Friday, August 16, 2019

Get Lost, Charlie

Paul Beston
August 16, 2019

Image result for once upon a time in hollywood
Margot Robbie, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt

If you grew up in the 1970s, it was hard to escape Charles Manson. His gang’s grisly 1969 deeds were already legendary, and they left a lingering dread over middle-class America, to say nothing of Hollywood and other more privileged enclaves. The early and mid-seventies retained some trappings of sixties culture, and the climate that had fostered the Manson Family, or that Manson had used to foster it, seemed still operative. Older Americans, trying to exhale after the sixties’ Olympian paces, found themselves bewildered in a new, hungover decade that made not even a pretense of restoring the old verities.

There would be no getting them back, it turned out, and certainly not with that sense of menace in the air. My street in suburban Chicagoland held an annual block party on Labor Day weekend, with food and drink set out on long tables in a kind of wandering feast from yard to yard. One year, though, some college or older high school boys, not from the area, invited themselves into one of our neighbor’s homes. The street’s houses were open, with people regularly wandering in and out; the interlopers must have seen an easy target. They made their move, probably looking for booze, or maybe more. One of the neighborhood men entered the house and discovered them. They set upon him, he called out for help, and my father rushed in. He slugged one of the boys in the belly, and they all ran off. He seemed embarrassed by the deed in later years, wondering if he really needed to punch the kid. To the rest of us, the justification seemed clear: he had acted to help a friend.

Yet the incident seems hard to separate entirely from those still-fevered times. My father was an inveterate newspaper reader. The era’s cascading outrages must have had some effect on him, and the Manson murders especially so—involving, as they did, home invasion, the loss of sanctuary, and the wanton slaughter of, among other innocents, a nearly nine-months-pregnant woman. By the late 1960s, many Americans had learned to fear stepping out of their homes; Manson made them worry about staying in. It was not a climate conducive to pondering proportional degrees of self-defense.

Manson was in kids’ heads, too, back then. Born too late to view hippies as harmless and naïve, I saw them as people who wanted to take drugs and slice up my parents. They were all budding Mansons to me. The impression deepened when one of the older boys in our neighborhood acquired a rawhide bullwhip and rode his bike around, trying to lash the younger kids as we fled. The sixties had famously given us the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” but from where I stood, the only reliable people were 12 and under or 35 and over. Everyone else was out of their tree.

The Manson book, Helter Skelter, circulated in those years. Among my younger crowd, it had a forbidden-fruit quality, like a Playboy that specialized not in nude bodies but dead ones. Published in 1974, it remains one of the top true-crime sellers, an epochal account of the murders and prosecution of the Manson cult by the man who had put most of them away for life, Vincent Bugliosi. The made-for-TV feature by the same name that appeared soon after, in 1976, relied on the Bugliosi account and is creepy in that dreamlike way of 1970s TV movies. Every kid I knew was told he couldn’t watch it. We all watched it.

Image result for helter skelter movie

Steve Railsback as Charles Manson in 'Helter Skelter'

Bugliosi is a clear writer, and he paces his largely procedural narrative in a way that keeps readers on the hook, but his undertone of insistence leaves one wondering, vaguely, if all the pieces really fit together. Ed Sanders didn’t think so: before Bugliosi, he had published the first book on Manson, The Family, which is about as different from Helter Skelter as can be imagined. Writing with the flair of the countercultural figure he was, Sanders nevertheless managed to tell the Manson story with genuine outrage on behalf of the victims and disgust for their victimizers. He had wondered, at the outset, whether Manson and his acolytes were being framed by the government, but he quickly realized that they were murderers of almost unimaginable cruelty, and his contempt for them fired his hipster prose, as when he dubbed them “acidassins” or deflated their spooky talk by interjecting, “Oo-ee-oo.” Even his irreverence serves a purpose. “All was chop,” he writes, as the killers approach their prey—an off-putting phrase, but it gets at the annihilation of taboo that was the Manson Family’s calling card.

The Family asks questions that make Bugliosi’s version seem something less than airtight. Bugliosi had, after all, a huge stake in the official story: he had used it to prosecute Manson, to render historical judgment on the events, and to build his own reputation as an author and commentator. In the last 25 years, more books have come out on the Manson case, some taking new angles, such as Tom O’Neil’s just-published Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Yet the fundamental physical realities of the case, of who did the killing and who got killed, remain unchallenged, as does the premise that the killers were operating under Manson’s influence, in some degree or another. The rest of it depends on how deep you want to go.

Over the last half century, enough people have wanted to go deeper, resulting not only in more Manson books but also in seemingly endless documentaries and specials, as well as—disturbingly—a cultish sort of fan base. The Manson murders have long been regarded as a 1960s touchstone, and like other major events of that most-analyzed decade, it has been assigned a definitional significance: the murders, we’re told, symbolized the end of the countercultural dream of peace and love.

Fifty years on, though, they might be better seen as an early, bloody shot in a culture war between rationality and irrationality, unity and tribalism, and between incremental, liberal progress and visions of apocalypse. Demythologized at last in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as weak-minded losers, Manson’s followers stand as the opposite number, in every sense, to the Apollo astronauts, who, just weeks earlier, had pulled off the feat that might stand as the last great testament of an older, greater America: the moon landing.

Neil Armstrong’s footprints may be on the moon, but Manson’s footprints (or fingerprints, more aptly) seem more pervasive than do those of the Apollo heroes. American culture gives unprecedented authority today to privatized, subjective reality; the Manson Family didn’t just give it authority, they gave it action. Conspiracy theories are legion, often competing with empirical explanations for acceptance among the general public; Manson was a gifted conspiracist, regardless of whether he believed what he was peddling. And Manson was an unfulfilled artist (a singer/songwriter manqué), whose outrage at failure would eventually lead him to demand—as our mass shooters today demand—that the world pay heed to his importance. When insistence fell on deaf ears, only one solution remained. Then, as now, all was chop.

But just as another milestone anniversary resurfaces this foul and dreary story, Quentin Tarantino, of all people, comes along to remind us that old virtues remain stout enough to stand down monsters. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Tarantino opus that contains all his hallmarks, good and bad, along with what seems a new sense of humanity and justice. The movie is being criticized for many reasons, some familiar, some specific to our perpetually aggrieved,bean-counting political tempers. In their myopia, the bean-counters cannot see that Tarantino has allowed us to imagine a way out of at least one old American nightmare. After 50 years, someone finally told the Manson Family to get lost.

Paul Beston is the managing editor of City Journal and author of The Boxing Kings.

‘Apocalypse Now: Final Cut’: Coppola’s Surreal Vietnam Epic Returns

By David Fear
August 15, 2019

Image result for apocalypse now final cut

About a mile out, the man says, they’ll put on the music. The kid looks confused: music? Just a classical piece — the boys love it. “Put on ‘PSYWAR OP,’ ” he barks into his headset. “Make it loud.
The reel-to-reel starts up. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” from the German composer’s Ring of the Nibelung opera, begins playing over loudspeakers. The soldiers look around, confused and bemused. The camera keeps shooting a group of helicopters, already in attack formation, from below — you’d think they were prehistoric birds of prey. The troops staring out from these metal beasts are in profile, stoic and larger-than-life, pure Riefenstahl 101. And from where you’re sitting, the command to “make it loud” seems redundant. It feels deafening, overwhelming. It feels like you’re on the whirlybird when that first missile launches, the bobbleheaded co-pilot bouncing in his seat, guns firing, people on the ground falling, explosions everywhere. Noise seems to be swirling around you, from static-y voices on intercoms to heavy artillery blasts. You’re in the middle of pure chaos.
It’s one of the most famous extended sequences in American filmmaking. John Milius wrote it, based on experiences he’d heard from folks who’d come back from ‘Nam after being in the shit. Gerald B. Greenberg edited it. The legendary Walter Murch designed the soundscapes. Akira Kurosawa allegedly loved it. Francis Ford Coppola says he’s watched it many, many times over the past 40 years, “in various states of dread and fear.” You may have seen these moments on a plane, in a train, on a boat, with a goat. (Just, please, do not say “on your phone.”)
But sitting in a cavernous theater in downtown San Francisco and viewing Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, a 4K restoration-cum-remix of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War magnum opus, it almost feels as if you are experiencing this attack for the very first time. It goes without saying that most movies are best seen on a big screen, with an audience and in the dark. When you’re talking about this surreal, psychedelic vision of life during wartime, however — a phantasmagoria of gung-ho surfing obsessives, gyrating Playboy bunnies, ghostly French colonialists, and Marlon Brando in greenface — you’re talking about a whole other mind-fuck when its madness is presented in IMAX. Which is all the more reason to catch this rejiggered masterpiece when it gets a brief run in select theaters starting August 15th. (A Blu-Ray release hits shelves, virtual or otherwise, on August 27th.) It is, in terms of storytelling and scope, a completely different trip up the river, through your acid-fried skull, and into the heart of darkness.
So about that “Final Cut” subtitle . . .
Back in early 2017, James Mockoski, the archivist at Coppola’s production company American Zoetrope, approached the director with the idea of doing something special to commemorate the film’s upcoming 40th anniversary. The ’79 negative was in decent though slightly beat-up shape, as was the material used for the expanded 2001 version known as Apocalypse Now Redux; according to mix engineer Colin Guthrie, the “original six-track master audio given to the studio and kept by Zoetrope . . . both were lost.”
Image result for apocalypse now final cut
They each knew the restoration process would be laborious — “frame by frame, moment by moment,” as Guthrie says — but thanks to advances in digital technology over the past decade or so, not impossible. The two men began examining the elements they had from the various prints and home-entertainment reissues over the years. The idea would be to clean up the images and substantially improve the sonic fidelity, with the goal being a far better-looking and -sounding Apocalypse Now compared to previous rereleases, especially in regard to the audio’s low end. (At Zoetrope’s “mixing barn” in Napa the day after the San Francisco screening, Guthrie plays the newly restored “Operation Arclight” bombing sequence with massive speakers pointed at a couch in the center of the room, and the rumble of the bombing raid makes you feel like you’re seconds away from encountering the mythical brown note firsthand.)
Mockoski and Guthrie figured they could not only get everything into shape but could, in the former’s words, “push things in a different direction . . . into becoming more of an immersive viewing experience using technology that wasn’t around in 1979, especially once Dolby and IMAX  came on board.” (The Final Cut theatrical run will include screenings in the IMAX format, though not exclusively.) The question was whether Coppola was interested in going back into this particular jungle once more. He’d already revisited the film and radically added close to an hour of footage, giving us the second Redux version. Yet the idea of just putting a spruced-up, albeit technically superior, print of the movie out for the anniversary seemed like too much of a nostalgic indulgence. And which cut would he choose for the anniversary, anyway: original recipe or extra-crispy?
“When we were releasing the film in ’79,” Coppola says, sitting in one of his Northern California winery’s large, museum-like spaces above the tasting areas, “we knew it was too long, and too weird. The film was surreal — my feeling was the war was surreal, so anything trying to get to the heart of it was going to be out-there. But distributors kept telling us, ‘Make it shorter, make it less weird.’ So we did. Then, when folks were making my wife’s documentary [1991’s Hearts of Darkness], they had access to all of the hours and hours of footage. And by that point, the mainstream has sort of absorbed what we were doing in Apocalypse, so it didn’t seem quite so weird anymore. Ironically, it was the distributors who came to me and said, ‘Well, you have all this stuff, why not put what you cut back in?’ That’s how Redux happened.
“But I always felt,” he continues, “that the first version was too shortened — not too short, too shortened — and the other version was . . . well, maybe we shouldn’t have put everything back in. A movie is in service to a theme that runs through it, and I always felt that Redux never quite supported the theme of the film as fundamentally as I wanted. So we started with the second version, because that already had the restorations and corrections, and we began to tweak from there. I didn’t intend to make a new version . . . but I felt that this being longer than one and shorter than the other was the perfect blend.”
Thus was born Apocalypse NowFinal Cut, or what some say Coppola has privately referred to as “the Goldilocks edit” of the film — a just-right amalgamation of both previous iterations, something that seems equally sprawling yet tighter than either of the versions we’ve come to know. Some 14 minutes have been taken out. Several game-changing Redux decisions remain, notably the PBR Street Gang’s water-skiing excursion coming after their Col. Kilgore misadventure rather than before, as it does in the original — a move that makes the boat’s crew seem less gonzo from the get-go and more like guys deservedly blowing off steam. (Laurence Fishburne’s rubber-limbed boogieing to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” naturally steals the scene no matter where you put it.) The second encounter with the Playboy bunnies is gone; the slapstick stolen-surfboard vignette remains. And the controversial French-plantation sequence has been streamlined, though the immortal Jung-and-the-restless line “There are two of you . . . one that kills and one that loves” has, for better or worse, been left intact.
More important, this Apocalypse Now retains the center-can’t-hold insanity of its onscreen journey (and the offscreen legend of behind-the-scenes creative mayhem) that has always made this movie feel like a singular cinematic fever dream. If anything, seeing this New Hollywood landmark/last gasp in such a clean, crisp, larger-than-life state emphasizes the multitudes it still contains. You might notice that, say, when a CIA agent is cutting into a slice of roast beef during the initial meeting between Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard and his military overlords, it mirrors the slaughter of a bull near the end. You may take note of the tenderness that Robert Duvall’s Kilgore — always and forever “a goofy foot” — displays toward children and babies during his siege on a Vietnamese village. You may find yourself really noticing, for the first time, the chorus of crickets that accompanies Col. Kurtz’s final breath. Or you may find yourself identifying with Chef, or Clean, or even Dennis Hopper’s countercultural motormouth instead of Willard this go-round. Viewers never step in the same river twice.
Image result for apocalypse now final cut

As to whether Apocalypse 3.0 is the “definitive” version of Coppola’s warped war-film vision, the answer may depend on the moviegoer. No one is even sure if “final” is truly applicable either. After premiering this cut at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, he made a few extra trims for its official release; Mockoski notes that the director “never really locks a film, he latches it.” For Coppola, however, this is the end result of decades of thinking about the story he wanted to tell — a three-hour trek into man’s dark side and a nation’s military moral free-fall that has, at long last, come to a conclusion he’s happy with. “Film is an illusion,” he says. “And this was the version where the illusion of Apocalypse Now finally snapped into place for me."

Q&A: Francis Ford Coppola on ‘Apocalypse Now’ 40 years later

By Jake Coyle
August 14, 2019

Image result for apocalypse now coppola

NEW YORK (AP) — If filmmaking is a war, then “Apocalypse Now” was very nearly Francis Ford Coppola’s Waterloo.

The battles Coppola fought while making his 1979 epic nearly destroyed him. A typhoon wrecked a major set. Harvey Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen. Coppola searched desperately for an ending. He worked even harder to coax a few lines out of Marlon Brando.

But out of that tumult Coppola created a masterpiece. And 40 years later, “Apocalypse Now” has never looked so good.

Coppola has supervised a 4K restoration of the film and, for the second time, tweaked the cut. Having perhaps gone too far in his 2001 “Redux,” which added 53 minutes, “Apocalypse Now Final Cut,” which opens in theaters Thursday and on home video Aug. 27, splits the difference at 183 minutes.

In its present and restored form, the majesty and madness of “Apocalypse Now” is more vivid and hallucinatory than ever. Coppola considers it the definitive version. It completes a four decade journey turning what was almost a mess into the masterwork he envisioned from the start.

Coppola, 80, has lately been busy with equally audacious plans.

In 2017, he published a book, “Live Cinema and its Techniques,” about his experiments and hopes for a new art form that combines cinema, television and theater in a live experience. He’s also recently returned to a long delayed passion project, “Megalopolis,” a sprawling sci-fi, New York-set epic. Coppola has been working on the script and casting, and searching for production partners. “Or maybe now it’s at the stage I can do it by myself, I don’t know,” he says.

In a recent interview, Coppola spoke about “Apocalypse Now” then and now, why he was “terrified” after making it and why he has so much trouble letting go.

AP: You’ve talked before about the theatrical version of “Apocalypse Now” missing some of the “weirdness” you wanted. What did you mean?

Coppola: In the 1979 version when it first opened, the various people who had sponsored it and were distributing it felt that it was too long and too weird. So we went through a tough few evenings trying to make it shorter and trying to make it appear more normal as opposed to “weird.” So we took some things out. Some of them were just 30 seconds long or a minute long but generally we were trying to make it shorter and less weird, which I guess is another word for “surreal.” After it was clear the movie had survived — meaning, you never know when you make a movie if its opening is going to be the last you heard of it or it’s going to have a life after that — I was looking at it on television and it didn’t seem so weird or surreal. It stuck out less as something unusual. For that reason, people kept saying to me, “Maybe you should have put back what you took out.”

AP: Did you consciously want to put your stamp on the war movie?

Coppola: The Vietnam War was different than other American wars. It was a West Coast sensibility rather than an East Coast sensibility. In war movies before “Apocalypse,” there was always a sort of Brooklyn character, an East Coast and Midwest personality. In “Apocalypse Now,” it was LA and it was surfing and it was drugs and it was rock ‘n’ roll so it was more of a West Coast ambiance to the war. In addition, there were many sort of odd contradictions that related to the morality involved. There was a line I once read that’s not in the film but to me it sums up the meaning of the movie. It was: “We teach the boys to drop fire on people yet we won’t let them write the word ‘f---’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

Image result for apocalypse now coppola

AP: You’ve gone back and made changes to a number of your films. For you, is a film ever really finished?

Coppola: The only reason I’m in a position to go back and evaluate some of these decisions is because I own the film, which is the same reason George Lucas looks at some of his movies. Obviously most filmmakers don’t own their films and would not be permitted to change a cut. But the version that you open with, you’re very concerned that it will have some longevity. And so you may do things for the opening that you’d rather not do but you don’t want to risk a negative reception because a film that opens with a negative reception is dead. If you can get it to be a positive reception or even a qualified positive reception then it has a chance of surviving. If you look at all the films I made, only “The Godfather” was just a runaway creative hit. Most of the other films were highly qualified and that meant that I was trying to nurse them into persisting and surviving. Later on, since I own them, I very often decided to undo things that were pushed on me by distributors or people at the time, and do what I wanted to do.

AP: Eleanor Coppola, your wife, wrote in her “Notes” that you took on some of Kurtz’ megalomania while making “Apocalypse Now.”

Coppola: Whenever I made a movie, I was always personally compared to the main character. When I was doing “The Godfather,” I was Michael Corleone, Machiavellian and sly. When I made “Apocalypse Now,” I was the megalomaniac. When I made “Tucker,” I was the innovative entrepreneur. The truth of the matter is all my life if I have been anything I’ve been enthusiastic and imaginative. I don’t have talent that I wish I had. My talent was more enthusiasm and imagination and a kind of prescient sense, a sense of knowing what’s going to happens before it happens. Other than that, my talent is limited.

AP: A recent Film Comment essay lamented the film’s portrayal of the Vietnam as “a spectacular but soulless backdrop.”

Coppola: It would have been interesting and good if the movie had been made in Vietnam. But the truth of the matter is when we were making “Apocalypse Now,” the Vietnamese War was only winding down. We did not have access to going there. We were making it in the Philippines and although we did have some Vietnamese people with us, it wasn’t the same as making it in Vietnam which would have made it possible to give an impression of the Vietnamese people, who I have only the highest regard for. When you make a war film, it’s from one side unless it’s “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and you’re deliberately deciding to depict both sides equally. This film was specifically about these young California Americans participating in this war, and that was the lens this film was made through.

AP: Did you emerge from “Apocalypse Now” a different filmmaker?

Coppola: Yeah, but no more than I was after the extreme experience of the “Godfather” movie. Every film I have made has been a new sheet of paper. I rarely would repeat a style. Every movie I worked on, I came out of it being a different person.

AP: How did you feel after “Apocalypse Now”?

Coppola: I was terrified. For one thing, I was on the hook for the whole budget personally — that’s why I came to own it. In addition, in those days interest was over 25, 27%. So it looked as though, especially given the controversy and all the bogus articles being written about a movie that no one knew anything about but were predicting it was “the heralded mess” of that year, it looked as though I was never going to get out of the jeopardy I was in. I had kids, I was young. I had no family fortune behind me. I was scared stiff. It was no different after “Godfather.” ″Godfather” was a project I was constantly about to be fired from, that the studio hated what I was doing looked like. I didn’t think I was going to survive that. All of those movies, which were these monumental attempts at art, left me in a different place when I finished than when I started. But then it was followed by another one that was a similar challenge. I’m 80 now but from age 25 to 60, my life was one crisis after another.

AP: Do you think you thrive in that kind of tumultuous environment?

Coppola: When you attempt something that you don’t exactly know how to do but you still long to attempt it, you’re setting the stage for a certain style and struggle in life. Clearly if after I made the gangster movie that was successful, if I had just spent my entire career making gangster pictures, that would have been a more tranquil life. I wanted to learn. I realize now that one of my fundamental aspirations is learning. There’s nothing more pleasurable than learning something you don’t know how to do.

Image result for apocalypse now coppola

AP: Is going back to your films to get them just right for you part of preserving your legacy? Do you think about how you want you and your work to be remembered?

Coppola: I’m not so crazy about my legacy. I want people to know that I liked little kids and I was a good camp counselor when I was a camp counselor in 1957, that I have a family with wonderful children that I find so fascinating and very talented. But ultimately, to me, the greatest legacy you can have is that someone somewhere saw one of the things you did and it inspired them to do something that goes and then inspired someone else in the future. In a way, it’s a form of immortality.

AP: Today, most directors seeking the scale of “Apocalypse Now” would likely only find it in a superhero film. Do you sympathize with them?

Coppola: Absolutely. I feel now we have this bifurcated cinema in our country being of independent films where we have the most wonderful wealth of talent and then the industry films which are pretty much superhero films. One has too much money — the studio, Marvel comic-type movies. They’re basically making the same movie over and over again, and seducing all of the talent. Everyone is hoping to get a small part in one of those movies because that’s where the money is. And as opposed, the wonderful, unusual, exotic, interesting, provocative and beautiful independent films have no money. The budget for the craft service of one of those superhero films could more than be a budget for some of these brilliant young — and not only young — filmmakers. That is a tragedy.

AP: The long life your films have had can lead to strange places. Prosecutors want to show “The Godfather II” during Roger Stone’s trial . Donald Trump has cited it as one of his favorite films.

Coppola: The list of fans of the “Godfather” films not only includes the gentleman you speak of but also Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. Just go through all of the toughest dictators in the modern world and their favorite movie is “The Godfather.”

AP: What do you make of that?

Coppola: Because “The Godfather” is an American story of an immigrant family that ultimately finds success in America. Success is not a bad thing but it depends on how you define it. If you define success as wealth, influence, power and fame, you have to know that does not bring happiness. We could go through the famous top 1% who have all the things we just mentioned and you’ll find some of the most unhappy people on Earth. What brings happiness is friendship, learning, creativity. We know what brings happiness. But what are you going to do when every nation in the world is pointing its main objective toward something that does not add up?

The Greatest War Movie Ever Made

By Kyle Smith
August 10, 2019

Image result for apocalypse now final cut

The second-to-last comment made by Colonel Walter E. Kurtz is this: “Their commanders won’t allow them to write ‘F***’ on their airplanes because it’s obscene.” In Apocalypse Nowwe’ve seen a cavalry officer wipe out a village and call in a napalm strike to make a beach safe for surfing. We’ve seen the hero of the piece fatally shoot a badly wounded woman because he doesn’t want the hassle of bringing her to a hospital. Kurtz lives in an infernal empire of rotting corpses and severed heads. Words are obscene? War is obscene. Maybe one war in particular.
Regardless of whether that assertion is true, Apocalypse Now is a vision of fierce but controlled passion, grotesque and beautiful. If it ended at the 45-minute mark, after Colonel Kilgore extols the fragrance of a.m. napalm, it would still be the dean of all war movies, the sharpest and most haunting.
Apocalypse Now is returning to theaters August 15, exactly 40 years after its original release, and then being reissued in a “final cut” DVD. The original version ran 153 minutes, but after movie nerds started enthusing about the supposedly superior version containing “lost footage,” director Francis Ford Coppola delivered the sprawling Apocalypse Now Redux in 2002. He now says that version was “a little too long” at three hours and 22 minutes. Wrong: it was way too long. The “final cut” version is three hours and three minutes, and although some of the restored material is interesting, none of it is essential. The best cut remains the first theatrical release.
Still, seeing the film on a big screen, with a surround sound system, is an essential cinematic experience. Apocalypse Now builds a vision of war around paradoxes and incongruities and grueling ironies. It interrogates the whole business of war without being reductionist or trite. If anything is cliché about Apocalypse Now — and Coppola’s nephew Jason Schwartzman savagely parodied it as Max Fischer in Rushmore in 1998 — it’s because Coppola’s work created a standard. Along with the propaganda film Hearts and Minds (1974), possibly the most influential documentary ever made, it helped cement America’s sense of what the Vietnam War was, far more so than The Deer Hunter(whose fixation on Russian roulette has nothing to do with Vietnam) or Full Metal Jacket (which revels in caustic ironies but doesn’t go as deep). The moral compromises and blurred lines that attach to making war became especially associated with Vietnam, in large part due to this film and its vision of the conflict as a morass of iniquity through which one assassin chases another. “In Vietnam the s*** piled up so high you needed wings to stay above it,” says Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Willard lacks an angel’s wings. He’s killed at least six people, and those are just the ones who were close enough that he could feel their last breath.

The core of the brief against Kurtz (Marlon Brando’s portrayal is as brilliant as anything he ever did) is that he assassinated four highly placed South Vietnamese, one of them a woman and the other three leading officers for our allies. Yet Willard comes to believe Kurtz was correct to believe all four were double agents working for the Communists. And he has difficulty sorting out justified killing from the unlawful and immoral kind, musing in one of the movie’s many devastating observations that “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.” Veteran Vietnam correspondent Michael Herr contributed much of this material (Coppola and John Milius, who never served but became a military obsessive, wrote the rest). Kurtz is insane, but so is much else that we see through Willard’s eyes, from men surfing amid exploding ordnance to peasants getting shot because they reached for a puppy. Amid high-tech killing machines, one man is felled by a spear.
The film is a kind of symphony of clashing chords, opposing signifiers. Just as Jim Morrison’s velvety voice begins singing “The End,” the napalm cloud blossoms, its gorgeous orange masking unspeakable devastation. The sound editor Walter Murch brings us perhaps the cleverest aural pun in cinematic history: those frightening chopper blades turning into the harmless rotation of the ceiling fan, then back again. Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore harmonizes Wagner with bullets. The lush natural beauty of the Communist village, and the serenity of its white-clad schoolteachers, is set off by the ugliness of their hidden arsenal and the ferocity of their resistance, which culminates in a woman blowing up an American chopper. In its final moments the film turns the ritual slaughter of a beast into the ritual slaughter of a man.

Willard learns only when he is about to arrive at the compound where Kurtz is running a nauseatingly evil cult that the previous man sent to kill him became a disciple instead. Kurtz’s logic is seductive, like Satan’s. He wants to persuade Willard, or to be ended by him. To taunt him he throws the head of one of Willard’s soldiers in his lap. A late monologue invokes and accepts evil as the natural outcome of the war. Kurtz’s submission to evil is like a perverted baptism — he describes it as like being shot with a diamond. You have to have men who “kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment,” Kurtz says, because “it’s judgment that defeats us.” Kurtz thinks Willard has the right to kill him, but not to judge him.