they bring over a third guy who they call the Roach, a specialist — nay, an artist — with a grenade launcher, who takes care of business. I just now realized that I’ve never known the names of any of these actors. So let me here in semi-public commend Damien Leake (“Machine Gunner”), William Upton (“Spotter”), and Herb Rice (Roach) for a job well done. Their roles are small but they contribute to making this a very memorable scene. I especially love the moment when Willard asks who the commanding officer is and Leake looks back at him incredulously: “Ain’t you?” As with the Sampan incident, there are strong elements of humor laced into the horror here; there’s the not-quite-dead body whose face Willard steps on, as well as the running joke of the medicated Lance walking around grooving on everything and constantly forgetting to take cover, that people are shooting at him. In fact there’s something Samuel Beckett about this whole scene — or maybe it’s Groundhog Day — the sense that these people have been living this same scenario over and over again. (Hello, second unlikely Harold Ramis reference in a week!) “Like this bridge,” says Chief. “We build it every night. Charlie blows it right back up again. Just so the generals can say the road’s open.” And right there we get the futility and absurdity of Vietnam, where the opposing forces would take and retake the same hill over and over again, gaining nothing but increased body counts. Chief knows it, and he knows Willard knows it, so he tries one last time to talk the Captain out of continuing the mission. But that’s not going to happen; this river only flows one way, and so it goes.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 10

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


If you’ve seen Apocalypse Now a few times, you start to tense up when you hear Chief say “Sampan off the port bow” at 1:15:35. You know that what’s about to happen is going to be deeply unpleasant. In Hearts of Darkness, Sam Bottoms says:
Francis had us write up lists of things that we wanted our characters to do. And I remember that we all decided that we wanted to do a sort of a My Lai massacre ... an interrogation of a boat that ended in a firefight and the loss of many lives. We wanted to experience something like that.
Which is sort of a strange way to put it, but I take his point; they thought it would be illuminating to imagine the circumstances under which such an incident might take place. Coppola liked the idea, so they put together this scene, which is not in the original script. According to The Wikipedia, “The My Lai Massacre was the Vietnam War mass murder of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in South Vietnam on March 16, 1968. It was committed by the U.S. Army soldiers from the Company C of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.” My Lai became a turning point in the Vietnam war, not in a military sense, but in terms of public opinion; for many Americans, it crystallized their unease about the war. Likewise, the sampan incident is a turning point in Apocalypse Now. It is a tragedy that could easily have been avoided; Willard asks the Chief to ignore protocol and keep moving, but Chief insists on searching the boat in case it is carrying supplies for the Vietcong. This seems to be part of a pattern of Chief making perfectly reasonable decisions that have disastrous results, not unlike Captain Dallas in Alien. The crew of the PBR is already on edge. They’re in a place where they’re not supposed to be, in an alien land, surrounded by unknown forces. So the interaction with the Vietnamese aboard the sampan is tense to begin with, and the tension gets ratcheted up with every second until it’s finally unbearable; one of the Vietnamese makes a sudden move, and all that tension gets released in a hail of gunfire. Horrifying as it is, there is something simultaneously comical about this scene. It always makes me think of the character of Francis (a.k.a. Psycho) in Stripes, who says “All I know is I finally get to kill somebody.” (And let me take this opportunity to tip my cap to the late, great Harold Ramis, who left us last week. Someday I will sit down to write the extensive tribute he deserves.) There is a certain glee in the way Clean just lets it all go and starts blasting everything in sight. Chef’s reaction to the massacre is horror played with comic timing, not much different from his reaction to the tiger, just a little more hysterical. His line “Let’s kill all the assholes, shoot the shit out of them, why not?” is a direct echo of Heart of Darkness (the book), where Kurtz scribbles “Exterminate all the brutes!” in the margins of his report. And there is something exquisitely absurd about the way Clean raises his sunglasses to survey the carnage with a "Wow, far out” expression on his face, then flips them down with an understated “I'm good.” He seems to have become completely detached from the reality of the situation, even calmed down a little by the catharsis of mass murder. If this movie were made today, we would probably say that Clean had played too many violent video games growing up. As it is, there is only human nature to blame. Equally absurd is the fact that the whole thing turns out to have been caused by a puppy. This gives the puppy important symbolic weight, especially for Lance, who in his quiet way may be more affected by the horror of this situation than anyone. He was probably sky-high at the time; talk about a buzzkill.... But of all the twists and turns of this nightmarish chain of events, the most chilling comes when Willard puts down the last survivor in cold blood. All the killing up to this point, however dreadful, has been an accident, or at least an impulse; this last murder is intentional and calculated. Dealing with this wounded person is going to interfere with the mission; therefore she has to go. Remember Kurtz’s words from the previous scene:
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.
In voiceover, Willard recognizes the connection:
Those boys were never going to look at me the same way again. But I felt I knew one or two things about Kurtz that weren't in the dossier.
We, the viewers, will never look at him the same way again either; this is the first time we’ve seen Willard the killer and gotten a sense of why he was chosen for this mission. The sampan scene is a key turning point in this sense, and also in the sense that we are now halfway through Apocalypse Now. If you’ve made it this far with me, give yourself a pat on the back and take a little R&R, but stay sharp; Do Lung Bridge is up next, and Do Lung Bridge is a bitch.