Film Review: Apocalypse Now

Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, artistically rendered.
A Francis Ford Coppola classic.

I love war movies. Truly and sincerely. This might come as a surprise to those who know how much I hate war. As a woman, I have never been draft material, but I suspect that I might have been able to make conscientious objector status had I ever been in a position to make the argument. I’m the sort of person who, to the argument that WWII and fighting the horrors of Hitler was just, will reply that Hitler would never have risen to power without WWI. I hate war, truly and sincerely… yet I love war movies. The only war movie I’ve ever started that I didn’t love was Enemy at the Gates, I couldn’t abide its stereotyped, no-nuance portrayal of Communism. That one, I didn’t finish. Apocalypse Now is much more my style.

Use of Color

golds and greens and tans, reds and black for accent and shadow
This shot exemplifies the film’s color palette.

The color palette of Apocalypse Now is very limited. Gold and green and tan dominate. Red shows up for accent (usually in the form of blood), white is used for highlight and contrast, and dark brown or black makes the shadows come alive. The only real notable exception to this palette is the diegetic (film term: pertaining and relevant to the world of the characters) use of purple smoke by the soldiers, and let me tell you, after taking in so much of the same information in slightly different permutations for so long, those swaths of purple smoke are almost a relief to the eye. At the start of the film I was enjoying how completely the color was controlled while seeming to remain natural and diegetic. Even the sky is somehow gold all the time! But by the end of the film I was dying to see something blue. The color control seemed not just forced, but suffocating. That may have been the intent. The film as it stands definitely conveys the heat and mugginess of Vietnam. There were some shots in which beads of sweat were captured in such exquisite detail that I felt slimed by them.

Acting

Marlon Brando, doing what he does best.
Very intense.

Apocalypse Now is wonderfully cast. Marlon Brando is at the top of his game as the megalomaniac Kurtz, and Dennis Hopper seems even more disconnected from reality as the photojournalist playing into Kurtz’s cult of personality. Harrison Ford’s leading man charisma gets dampened down perfectly in his supporting role as a staff officer during Willard’s briefing, and I doff my hat to him for managing that, I’m sure it was harder than it looked. Laurence Fishburne’s talent is evident in his portrayal of unripened youth faced with terror. And regarding the character of Willard, our narrator – I haven’t seen much of Martin Sheen’s work but he conveys the stark horror and hypervigilance of PTSD without chewing the scenery. Really, there’s not a single performance here that’s flawed, and with the ensemble working together as well as they do, if there were a flawed performance it would be noticeable. Coppola drew out the best in these men.

Themes

Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.
Captain Willard rises from the waters of the subconscious.

This film has become best known for Kurtz’s dying half-whisper of the phrase, “The horror, the horror.” Yet despite the carnage Willard wades through and at times participates in, it is not a grisly show of horrors we as viewers have been invited to here. Make no mistake, gore is present (at one point, the Cambodians ritually slaughter a large animal, and the killing blow is shown). But it’s not the point. There are no cheap thrills, no edge-of-the-seat jumping at a sudden noise after silent tension. This is far from a slasher film. The pace of the film is slow – agonizingly so, at times. Apocalypse Now is an exploration of what it means to be evil, what it means to be mad, what it means to be human and ultimately what it means to have honor. If this film is to be believed, in the Vietnam War humanity had to take a backseat to honor. Kurtz loses his humanity but retains his honor and an argument can be made that he is more the film’s hero than Willard. Apparently there is a fine line between honor and horror, and not just linguistically.

I’m sure that Apocalypse Now is not for everyone. The first time I saw it, more than a decade ago, I was bored long before the end, most likely due to the slow pacing. But for someone who likes war movies, appreciates good acting from a professional cast, and wants to see what tight directorial control can really produce, Apocalypse Now is a film to watch with the lights off.

Overall rating: 4 stars out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Hatred”

A single star

shatters through

a lonely night

to burn the earth.

Sharper than my fingernails,

colder than blue ice,

torn from the pages of a comet,

it drinks me

and drains me of discontent.

I would catch it with these hands

if they were real,

and would not burn

like the gorgeous

clay

my feet have squandered.

I would whisper secrets to it

if they were real,

and could be heard

without the ugly squeal

of tires on the road to my dreams.

I would give it a new name

if names were not real,

and able to spell death

or life

or blood, dripping

like candy melting under rain.

I leave the star

in its new bed.

I will keep watch

and watch it sleep

forever.

Commentary

Sometimes, when I write a poem, I will craft the entire body of lines first, and then search my mind for a title that crystallizes what I have said. I’d say this is my strategy around titling most of the time. But there are poems for which I begin with a title, placing a word or phrase at the core of the poem, and then I add layers around that core, in the form of lines. “Hatred” is an example of the latter type of poem.

I was not filled with hatred when I wrote this poem. Looking back on the experience of writing it, I wasn’t actually filled with any particularly strong emotion. I simply felt the desire to examine the emotion of hatred while I was in that detached state, and perhaps that’s why my mind chose the particular image that it did to guide the poem. About 14 years ago, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Iowa, I saw a meteorite fall at night. Not an off-in-the-sky safe little shooting star; I saw a quick, fiery streak that poofed into nothingness perhaps twenty yards away from me down the street, with the atmosphere choking off its descent probably an equal number of yards up into the sky. It was extraordinary. I can remember that its descent made no sound. I can also remember thinking, “I’ll probably never see anything like that again.” That was the image that guided this poem. That was the “silent star” of my hatred as I wrote.

I don’t have very much experience with hatred. I experience it when I think about certain aspects of the world we live in, like war, or exploitation – but unless I’m thinking about a specific instance of those phenomena that I have actually experienced, that’s a soft, safe kind of hatred. When I do think about specific instances, I experience the hatred in brief, searing flashes, like the meteorite’s fall. I’ve only experienced real, sustained hatred for an actual person once in my life, I believe, and that was such a scary and tainting experience that I eventually made the conscious choice to let it go. One of my favorite sayings goes like this: “Holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and hoping your enemy will die from it.” I would think holding onto hatred would be like drinking an even nastier poison.

So I had chosen a title for this poem (“Hatred”) and I had a guiding image too (the meteorite). Where to go from there? I decided I really wanted to explore related imagery and choose some striking words. The last couple of poems that I’d written were constructed as miniature narratives. The focus was on the story they told and the words conveyed plot. I wanted to do something different this time. So I did something I really enjoy with poetry and started quickly building imagery, trying to convey each image in as few words as possible.

It should probably not come as a surprise, given that this was my strategy, that the poem’s structure is very conventional. It’s basically a tiny five paragraph essay: introduction, three body points constructed to be rhetorically similar, and a conclusion. This is a comfortable structure for me and I use it for many poems when I want to put my focus on the word choices and not push myself to play with structure.

Some thoughts on some specific lines:

    • “Sharper than my fingernails” – something that very few people know about me and probably even fewer care about is that my fingernails are not particularly strong or sharp. I used to peel them to keep them short and they still peel easily. So to say that the meteorite is sharper than them isn’t saying very much. I think this line is probably a reference to the softness of the guiding image in my mind. I have done my best to hold onto the memory, because it really was something extraordinary and I think I might have been the only person who saw it, but time blurs everything.

 

    • “colder than blue ice” – for this line I deliberately chose to work with a very common image. Everyone understands that ice is cold and everyone understands that blue things are colder that white things (or nearly everyone). I wanted to use this as a touchstone for understanding, because I knew I was going to push myself elsewhere and didn’t want to risk incomprehensibility.

 

    • “and drains me of discontent” – this line is an attempt to grasp at a less-frequently-discussed side of the truth about hatred. Because hatred can override reason, frequently when I have experienced hatred, life has seemed less complex, and in that experience there is an addictive peace. This is why righteous indignation can produce a high.

 

    • “I would catch it with these hands / if they were real” – a reference to dissociation. Strong emotional states have frequently separated me from awareness of myself as being grounded in my body, have led to a feeling of unreality about something as basic and ever-present as my own hands. This can be dangerous. I actually got a tattoo in an attempt to remind myself to avoid this type of emotion. Hatred certainly has the capacity to do this.

 

    • “gorgeous / clay” – here we have an example of me pushing myself. Trying to find an image that will puzzle the reader and juxtapose parts of reality that are not normally put side-by-side. I’m proud of this one.

 

    • “clay / my feet have squandered” – this might be going too far. Even I’m puzzled by my use of “squandered” in this line. I decided to stand by the choice and not change it to something more conventional, because it just feels right, but I really have no idea why it does. Sometimes art is mysterious even to the artist.

 

    • “the ugly squeal / of tires on the road to my dreams” – ugh. This is the image that I am least satisfied with in this poem and if I were going to change any lines in it these would definitely go first. But I generally don’t do a lot of finicky correction on poetry. My poems generally drop out of my head as units in a single sitting. I will make edits as I go, fixing a line or stanza as it feels right, but there comes a point where I feel done and I wouldn’t go back and change the poem after that point any more than a chef would try to re-bake a cake. Maybe part of it got burnt, or the ingredients weren’t mixed right, but if you want something better, you have to bake a new cake. That cake is done. And whether I like it or not, this stereotypical image about tires and roads is a part of this particular cake. Maybe someone else out there will like it better.

 

    • “like candy melting under rain” – this line is really noteworthy only for its use of the preposition “under” rather than a more conventional “in the”. I chose “under” because I wanted to bring a sensation of pressure into the poem. Hatred can be an awful burden.

 

  • “I will keep watch / and watch it sleep / forever” – another reference to the seductive and addictive quality of hatred. Life is so complicated, when one finds something to override and simplify, even if that thing is destructive, it’s easy to fall into the trap.

 

Well, that’s all I’ve got to say about this poem. I hope you enjoyed my first attempt to dissect my own poetic process. Stay tuned for more and if you enjoyed reading “Hatred”, please think about buying the poetry book when it’s done!

Film Review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Before viewing The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I would have summed up one of my cardinal tenets of film-viewing as: “In Gilliam We Trust.” Terry Gilliam has created many flights of fancy over his career, from the mischievous lunacy of Time Bandits to the distilled dystopia of Brazil, and without exception I have loved them – until I encountered this particular work. While grand in scope and beautifully composed, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus fell flat.

Mise-en-Scène (“placing on stage”, for those unfamiliar with the term)
I mentioned this film’s beautiful composition. Gillian here displays the same loving attention to detail that characterizes the rest of his work. When he wants something to look antique, it is antique all over; when he wants something to look ethereal, it glows and flutters in perfect arrangement. He paints with the broad strokes of spectacle, and he knows his craft, so of course the result is spectacular. If I had watched this film solely as a collection of visuals, as moving tableaus in a modern art museum, I probably could have walked away sated. But this film has a narrative component, and that’s where I got disappointed.

Plausibility/Continuity (warning: this section of the review contains spoilers)
The central conceit of Imaginarium‘s plot works fine for me – after living as a monk dedicated to keeping the universe going through story, Doctor Parnassus made a wager with the devil that imagination would beat… what, banality? (It’s a testament to this film’s confusion that the most significant event of its backstory gets such afterthought treatment that less than 24 hours after viewing it, I can’t remember how it was framed.) Parnassus won immortality but has discovered it to be a curse, as he cannot keep up with the times. This much, I can roll with. I can even buy that a thousand-year-old ex-monk dedicated to enlightening humanity might experience love at first sight for a woman of the twentieth century, and choose to bargain away his offspring for the chance to pursue that love. It’s implausible, but I love a good streak of romanticism. But when it comes to explaining the mechanisms that keep this clockwork toy moving, the hows and whys, these details are completely lacking. It’s as if Gilliam spent so much time and energy making the jet look aerodynamic, he didn’t have any energy left over to build an engine so it would actually fly. Example: the characters of Anton and Percy. It’s obvious why Valentina is with Parnassus, but where did Anton and Percy come from? And if the Imaginarium is in Parnassus’ mind, when Anton falls into the void, where does he go and how does he get out to be in the closing scene? More questions: why is the devil so dismayed when Valentina chooses his door? How does that make her “free”, as he later claims to Parnassus? Why is such a big deal made about Tony having the Satanic symbols on his forehead when he is initially found – and then they return in the Imaginarium – if they’re never going to get properly explained? Maybe Mr. Nick does explain them near the end, but in Tom Waits’ gravelly tones, I was unable to make out the dialogue. I guess my biggest question would be: is the Imaginarium in Parnassus’ mind, or is it in the mind of the person who has gone through the mirror? I ask this one because Joel and I watched it together and I was assuming the latter until Joel brought up the possibility of the former. Something so basic to the plot should be explained, clearly, at some point. Ditto for the reasoning behind switching out actors playing Tony. It’s obvious from the film’s first scene that the Imaginarium can do this; the question is, why does it keep doing it?

Vision/Originality
When I was doing research for my disability studies’ thesis, I studied a primer on critical discourse analysis. There was one sentence in that text that burnt in my mind like a brand. Reading the entire book would have been worth it to encounter only this sentence: “A voice that is wholly original runs the risk of being incomprehensible.” That is the downside of Tori Amos music, at least the early stuff that I like to listen to, and I fear it is the downside of this film. I’m sure that all of the questions I posed in the previous section have an answer in Gilliam’s mind, and I’m pretty sure he thought he communicated those answers… to the extent that an artist has an obligation to do so. After watching this film, I fear that Gilliam and I are no longer on the same page, regarding where that extent lies.

I know the temptation to canonize Heath Ledger is very strong. He was indeed a fine actor who died young. But not everything touched by fine actors who die young turns to gold. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, while visually spectacular, does not deliver as a narrative and is far from Gilliam’s best work.

Overall rating: 2.5 stars out of 5.