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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Apocalypse Now — too much then?

Posted by Bill Benzon on 06/05/11 at 08:35 AM

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.


Interesting thoughts, Bill.

How well, in light of this, do you think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has held up?

By on 06/06/11 at 03:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Alas, I’ve not read Heart of Darkness.

OTOH, I’ve been thinking about Apocalypse Now and am on the way to convincing myself that it in fact does what I want it to do. The key is to compare the parallel killings at the end (of Kurtz and of the sacrificial bull) with the killings in the middle (of the people on the sampan).

By Bill Benzon on 06/06/11 at 06:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

One should read Conrad’s book after watching the film. Also, Dante’s Inferno and the works alluded to by Kurtz in the film.

By on 06/19/11 at 02:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thing is, that’s a standard bit of advice, offered on many similar occasions, but I’m not sure what it gets me. Do I read all those books before or after I watch every film Coppola made prior to AN, though I suppose the first 2 Godfather films are the most relevant as they deal with power and violence?

Meanwhile I’ve got my hands full just dealing with the film in front of me, the images on the screen, the words in the dialogue and voice over, and the other sounds on the sound-track, which I haven’t even touched in the seven posts I’ve written about the film so far.

By Bill Benzon on 06/19/11 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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