Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 4

(26:48-34:55)

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.”)
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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 3

(20:23-26:47)

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.
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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 2

(7:35–20:22)

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.
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Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness: Ch. 1

(0:00-7:34)

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

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.
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A few more things about “Altered States”

Little Drew

  • The screenplay of Altered States is credited to Sidney Aaron, a pseudonym for Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the script based on his own novel but asked that his name be removed from the final product. Janet Maslin had an interesting theory about this: “It’s easy to guess why (Chayefsky) and Mr. Russell didn’t see eye to eye. The direction, without being mocking or campy, treats outlandish material so matter-of-factly that it often has a facetious ring. The screenplay, on the other hand, cries out to be taken seriously, as it addresses, with no particular sagacity, the death of God and the origins of man.”
  • This was the first movie for both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore, who was 5 at the time and appears very briefly as one of the Jessup kids. A young John Larroquette has one scene as an X-ray technician. And Hurt’s right-hand man is played by the great Bob Balaban, veteran of everything from Midnight Cowboy to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but perhaps best known as the NBC executive on Seinfeld whose love for Elaine causes him to lose his mind and eventually his life.
  • An isolation tank also appears in the tragically underrated Simon, where Alan Arkin plays a philosophy professor who’s tricked into believing he’s from another planet. IMDB calls Simon‘s tank scene a “parody” of Altered States, but seeing as both movies were released in 1980 and Altered States came out on Christmas, I don’t think that’s the case. Perhaps you’d like to judge for yourself? Unfortunately, Simon remains out of print. To the YouTube!