Friday, April 1, 2016

The Favorites - Apocalypse Now (#61)


The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Apocalypse Now (1979/USA/dir. Francis Ford Coppola) appeared at #61 on my original list.

Due to technical difficulties, this entry is a few hours late - and my previous post on Barry Lyndon was delayed nearly a week before going up early this morning. Next week, the Favorites will return to its normal schedule of Friday morning, 7am PST, and stick with it for all remaining entries.

What it is • Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) has been given a mission that doesn't officially exist: terminate Col. Kurtz's (Marlon Brando's) command with extreme prejudice. His hallucinatory death trip proceeds down the Nung River - already a mythic, imaginary element in one of the first major films about the Vietnam War. A decade after the story takes place (and was written), four years after the war ended (and work on the film really began), Apocalypse Now debuted to controversy and acclaim. Close enough to the raw experience to capture its mood (a mood that still hovered in the air on the cusp of the Reagan era), but far enough away to mythologize this national trauma, the result is a cross-cultural epic collage. Had the film been produced in the early seventies, as initially planned, the original director George Lucas wanted to shoot it guerrilla-style inside the actual war zone. The final film lacks any such gritty, documentary quality, except inasmuch as it is captures what it was like to shoot Apocalypse Now. In a way, then, the film hovers right on that precarious borderline that defined many New Hollywood classics. Is it more about reflecting the surrounding world, depicting events, circumstances, and sensibilities that had shaped modern society but had been underrepresented on the cinema screen? Or is it more about celebrating that very screen, an immersion in and mutation of the history of movies, whose primary subject is simply the joy and agony of making cinema? Such fruitful tension between the documentary and "magical" qualities of the seventh art was maintained throughout the seventies before collapsing, and essentially splitting the American cinema into two camps, shortly after Apocalypse Now. The film is the end of an era, and the inevitable outcome of its plot also echoes that larger phenomenon.

Why I like it •
Like many, I first saw the film on VHS in the late nineties, before the Redux re-release, and was captivated by the elevated intensity of its color, cutting, and sound design, at once avant-garde and operatic, animated by legends like Brando and Duvall and scored with the brooding thrill of The Doors. I responded immediately to the movie's visceral kick, which was exactly what I was looking for in movies: a fusion of music, movement, and montage with grand themes. Its images and dialogue ("Charlie don't surf" - "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" - "The horror!") have ingrained themselves in pop culture; among other examples from my early days with the film, I remember shooting my own home-movie parody of the final death scene, and watching MTV's claymation Celebrity Death Match in which Brando interrupts a Pacino-De Niro bout to slaughter both of them while groaning, "I saw a snail crawl on the edge of razor!" In many ways the John Milius-penned Apocalpyse Now is perfectly pitched for adolescent male sensibilities and I would imagine that for many it served as a gateway between action-packed blockbusters and edgier, more experimental cinema. This was also the first film I owned on DVD - or rather, I owned Apocalypse Now Redux, the nearly three-and-half-hour expanded version which I think was the only version available for a short time. On first viewing, the Redux weakened rather than strengthened the material; I liked how the original cut was lean and mean, with drawn-out sequences but a relatively straightforward progression toward its goal. The Redux, especially that long extended sequence on a plantation, seemed to distract and dilute the film's effect. That said, my most memorable screening of the movie was in a theater in 2009 and in that context, the extra material was absorbing on its own terms although I still felt most of it was unnecessary. Today, I watched the theaterical version on blu-ray, since that's what I had in mind when I made this list several years ago. To my surprise, I found myself wondering if the Redux version is actually preferable after all. Streamlined, the vivid film can seem a bit simplistic, even reductive, in its conversion of a messy, tangled phenomenon like the Vietnam War into a hard-boiled narrative, however hallucinatory. Maybe Apocalpyse Now needs to be out of control, sprawling, ducking into little rabbit holes and leaping off cliffs? Regardless, in either cut it is an unforgettable experience, fusing the individual imaginations of Coppola and his collaborators with collective memories that haunted a generation. Apocalypse Now melds dream and reality into a powerful Molotov cocktail.

How you can see it • For a more in-depth contemplation of the film, check out my full review of the Redux version, written after that first viewing. Both versions of Apocalypse Now are available on DVD from Netflix and the Redux streams online at Hulu and Epix (as well as for digital rental from other sites). A clip is featured at 3:53 in "'Neath the Marquee Moon" in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.

What do you think? • Which version of Apocalypse Now do you prefer? Has your opinion shifted over time? Of the Redux scenes, which do you think bring the most to the experience? Which ones bring the least? How does Apocalypse Now compare to other war films, specifically films about Vietnam? Do you think it misrepresents the war in any fundamental ways, and does that matter? Do you enjoy Brando's performance or do you feel, as several critics did at the time, that his appearance doesn't work? How might the film have differed if Harvey Keitel played the lead role? Where does the film fit into Coppola's oeuvre, especially considering those that immediately followed, less widely celebrated than the films that preceded? What about its place in John Milius' body of work? Can you imagine what Apocalypse Now would have been like if George Lucas had directed, especially in the style he originally considered? Do you think it would have been equally valid, or is this necessarily the film's true form? How does the film re-interpret Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, not just in the obvious ways of transforming the location but through more subtle narrative alterations?

• • •

Previous week: Barry Lyndon (#62)
Next week: Civilisation (#60)

2 comments:

Jeff Pike said...

Enjoying this series a lot, Joel. Keep 'em coming as you can. And congrats on all the video work. Good stuff.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Jeff!