‘APOCALYPSE NOW’: ART IMITATING LIFE?

The 'Final Cut' of 'Apocalypse Now' Is Coming to Theaters and Blu-Ray
photo courtesy of Screen Crush

“The Horror…The Horror…” – Col. Walter Kurtz

Apocalypse Now is one of the most polarizing films ever made. While some may deride it as a mediocre war film from an egomaniacal director at the height of his power others laud it for it’s intense examination of the catastrophe’s committed by the United States in Vietnam in the style of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I believe that the legend of how the film was made should not be seen as a punchline but instead seen, sadly, as art imitating life.

Francis Ford Coppola’s legend as a director was already cemented when he obtained the rights to Apocalypse Now in 1974. The original screenplay was written by Coppola’s friend, John Milius in 1969. Milius wrote it after he was told at USC that no one had ever made a good adaptation of Heart of Darkness. Milius who had tried and failed to serve in Vietnam due to his asthma set about tackling what would become as stark a comparison to The Vietnam War and the disastrous European colonization of Africa that has ever been made. When Coppola took over the film he tried to make the adaptation to the book as literal as possible, even saying years later that he did not use a script on set instead just a copy of the book in his pocket. Coming off multiple Oscars for The Godfather, and The Godfather Part 2, Coppola was probably more powerful than any filmmaker on the planet and this is clearly what drove him to pull out all of the stops for his next project.

Most often when the film is discussed its achievements get lost under the legend of the director’s Heart of Darkness. There was even a documentary made about the film with the same title, pieced together with behind the scenes footage. It is easy in 2020 to look back and see that Coppola was the most powerful writer/director during a renaissance for writer/directors. Of all of the success that Spielberg, Lucas, and Scorsese would accomplish, it was Coppola who paved the way. This is not an excuse for the limits he pushed and literal dangers he may have thrust upon his cast and crew but to be sympathetic, he had no restraints. This is where sadly the art imitating life factor comes in. Coppola himself said it best at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979: “My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little, we went insane.” While the ego and audacity behind this statement angered many, and rightfully so, it is a devestatingly honest comment by Coppola and may or may not be a veiled shot at the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Certainly the film was but unfortunately, in this case more attention was paid to an egotistic director than a film whose message trashes the horrific actions of the most powerful nation on the planet.

The word ‘masterpiece’ gets used in movies way too often, no more than the current era. Apocalypse Now is a masterpiece and there’s no denying it. Sure Coppola bit off more than he could chew but what he was able to capture in some scenes was truly breathtaking in scale. The famous ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ helicopter invasion. The PBR boat floating down the river into a burning sun, toward the ‘heart of darkness.’ Marlon Brando shot in shadow with his voice bellowing from the darkness. Even that is a cinematic feather in Coppola’s cap. Brando had famously arrived at production severely overweight for his character so the director decided to shoot him in shadow and half light to cover his size. The result was an even more haunting vision of Col. Walter Kurtz who appears as a wraith dressed in black and covered in shadow.

While this film may be remembered as a journey into the director’s Heart of Darkness it may also be the best film made by one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the art form. Most directors can never even dream of the type of power and freedom wielded by Coppola on the set of Apocalypse Now and that is probably a good thing. Tyrannical behavior has no place anywhere including film sets. But strictly speaking, as a work of art, the film is nothing short of a masterpiece.

NOT A PRETTY PICTURE (1976): Martha Coolidge and one of the most courageous debuts by a filmmaker

Present Tense: Martha Coolidge
Photo courtesy of Film Comment

Martha Coolidge’s Not A Pretty Picture is maybe more shocking and effective today then it was more than 40 years ago when it was first released.  Sadly the film did not receive widespread attention or accolades when it was initially released but it did catch the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, which led to a huge break for Coolidge.  While Coolidge’s career blossomed after Not A Pretty Picture, one could argue that it is still her most important film.

          This film has a very abstract format, which has been called “Brechtian” because of its use of real time reflection by its cast and crew.  The first half of the film is mostly a narrative drama about a high school girl who is date raped by an older college boy.  While the film resembles an “after school PSA” in its style and acting performance, the subject matter is certainly shocking enough to overcome any average performance by the cast.  When the crew of teenagers arrives at the empty apartment where the film’s most dynamic scene takes place, we follow “Curly” the male lead played by Jim Carrington, and actress Michele Manenti, who plays the fictional version of a 16 year old Martha Coolidge, as they get closer.  Michele, who we see is already uncomfortable being alone at this party, follows Curly through a hole in the wall to a private bedroom.  What follows is a multiple take sequence of Curly forcing himself on Michele and assaulting her.

          The acting of this scene really shines due to its real life intensity from both Curly and Michele.  As each take progresses we can see a change in Curly’s aggressiveness in attacking Michele.  Michele does what is expected of her and although she valiantly resists in the beginning she sadly goes numb and succumbs to Curly’s attack.  Curly, played by Jim Carrington, is clearly more effected by this scene than his co-star Michele, who herself, like Coolidge was also a victim of sexual assault.  After each take Carrington apologizes to Michele and checks to make sure she is not injured as he can feel himself filling with rage and anger while portraying his character’s advances.  The scene is so effective that we even see the camera cut to Martha Coolidge as she watches the action from a distance, her hand over her mouth, and looking very concerned for both of her actor’s.  Coolidge, who between takes was coaching Carrington on how to portray the assault, seems almost shocked and regretful in this shot, thinking that she has produced a performance from her actors that almost matches her own memory of being assaulted.  Carrington is really the one who ends up being regretful as we see in the next segment where the narrative part of the film is interrupted by the documentary discussion between Coolidge and the actors.

          After several takes of the rape scene the actors take a break and have a discussion with Coolidge on the mattress where the rape scene just occurred.  The power and context of this scene was clearly wearing out the participants and that is why I believe it was a brilliant decision for Coolidge to break up the action and check in with her actors.  As we soon find out, Jim Carrington needed it.  As Carrington explains how his shock at the feeling of entitlement by his character Curly, he begins to reveal his own feelings and regrets.  Carrington states that the scene has caused him to look at his own actions and behavior towards women.  While he never assaulted a woman himself, he can see through the lens of this character that men in general need to readjust how they treat women.  It is a fascinating scene to watch Coolidge and Michele Manenti, two victims of sexual assault, having to counsel Jim Carrington and his reaction to portraying the attacker.

          I believe that Martha Coolidge’s style of mixing narrative and documentary for this film was most effective.  I was very impressed that she not only had the courage to tackle such a serious personal issue so early in her career but that she used her filmmaking skills so eloquently in the process.