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October 23, 1979 - Image 7

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The Michigan Daily, 1979-10-23

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The Michigan Daily-Tuesday, October 23, 1979-Page 7


Coppola' s


vision of terror

About a half hour into Francis Cop-
pola's Apocalypse Now, the viewer fin-
ds himself suddenly and disconcer-
tingly jarred by the concentration-shat-
ering image of Coppola himself,
camera whirring furiously beside him,
exhorting star Martin Sheen: "Don't
?look at the camera! Don't look at the
camera! Just go on like you're
fighting!" during the aftermath of a
Vietnam helicopter attack. It remains
{unclear whether the director was
posing as a newsreel journalist or was
: iterally playing Coppola him-
pelf-diligently and heroically com-
pleting his arduou. three-year master-
work. in an extraordinarily gratuitous
*.4noment of cinema verile.
;This ten-second stretch of film is such
n infuriatingly disruptive irritant in an
otherwise militantly selfless motion
picture that it becomes an effective
icrocosm of what might be labeled
"" he Apocalypse Problem-a dilemma
which through every fault of its own
necessitates a very special kind of
critical approach to the movie.
NEVER IN THE history of film has a
single- work been so relentlessly
dragged before the public eye-tossed,
raked and disected for nearly three
years until it became the best-known
unreleased film of all time. It seemed
the Oceanic exhibitionist rite would
never end: Coppola's malaria, the set-
destroying typhoons, the problems with
Brando, the firing of co-star Harvey
Keitel, replacement Martin Sheen's
Heart attack-on and on went the
disasters, their details heightened by
such studied promotional overkill that
one sensed a divine intervention must
have taken place in order to complete
the filming at all.
At which point Apocalypse's overripe
hubris turned even more fermented.
For a good year and a half the public
was subjected to Coppola, film in can,
wandering the nation like the ancient
mariner and his albatross-exhibiting
endless variations of his movie to
select, non-journalistic audiences along
with questionnaires imploring the
viewers to "help me complete" his now-
accursed creation. The director's mea
cu/pa exhibitionism progressed from the
heroic (the tortured artist syndrome) to
the ridiculous to the dull-a pageant of
self-iundulgent angst that seemed
destined to harden any self-respecting
gritic's heart to even the most brilliant
vi1ork that might ultimately emerge
beneath the glut of hype.
'AND THAT'S the whole danger here.
:To be truly fair to Apocalypse Now, one
must try to approach it as a virgin, con-
.front it with an enforced amneskac's
,;ignorance of all that went before it.
k$horn of the bullshit which perennially
;e.ngulfed it, Apocalypse stands as an
ihevitalily flawed but still magnificent
r.vyork, a film which will stand with only
handful of others for as long as motion
l,,pictures endure as an art form.
a r The picture' is a terrifying, im-
oapassioned feast for both eye and mind.
- 'T'hough it may occasionally sink into
,ersatz Conrad, Apocalypse Now soars,
5penetrated and rends on its own merits
as a stunningly original work. It is a
1,1#6rror film; it is a purgatorial film. It is
,t also perhaps the first legitimate
,"'head". film to emerge out of
,,lollywood, whose substance seems
almost to require the viewer to be
.,stoned in order to fully assimilate the
overwhelming aural-visual assault
exuding from the screen.
I FOUND nothing off-kilter about
,Coppola's paralleling Conrad's African
exorcism with his own protagonists'
Vietnam rite. Vietnam was surely
America's journey into the heart of
.jdarkness-a slow distortion of save-the-
world ideals into a kind of macho

hallucination. It was' a deterioration
monsterously paralleled by the phan-
tasmic horrors Willard encounters (and
participates in) as he draws even
deeper into a strange world utter
beyond the comprehension of its woul -
be saviors.
Coppola burns countless images into
one's memory: A hideously out-of-place
USO show-turned gang bang is inter-
spaced with a shot of the outcast Viet-
namese watching the proceedings

through barbed wire while a single fire
burns far in the background-the war
patiently waiting for the erotic fantasy
to end. A crashed plane lies half sub-
merged in the river, its tail arching
eerily upward like a dead alter to a race}
whose noblest of intentions went mad.
Apocalypse's much-criticized last
half hour may in time be regarded as
the film's most brilliant segment, and
Brando is its dynamo. Despite laboring
in constant half-lit shadows, Brando
gives a huge, enormously powerful per-
forniance as Kurtz, succeeding in
making his character's crystalline
ideal of confronting absolute horror by
making it your friend and ally seem in
its own way as logical as it is mon-
IF THE FILM stumbles, it is over
Kurtz's alter ego, Wllard. Though Kur-
tz is Apocalypse's mythic, demonic
shadow creature, we eventually learn
much more about both his surface life
and the inner workings of his soul than
we ever find out about Willard. Though
Willard introduces the film by asserting
that the story is as much his as Kurtz's
and that "Kurtz's confession must also
be my confession," he never comes
across on his promise.
Willard's own cryptic exorcism-if
that is indeed what's going on-appears
in the very first scene, with all the
atrocities that follow apparently ser-
ving as simple confirmation to his own
burned-out psych. While Kurtz-the-
monster is also Kurtz-the-victiin,
progessively strangled, in agony over
his own moral dissolution, the assassin
Willard remains a vacuum. He is a
recepticle to the horror around him yet
he never transmutes it into anypercep-
tible metamorphosis of his' own-he
remains as amoral as Kurtz is im-
moral. Intentionally or not, his end-to-
end intransigence cheapens all that
came before it: What has been learned?
Who has been changed? What, really,
did it all matter?
Perhaps it will all come clear with
the passage of time. Like the war itself,
Apocalypse Now is so intricate, so
metaphysically complex that perhaps
one will judge it only through the even-
tual gift of historical distance. That it's
not a perfect film- is hardly surprising
or perhaps even desirabler-its subject
defies precise categorization. You can
like a perfect film; you can, at least in-
termittently, love Apocalypse Now.
U. 'I

Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a blaze
of color and sound-a dazzlingly pure
cinematic achievement, and at a cost of
over $30 million easily the most
elaborate display of intellectural
psychedelics ever committed to film.
Its vision of Vietnam is one long howl
of pain, from the hallucinatory opening
in which helicopters silently glide
across an explosion-ripped backdrop,
while The Doors' "The End" floods the
soundtrack, through the film's lengthy
journey into a kind of hell on earth, as
finally personified by the satanic ob-
sessions of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
Martin Sheen plays Willard, a soldier.
addicted to the climate of war, who rots
away drunkenly in his Saigon hotel
room until a mysterious "U.S. in-
telligence agency" finally taps his ser-
vices. His mission is to travel up a
seemingly endless Nam river to the
Cambodian refuge where Kurtz, once a
highly respected officer, has surroun-
ded himself by hundreds of worshipful
natives. Willard is to killKurtz, thereby
stopping his mad, god-like influence
over the masses from turning into a
rival military force.
Apocalypse, with its images that
seem to have been dredged up fromthe
underside of a nightmare, is the
ultimate acid-head movie, and Coppola
reaches that effect intentionally. The
journey turns into a sort of odyssey into
the depths of despair and agony, as
crazily beautiful in its extreme as it is
horrifying. The world of war here has
been shoved over the edge of madness,
and all the people trapped in it are
either futilely trying to hold on to
reality or have given themselves up
eniely to the grisly highs of the ex-
perience. "It's just like Disneyland,
man," says one of the characters in a
stoned stupor; the film approaches its
subject in such a surreal, druggy way
that we're invited to react to it on the
same dark fantasy level.
Coppola needs time to set up the right
mood for his Day-Glo dream, and the
film's first half hour drags under the,
weight of sluggish, gloomy scenes in
which the actors shove dismally long
pauses between every word. Michael
Herr's portentous and pretentious
narration ("I was going to the worst
place in the world, and I didn't even
know it yet") becomes less of a
headache when the film gathers power.
But in these weaker early moments the
narration's this-is-the-truth-dammit
style, sprining all too obviously from
the Rolling Stone school of new jour-
nalism, does the movie -serious-
Herr's book Dispatches describes,
Vietnam as "a rock and roll war."
When Coppola's vision suddenly pulls

itself together, he arrives at a kind of
jagged, pounding energy that visualizes
this idea.
THE FIRST SCENE that genuinely
works is an early one on the boat, after
the various crew membersshave been
introduced, in which spaced-out
California surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms)
rigs up water-skis and glides down a
Vietnamese river while "Satisfaction"
pumps from the radio on board.
This is just a warm-up, however, for
the dazzlingly orchestrated sequence
that follows: a stunning helicopter at-
tack on a Vietcong village,
choreographed to the strains of
Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
Coppola's camera turns the insanity of
the battle into a form of operatic
comedy; terrifying, yet hugely funny.
The remaining two hours chart an in-
creasingly disorienting descent into
the wild unrealities of the war. Such a
route can only lead to one
destination-thenbottom-and indeed
when Sheen's haunted observer finally
makes it to Kurtz's secluded fortress,
there seems to be nothing left on earth
but chaos and madness.
Apocalypse Now is a film whose highs
and lows both reach so far beyond the
conventional that one can scarcely
deem it "successful" or not by or-
dinary standards; the viewer can only
sit back and take in the often over-
whelming sights and sounds. Coppola
and his cinematographer continually
come up with images and montage ef-
fects of intoxicating, severe brilliance.
THE SOUNDTRACK is somewhat
less success o/ The synthegized score
that the director and Carmine Coppola
have written is often deficient in its at-
tempt to add'to the aura of the visuals.
The works of such experimentalist
groups as Tangerine Dream might
have better fleshed out a musical
equivalent for Coppola's obsessions.
Martin Sheen is a perfect, tortured
mirror for the horrors that pass before
his eyes. The other actors, portraying
characters whose states of mind are
beyond desperation, aptly build their
performances on jumpy, frantic, driven
internal rhythms. As the monster
lurking at the end of the read, Brando
becomes such a purely terrifying
image, with his head shaven and bur-
ning eyes, that he almost manages to
clear away our initial reaction toward
seeing Marlon Brando, The Star.
Contrary to populr belief, the film
does not fall apart in its final half hour,
Brando's part is enormously powerful,
and the ending is perhaps the only
.logically conceivable one after such an
epic'downbeat trip.
Comparisons to Catch-22; The Deer
hunter or anything else are
useless-Apocalypse Now is an ex-
perience like no other.

Though Francis Coppola missed his
chance to release the first Vietnam War
film, Apocalypse Now remains an
unheralded achievement: The only
American movie to come to grips
with how Vietnam differed from every
other war in our country's experience.
Unlike The Deer Hunter, Coppola's
Vietnam is more than a generalized
metaphor for the sort of crazy violence
that can devastate a small community.
Unlike Coming Home, it is no mere
backdrop for a melodramatic period
Coppola tackles Vietnam on its own
terms, as a war of immense moral con-
tradictions that were played out at
home and on the battlefield.
Apocalypse pictures the war as an
odd amalgam of traditional' gung-ho
Americanism and late-'60s druginess.
As such, it may be the only movie in
history that's profoundly ambivalent
about the most appalling sorts of
atrocity. For pure senseless horror, the
much celebrated helicopter attack
dwarfs The Deer Hunter's first Russian
Roulette sequence. Yet it's also one of
the most electric, exhilarating scenes
ever filmed. Coppola doesnt simply
aestheticize the violence, a la Sam
Peckinpah. We feel every machine-gun
blast for what it is - an explosion of
sudden death. When a woman is gunned

down like an animal, it's painful to wat-
ch. But the sheer kinetic force of the
helicopter scene is like that of a roller-
coaster ride. Coppola puts us in touch
with the same power-mad, energy-
craving obsessions that animate Gol.
Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the Super-
hawk commander who leads the attack
on a small Viet Cong village so he ran
use the nearby beach for surfing.
IT'S NO WONDER that Coppola
chose to underplay the literal drug
references. The whole movie is a stored
meditation on the war - Vietnam as
the Ultimate Trip. Apocalypse had a
hazy, hallucinatory feel to it; like War-
ner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God, it
seems drenched in the madness at its
moral center. Coppola draws his story,
See FINALLY , Page 9








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