Rapid Response: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Gene Siskel would always ask, “Is this film more interesting than a documentary about how it was made?”

Such has been the guiding logic with “Hearts of Darkness,” a documentary on the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” The production hell this film went through is still unrivaled in terms of sheer difficulty and complexity, and some would argue (see: recent episode of “Community”) that the telling of such an immense story actually surpasses Coppola’s masterpiece. “Hearts of Darkness” stands for the same themes of surreal unpredictability and radical change of perspective that “Apocalypse” is about, and it is mystifying and immersive in the way it engages us with such powerful, conflicting emotions.

And yet, you likely couldn’t make a documentary as interesting as this if the subsequent film weren’t also fairly interesting. The Coppola we see has mixed feelings about his film, viewing it as a potential masterpiece with ambitions that are so great and tell so much, and yet he knows that achieving such a vision on film is virtually impossible. Almost never throughout the course of filming is Coppola completely satisfied with his actors, his sets or his own words. He hates the ending most of all, and he said as much at Cannes. Here he calls it too macho an ending, and something closer to the novel would have been more appropriate.

But he never quits in filming. The artwork is done in the process, and it is a never ending process. The art doesn’t stop when the cameras cut. Anyone working that tirelessly and following along with the art at every stage of its development could drive a person insane. But he boldly asserts that you must act as if you are going forward and finishing whatever you’ve claimed, even if it turns into a vanity project that only answers questions for you. They’ll call it pretentious, and that’s what all filmmakers fear, but if it can’t even answer questions for him, then what good is it?

Coppola’s experience in the woods and swamps of the Philippines to make his Vietnam War epic changed his worldview, but perhaps the finished product of his film never answered the questions he sought. Thankfully, “Apocalypse Now” is hardly pretentious.

Director Fax Behr constructs a story from Eleanor Coppola’s documentary footage that truly gets at Francis’s psychological complexity. It’s a chronological retelling of the over 200 days they spent filming, beginning with the origins of “Heart of Darkness” as a film. Orson Welles wanted Joseph Conrad’s novel to be his first film. When the budget was too vast, he made “Citizen Kane” instead.

Coppola tried again before making “The Godfather,” but no studio wanted to deal with the ties to Vietnam. The script was again shelved for years. But after the success of both “Godfather” films, he had directorial freedom and financed $13 million himself. After 10 days of filming, he made the first hard choice and fired his then lead actor, Harvey Keitel, replacing him with Martin Sheen. Sheen was so much his character that it altered his personality. He later suffered from a severe heart attack and was read his Last Rites by a non-English speaking priest.

Coppola also juggled a collaboration with the Philippine military, his $1 million contract with an overweight, difficult and unprepared Marlon Brando, a typhoon that killed 200 local residents and the construction of a massive temple with the help of hundreds. The Gods seemed to be against this film, and Coppola’s hubris flied in his undying defiance to it all.

He really does not come across as entirely rational or sympathetic here. His requirements for a scene inside a luxuriously dream like French home (later cut from the theatrical version, but now available on Redux) sound petty when he requires that red wine be served at 58 degrees, and when all of the things that would make it perfect are not met, he shows his true personal anger and frustration.

“Hearts of Darkness’s” behind the scenes moments are so evocative of “Apocalypse Now,” such as in the caribou slaughter scene or in the infamous shot of a flair being shot high into the dark sky, and yet some of it can seem self-indulgent, complex and vague without meaning or direction. These feelings are perversions of themselves. They conflict at every turn, and so do the ambitions of “Apocalypse Now.” It’s a miracle of embattled ideas and personalities.

What’s impossible to now know is the media firestorm that circled around this project in the 1970s. Today, news would have spread much quicker, been much more fierce and may have killed the project sooner, but Coppola’s fiasco was unheard of. He was not a David Lean, Alfred Hitchcock or Cecil B. Demille. He was a new kid on the block, even if he had won Oscars just before, and this smacked of pretension beyond any.

This film also helped spread misleading rumors about the “actual ending” to the film, in which it is believed that in another version, Kurtz’s entire complex explodes. A still of this image exists in the credits of “Apocalypse Now,” and this film has marvelous footage of the actual set being demolished, but it was merely a necessity captured on film and not scripted.

“Apocalypse Now” is a masterpiece. It is one of my all-time favorites, but could it really be were it not for all this struggle? Often it is true that from great pain or great passion springs great art, and “Hearts of Darkness” embodies all the love and rage that went into this miracle of cinema.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

James Dean’s character in “Rebel Without a Cause” is desperately searching for a type of masculinity he can actually relate to. What’s ironic about the film is that James Dean himself, along with Marlon Brando, expressed a new idea of masculinity in Hollywood actors.

And suddenly after Dean’s tragic death, “Rebel Without a Cause” spoke to America’s teenagers in a way Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne were no longer reaching them.

Nicholas Ray’s film tells the story of a teenager struggling to fit in at a new school and being forced to prove himself at every turn. We meet Jim Stark (Dean) as little more than a kid at play, awkwardly and drunkenly playing with a monkey wind up toy until he’s hauled into the police office.

His high-pitched voice and peculiar mannerisms seem to channel a different kind of masculinity from the get go, and he attracts the attention of two students, the orphan Plato (Sal Mineo) and the popular Judy (Natalie Wood), who is trying to feel closer to her distant father as she blossoms into womanhood. All of them confused by the emotions they’re feeling and the rigid catering and rules of their parents, their actions hinge on reckless but their reasons are hopelessly vague.

“Gotta do something,” Jim’s rival Buzz says to him before their Chicken Run to prove who’s the bigger man. The meaningless social rules of masculinity have turned teenagers against one another and forced them all into becoming rebels.

“Rebel Without a Cause” plays on these paradoxes to the point that the ending outcome comes across as bitter and pointless, even after Jim, Judy and Plato have all briefly lived a touching nuclear family fantasy that gives them a taste of the masculinity they’ve been missing.

The film remains very attentive to the many different angles at which a human being can feel diminished. Almost always is Jim framed at a high angle over his father, looking down at him at how little masculinity he seems to represent.

One of the film’s most powerful scenes takes place on a stairwell with Jim sandwiched between his parents in a canted angle shot. The cinematic technique is obvious, but the pathos provided by Dean’s performance is immense.

It also squanders the characters during a trip to a planetarium. The stars tower over the kids as an old man recites the truth that Earth is a miniscule part of a universe that won’t notice when we’re gone. With education like this, no wonder the kids feel conflicted and unimportant.

Dean only starred in three films in his career, and “Rebel Without a Cause,” his second to be released after Elia Kazan’s “East of Eden,” was also his first posthumous role. “Rebel” became a cult film as the legend of Dean began to blossom, and it wasn’t long before every kid on the block wanted one of Jim Stark’s bright red jackets.

But the film was even loosely intended to be a cult, exploitation film for teens in the same spirit of Brando’s “The Wild One.” The massive CinemaScope aspect ratio and vibrant colors is more suited for a lush Western than a teen drama, but the film even tacks on a couple of extended action set pieces, including a knife fight, a drag race and a shootout, that do little more than make use of the soon outdated technology. Today, some of these sequences, along with a few other light-hearted moments in between, are notoriously dated.

Dean’s mannerisms and presence as a fashion icon cemented him as a pivotal male figure in the early ‘50s, paving the way for the rise of Brando and Method Acting, the French New Wave, Elvis and the abandonment of Old Hollywood altogether. The kids watching “Rebel Without a Cause” in the ‘50s would be the young adults in the ‘60s making counter culture fare like “The Graduate,” and although the two films are drastically different, you can almost see the natural progression from Jim Stark to Benjamin Braddock.

Young people watching “Rebel Without a Cause” may giggle more than they feel the movie resonating with them on a personal level, but this remains a touching and influential American film.

Rapid Response: The Godfather

Of course I could’ve written a full Classics piece on “The Godfather.” I could write a book on “The Godfather.”

Except I can’t write a book on “The Godfather.” There’s too much I simply do not know, too many people who have seen the film more than I have and will serve as a better expert on one of the greatest films ever made. There are non-film critics who are more familiar with “The Godfather” than I am.

And yet it is impossible not to be familiar with Francis Ford Coppola’s film. No film this critically acclaimed (it sits at #2 on the AFI Top 100 and #4 on the Sight and Sound poll) is also this widely popular and beloved (it also sits at #2 on the IMDB Top 250). I had watched the film mere months ago, and there was not a moment of the sprawling three hour epic, not even just the iconic deaths and dramatic scenes that have been copied to death, that I could not visualize. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Godfather”

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Martin Sheen said about “Apocalypse Now” that if he knew then all that he would have to deal with over the agonizing 16 month shoot, one that sent him through the Philippine jungle and back and gave him a heart attack along the way, he would have never agreed to it. Today, he has no regrets, because I would imagine that not he, nor any critic on Earth, would think about Sheen having a heart attack while watching this masterpiece of cinema.

Francis Ford Coppola’s film is easily the best of the Vietnam War movies, and in my book one of the best of all time. To watch “Apocalypse Now” is to become immersed and dragged deeper into the horror that is war all while remaining distant, confused and utterly hopeless at the idea of ever fully understanding violence. Continue reading “Apocalypse Now (1979)”