Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Apocalypse Now: Working Papers

I've now taken my posts about Apocalypse Now and gathered them into a single downloadable PDF, which you will find at my Social Science Research Network Site. I've appended both the Abstract and the Introduction to this post.

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This is series of informal essays about Apocalypse Now that argues that the movie as a whole takes the from of a classic rite of passage as described by Durkheim and van Gennep. Particular attention is given to the opening montage, the trip into the jungle for mangoes, the sampan massacre, the final parallel killings of Kurtz and the caribao, and parallels between characters. There is a descriptive précis of the whole film that organizes it into five large sequences and screen shots throughout.

Introduction: Shakespeare Couldn’t Do This

I don’t know just when I bought Apocalypse Now: The Complete Dossier. But it was several years ago. I watched the film, most likely the original first, and was blown away: Shakespeare didn’t do this, I thought. In the spectacle department there’s no contest, just as Shakespeare wins the poetry competition.

Was I then thinking that Apocalypse Now was comparable to The Bard?

Yep, that’s what I was thinking.

[The horror! The horror!]

I still think so, but won’t bother to argue it. The Bard, after all, is untouchable, mythic, beyond category. Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, makes wine on the side.

When, for whatever reason, I finally decided to post something on the film, I decided to post doubts (see listing of posts below). And I had no firm intention to do any more than that. But, once I was in, I was in. I figured I’d do two, maybe three more posts. I had no intention of doing eleven posts, and I’d have done a twelfth if I hadn’t decided to start working on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

For the most part the posts follow my thinking about the film, though at the beginning I my thinking was just ahead of my posting. The second post, Jungle Agency, in which I describe Chef’s trip into the jungle, was written as a digression on the way to accounts of the fight sequences: the helicopter beach assault, sampan massacre, Do Lung bridge, and the final killing. The third post, Finding Yourself Lost in the Jungle, was an extension of that digression. I got back on track with the fourth post, about the final sacrifices.

I never did get around to a post on the Col. Kilgore surfing cavalry sequence, feeling that my comments in the précis (fifth post) were adequate to my purposes in these posts. But it certainly can support more commentary than I gave it, and that goes for sequences I covered more adequately, such as the opening montage. The more I took time to comment about, the more I saw the demanded comment. But, in the interest of getting through it all, I left most of those demands unanswered. In particular, I’ve said almost nothing about the scenes that were included in Apocalypse Now, Redux, but were not in the original film.

I’d say that the turning point came in the seventh post, where I discussed parallelism in the film. That was prompted by a post on parallelism that David Bordwell had made at his blog. It was only then that I began to focus on Lance and, in particular, on the fact that he was the boatman who made it out alive, along with Willard. Once I’d decided that there was a reason Lance made it out, the rest began to fall into place.

Even at that, it wasn’t a walk in the park. I still needed outside help – which came in the form of an email message about the medieval concept of the king’s two bodies – and, to the extent that there IS a more or less coherent argument running through the posts, that argument is rather crude. I allowed myself to get over many a rough spot by referring to myth logic.

I’d have preferred not doing that. I’d like to be able to consult a handbook on myth logic and simply transcribe or refit examples from it to the current case. Alas, no such handbook exists. Levi-Strauss is useful. Freud is useful. As are many others. But still, no handbook of myth logic.

The only way we’ll ever create the handbook is to continue working on ‘texts’ like Apocalypse Now. And they only way to work on these texts is to have recourse to phrases such as “myth logic” to get us over the rough spots. No doubt that sounds a bit dodgy, but I don’t think it’s THAT dodgy. For one thing, we can accomplish more by deploying more sophisticated conceptual tools. While that pretty much takes us out of range of the blogosphere, it’s doable, and I’ve done such work on a number of texts. I fully expect others to do better.

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I’ve left the texts pretty much as I originally posted them. I’ve made no attempt to edit them into a tighter and more coherent whole, much less have I made any attempt at a more formal style. At this stage of the game, that’s, if not madness, something that would be counter productive. These are working papers, rickety constructions thrown over rivers and canyons so that we can get to the other side and keep on moving. Elegance and tight logic are beside the point. Ramshackle usability is the watchword.

The posts:


  1. "But still, no handbook"

    I am unsure as to why you have not discussed the heroic biography.

    Among other things I find Jan de Vries claim interesting in regard to this.

    "the historical event and the heroic legend can be said to oppose one another- as entities... the heroic life is a life sui generis which does not belong to history and which cannot be lived by ordinary mortals"... the heroic legend is a myth not of god, but of a man who raised himself to the level of the gods.

    If it is the hero and his biography that is at play it provides a sound framework for developing the idea of a rite of passage.

    I may be wrong but I don't find the use of the kings two bodies very convincing and I think exploring the motifs of the hero may be more fruitfull in this regard.

  2. I don't see what the hero gets me. Are we talking Kurtz, Willard, both?

  3. Both.

    I will cite Tomas O Cathasaigh from The Heroic Biography of Cormac MacAirt. A book I rather like.

    "but it seems true that the heroic biography is concerned essentially with life-crises, and there is much to be said for the view that the episodes in the heroic biography are the mythic correlatives of the rite of passage (border experiences) identified by van Gennep in his classic work.

    The film is not a perfect fit but it certainly seems to play with themes I am familiar with from a much older form of lit.

    Using the same analytical tools as well it would seem with rites of passage.

    I would strongly agree with O' Cathasaigh that this is a very fruitful approach.

  4. The king is dead long live the king theme you identify is classic heroic biography. It has also been viewed by Irish early med. scholars as the "unitary system which underlies a wide variety of texts, many of which bare little superficial resemblance to the others"

    I strongly suspect the kings two bodies is a red herring here although again you have identified an important theme of the heroic bib..

    The hero/villain, hero /otherworld god have identical life cycles one replaces the other and is in turn replaced.

    The confrontation is forever repeated.

    "it is in reality very easy to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead"

    Kai Lung