Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 14

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


This is where Apocalypse Now enters its final act, the confrontation with Kurtz. If you wanted to divide it into three acts, I guess that the first act would go from the beginning to after the aerial attack; the second act would be the journey upriver; and the third act would be from here to the end. Initially, the mood is somber and ominous. We see lots of fires and skulls, then Willard destroys his dossier as the boat winds its way through tall trees and cliffs, reminding one of the passage from Heart of Darkness (the book) quoted in Hearts of Darkness (the movie):
Hugging the bank against the stream, crept the little begrimed steamboat, like a sluggish beetle crawling on the floor of a lofty portico.
In fact, from this point on, Apocalypse Now follows Heart of Darkness much more than it does the original screenplay. After the boat reaches what appears to be the end of the road (river) and drifts through a coterie of spooky, white-painted natives, a figure straight out of Conrad pops up out of the crowd:
I saw a white man under a hat like a cartwheel beckoning persistently with his whole arm...(he) began to shout, urging us to land. “We have been attacked,” screamed the manager. “I know — I know. It’s all right,” yelled back the other, as cheerful as you please. “Come along. It’s all right. I am glad.” His aspect reminded me of something I had seen — something funny I had seen somewhere. As I manoeuvred to get alongside, I was asking myself, “What does this fellow look like?” Suddenly I got it. He looked like a harlequin.
In the movie the harlequin turns out to have a familiar face: that of Dennis Hopper, whose acting career started all the way back in 1954. After many credits as a character and TV actor, Hopper made a big splash in 1969 when he directed, co-wrote, and co-starred in Easy Rider. But after that he made a flop called The Last Movie and went off the deep end with drink and drugs. In Hearts of Darkness he says:
I was not in the greatest of shape as far as my career was concerned. It was delightful to hear that I was going to go do anything, anywhere.
For a long time in Hollywood they had something called the “Dennis Hopper rule.” This rule was informal and unwritten, but in its basic form it went something like this:
Do not work with Dennis Hopper, because he is crazy.
Which leads me to believe that deep down, Francis Coppola must be something of a masochist; not only did he cast the famously difficult Marlon Brando, he voluntarily added Hopper to the equation, and even went so far as to put the two of them in scenes together. This is the directorial equivalent of juggling chainsaws while playing the complete works of Ludwig van Beethoven on a harmonica. For a taste, watch the scene in Hearts of Darkness where Coppola and Hopper bicker amiably about Hopper not knowing his lines, then Hopper comes out with this gem of a non-sequitur:
These glasses...every crack represents a life I’ve saved.
Still, the role Hopper plays, an unnamed photojournalist who’s always wearing sunglasses and a half-dozen heavy-looking cameras around his neck, is necessary to the story. He interprets the situation for Willard and his crew, serves as an intermediary between Willard and Kurtz, and provides some much-needed comic relief. Several of his lines, it’s worth noting, are straight out of Heart of Darkness, for example:
“Don’t you talk with Mr. Kurtz?” I said. “You don’t talk with that man — you listen to him.”
“I tell you,” he cried, “this man has enlarged my mind.”
Yeah, he’s enlarged it so much that it’s swelling right out of its casing. Hopper’s portrayal of a blown mind wasn’t much of a stretch; this is another case where the actor and character are essentially one and the same — a guy who has no idea how he got there or what he’s doing there, and may not even know his own name anymore. Yet it is absolutely essential that he be there, and he knows this. There must be some kind of peace in that, as long as it lasts.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 13

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


One purpose that the French Plantation scene, had it not been cut, would have served would have been to put some space between the deaths of Clean and Chief. As it is they come one right after the other, fulfilling the Hollywood cliche that nonwhites must die first. I hate to dwell on the subject, which I already discussed in Chapter 12, but the racial subtext here is not buried very deep. No one who is familiar with common American racial slurs can miss the irony in the fact that Chief is killed by a spear, and even he seems aware of it. From the way he croaks out “A spear!” just before he keels over, it’s almost as if the irony is killing him more than the weapon. And of course Chief’s last action before succumbing is to try to strangle Willard, and you could argue that this is less personal than symbolic. In this schema Chief represents every person of color who’s ever been sold up or down the river, and Willard is every white man who’s ever sacrificed others for reasons that are unclear at best and nefarious at worst. Viewing it through this lens, it’s hard not to root a little for Chief to finish the job — and he probably would have, were he not losing blood so fast. Interestingly enough, it’s just after this that Willard finally sees fit to share the purpose of his mission with the remaining members of the crew — both of whom, it just so happens, are caucasians. I can't help but remember the old SNL sketch where Eddie Murphy gets made up in whiteface and discovers all the special secret things white people do when they’re alone. But it’s more likely that Willard figures that Chef and Lance, having lost the father and the baby brother of their little family, deserve to know why. Chef, predictably, has a hissy fit:
That's fucking typical, shit. Fucking Vietnam mission. I’m short, and we got to go up there so you can kill one of our own guys. That's fucking great, that's just fucking great! That's fucking crazy. I thought you were going in there to blow up a bridge, or some fucking railroad tracks or something.
I’ve always thought it was strange that he just says “I’m short.” No reference to the fact that he’s just lost two comrades that he spent months on a boat with, or the attendant trauma; just, we’re two guys short of a crew. I don’t necessarily read a whole lot into that, but it’s worth noting. Lance, meanwhile, is seeing Chief’s body off into the river, in a quiet and touching moment that serves as a counterpoint to all the tension and hostility. With his face paint and arrow-through-the-head, Lance has begun to mutate from a soldier into some kind of shaman — which will serve him in good stead during the weirdness to come.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 12½

Posted in Movie of the week on April 4th, 2014 by bill
Somewhere in here goes the French Plantation scene, which was excised from the original movie but restored in the Redux version. On the whole, I’d say it was a good cut; the scene is slow-moving, talk-heavy, and kills all the story’s forward motion. But it does have some historical interest and is worth a viewing or two. In this version of the story, the boat finds refuge from the fog with a family of holdovers from Vietnam’s past as a French colony. Most of the scene is taken up by a formal French dinner where Willard gets into a long political discussion with the head of the family, de Marais, played by Christian Marquand. His gist can be summed up in a couple of sentences:
When you ask me why we want to stay here, Captain...we want to stay here because it’s ours. It belongs to us. It keeps our family together. I mean, we fight for that. While you Americans...you are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.
There is also an uncle who plays the accordion and Francis Coppola’s sons, Gian-Carlo and Roman, make quick appearances as young Frenchies. As the dinner goes on, Willard starts making eyes with a cigar-smoking blonde, the young widow played by Aurore Clement. Later, in her room, she fixes him a pipe of opium and they have an intimate moment. Some music plays that might be called “Love Theme from Apocalypse Now,” and the whole thing feels like it belongs to another movie altogether. I had hoped to write more about this scene, but I don’t own Redux and could only find parts of it on the Web. There is a copy of Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier in the Humboldt County Public Library system, but it is now two days overdue and most likely being used as a bongrest by some goddamn hippie who may or may not ever get around to returning it. In Hearts of Darkness, Coppola says, “Our budgets were cut way down and we didn’t get the cast we wanted, but of course the art department and the other departments didn’t cut theirs down. So I was very incensed that I had this extraordinary set...these extraordinary decorations...I was angry at the French sequence, and I cut it out out of that.” I am now mad at it also, and I am going to cut it too. We’ll pick this up next week.