Just what kind of two and a half hour movie does nothing in the first seven minutes?
Contrast the opening of Apocalypse Now with the opening of a typical James Bond flick, or one of the Indiana Jones adventures. Those openings are jam packed with action. The opening of Apocalypse Now is jam packed with nothing.
Images, music, thoughts. Plotwise, nothing. Otherwise...
In his commentary on the opening scene, Coppola says that it was important to establish Capt. Willard’s character before he embarks “on this great journey.” And, yes, though nothing happens in this scene to advance or even to initiate the plot, those first seven and a half minutes do take us into Willard’s soul.
Those opening minutes do more than just reveal Willard’s soul. They get your neural tissue warmed up for the movie to come. They prime it (Wikipedia entry). What’s that mean? Just keep that notion in mind as we walk through the scene. You'll find out.
The scene lasts for about seven minutes and 35 seconds and falls into three parts. In the first and third parts the sound track is dominated by The Doors performing The End. In the middle part we get Capt. Willard’s thoughts in voiceover. The patterns of imagery also differ among the parts.
1. Vietnam in the Mind
The film opens on a black screen. Throbbing comes up on the sound track. Jungle. Then a chopper moves across the screen. Music begins.
Flames start at the left, move right across the screen and engulf it. Jim Morrison starts singing: “This is the end, my beautiful friend . . . This is the end, my only friend the end.“
The end? Is Morrison singing of suicide, or only of death? And the movie’s title: Apocalypse Now. The apocalypse is the end, of the world as we know it. Still. We’re over a minute into this movie and nothing’s happened. We’ve not even seen the character whose soul Coppola is baring to us in this montage. A meditative beginning. The end, NOW?
But also a preparation. Later in the movie we’ll see those trees lit up by that napalm: the Valkyrie Cowboy Attack Helicopter scene. These meditative images are preparing a place in our mind for something that will happen later on. That’s what I mean by warming up the neural tissue. That’s priming.
Finally, at 01:42 we see Capt. Willard. Of course, we don’t know who he is, but tacitly assume he’ll be important. For now he’s just an upside down head. Eyes closed, then open. A ceiling fan appears at right center. The jungle tree line in deep background. And then the flames, the light.
As Morrison rolls around to “desperately in need, of some stranger’s hand, in a, desperate land” a large stone head appears through the flames at the right.
By the time this head reappears you’ll have forgotten you saw it in the opening montage. It’s the very last thing we see on screen before the end credits roll. At THAT point, maybe, it absorbs the metaphysical resonance hanging in the theater as the NEW GOD (Willard) leads the YOUNG INNOCENT (Lance) away from the ground where the OLD GOD (Kurtz) allowed his blood to be shed. But that’s the end. At this point, the beginning, it’s just a big WTF!
Not only isn’t this Uncle Buck’s Hollywood war extravaganza, it’s going to have some weird mythical sh!t tossed into the mix.
The ceiling fan throbs, the head turns, and we see stuff on the bed stand. Who’s that woman in the photograph? What’s your best guess? The Doors fade, the ceiling fan gets louder. What kind of guy sleeps with a gun in his bed?
2. Can’t Go Home
And we’re in Willard’s room. We see the window, slats closed. We move closer, closer. Spread them to look outside.
That is to say, the camera has, and therefore WE have, assumed Willard’s point of view. We’re all peeking through the slats at Saigon – well, at a set constructed in the Philippines, early in the shoot.
We hear Willard on the voiceover: “Saigon . . . shit! . . . I’m still only in Saigon . . . [takes a swig] . . . Every time I think I’m going to wake up, back in the jungle. . . . When I was home after my first tour, it was worse. . . . I’d wake up and there’d be nothing. I hardly said a word to my wife, until I said ‘yes’ to a divorce.”
He reaches for that photo we saw on the bed stand, moves it to his lighted cigarette.
“When I was here I wanted to be there. When I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle. . . . I’m here a week now, waiting for a mission, getting softer. . . . Every minute I stay in this room I get weaker. And every minute Charlie squats in the bush, he gets stronger. Each time, the walls have moved in, a little tighter.” The Doors are coming up on the sound track.
3. Death Dance
We’re now roughly six minutes into the film, The Doors are back, strong and frenzied, and this central character finally does something, a martial arts dance in his underwear.
Not guns blazing. But it’s physical movement, action. Later in the film we’ll see moves like these, but not from Willard. From surfer Lance the space cadet from Southern California, the only one in Willard’s party, other than Willard himself, who survives the journey up river.
But what’s this?
That’s more footage from the end of the film, when Willard was blacked up and killing Kurtz with broad machete strokes. He wasn’t using martial arts moves, not like from this opening dance. But it was the martial art at its most bloody intimate. We don’t know any of that at this point, of course. It’s just another WTF! image into the mix as Morrison shouts and moans.
The dance continues:
He’s doing this dance in front of the mirror. And now WE’re in the mirror, watching him watch himself:
He smashes his hand into the mirror, guzzles some booze, and collapses.
The Doors fade out and the screen fades to black.
Toward a Neurocinematics of Violence
Let’s end where we began: Just what kind of two and a half hour movie does nothing in the first seven minutes? Well, obviously, this kind. But what just what kind is that?
I don’t know. But it’s something we can investigate. What I’d really like to know is the state of people’s brains while watching this opening montage. Even more than that – for that knowledge is now within reach – I’d like to have the ideas necessary understand those brain states and their relation to the movie. I have no idea what it’ll take to come up with those ideas.
I suppose the place to begin would be to compare audience brain states during Apocalypse Now with audience brain states during a more conventional war film, one that has more action at the beginning. Is there a significant difference? If so, does that difference track through the length of the film? That is, does Apocalypse Now elicit a different neural profile from that of more typical war movies? After all, this film with so little plot and so much surreality is end-to-end different from most war films. How does that track in the brain? But also the blood stream and the lungs, the entire brain-body ensemble.
On the assumption that, yes, there is a systematic difference, it seems to me that that difference relates to some remarks Coppola had about the actor who played Willard. Martin Sheen wasn’t the actor originally cast. Harvey Kitel was. But Coppola thought the Kitel’s was too active an acting style “that really commands you to look at him in which he does all sorts of interesting things. My instinct was to have an actor, rather, who did the looking at things, rather than that demanded you look at him. In the first days [of shooting] began to wonder if I wanted a more passive kind of actor.”
So what do we have? We have a war movie without a conventional plot. We have a more passive, a more contemplative, lead actor playing the central character. We have voiceovers in which that central character reveals his thoughts, especially while reviewing Kurtz’s dossier. And we open in a meditative way. Taken together, it all makes sense.