Sunday, June 5, 2011

Apocalypse Now — too much then?

I’ve watched the film again, though over two sittings one day apart. It’s gorgeous, powerful, perhaps great. But I wonder how it will play in 50 years when no one will have been alive during the Vietnam War and no one will remember eagerly buying The Doors’ debut album, the one with The End as the last track on side two.

That’s the music Coppola uses to frame the film. We open with Willard working on a binge while the Doors preach on the sound track. And we close as Willard terminates Kurtz’s command to that same music.

It works, it really does. But I don’t think The End will survive on its own. It’s not going to become a classic. Perhaps Apocalypse Now will keep it alive. Perhaps not.

The film’s Wikipedia entry provides ample material for those wishing to bank on the film’s enduring value. For example:
In 2002, Sight and Sound magazine polled several critics to name the best film of the last 25 years and Apocalypse Now was named number one. It was also listed as the second best war film by viewers on Channel 4's 100 Greatest War Films, and ranked number 1 on Channel 4's 50 Films To See Before You Die. In a 2004 poll of UK film fans, Blockbuster listed Kilgore's eulogy to napalm as the best movie speech.[42] The helicopter attack to Ride of the Valkyries was chosen as the most memorable film scene ever by the Empire magazine.

In 2009, the London Film Critics' Circle voted Apocalypse Now the best movie of the last 30 years.
That’s impressive. Heck, the film IS impressive. But will it last?

That same Wikipedia entry quotes Roget Ebert’s 1979 review as saying, "Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our 'experience in Vietnam', but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience". Is that enough for greatness? And from just whose experience is this something being re-created in that film? A soldier who survived ‘Nam; one who didn’t? A mother, a brother? A farmer, a lawyer, a CEO? A draft dodger, a war resister? A stoned hippie? I don’t know.

Before he even gets around to saying that, however, Ebert defends the film against charges that it’s just a bunch of incidents, with no real plot, no intellectual coherence, and no ending. None of which bother me, quite. I like the film. If you haven’t, you should see it.

But I worry that it’s too deeply enmeshed in a 60s acid trip sensibility to survive over the long haul.

The thing is, America’s gotten involved in three-going-on-four major wars since Vietnam: Iraq 1, Iraq 2, Afghanistan (which has lasted longer than Vietnam), and we’re working on Libya. Somehow I feel that if Apocalypse Now is THAT great, then it should speak to these subsequent follies, for they’re grounded in the same need that kept us going back and going back in Vietnam, the need to fight some Other – as I argued in America’s National Psyche and the Fall of the Evil Empire.

I’m not sure Coppola got that far, though he may well have been headed in that direction. And that may have been why he had no real ending, but staged it as a double sacrifice, of the bull by the indigenes and of Kurtz by Willard. But that double sacrifice doesn’t quite lay out over the whole film and thus reveal the war to have been an exercise in magical thinking, an attempt to exorcise our own demons.

Near the end, in the voice-over, Capt. Willard says, “Even the jungle wanted him dead. That’s who he took his orders from, anyway.” But the jungle is US. That’s what Copolla needed to get across. I don’t think he managed it, do I?

And so we keep trying to work the same magic, trying to exorcise the same demons. And they keep coming back on us. For, as I said, they are us.

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