Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 21

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


[caption id="attachment_5186" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Image assembled by Dado Saboya"][/caption]
“All plots tend to move deathward.” ______— Don DeLillo, White Noise
Endings are hard, as is well-documented in Hearts of Darkness, where we see Francis Coppola struggling to find some way to bring his project to a conclusion. In the original screenplay Apocalypse Now ended with a huge firefight that, in the context of what the movie had become, would have been completely incongruous. So Herr Coppola was left to concoct some way to wrap things up that would satisfy. About the only thing that was never in doubt, it seems, is that Kurtz would die. This is the event toward which the entire movie has been building. It is the same event toward which every story builds, one way or another: yours, mine, and everybody we know’s. Deal with it. * * * To backtrack a little: In the runup to the climax, everybody is preparing. The natives are in the preliminary stages of a ritual. Kurtz is brooding in his compound, gathering his thoughts, girding himself for the end he knows is coming. Willard is back at the boat getting his game face on; he paints himself with camouflage as the radio — i.e. the world he has left behind — clamors, unsuccessfully, for his attention.
They were going to make me a major for this. And I wasn't even in their fucking army anymore.
He is also preparing mentally, telling himself the story he needs to tell himself in order to go through with it; which may well be a true story, but sounds like a convenient fiction nonetheless.
Everybody wanted me to do it. Him most of all. I felt like he was up there, waiting for me to take the pain away. He just wanted to go out like a soldier, standing up, not like some poor, wasted, rag-assed renegade. Even the jungle wanted him dead, and that's who he really took his orders from anyway.
As the ritual heats up, Willard emerges from the swamp, somehow purified; no longer a soldier, or even an assassin, but just a killer, primordial and single-minded. At this moment Martin Sheen looks very much like his son Charlie, which is a little disconcerting for the modern-day viewer; but it soon passes. When he finds Kurtz, the Colonel is dictating notes into a tape recorder like some corporate executive, though his subject matter is rather incendiary:
They train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders won’t allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes — because it’s obscene!
And with that, the hammer comes down. Or whatever it is that Willard is using — some kind of hatchet, heavy and crude but quite effective. Kurtz does not resist. Shots of Willard hacking at Kurtz are intercut with shots of the natives sacrificing a caribou. Heavy and crude symbolism perhaps, but again, effective. The thing rises, rises, climaxes (Are murder and ritual sacrifice sexual? Well of course they are.) and falls, and as he fades away, Kurtz/Brando intones those four words (or two words, twice) that we all know so well:
The horror. The horror.
* * * What does this mean? On the one hand, it seems pretty clear. Death is not pleasant. There is no happy hunting ground waiting on the other side. When you die, you die. Like it or not, that’s the way it is, and candy-coating it isn’t going to help anything. In fact, knowing that the end is the end ought to encourage us to live every day on this side of the ground to its fullest, savor every last drop of what life has to offer. On the other hand, I think that Apocalypse Now also puts the death of Kurtz into a larger context, that of rebirth, regeneration. With that in mind, I am cognizant of the last words of another larger-than-life figure, the late Steve Jobs — also two words, said twice:
Oh wow. Oh wow.
* * * “The king is dead; long live the king.” This is a cliche, but a lot of wisdom is contained therein. The individual dies; the idea lives on. The elders pass away but the tribe continues. Or as The Stranger would say, “I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' it-self, down through the generations....” In Coppola’s scheme, when Willard kills Kurtz, he becomes the king. This is why, when he emerges from the compound, the natives don’t set upon him and tear him limb from limb. Instead, they wait to see what he wants them to do. After a moment’s thought, Willard drops his weapon to the ground. To the extent that you can call Apocalypse Now an antiwar film, this is why. It makes for a powerful moment, the weapon clattering to the ground, followed by those of everyone around. With this symbolic act of abdication, Willard is free; he finds Lance and returns to the boat. (Discussion question: What will Lance’s life be like after this?) There they find the radio still caterwauling. Willard shuts it off, and this is how Apocalypse Now ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper, and with one last echo of “The horror. The horror.” * * *
Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror -- of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision -- he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “The horror! The horror!” _____—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 20

Posted in Movie of the week on June 19th, 2014 by bill


Francis Coppola directed Apocalypse Now, but for six minutes or so here, it’s Marlon Brando’s show. The movie is going to sink or swim on Brando’s portrayal of, as Coppola says in Hearts of Darkness,
A character of a monumental nature who is struggling with the extremities of his soul — and is struggling with them on such a level that you are in awe of it — and is destroyed by them.
This is a tall order for an actor. Although in some respects Brando presented an obstacle that Coppola had to overcome to finish the movie, in another way Coppola was relying on Brando to get him out of the corner he’d painted himself into. Apocalypse Now had no real structured ending at this point, and after flailing about for awhile Coppola decided to just wing it, hoping that Brando would be so brilliant and charismatic that audiences would buy him as this grand, tragic figure. Did he succeed? The question is still open, I think. Certainly Apocalypse Now ended up being critically and commercially successful. But the character of Kurtz emerged as a strange mixture of “monumental” and awe-inspiring on the one hand, and ridiculous on the other. Nowhere is the dichotomy captured better than in this clip from Hearts of Darkness: http://youtu.be/Pw3j5308rDg But then again, maybe the whole thing actually works on some level. Why should a character of Kurtz’s stature not also be a joker or a clown? Is not the situation in which he finds himself — the Vietnam War — in itself ridiculous? Consider the key anecdote he tells here, where the Vietcong chop off the arms of every child in a village. Horrible, yes, but also absurd; and equally absurd is the converse, the fact that the United States was willing to bomb Vietnam “into the stone age,” but not willing to do what it actually would have taken to win the war. If there’s one lesson from Vietnam that everyone of every political persuasion can agree on, it’s this: Don’t get into a war that you intend to fight with one hand tied behind your back. This is what Kurtz/Brando is getting at when he talks about “what is necessary,” and you’d think it would be a lesson the United States would never forget. And yet we got into very similar, ill-defined conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is quite apparent at this juncture what the results have been. And now this is starting to get into the realm of politics, which is not what we’re about here, so perhaps I should just let the subject drop. With summer approaching, we are finally nearing the end of this journey, and not a moment too soon I don’t think.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 19

Posted in Movie of the week on June 6th, 2014 by bill


[caption id="attachment_5140" align="alignnone" width="512" caption="Marlon Brando as photographed by Dennis Hopper, looking very Dr. Evil-ish"][/caption] This Colonel Kurtz sure runs hot and cold. Yesterday he put Willard in a cage and dropped a severed head in his lap (several “giving head“ jokes suggest themselves, but I am above that). Today he has the captain brought inside and given rice and cigarettes, then reads aloud to him from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” (Though given the way it is staged, you might more accurately say that Kurtz is reading aloud to no one in particular, and Willard just happens to be there.) Not much really happens in this scene, but it is noteworthy as the only time, I think ever, that Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper acted together...and even at that, they’re not exactly in the same room. According to one commentary track I listened to, their interaction here is not unlike their real relationship — Brando did not care for Hopper, actually did call him a “mutt” and throw things at him. This makes sense, because while they were both nuts, Brando was crazy in a much quieter and more elegant way, while Hopper was speedy and flamboyant. Also, I think Brando needed all the attention all the time, and having Hopper around would tend to detract from that. (However: When looking for images to accompany this post, I discovered that Brando had let Hopper photograph him, so maybe the preceding is all bullshit. Maybe at the end of the day they hung out together, like the wolf and the sheepdog in the cartoons.) Hopper’s spiel here about fractions, dialectics, and Venus is a minor classic. It is completely loopy and yet makes perfect sense, and I have to believe it is mostly improvised — no one could write that, I don’t think. Having delivered it, he disappears, not to be seen or heard from again in this movie. As I mentioned previously, a scene where the photojournalist is killed by Captain Colby was shot but not used in the movie, and it’s probably just as well. I don’t think many people who saw Apocalypse Now sat around scratching their heads going “Gee, I wonder what happened to the Dennis Hopper character?”, just like no one asks what the hell Lance has been up to all this time. The whole ending is so dreamlike and bizarre that people can appear and disappear and it seems natural. The Hopper character’s last words seem apropos here:
This is the way the fucking world ends! Look at this fucking shit we’re in, man! Not with a bang, with a whimper. And with a whimper, I’m fucking splitting, jack!

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 18

Posted in Movie of the week on May 30th, 2014 by bill


[caption id="attachment_5128" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Not a super-good day for Chef, either."][/caption] So you think you’re having a bad day? Captain Willard has been locked in a cage barely big enough to stand up in, his only sustenance a ladle of water and a few puffs of cigarette provided by the nameless photojournalist. A hot and humid tropical day has given way to monsoon-style rains, and after a quick cut back to Chef at the boat, we find Willard slumped over, covered in mud, appearing to have abandoned all hope. But that’s not the worst of it. From out of the darkness Kurtz appears, like a figure from some absurd nightmare, his giant bald head decorated with camouflage war paint. He drops Chef’s severed head into Willard’s lap, and I don’t care who you are, that’s going to freak you out a little bit. No wonder Willard loses his cool demeanor for the first time since the opening scene, screaming and thrashing around until he can finally get the head off him. Why, you might ask, does Kurtz feel compelled to put Willard through this ordeal when he wants Willard to tell his tale, presumably putting the most favorable spin on it? I don’t exactly know, and I’m not sure FFC does either. Maybe he would say that Kurtz wants to test Willard, push him to the very edge of what he can take. Or maybe that Kurtz is, after all, crazy and dangerous, and not a man to be trifled with. In any case, that’s some messed-up shit to pull on a guy, and the relationship between Kurtz and Willard — off to such a promising start — may now require some damage control. How will Kurtz win him back — read him some poetry or something?

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 17

Posted in Movie of the week on May 27th, 2014 by bill


[caption id="attachment_5119" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Image assembled by Dado Saboya"][/caption] These three minutes are pivotal for a couple of reasons. First of all because they get us over the two-hour mark — alert the media! The end is in sight! Also, though, this monologue by Dennis Hopper serves to frame the whole movie. Willard’s real mission, we learn — his mission in the larger sense — is not to kill Kurtz, but to tell his story.
When it dies, man, when it dies, he dies...what are they going to say about him? Are they going to say he was a kind man, he was a wise man, he had plans, he had wisdom? Bullshit, man! Am I going to be the one that’s going to set them straight? Look at me — wrong!
Some versions of the Apocalypse Now screenplay begin with a flash-forward to Willard talking with Kurtz’s wife, I believe in Marina Del Ray, California. In the end this rather literal framing device was abandoned in favor of a more ambiguous approach, where we are left to imagine that if Willard makes it back from Cambodia he may be able to explain a few things to Kurtz’s family, and perhaps to the world at large. (He could even write a book about it, and someone could option the book for a movie...Marlon Brando could play Kurtz....) This scene also helps to illuminate why Francis Coppola was willing to put up with Dennis Hopper’s insanity to get him in the movie. Hopper is brilliant here, stalking the imprisoned Willard like a monkey taunting a caged lion, alternately scary, funny, angry, compassionate, incoherent, and eloquent. When he leans in to deliver that last line — “You!” — jabbing his finger and dropping his voice to a lower register, it’s hard not to get chills. A moment of silence, please, for the late Dennis Hopper, a one-of-a-kind, high-powered mutant whose like we shall not see again.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 16

Posted in Movie of the week on May 21st, 2014 by bill


Almost two hours into Apocalypse Now, Willard is finally brought to meet Colonel Kurtz. After being herded into a dimly lit room that smells like “slow death...malaria...nightmares,” he hears a voice from out of the shadows.
“Where are you from, Willard?”
This is not just any voice. It is the voice of the Godfather, the voice that yelled for Stella, the voice that cried “I coulda been a contender.” It’s the voice of Marlon Brando: actor, Hollywood legend, force of nature. At this historical remove, it seems impossible to imagine anyone other than Brando playing Colonel Kurtz. But right up to the last minute, there was a chance that he would bail; Coppola wanted more time to rewrite the ending, and Brando was threatening to take a powder and keep his million-dollar advance if the production was delayed. Contingency plans were made, and had things gone differently, Martin Sheen might have been playing these scenes opposite Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, or Robert DeNiro. But in the end, the schedule was arranged to suit Brando, and he arrived in the Philippines to begin filming on September 2, 1976. Immediately he presented a new obstacle to add to the many Apocalypse Now had already faced. In Hearts of Darkness, Coppola says:
He was already heavy when I had hired him, and he promised that he was going to get in shape.... And I imagined that if he were heavy I could use that. But he was so fat, he was very, very shy about it.... When I saw him, I said, well, I’ll write this as a man who really had indulged every aspect of himself, so he was fat, and had two or three tribal girls with him, and was eating mangoes...and he was very adamant [that] he didn’t want to portray himself that way.
So production was halted while Coppola and Brando sat down and talked about the character of Kurtz (at one point, Brando even insisted that the name “Kurtz” was too harsh and wanted the character’s name changed to “Leighley” — can you imagine?). This went on for several days, with the crew sitting around being paid to do nothing, and the clock ticking on Brando’s million-dollar-a-week contract. Coppola wanted to hew closely to the way Kurtz was portrayed in Heart of Darkness; Brando disagreed. Then, a few days in, it finally came out that Brando, despite his assurances to the contrary, had never actually read Heart of Darkness. He was persuaded to do so, and showed up the next day having shaved his head to match the way Kurtz is described in the book (“impressively bald” — though he is also described as “gaunt,” and there was nothing Brando could do about that). From that point, things were able to go forward — perhaps not smoothly, or quickly — but forward, at least. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro devised the visual approach we see in the film, where Kurtz is revealed slowly, piece by piece — a hand here, an arm there, and finally his enormous, gleaming dome. This is mostly a practical necessity, a way to hide Brando’s girth, but it also has the effect of making Kurtz seem mysterious and larger than life. After a bit of poetic small talk about gardenias and a brief philosophical aside, Kurtz gets right down to business:
Did they say why... Willard... why they wanted...to terminate my command?
And, wow, this must be an awkward moment for Willard. You’re sent to kill a guy, and he knows that you’re there to kill him; what do you say then? Willard sticks with one of the standard lines from the spook playbook:
I was sent on a classified mission, sir.
But Kurtz is having none of that.
It’s no longer classified, is it? What did they tell you?
From this point on Willard starts to talk very slowly, but you can tell that his mind is racing. What can he say to Kurtz that will not get his head lopped off immediately? The truth is not going to sound attractive. On the other hand, Kurtz detests dishonesty above all else, so lying to him is not a good idea either. Parsing his words carefully, Willard sticks close to the truth:
They told me... that you had gone...totally insane. And uh...that your methods were...unsound.
This peculiar word, “unsound,” is repeated quite a few times in the movie, both here and in the briefing scene. It’s a polite, bureaucratic way of saying “crazy,” but it rings strangely through the head, making you think of sound that is not sound, music that is not music. Kurtz uses the same word in his response, asking
Are my methods unsound?
And Willard answers with one of my favorite lines in the whole movie:
I don’t see...any method...at all, sir.
I love the way Sheen delivers this line: three words, pause, two words, pause, three words. Willard’s mind is working in the silences, tiptoeing carefully around the minefield of the truth; he doesn’t want to just come right out and say it, but in the absence of method, madness is implied. Kurtz seems to accept this answer, and changes tack. During the exchange that follows, which culminates with the famous “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill” zinger, Brando finally turns fully toward the camera. The effect of his gaze is unsettling, but also riveting. For my money Marlon Brando is one of the half-dozen most charismatic human beings ever to appear on film. Above and beyond what he does and says, or even the way he looks (and before going to seed he was considered the epitome of masculine beauty), there’s just something about him that fascinates. In Hollywood you’re either an actor (who turns himself into every character) or a movie star (who turns every character into himself). Brando is one of the very, very few who have managed to be both. It’s a kind of magic, and this is why Francis Coppola was willing to pay huge amounts of money and put up with huge amounts of hassle to get Brando in his films.
People toss around the word genius, and among people I’ve met Kurosawa certainly was, but I always felt that Marlon was a genius, not just as an actor, but as an innovative thinker. A brilliant man. But I once told him he uses friendship like bath soap.
This is the problem with geniuses; they do not necessarily share the regular human concerns and constraints. And by this point of his career Brando seems to have lost interest in acting. It came so easily to him that he had developed contempt for it, for his own talent, and for the movie industry as a whole. Which is not, it must be said, entirely unreasonable; like every part of the entertainment industrial complex, the movies are at heart a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. Brando’s attitude coming into Apocalypse Now seems to have been, well, let me run a little experiment here to see just how much money I can get for how little work:
I was good at bullshitting Francis and getting him to think my way, and he bought it, but what I'd really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn't have to work so hard.
Or as Coppola put it:
I’ve got Marlon Brando as an incredible joker to play. And he’s like a force of his own, cause he don’t give a shit.
Which dovetails nicely with Kurtz’s line from this scene:
“Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinions of others... Even the opinions of yourself ?”
This is why Brando was absolutely the ideal person to play Kurtz. Kurtz is a completely free man, having left behind the army, his career, his family, everything. Brando, likewise, didn’t care what anybody thought. He had no problem shutting down a multimillion-dollar production that employed hundreds of people because he just didn’t feel like it that day. What is doubly funny is that by all accounts, once Brando got into the part, he worked incredibly hard, improvising “all day, going one way, going another, never quitting.” And despite being a difficult and prickly personality, he also could be funny, mischievous, generous, and charming, especially to women and children. He was truly a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a thick layer of blubber. As with Kurtz, it’s a riddle we can explore endlessly, but will never entirely solve.

Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 15

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


This section, which might be called the “Prelude to Kurtz,” is made up of three smaller scenes: 1. The Dennis Hopper character walks Willard into the compound, where he sees Colby, the original assassin. Hopper was initially cast to play Colby, but given his condition, Coppola quickly figured out that he would not be convincing as a soldier. The part of Colby went instead to Scott Glenn, who in the released version of Apocalypse Now doesn’t even have a line. Deleted scenes in The Complete Dossier reveal that at one stage his role was quite a bit larger, including a scene where Colby kills the photojournalist and is in turn killed by Willard. As it is, he is more of an apparition than a character, but he does linger in the mind quite effectively. There’s some great Dennis Hopper here, where he tries to explain in his semi-coherent way why, despite the evidence to the contrary all around them, Kurtz is not crazy.
The heads. You’re looking at the heads. I, uh...sometimes he goes too far. You know, he’s the first one to admit it!
There’s something touchingly childish in the way Chef subsequently asks to go back to the boat. “Be with Lance,” he says, sounding for all the world like Rain Man. 2. Back in the boat, Chef has a great little monologue:
I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.
Then Willard tells Chef to “call in the airstrike” if anything happens to him. Originally Apocalypse Now was slated to end with the destruction of Kurtz’s compound, but although some spectacular footage of the set being blown up was filmed, it was not used in the movie. (In certain theatrical releases it was shown over the end credits, creating great confusion for some viewers, this one included.) 3. As Willard walks through the pouring rain, musing on the madness he sees around him, he is slowly and stealthily surrounded by Kurtz’s men, who turn him upside-down and drag him away through the mud. No matter how many times I see this, it gives me the creeps. There’s just something about the way it happens, with the slow inevitability of a boa constrictor. And perhaps the creepiest thing about it is Lance, who stands on the periphery grinning as if this were all a big game. Which perhaps it is?

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.