Thursday, October 9, 2008

Deconstructing Francis: Apocalypse Now and the End of the '70s

by; Darren Haber

Success is a drug. It's like a woman: if you chase it, you won't get it ...
--Francis Coppola, as quoted by
wife Eleanor in Notes

It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.
--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness


A jungle held in long shot … the distorted echo of choppers, swarming like birds of prey … satanic vultures … a dreamy strumming, sexy in its coldness … and suddenly the jungle explodes, a firewall of smoke and flame, a silent conflagration as we hear only music … this is the end … beautiful friend, the end.… The moment is seductive in its horror, hypnotic. The destruction rivets us, slack-jawed, as we simultaneously recoil. It is senseless, it exists for itself, it has no assigned goal or purpose.… There may have once been a reason for it – maybe Charlie’s in the jungle or maybe he isn’t – but now it doesn’t matter: all motive and reason has evaporated in the hazy swamp, this vaporous no-man’s-land.…

| View explosion (animated) |
| Audio excerpt ("The End") |
[audio requires Real Player]
| Return to opening shot (jungle) |

Then a close-up of a man upside down. He is staring off into space … images of fire and flame, swarming in his head. Is he remembering or merely dreaming? Is this a wish? A prophecy? A nightmare of endless regret? Perhaps it is both reality and dream, the convergence of future and past in the mind’s vast spaces. The story unfolds in just this manner – as a dream, a fever dream of someone who having lived through the unspeakable now madly imagines it before our eyes. Was there a war, did anything happen, or is it only this man’s lonely nightmare?

| View Willard upside down |

(Can you picture … what will be…)

It is 1976 when Francis Coppola makes the final decision to direct Apocalypse Now. George Lucas will not direct it. He will. He is flush after the success of the second Godfather movie, which proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he is the new king of Hollywood. And if a king can do anything, why not another epic? An epic about an era – our era. Because the war is over, the lefties have put Carter in office, the rumblings of the counterculture are fading … this counterculture, in fact, fast becoming culture, with the domination of rock music and Saturday Night Live and a long string of New Hollywood successes. An era is ending, the epic, American-sized cataclysm grinding to a halt. It takes a big man to make a big statement, sum up what we have lived through. And Coppola, the grand poobah of the New Hollywood, is just the man to do it.

(his ideas and methods became … unsound)

A voiceover starts… Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon. This first 7 minutes of the movie, one of the greatest sequences of 70s cinema, is over, and the narrative begins to take form.
And yet it is over before it has begun, since nothing matches the dizzying intensity of this opening – the explosions, choppers … our hero’s long night of howling madness. (Yes, he seems a bit off his rocker from the very start.) This is the movie’s greatest moment, this haunting sequence the summa of Coppola’s work post-Godfather, good as he gets after leaving Michael alone in his empty kingdom, it seems to say everything, the film could end here and we would all go home happy.…
Yet the voiceover begins. A few things have to be explained. This is usually bad news for a movie, which more than anywhere is the land of show, don’t tell; voiceover is usually the first element to be parodied and the last to be added, as studio executives did when they saw a cut of Blade Runner and panicked.

| Audio excerpt (Willard monologue) |
[audio requires Real Player]

This voiceover, added in post, comes off as a pallid imitation of a world-weary gumshoe, a ‘Nam-era Sam Spade. This is a man who knows too much, who has seen everything and wishes he hadn’t, knows that mankind is rotten at the core, that our contemporary morality is a stinking swamp. Yet unlike with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, we never have a touch of humor, a moment of grim levity (however black), a wit which is always present in the best cynical noir. Without this dark humor, the cynicism on display here falls short of believability. It is this bleak gallows humor (as, for example, in Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Huston, Sam Fuller, and so on) that makes the horror of the world even more credible. But there will be no wisecracking here. With Willard, it’s strictly business.

(They call me an assassin…)

Willard is a lost soul right from the get-go. Unlike Spade or Marlowe, he will fall into a "mission" that is something of a chimera. His motive is not so much justice or vengeance but simply the need to escape his room. He needs a mission because he has nothing else to do. He is alone in that room, the walls closing in, in some godforsaken city, without purpose or reason. He is a slacker, a tramp from Beckett who happens to have dropped a lot of acid.
He doesn’t know where he belongs – and, it is therefore implied, he has no idea where he is. He is displaced, fallen. He reports to us, grimly, that when he was in the jungle he dreamed about being in the city … and now that he’s in the city, he wants to be back in the jungle. In other words, he is neither here nor there … he is nowhere.
The visuals suggest this; the voiceover hammers it home. Willard dreams of grand destruction, choppers and exploding jungles, visions which appear to drive him to madness, to the smashing of his own reflection. This is a nightly ritual, or an oft-repeated one (he has, we assume, indulgent neighbors). And yet he always awakes, sober, to sunlight, stewing in this memory of madness, fading fast, though this madness awaits him at the end of the day when darkness flares, a vicious cycle of anguish that never ends. In this sense, he is rather like Kierkegaard’s "Unhappiest Man," a man metaphysically displaced, removed from time, whose visions of the future echo the horror of the past … a man who anticipates the future yet whose future has become this enervating present. Thus dreaming of the future is futile, and instead of hope he sees more disappointment, this eternal anxiety.
It is a cycle from which he can never escape – a punishment of sorts. Something in his life, we surmise, has left him forever tainted, stained him with a fatally disappointing insight into humanity, and into himself – such as, perhaps, an atrocity committed during wartime, a wide-scale horror in which he participated, an event which fatally robbed him of innocence…. His memories confounded by the light of hope, in his hope deceived by the shadows of memory (Kierkegaard). He sees ruin in all directions, smells napalm everywhere, drowning in death wherever he looks, from all angles and trajectories, a suffocation of shattered self-reflections, within which he dreams of an innocence he can never reclaim, a time which is vanishing even as he reaches for it. And in this sense, Willard has already told us the whole story. He has dreamt the whole movie, at the beginning is The End. He is already in both places at once, everywhere and nowhere. He is a man who has fallen out of time….
The first seven minutes tell us this.… We don’t need to go any further, though of course we need to, this being a movie, a Hollywood movie.…

(Eleanor: It seemed Francis metaphorically lived every foot of the film he shot…)

Coppola’s great achievement, which made him king of the New Hollywood, was to comprehend the tragedy that lurked behind the lust to rule – specifically, that na├»ve American lust that appears to us as "business as usual." His protagonist – his Oedipus – is Michael Corleone. (Harry Caul in The Conversation, while haunting and inspired, is but a lesser reflection of the Don.) The Godfather movies obsess on how our specifically American lust for power seduces the soul into its own corruption, how we plant the seeds of our own ruin and sow them little by little, until they grow into monstrous vines that strangle us. Our ruin later seems inevitable, chosen not by us but by fate, as though (looking back) the situation were really hopeless from the start.

| View Michael at the conclusion of The Godfather |

Michael’s "free will" leads him, like Oedipus, into exile and isolation – a punishment for a tyrannical arrogance and the assumption of powers not meant for humans. His past is stored in the brain as a kind of knowledge – a kind of nightmare, the unhappy dream of the unhappiest man, who is ejected into the present, a nowheresville of isolation and haunted self-consciousness. Ignorance is bliss, and happy is the man who walks the corridors of life without shame, without this painful self-awareness, this sense that one’s "free choices" have led to exile!
Michael knows something, he knows himself, in the images of himself, he knows that he has lost something essential, something beyond his family, which he destroyed with his own hand to, paradoxically, make it stronger. We see him there at the end of the movie in a kind of throne, in the middle of nowhere – haunted, lonely, silent … a man who dreams of an innocent past, his father’s birthday, his father being a king who is welcomed in a way that he now can never be. When his brothers rush to greet the father, off-camera, Michael stays at the table … and right there it seems he knows what’s coming. He can see his own doom written on the walls, he is a loner, in exile. It's only a matter of time before his future catches up with him.… In the end, he dreams the beginning … though perhaps there is some dim hope.… Perhaps he can avoid the Family, avoid fate, avoid this painful, eternal banishment.… An especially prophetic image for Coppola himself, as we shall see.

(badda-bing…all over your nice ivy-league suit!)

Michael joins the army to avoid the sinister machinations of the Family, but like Death and Taxes (Ben Franklin missed one), Family cannot be avoided. That’s not me, Kay … ah but it is, Mikey, it is.… But do you think that the Family is evil, some soulless institution that spreads its infectious emptiness into the heart of our decent if confused protagonist? Coppola suggests otherwise. Young Michael is tempted to the dark side by doing what is "necessary" to protect his own, tossing in a suggestion to murder a rival thug and a policeman, nothing personal, only business – except he himself becomes the assassin … the executor of a horrid, unforgettable slaying.
Once he has crossed that line there is no turning back. It is only a few short steps from here to the sadistic orgy of killing and betrayal … until at the very end his Family implodes, and out of "necessity" he is "forced" to slay his own brother … which is the end for Michael, of course, because after that the Family, like his soul, is no longer a garden but a weed-strewn backlot.
In his end is his beginning – he begins by acting to save his family and ends by destroying it. The nightmare of power, Coppola so lucidly shows, lies precisely in this contradiction – that we cannot separate brutality from necessity. To make an omelette in this country you have to break a few eggs, that’s the Chicago way, it is part of our own intractable American perversity that when it comes to "business as usual" – in the Corleone family (or the studio system) – the violence seems beyond question, justified. To succeed we must all be murderers. The man in the white hat is a filthy lie, says Coppola, because to succeed we cannot be the good guy. We can only be Richard III.…
And these movies, these successes, made Coppola the king of Hollywood. Hollywood, yes, that very Family he wanted to wipe out and replace with a kingdom of his own. Coppola had his own heart of darkness to contend with.…

(I’m with you, pop, I’m with you…)

It is 1976, and the '70s are already evaporating. King Coppola wants to have the last word. His pals George and Steven are off playing with light-sabers and UFOs. They are not serious. They are comic-book. King Coppola wants art. It's up to him to put his Midas touch on the last Big Movie of the '70s, with its Big Subject – the Vietnam War, the one we lost. An era is ending and someone needs to say something. And he, the meistersinger of the New Hollywood, is just the man to say it.
Except the project from the very beginning seems doomed. Curious, this. Coppola has directed two all-star epics and yet, right from the get-go, sallies straight into disaster.
In the first place, what is the film about? It is based on a script by John Milius, which Coppola finds tainted with a kind of comic-book machismo, not much of it usable really, this script "loosely" based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though Milius himself downplays his source, perhaps because he has tried to do what even Orson Welles could not do – i.e., adapt the book – and perhaps because like Welles he discovered that some of the Great Books (most, actually) will not make the leap to celluloid.
Coppola doesn’t have much of a skeleton to build on, not much of a foundation, but he decides to make the movie anyway. Already he is tempting fate. Let’s see what ya got, kid, he tells himself, making the bold decision to "recreate" Vietnam as a kind of psychedelic haunted house, within which Willard will wander in his desperate search for Kurtz. The filmmaker will take the journey with him, exploring that haunted labyrinth, in the blind hope that the "experience" will itself provide meaning. He will journey with Willard as a kind of modern-day Homer, the haunted house a maze leading (he prays) to Kurtz, the minotaur at the dark center – who will provide the final metaphor, the symbol of ultimate Evil, shedding light on the War’s evil, Kurtz revealing himself in his demonic glory as the prime dreamer of the war.…

| View Kurtz's first appearance |

Immediately the film fails. It is a failure, it goes nowhere. Coppola, by using "Vietnam" as a skeleton, has already doomed himself. This is because this skeleton like the war itself is unfinished. He is trying to say the unsayable – namely, what the war was supposed to be about, which no one at that point is able to say. Its meanings are charged with an obscure ambiguity – unfocused, murky. There is no luxury of distance here, or perspective – the country is still recoiling from this failure and keeps averting its eyes.
The failure must have appealed to Coppola. It lends the war an aura of high American tragedy. Our boys died for nothing, it seems, despite the noblest of our noble intentions. There is an evil lurking at the heart of this, a darkness which seduces the storyteller … namely, our arrogance at the start of the war, our indifference at the end, the fact that we didn’t even want to look at our soldiers when they returned, these boys who fought and died so miserably in the swamp. No ticker-tape for them – they were not Astronauts or apple-pie home-run hitters. ‘Nam was a failure we did not want to face but that Coppola will make us face, the evil of arrogant Government, these fathers who could not face their defeated sons.…
But this is a Family without a face, perpetuating an evil that is, in a sense, transparent. Its goals are not defined, its temptations appear and reappear. It is not clear in which direction its seductions lie – and, moreover, it is not clear what we are trying to achieve or who we are fighting. We never even see Charlie, like we do the Tataglias, because he is so good at hiding in the swamp. And so out of frustration – our slighted arrogance, stupid American pride – we begin to bomb wherever we think he might be … destroying villages and villagers while blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" from the skies … high-tech Gods, out of control, bombing civilians, ripping young innocents in half.

| View the helicopters |
| Audio excerpt ("Ride of the Valkyries") |
[audio requires Real Player]

Vietnam was called "the television war", and in that sense its meaning is truly postmodern in that it signifies meaning at the same time that it deconstructs it. It approaches meaning but never quite arrives. Its famously horrific events seem to erupt out of nowhere, from some shadowy nether-region of the mind, snapshots connected by a tenuous thread … My Lai, Hamburger Hill, Operation Breakfast, the Tet offensive … scattered drippings on a map, horror without origin.… As Colonel Harry Summers has said (who served in Vietnam and edits Vietnam magazine), "There is not one truth about Vietnam but a thousand truths" – a truth whose face, in other words, is invisible.
One postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, has termed this invisibility "The Transparency of Evil," describing a phenomenon wherein our best intentions become our worst, not because we see through it but because it sees through us, moves through us and reverses our actions to produce the brutal opposite of what we intended. Thus a "police action" to keep the world safe from democracy begins honorably, if arrogantly, and leads to America’s un-finest hour. (And thus, later on, our wrenching "conscience" towards embattled Sarajevo – Baudrillard uses this example – becomes a vast muteness in the face of non-action, a statement of moral impotence.) This is said, of course, 25 years after the fact; Coppola lacked the luxury of perspective. At the time, he wanted to put a face on this uniquely American evil. He was searching for the face of the minotaur…

(Never get outta the boat … unless you are goin’ all the way)

Coppola, in addition to these mythological tangles, was on the horns of several other more practical dilemmas. The location, for instance – a quagmire. Roger Corman warns him not to go to the Philippines. You’re going to get socked by the monsoons, he says. Don’t go to the jungle. Lucas urges him to leave only when he has a finished script. Coppola goes anyway, and the monsoons arrive right on schedule. The sets are destroyed, shooting delayed, most of the cast and crew are living in the swamp. This is a mixed blessing anyway because George is right: the script needs a lot of work. Coppola sits down at his typewriter, begins to realize the enormity of his project. He is not just making a movie – he is hunting the white whale.…
That white whale is Kurtz, and his ocean is the war in the jungle. And, like the ocean, Vietnam’s meanings are fluid, nothing you can quite hold in your hand. Still Coppola persists. The movie will suggest the war, except the goals of the war like the subject of the film is elusive. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that the evil of the war is without a face.
Coppola was already deep in quicksand.…

(I swallowed a bug…)

The war itself is elusive – like some swamp-like animal it lurches, retreats, hides, slumbers, explodes and disappears.… It lacks the Aristotelean arc we had at that point come to expect from wars, the moral punch of the classic events – no Pearl Harbor, Normandy or Hiroshima here… Where are the stormtroopers? Where is the Red Baron? John Wayne wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to start. That is because, in this case, the enemy is invisible – on the battlefield, and at the heart of our own seedy motives.… Coppola didn’t seem to realize this until the quicksand was at his chin.
But even then he reached for the grand gesture. He still wanted to finish the war for us, put it in some kind of perspective, arrive at the true nature of evil. He failed, but he failed spectacularly.
Yes, but what a failure! It is mesmerizing, this failure, perhaps the most hypnotic of all possible failures. The boldness of this failure, in fact, almost warrants it a success. But it is still a failure – because of the sour turn of the story – not just the movie but the context of the movie, the meta-movie … the movie of the life of its grand creator, the audacious spellbinder and ringleader of the New Hollywood, the gifted and doomed Francis Coppola…

continued, visit: http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue09/features/coppola/

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