Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Apocalypse Now

It took a long time, sliced into 14-minute pieces, but I finally finished watching Apocalypse Now, the next in my series of movies I feel I ought to have seen, as a culturally aware person. For the record, I watched the "Redux" director's cut, so I realize that anything I might say about the pacing is affected by that. But I certainly didn't want to watch both versions, so I thought it better to pick this one. Yes, I'm going to spoil, but this is a thirty year old movie, so this is all the warning you'll get.

I know that, at the time, Martin Sheen was nowhere near the star power of Marlon Brando, so I can kind of understand how Brando got top billing despite being in the movie for about ten minutes out of three hours, while Sheen's face was in front of us for pretty much the entire three hours. But of the various posters and cover art, pretty much all of them either depict no one, or depict just Brando, as in the one I used for this post. And maybe half of Brando's on screen time, you couldn't even see him, he was just a blur in some shadows, or a shaved head. Was Brando's performance extraordinary? I don't know. I didn't feel like we got much from him. When the Captain voice-overs to us that Kurtz wants to die, my reaction was, he does? Where did you see that? Was it just too nuanced for me, or was there really something that rose up out of the soup of madness to suggest that specific conclusion, or was Willard just convincing himself? Obligatory liberal arts major answer: "Maybe you're supposed to be asking yourself that." Well, I appreciate the value of intentional ambiguity, but that doesn't mean every bit of ambiguity is good, or even intentional.

In the end, I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel the movie was for. Unless it was another exploration of "war is hell" only amplified to the extremes of stupidity and chaos we saw there -- pretty much every military installation we saw was mismanaged or unmanaged to an extent that cannot readily be exaggerated. There wasn't really a single example, except perhaps the boat's pilot, of someone who reflected well on the military, not even in the way Radar O'Reilly did. Even the angry French seemed savvy compared to the comically (tragicomically, really) inept Americans.

I suppose that Kurtz and the mission were really the pretext for a journey up the river and all the incidents along the way. It's a road movie as much as it is a war movie. Pretty much every scene on the river could have been cut without changing the overall storyline or significantly affecting any of the other scenes. For instance, the USO show with the Playboy bunnies wouldn't really significant affect any other scene if you cut it out -- not even the successor scene that featured the same bunnies. But as you cut things, you'd be cutting away the mood or tone, so I wonder, is that what the movie was meant to be about? I suppose so, but for me, at least, I find myself thinking, did I really need this whole movie just to get that mood? Is that just a matter of timeliness -- would that have meant more to me in 1979? (But this movie is accorded a timeless classic.)

So many of the characters appear very briefly. It's weird to think that this comes very soon after Harrison Ford was a breakout star in American Graffiti and Star Wars, but he gets about one minute of screen time, none of it really requiring much.

Dennis Hopper's role is also small, but perhaps has the most impact compared to its length; I found myself wondering if Brad Pitt's performance in 12 Monkeys might owe something to it, or if they're just both drawing on the same inspirations, but some of the echoes were striking, including intonation, diction, and physical mannerisms. It's probably easy to use that kind of approach to convey "crazy," particularly compared to how Kurtz is depicted, but I still found it far more effective. Generally speaking, to me the most challenging part of playing crazy is making the craziness seem seductive, like there's something to it and you can really see how the person got there and stays there. I've seen "quiet crazy" done that way, but I didn't really get it from Kurtz. All I got from the photojournalist was a sense of being caught up in a cult of personality, which would work fine, if I saw in Kurtz the kind of personality that could form that cult, but again, I didn't really get it.

So now I've finally seen the famous napalm quote, and now I know that it's always being quoted in a highly abbreviated way -- there's a whole bunch in the middle that's always left out. Curiously, I found the quote less compelling in context than how it's usually quoted. I know it's supposed to be kind of absurd, and it is; but the kind of absurd it is, turns out to be a much less interesting kind than the kind it always came across as.

When all is said and done, I come away with a kind of "blah". For as little as I took away from the movie, it could have been half its length. I don't know if it's fair to say I was dissatisfied because I wasn't really expecting anything. But I suppose while I wasn't expecting anything I was nevertheless expecting something. Some sense that it all came out to mean something. That there was a reason for any of it -- and I don't mean a reason for what Willard or Kurtz or Lance or anyone else did (though there were so, so many times I would have liked one of those, too), but a reason for what Coppola or Sheen or Brando did. I guess there probably is; probably every single instant, every shadow, every whisper, every time some glaring question went unanswered (why didn't the airstrike get called in, for instance), all contributing to something. And that something just doesn't register with me.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

So much of the movie is taken from Conrad's Heart of Darkness--not like it's a note-for-note retelling, but it's very much the same story at the core. I think the movie doesn't do a great job of bringing Kurtz's epic ambition and insanity to life. More than that, the "redux" edition contains additional footage, and Apocalypse Now really didn't need additional footage. It was kind of in need of another editorial voice to begin with.