Monday, February 20, 2006

Apocalypse Now

I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time back in 2000 or so and really liked it. It's been a fixture on my top 100 list, a really strong cinematic experience. Yesterday I watched the film for the second time, this time the Redux version, and it was an absoulte revelation. In the years since first seeing it, I've gone through a major change in the way I view films, and this is the sort of film that's definitely benefitted from it.

I'm not usually a big fan of war films, which isn't a problem here, because it's not a war film in the traditional sense. The war is a backdrop for a study in the way that extreme environments can alter a person's mind. The film has a lot going on in terms of theme, but the most striking thing is the mood. Watching this movie isn't so much observing events in a story, it's sinking into a mindset, a dreamlike trip down this river, where anything goes. What's happening on screen doesn't matter so much as the visual quality of the images, so a barrage of bullets out of the jungle is more about the lights streaking through the air than the danger our crew is in.

This surreal mood is set right from the incredible opening. It's so simple in its construction, using just dissolves and a perfectly chosen piece of music, but it creates a nearly unparalleled mood. You watch this scene and you're there in Saigon, in the drugged out haze that Willard himself is experiencing.

The film is notable in that even though there are some fairly conventional dialogue scenes, like the office meeting, there's never a sense of normality or safeness. Everything moves forward in this odd dreamlike space. Even in the lengthy dialogue scene in the French Plantation sequence, the incredibly soft lighting and Willard's confused expression makes the words being said secondary to the feeling of lost control. Willard is an almost completely passive hero, just getting carried along, be it literally on the river, in the air with Kilgore, or into bed with the French widow. Because he isn't a traditionally active hero, the film avoids the war movie cliches of the noble hero or even the frustrated GI just hoping to get home. By this point, the civilized Willard has been destroyed, he can't function at home, but at the same time, he hates life in Vietnam. He has no more hope and perhaps what intrigues him about Kurtz is that this is someone who had the same problems he did, and was able to find a solution.

It's certainly been covered enough, but the Kilgore helicopter assault sequence is a near unbelievable piece of filmmaking. It really does seem like they're fighting the war, the explosions, property being destroyed, ten helicopters flying in formation, there's no seams, it feels like you're really there in Vietnam. The sequence is brilliant in the way that it makes Kilgore and his destruction so attractive even when objectively we know that what he's doing is despicable and wrong.

The other really strong setpiece is the last US outpost. This is another scene where the scope of the destruction is astounding, creating this feeling of chaos, the dreamy journey down the river becoming nightmare. Watching the film now I was reminded a lot of what's coming out about the second Iraq war, and also the way that the government is deliberately trying to hide the truth about that war to keep cvilians from understanding just how bad it's gotten. It sounds like there's a similar chaos and uncertainty about victory. The war in Iraq, like the war here, doesn't have an easy victory. There's no army to surrender because the enemy is thousands of guerillas not one overriding entity.

Anyway, this Redux version brings a couple of new sequences that got mixed reviews. To some degree, I think people will find it impossible to adjust to changes to a classic film, no matter how well the changes work. My way of viewing films has changed, so I don't want to do a better/worse comparison. What I will say is that this is a film about a mood, about falling into this world, so criticizing a sequence for bringing the narrative to a halt is in some respects, a bit ridiculous. From a narrative point of view, the two new sequences are either unnecessary or actively harmful to the progression of the film, but in terms of building mood and feeling, I think they're both effective and I'm happy to have Redux on DVD rather than the original version.

The Playboy bunnies helicopter sequence is a bit odd in that the bunnies seem to have no problem prostituting themselves. The way I saw it is that they're completely drugged up at this point, hence the disconnect between what the men are doing to them and the things they're talking about. So, the playmate of the year going on about her loneliness and feelings of degredation while at the same time being used for sex is a result of the fact that she's numbed herself from the world as a way to get through her experience in Vietnam. I'd imagine the guys transporting them either got them the drugs or actively drugged them against their will as a way of getting the fuel. The bunnies are much like Willard in the beginning of the film, numb and detached from the world. It's not an essential sequence, but I think it's an interesting mood and feel and I'm glad it's back in the movie.

French Plantation is a longer sequence and if I were to re-edit the film, I would cut out at least half the dialogue from the owner, he talks about some interesting things, but it does grind the film to a halt. However, the scenes are beautifully shot and I feel like Willard's encounter with the widow reinforces his feelings of helplessness. He just moves along doing whatever comes to him, and his encounter with her is part of this. This is all really good looking stuff, great photography and for that reason alone, it's worth seeing.

One of the major contributors to the film's atmosphere is the excellent score by Carmine Coppola. A lot of people call the synthesizer stuff dated, but I think it's timeless, the quality of the sound creating this really odd feeling. It reminds me a lot of the synth work in Blade Runner, used right the synth can build a really alluring atmosphere. Used wrong, it's "Axel F," but that's not the case here. There's something otherworldly about the synth here and I'd love to see people bring this sound style back.

Anyway, the whole film builds up to Willard's confrontation with Kurtz. Coppola does a great job of building suspense about who this guy is and even though I'd already seen the movie, I was still really excited to finally get to Kurtz and see him again. I love Dennis Hopper's role, playing off his crazy hippie image in a really hyper performance. He's a lot of fun to watch.

Brando himself is right on the line of self parody, but I think his performance is masterful. His Kurtz is someone who's so gone from civilization, his godlike status in the village fueling his delusions about how enlightened he's become. In reality, he hasn't found the answer, he's just found a place where the questions don't matter anymore. Watching him, Willard is unsure whether Kurtz really is the messiah or whether he's just crazy. Willard is someone who's so passive that he basically waits for Kurtz to approve of his own death before he's finally ready to perform the murder.

The return of "The End" signals the beginning of an absoultely bravura sequence. Willard emerging from the swamp is one of the all time great movie images and the subsequent return to savagery during the murder sequence is all brilliant. As before, the use of "The End" transforms the sequence into something even greater than the sum of its images, it's one of the all time great uses of a song to score a film.

The ending is a bit of an anti-climax, after the superlative murder stuff. Willard just leaves, but for the character it makes perfect sense. He doesn't have the initiative to take over as king there. He waits for a mission, gets one, completes it and then returns. You could argue that he returns because he knows that if they took out Kurtz, they'll take him out too, but ultimately what matters is that he rejects Kurtz's grandiose beliefs in favor of a desire to just keep himself alive. He isn't at home in civilization or at war or at nature, he's been destroyed by the experience in Vietnam and even his own kingdom can't make up for it.

I think Kurtz's basic point, that the Vietnamese win because they're fighting for something, while everyone in the American army is just waiting to get home, makes a lot of sense, and also applies to Iraq. If you know that you're not really fighting for anything, are you going to put your life on the line, or just try not to get killed? Kurtz used to have that commitment but he recognized the futility of fighting a war that the soldiers weren't fully committed to and as a result holed himself up in the jungle.

The entire film is a movement from order and civilization to the savage chaos of the ending. That's why I could see problems with the French Plantation scene, because it breaks that flow. Intact, it would indicate Willard's detachment from the civilized world. This space feels alien now, while the jungle is home. In that respect he has become like Kurtz, even if his actions at the end indicate that he won't admit it. Everyone in the war has become like Kurtz, it's just that some of them are able to admit it and some aren't.

I've noticed that I tend to really enjoy films that are considered troubled, or excessive, films that draw criticism for their self indulgent. The most recent film that approximates the feeling of Apocalypse Now also drew criticism for a director going too far with a self indulgent, pretentious film, and that's Malick's The New World. The New World is another film that's all about atmosphere, so criticizing it for a weak narrative is completely missing the point of what the film is trying to do. 2046 is another movie that was very troubled and ended up as the synthesis of many hours of footage that were somehow put together into an amazing film. Fellow 1979 release All That Jazz also drew criticism on the same counts as Apocalypse, of self indulgent, pretentious excess.

What all these films have in common is that they represent singular directorial visions and also exist outside the traditional comfort zone for what a film should be. A lot of critics write about film from a narrative point of view, because frequently what's best about a film can't be put into words, it's something uniquely cinematic. And while these films may have a lack of narrative clarity, they have a singular emotional vision, they drop you into a world, they don't tell you about it, they make you experience it.

And in Apocalypse Now that experience can be harrowing and it can be exhilirating, but it all feels unique and unlike any other film out there. I love Kubrick, but to think that he could capture the feeling of Vietnam in England is folly, as Coppola said "This film isn't about Vietnam. It is Vietnam." It's a 200 minute film, but I'd have loved to say in that world for a while longer, and that's one of the best things a film can do, make a world you don't want to leave.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. I also experience the same thing with movies like Apocalypse Now and games such as Fallout and Battlezone, and sometimes these feelings are cursory enough to just vanish once they have emerged. And they are always accompanied by an almost nostalgic, but always dreamlike, longing for that setting and atmosphere. And as always regarding such vague, elusive things I somehow come under the impression that I'm the only one experiencing it.

God this got pretentious. Keep it coming, anyhow.

imsmall said...

The self-indulgence of Americans
Surpasseth understanding: hope
Is not replacement for good plans,
Though when schemes break ´tis hard to cope.

Therefore ´tis better not to wage
Predaceous war, or make
Wrongful affront at any stage;
As Karma does a circuit take.

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ronald martin said...

what is the central story of this movie ?

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