Thursday, June 4, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "APOCALYPSE NOW"

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Screenplay: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Herr based on the novel “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad (uncredited)



I never really talk about “Apocalypse Now” in the same sense that I think about other movies, even ones that are often looked upon more as experiences than they are movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey” for instance. There isn’t that sense of cinematic spectacle that we usually find with similar films like these. There’s something that makes “Apocalypse Now”, remarkably inward, more emotional, but not in the traditional sense of emotions either. It’s almost like the emotion you would get if you were falling into a vast emptiness in slow-motion. You’re never landing, but as you continue falling and falling you become more ingrained with the world of continuously falling. You’re not at peace, but you may be accepting of it. An Inevitable calm that, this, is the world you now inhabit, one where you’re continuously falling, or in the film’s case, I guess, continuous thrown in the depths of war. There are shots in the movies, of just like, stone figures or such things like that, you know consciously don’t really have a reason or need to be there, but the way camera pushes in, how we are continually pushing in, and pushing and pushing…. further and further in and further into the horror you go.... I can't think of another film that creates that emotion, or at least that creates it so viscerally. 

What still stands as arguably the most ambitious personal undertaking in film history, fresh off box office and critical success with “The Godfather” films, as well as “The Conversation,” Francis Ford Coppola in 1976, decided to spend much of his own money and not only dare to make a realistic movie about Vietnam just one year after the U.S.’s involvement in the war ended, but to also make a film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s notoriously unfilmable book, “Heart of Darkness.”, a book that many filmmakers tried to adapt for decades unsuccessfully, and had been regarded as impossible. (Orson Welles, for his first film project for RKO tried to do a literal adaptation of the novel, but it didn’t pan through, so he made “Citizen Kane,” instead. [Although he did an excellent version of the book on radio.]) Coppola, than announced, rather ballsy that “Apocalypse Now,” isn’t about Vietnam, it is Vietnam. 

I will go over just how much of an undertaking this was at a later time, (Perhaps during another Canon of Film entry, say, next week) but lets just say that this film took basically everything out of Coppola, and although he’s done good work since, he’s done nothing anywhere near his greatest achievements since this film. Although considering his greatest film achievements, I don't blame him for the fall in quality since, it'd be almost impossible to match that. The movie itself, is narrated by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), who already served in Vietnam in Special Forces, but had become so disenfranchised at home, he actually insisted on another mission, which is to destroy with prejudice, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) a renegade officer with an exceptional military background whose seen too much of what he calls “the horror,” so much that he’s withdrawn himself from both the military and society, and probably from himself as well, and taken up residence in Cambodia where he’s become a god-like figure to the natives and other wanderers and passersby. Traveling up a Vietnamese River into Cambodia, Willard himself now struggles, like Conrad’s hero before him, and Kurtz, with the literal journey as well as the journey into the deepest parts of the mind and heart. He goes into battle when Colonel Kilgore (Oscar-nominee Robert Duvall), decides to go and capture a point after hearing about the great surfing he could have there, in the greatest war scene in film history, complete with Wagner music in the background. Further along the river, we watch a USO Show with the Playboy Bunnies, with predictable results, and a bunch of other places before Willard even gets to Kurtz’s camp.

With this Styx-like river leading the way, it’s impossible to describe why “Apocalypse Now,” is the greatest war movie ever made, because it’s not just about the war, but the effects it has.  This is one of the rare movies that doesn’t tell its story with the traditional visual storytelling, although the visuals are unbelievable, but with emotions and thoughts. Like how people look at paintings at a gallery and ask “what does this painting make you feel.” Coppola knows that movies work the same way, as he nearly smothers us with film and forces us to feel and react. “Apocalypse Now”, simply put, is about the emotions that we experience while watching the film. I guess a lot of movies are about that, but not quite the way this film is. 



Note: I’ve also seen “Apocalypse Now: Redux,” which is an extended version of the film which is also a masterpiece in it’s own right, and I do recommend it, but the extra footage in the film does let us see why it was taken out in the first place.
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