Saturday, March 29, 2014

Apocalypse Now Redux


The events of the last twenty-four hours have shocked and stunned me as much as they have the rest of the nation. All of a sudden, my difficulties with my new kabuki musicalization of The Last Seduction seem so petty and unimportant. Being the patriotic American that I am, I immediately called Joseph my manager and Madame Rose, my publicist to see what a celebrity of my stature could do to help those stricken by yesterday's events at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

The next stop on my Ssssoundssss of Ssssilence tour was supposed to be a benefit for the Godiva Golfers of America, some sort of nudist putters and drivers association, sponsored by Psychovant productions. Joseph and Shannon of Psychovant are busy turning this into a disaster relief benefit, to be held on the 16th green of the Sunshine Central Nudist Golf Course in sunny Darrington, Washington. Rather than the usual set, we're resurrecting my famous one woman performance art piece Lester on Lister with its tribute to bacterial culture and asepsis. We know that people will show up and pay large sums for this legendary production. Joseph is talking to Meryl Streep now about doing some sort of opening act.

As I am in Seattle and my mind was full of a mind-numbing and surreal horror, I wandered into the restored Cinerama theater for a matinee of Francis-Ford Coppola's masterpiece Apocalypse Now Redux. Cinerama was a precursor to Imax but few of those giant curved screens survive from the fifties. This one was lovingly restored to its mid-50s kitschy glamor by Paul Allen and I'm sure its where God goes to the movies when he feels like overpriced popcorn. Lush, plush velvet seats, opulent lighting and decor and a winking starscape ceiling are only some of the amenities for the discerning film goer.

Even at my ever youthful thirty-nine, I remember the original release of Apocalypse Now quite well. I saw it in 70 mm and you were given a program rather than miles of credit crawl. The original cut of the film (and the only one available until now) was a flawed, but brilliant retelling of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which Vietnam of the war years stands in for the Belgian Congo during the mad period of King Leopold. A young, virile Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent up river with a small navy crew to eliminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) who is operating outside the restraints of the US Military and civilization itself.

Coppola has gone back to the original footage shot for the film (many dozens of hours worth) and completely reassembled the film for this new release making it more than just a new cut. It's a substantial rethinking and re-editing of the piece with a completely reconstructed soundtrack in order to take advantage of modern sound technology. The re-edit seemlessly blends the old and the new into a fully realized film.

Apocalypse Now Redux contains the same tragic flaw as the original cut. When Willard and his crew reach Kurtz and his compound, it's simply not possible to capture this 'Heart of Darkness' on film. No matter how many gruesome bodies are draped artistically around the set, showing the horror reduces it. We can only be truly terrified of what we do not know and the minute we see enough to process and make sense of it, the horror is diminished. Much has been made of Brando's Kurtz over the years. There have been those that have called the performance brilliant, those that have felt his corpulent ramblings destroyed the mood and narrative drive, and those who found his sequences profoundly silly. This new cut has helped put his performance into more proper perspective. The extension of the journey to the compound and the new rhythms of the film actually help support Brando's appearance and the film no longer collapses at the end in the way it used to do. At the same time, Coppola is unable to bring the film to an appropriate catharsis. It simply may not be humanly possible for any filmmaker to capture the required moments of death and horror and complete breakdown of humanity and civilization, especially when we have become so used to seeing such things for real on the nightly news.

All of the moments for which the film is famous remain, some slightly reordered to make more narrative sense. The supporting cast (Frederic Forrest, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall) on the boat get more of a chance to develop their characters and additional moments to shine. Best of all, we get more of Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore and an expansion of the taking of the delta town so his boys can surf. There are two major sequences restored to the journey. The first, an encounter with the Playboy bunnies from the USO show stuck in a muddy hell of a semi-abandoned medi-vac camp. This sequence helps with narrative cohesion, gives the boat crew some great moments and turns the young women from objects into people. The second is an encounter with a French plantation family trying to preserve a dying way of life. The sequence is long and well performed (and gives Martin Sheen a short romance with Aurore Clement) but comes at an awkward moment in the storytelling. It would have worked better earlier in the film.

The impact of this film with its surreal sights and sounds of war on the large screen cannot be ignored. Made in the late 70s, long before ILM and computers came to dominate special effects, the incredible visuals are all shot in camera. Those aren't CGI explosions, they're real and you can tell the difference. By all means, go see this on the big screen if you have the chance.

Broken mirror. Youthful Harrison Ford. Flying bovine. Helicopter strafing. Stolen surf board. Eye shadow camouflage. Opium pipe foreplay. Bird trainer sex. Stoned Dennis Hopper. Bamboo cages.

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