Thoughts On: Apocalypse Now (1979)
Another Vietnam war film masterpiece – this time from Francis Ford Coppola.
A true pleasure to re-watch and re-watch and re-watch, Apocalypse Now is, as absolutely anyone could tell you, a pure masterpiece. Like Full Metal Jacket, it isn’t what many would think of as a ‘true’ or ‘traditional’ war film as bombs, guns and explosions aren’t the focus. This is a highly thematic and, in parts, experimental film that uses impressionistic cinematic language and sound design as well as a deeply subtextual narrative to explore ideas of ultimate human power and control. Because of this, Apocalypse Now is a movie you appreciate more and more given time, repeated re-visits and consideration.
However, as with the recent post on Full Metal Jacket, I won’t be delving into this subtext because we’ve done this already. What we’ll be talking about today is the futile, almost nihilistic, structure of this film that sees Willard unknowingly trawl up a river to discover his true conflict and goal – that being to confront Kurtz as a man that has rebelled against the U.S army and positioned himself as a God amongst the natives in the Cambodian jungle.
This kind of structure is very common in movies and is tantamount to an anti-climax or twist ending. In short, the ending in Apocalypse Now is very much like that in Fight Club, 500 Days Of Summer and Citizen Kane. A quick warning, if you’ve not seen these films, firstly, what’s wrong with you? Secondly, spoilers…
In Fight Club, there’s the plot’s ending, the end of The Narrator’s character arc and the true ending. The plot’s end is simply the realisation that Tyler and The Narrator are the same person. This is fun and makes for a nice twist that you may gasp at if you’ve never seen the film. But, the more complex end of The Narrator’s character arc is his confrontation of Tyler and so sees his developed will to overcome his hatred for the world. This will lead you to think that this is a film that serves as commentary on consumerism, the modern day man, such and so on. These are definitely elements of Fight Club, but if this is all you see, I think you miss the point of the movie. The true, subtextual ending of Fight Club is The Narrator holding Marla’s hand. This is a film about fear and a lack of a place in the world, and the ending solidifies this.
What you’ll be picking up on if you’ve read a lot of posts on the blog is that we’re appealing to the idea of 3 plot lines. This idea sees movies in three lights: in accordance to its plot, character arc and subtext. It’s the last subtextual plot line that I see as the true material of movies as it uncovers the intention of the writer, director and narrative. Subtext is meaning, is the intention for telling a story, and if a writer/director doesn’t simply mean to entertain, then subtext is, in essence, truth. This is what we’ll continue to delve into with 500 Days Of Summer…
The ending of this film is Tom meeting Autumn. This signifies the end of the plot as Tom’s search for a partner. This also represents the end of his character arc as a person who is unsatisfied with his job and afraid or unwilling to pursue what he thinks will make him happy. The true subtextual ending of this movie, however, is the implication that Tom is likely to repeat some of (a lot of?) the things that he did wrong throughout the narrative with Summer. Instead of simply making a definitive turn-around, Tom is shown as a slowly growing human that is moving into a new, but possibly repetitive, chapter of his life. The ending of this film is then a question of Tom’s romanticism.
Citizen Kane. Plot ending: the journalists’ failed endeavour to uncover what Rosebud means. Character ending: the revelation of Kane as a man that never got over a simple past. True ending: a solipsistic perspective is taken on who Kane really is; with his death comes the loss of all real answers as to who he is as a man; he no longer exists and so his story no longer does either, we can only infer what that is and who he was with our own personal inferences.
What we see in these three examples is a type of story that essentially sees best friends, two polar characters, realise that they actually loved each other all along. A good example of this is Clueless…
Cher and Josh start as ironic friends/step-siblings that put up with, rip on and playfully insult each other. But, of course, they end up realising that opposites sometimes attract and that they bounce off each other pretty well (despite the brother-sister thing). This revelatory structure is then, as said, very common, but has many differing applications – which brings us back to…
The plot of Apocalypse Now is simply getting up the river, infiltrating Kurtz’s camp and killing him. On this journey, Willard realises that he doesn’t fit into the world of war, nor the civilised structure of society. This character arc contributes to the ultimate message of the film which is on the utter chaos of human structuring, organisation and control. In seeing this, Willard is given perspective on what humanity really means in a wider sense; that we are a mere spec in a chaotic universe. As cliched as this is, it is poignant because ‘we are a mere spec’ or ‘we are insignificant’ are words we’ve all listened to, an idea we’ve all heard, but a concept that very few of us truly fathom or have realised through experience. And we do get to vicariously perceive something close to this by taking Willard’s journey with him.
And this idea of vicarious realisation that is the crux of this essay. The point of this kind of structure, whether it be in Clueless, Citizen Kane or Apocalypse Now, is by and for and audience. It is so easy to say something like ‘we are insignificant’, but how do you make someone feel this without sending them to war and up a river, into hell, to kill their distorted reflection in a broken mirror?
This is a question all writers or artists ask when they look at their story because it’s far too easy to say that ‘this happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens’.
We all tell and hear stories like this when we’re asked how our day went when we get home – things as banal as, ‘I went up a river on a boat’. The thing about these stories though is that… they’re not always very captivating. If it wasn’t a friend or loved one telling us them, I’m sure we’d refuse to hear them. But, this kind of story telling can be raised into viable entertainment with more fantastical events – like, ‘I went up a river in a boat… in a warzone’. More effectively, however, character can inject so much quality into a story.
Even if you’re telling the most banal of stories, by inserting vibrant and interesting characters into this – putting a compelling, captivating person on that boat – your story will evolve incredibly. This is because you are essentially putting the listener into the story; your great character becomes a vessel for them. What this says about story telling is that it is tantamount to learning. After all, why do we watch what we watch? Why do people need to keep up with the Kardashians?
The easy answer is that it’s entertaining, that it’s dumb, that we get to turn our brains off and relax. (Self-defensive side note: I don’t watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians). However, what I see to be a better answer is that, when you watch this show, you are engaging in an ape-like ceremony where we judge and gawk at the alpha and the elite. The same can be said for sports.
The alpha and the elite perform for us to marvel at; they put on a show for us to compare ourselves to and ‘learn’ from. And this seems to be the evolutionary need for entertainment of this kind: to vicariously learn. We can look at powerful women with millions, huge asses and great make-up and we can wish to imitate them or fantasise that we are like them. In the same sense, we can watch warriors go to war for town, state and country, lost in awe as we tell ourselves that they’re on our side and that ‘we are winning’. Simultaneously however, you may look to the powerful women and see sluts that live vapid lives with fake asses and someone else’s millions or dumbass jocks, roided to the gills, throwing themselves against other morons just to put a ball at one end of a pitch for millions of undeserved dollars that they’ll waste away before paying for their endless inevitable medical bills. In this rather pessimistic, calloused and negative light, you learn (somewhat masochistically) what not to be from these people, shows or games. So, coming back to this…
Characters in stories are the people that we learn from through imitation, reflection and observation. This is entertaining in the same sense that learning about insects, cars, fashion or the stars is interesting; you are gathering knowledge that you find valuable and useful. But, there’s something we’re missing. Who is teaching the lesson and how?
If we do not like the way that the events and characters are conveyed, or if they’re shown to us in a way we simply do not understand, then the entire story beyond them goes out of the window. This is where subtext and meaning then come into the picture.
Within movies, it is primarily the writer and director’s job to frame both character and plot in a manner that we not only understand, but resonate or empathise with. There’s two approaches to this understanding between audience and artist. The first is showing us what the story is like or similar to. For example, Coppola shows us that Willard is like us because he is a soldier in a system, because he gets frustrated, depressed, confused and ultimately tempted. Many storytellers will take this approach as their focus. A good example of this would be Spiderman…
Filmmakers that take on comic book movies almost always appeal to the double identity, specifically, the more human side of a superhero. I’ve moaned about this before with an idea of an overly Human Cinema that sacrifices fantasy for identification, but it is simply there so that all of the cool shit that someone like Spiderman can do is given weight and made to seem like the average teen could be in that situation. As implied, I think there are flaws to this, but, there is a second approach.
To make an audience understand your story, you can attempt to show them what the narrative isn’t or isn’t like. We see these in the movies mentioned in the beginning. Films like Clueless, Fight Club, Citizen Kane and Apocalypse Now all indulge an easy reading of a story that conforms to expectation. In Clueless, we see a ditsy broad look for love, in Fight Club, we see a fight club form, in Citizen Kane, we are shown intimate details of Charles Foster Kane, in Apocalypse Now, we are put into hell. However, all of these movies, with their ends, say that ‘this isn’t enough’, that ‘this isn’t all that this story is’. In such, Clueless has us see that Cher isn’t so dumb, Fight Club shows us the romance and humanity in a terrorist, Citizen Kane reveals that the essence of a man can’t be put into a news article, Apocalypse Now demonstrates how hell on Earth manifests and how we may find ourselves there.
There are more intricate means that a story told through differences is constructed throughout Apocalypse Now (like the distance we’re held from Willard and his back story), but it is leaning on this approach that Coppola is able to introduce an idea of nuance. In such, with his structure, he allows us to think we grip his story, only to flip it on its elbow and task us with changing our views as to keep up with him. And it’s this that I believe is the crux of this formal approach to story. With vicarious revelation, there is the opportunity to not only experience a story and world that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, but also gain a nuanced perspective on this new experience that maybe changes the way you see the world when you step out of the cinema.
So, to conclude, a film like Apocalypse Now is so poignant because it has an approach to narrative that, a) has an anti-climax or revelatory ending, b) relies on subtext and meaning, and, c) has the audience immersed in the world of story to the point that they intuitively understand and feel the subtextual meaning. And all of this suggests something about what makes this movie a masterpiece; it transcends simplistic story telling and becomes something so visceral that it almost seems like a tangible experience.
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