Thursday, May 12, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Apocalypse Now (1979) 3h 1m -- Starts 6:00pm

On Saturday, 14 May at a special start time of 6:00pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club dives almost literally into the inky-black inscrutability and psychedelic pathos of Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling Vietnam-war arabesque: *Apocalypse Now*, starring Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne, Frederic Forest, Sam Bottoms and Robert Duvall.

Frequent attendees of our post-film discussions will have noticed our proclivity to invoke the concept of “story circle.” There is, it happens, a reductive metric for narrative storytelling, from which almost any familiar and/or successful tale can be confidently strung. A reluctant hero is forced to leave a comfortable situation, entering a new aspect in which he or she will lose all prior ego-crutches, reach a deep point of crisis, summon the strength necessary to make the bigger choice, pay a heavy price for it, vanquish the antagonist, and return to his or her tribe as a conquering master of both worlds. 

This metric works equally whether one is describing Oscar Schindler or Ellen Ripley, but the success of the model’s adaptability is also a trap: Yes, it’s an axiomatic law of superlative storycraft, but only because it doesn’t—once we slow down enough to really think about it—really prescribe all that much specificity regarding how to navigate the specific stations along the way. 

If one wishes to tell a story about the grim absurdity of American imperialist folly in Southeast Asia, the mere fact of knowing that our hero must face a deep crisis and pull himself together is tautological to the ragged edge of useless. Will he find the courage to rescue a stricken buddy? Will he frag his C-O instead of burning a village? Will he testify before Congress? If he can’t do all three, then how does the storyteller rely on best practices to recount such a grim and pointless episode in history, where any one of those choices would and does feel manifestly unjust as a favoured vehicle? 

Fortunately for us, every now and again in the history of stories, someone comes along with just the right genius, just the right fervor, and just the right dash of tortured madman to seize the vertiginous challenge of such a structure-free tragedy. To brandish it as his liberating summons for carrying us coolly and just-about-perfectly in directions that we never thought we’d ever want to go. It would seem, in other words, that to tell the tale of a genocidal farce that had no purpose, no allegiances and seemingly no end, you first need to get yourself a screenwriter/director who will look at all that pointlessness, and see it as the point.    

Adapted very loosely from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now pairs us with the slowly self-consuming Army yes-man Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen). An utter failure at civilian life back home, Willard has volunteered to return to Vietnam, a semi-freelancer in the special forces whose prowess at bagging the tough assignments wins him the job of traveling upriver into Cambodia to find and cope with one Col. Walter Kurtz (Brando), apparently gone rogue. To fulfill this mission, Willard will need to cajole an unwilling swiftboat crew, stare down its openly hostile captain, and avoid persuading himself that carrying out the mission will make him officially no better than the man he’s been sent to neutralize. And that isn’t even the half of it.

What follows can only be described as history’s most terrifying zoo—with vignettes featuring bizarre characters holding positions of unacceptably high responsibility, slammed hard against competing scenes where terrified nobodies do whatever they can to stay alive in the absence of leadership. In other words, the movie brilliantly captures precisely what America’s presence in the Vietnam War must have felt like for the soldiers on the ground: rudderless, savage, incomprehensible. Horrific.

Confronted with the simultaneous micro- and macro-absurdity of his bosses’ collective lack of rationale or plan, Willard improvises a clay-footed spread of coping skills, intended as much for his own continued sanity as for the fulfillment of his charge. His motivation is pointless. The objective is pointless. His path is pointless. The death that happens all around him—when it isn’t objectively his fault—is pointless. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, we in the audience come to understand. We get it. 

As a thought-provoking and subversive message, Apocalypse Now is a triumph. As a film, it is a literal masterpiece. By the time it was even finished the movie had taken on near-mythic levels of word-of-mouth cachet. The Director had gone preposterously over his already mammoth budget. A Philippine general in the vicinity of the shoot had demanded ever more lavish considerations to continue withholding his considerable and inventive wrath. Marlon Brando had showed up overweight, obstinate, and lacking the most basic awareness of his character or lines, and then refused to be directed. A typhoon had torn the host city to rubble. Martin Sheen had had a serious heart attack. He'd spent the next day sitting on a fallen tree bare-chested, defibrillating himself. Against reasonable expectations, he just-about survived, exactly as we did.

It is impossible to ignore, if also difficult not to celebrate, the perfect coincidence that all this mayhem presented for enhancing the immediacy of this specific story. At some indeterminate point in the creative process, fairly early on, the notion of “method” no longer applied to an individual actor or his performance as much as it applied to the literal existence of the entire effort. These people didn’t make a movie about the absurdity of Vietnam; they lived it. Little wonder that the finished film instantly became an iconic runaway commercial and critical success.

Over the years literally hundreds of lines of dialogue from this film have forced their way into the pop-culture vernacular (“I love the smell of napalm in the mornin’”), with almost everyone harboring his or her own favorites, and I am no exception. Honorable mention in my own quotable-line award ceremony goes to, “Charging someone with murder around here is like handing-out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500.” But the cake-taker, the line that still raises the skin on my forearms, has to be the snippet of v/o that we receive when Capt. Willard is released from captivity by Col. Kurtz and simply left to roam Kurtz’ compound un-escorted. “On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him I’d know what to do, but it didn’t happen,” Sheen tells us in that trademark drowsy voice-over for which the film has become so widely emulated. “I was there with him for days, not under guard, I was free, but he knew I wasn’t going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did.”

I hope everyone will plan to join us, Saturday, 14 May, at 6pm, for this astonishing cinematic accomplishment, about which there is simply little more to say. Of the thousand or so movies that a person really ought to see, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top hundred. Of the four-hundred or so movies that a person really ought to view a dozen times, Apocalypse Now resides comfortably in the top twenty. See it again, for the first time; get goosebumps again—for, the, first, time.

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