Sunday, September 4, 2005

Charlie and the Death Factory

Apocalypse Now, of course, is the greatest movie ever made. It's also my favorite version of the Grail story. Though I have watched this film a zillion times and in every imaginable state of consciousness, for some inexplicable reason I put the DVD in the other night and ended up watching the whole thing. (NOT Redux--which, though it has a Kundry, isn't a hundredth the film that the original theatrical release is. Redux has basic shot-selection and editing problems that a first-year film student--never mind. It's valuable in the same way that the bootleg 5.5-hour work print of Apocalypse Now is valuable--the same way the facsimile edition of the manuscript of The Waste-Land is valuable...what's amazing is that Coppola was his own Ezra Pound for the original version of the film, staying up all night before the premiere, cutting and recutting.)

What struck me this time was:
  • what an astonishing job Vittorio Storaro did shooting the film. Every frame seems like something out of Caravaggio or Gustave Moreau--with some Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer thrown in to keep things interesting.
  • I had already been reflecting on the reasons that so many spiritual texts have war as their background. It's partly a metaphor of each person's inner struggle to evolve, but I think it's also the plain and simple message that, if these characters (Percival, Krishna and Arjuna, Moses and the Israelites, Captain Willard) can keep faith in the worst of circumstances--so can you, dear Reader, in your circumstances, whatever they may be.
  • I'd always uncritically assumed that the "waste land" in Apocalypse Now was the American psyche as revealed in the blindly vicious prosecution of the Vietnam War. And that's half right--this time, following the logic of the Grail story more closely, I saw that the more immediate waste land Willard must heal is Kurtz's broken family. He agrees to go and explain their husband/father to them in order to heal the ailing king, but to do so, he must lay down his weapons, giving up the last scrap of identity he has. He must force himself to see what he has drunk so hard not to see: the larger, impersonal coherence--a kind of obscene, brutal lyricism--underlying the chaos of the war and his own personal confusion. The real terror of Willard's Chapel Perilous is that this meaningless war has a meaning after all.
  • Interestingly, one of the first things we learn about Willard is that the war has shattered his own family, and herein lies the first of many ways he sees himself reflected in Kurtz. "Family," in all its dimensions, becomes in this film--that someone once called "the world's most expensive home movie"--at once the only refuge from war and its breeding ground: in Kurtz's and Willard's loss; in the terrible, heartrending sampan scene; in the cassette tape that plays as Clean dies; in the photographs from home we see so often; in the jocularly received mail-call newspaper detailing the Manson killings; in the tribal festival with its gory climax.
  • Thus, the farther the film takes us into the abyss of chaos and terror, the more it hints at some kind of inhuman yet lovely Order, some kind of lemniscate unifying love and violence, ecstasy and horror--like the spirals of smoke made by the Hueys over the Cong outpost... a truth completely nonsensical within any million miles of the warm, fuzzy certainties of patriotism, duty, love, truth, Nixon, The Cowsills, Billy Graham, and TV Guide. A meaning freed from personality--fear of death--lust for life--a meaning ever in the moment of motion, of whirl, of tang of blood...mine is yours is all the same.
  • [Is this what Susan Sontag called a "fascist aesthetic"?? Do I, in fact, "make a good--"...I can't write it. But I've always been haunted by the Horror and have known beyond doubt that true Evil exists, and that the fluffy-bunny/U2 responses do not do, do not do, anymore, nor ever did.]


  1. grigorss5:35 PM

    I think you would not a "good nazi" make; I know some people around my workplace that would, and what they all in have in common is an unshakeable belief that, regardless of what choices they make, it will all 'work out for the best in the long run'; there is no run that long nor cause so good that this could possibly be the case in any potential universe. You've always shown yourself to be cognizant of this fact, and if you've done some "questionable things", well, who hasn't? At least you do them with a clear head, something the Nazis never had; and that's what lead them to go too far (and to their eventual downfall).

  2. grigorss5:37 PM

    You've also inspired me to re-watch 'Apocalypse Now'. You Nazi . . .

  3. When I have the hours to really sit down and take a good look (especially now that we finally have a DVD player), this inspires me to rent and watch Apocalypse Now, too. I saw it only once, a long time ago.

    (Reading this post, I found myself thinking of a different movie, Platoon, and its use of Barber's Adagio for Strings -- that haunting juxtaposition of opposites.)