On Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness

X-posted here.

[Errata: My bad; it's been brought to my attention that Eleanor Coppola did not direct Hearts of Darkness. Not changing my blog post.]

Shhhh! Don't tell anyone I had not previously seen Eleanor Coppola's Hearts of Darkness until yesterday evening at Sunny [Vergara]'s, though I had previously read sections of her book, Notes, while in the thick of writing Poeta en San Francisco. For those of you not in the know, this was E. Coppola's documentary on the making of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

We open abruptly with F. Coppola speaking at a podium: "It's not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam."

Um, no, you arrogant fuck.

This is Vietnam.

Then the camera is rolling, as E. Coppola films F. Coppola manic like Dennis Hopper's photographer character; F. Coppola is flailing his hands about, shirtless and revealing his jiggling, furry man-boobs, ranting about creating a work of cinematic art that is vulgar, "actionful," and "senso-ramic." This was reminiscent of Hopper's character, sitting outside of Martin Sheen's/Willard's bamboo cage, fanatic ranting about Colonel Kurtz being a kind man, a wise man, that he had plans....

Apocalypse Now

Let me not get into synopsis mode here. What I wanted to say is this: I have feared that when I finally came around to watching Hearts of Darkness, that I would realize I missed something so crucial to the writing of my book, and that this omission of whatever crucial element would forever nag at me. Well, I am relieved to report this was not the case, that E. Coppola's film confirmed much of what I had already read in her Notes, in film critic reviews, what I could surmise or conclude from so many viewings of the original and the redux versions of the film, from Oscar Campomanes' post-colonial literature lectures during my undergrad, from conversations with Sunny when he was one of my grad thesis advisors.

And actually, one of the reasons why I did not finish reading her book, and why I never watched the documentary had to do with something I think Oscar Campomanes told us in lecture. In addition to the obvious toll on the countryside, from pyrotechnics and all, and on the Ifugao people who were brought in as stand-in's for the Montagnard people, the Philippine military personnel and equipment which F. Coppola secured use of via negotiations with the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the local populations who became the workers (at 1 - 3 US dollars per day per worker, one of the film producers says, "I hope we weren't taking advantage."), Professor Campomanes told us of local prostitution, including child prostitution, finding an abundant market in Coppola's film crew/personnel.

There was no mention of the local prostitution industry in Hearts of Darkness, and while I believe it was more than likely, film crews getting their R&R this way, really, I can see how E. Coppola would omit this from the documentary, for I think it's some of the more unsavory elements of the American excess, arrogance, self-indulgence which characterize their admitted bad behavior in the Philippines and in making this apparent grand anti-war statement. "There were too many of us in the jungle. We had access to too much money. We went crazy," F. Coppola says, almost proudly. Like the American soldiers in the Vietnam War, F. Coppola and the gang, in embodying WC Williams' "Pure products of America go crazy," truly believe they have created a film that "is Vietnam."

"They think they can take my helicopters, and do whatever they want with them," F. Coppola is again ranting, as the Philippine military helicopters are called away to deal with rebel/insurgents elsewhere in the islands. We see these choppers break off, when Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries is blasting from Colonel Kilgore's Air Cavalry Division descent and assault upon the village they bomb to Kingdom Come. MY helicopters.

So in the midst of all this open contrition, no one of the film crew, the actors, not Francis nor Eleanor, really seems to communicate genuine regret.

Laurence Fishburne tells us that the purpose of his role as Mr. Clean was that American kid who didn't know anything about anything. But there he was, killing and dying in an American war. I think Fishburne might have been the only one to say anything that wasn't self indulgent and self-aggrandizing. Leave it to the man who played Furious Styles.

Sam Bottoms (Lance, the surfer boy) says of the filming, yeah I dropped acid, yeah I did speed, smoked a lot of marijuana. I was going for a certain effect. I was bad then.

For justification of their bad behavior, they refer to Joseph Conrad and the darkness of the jungle, and the darkness of their souls as an unavoidable effect, as something necessary to tap into in order to make this work of genius. These black souls just are, and something of which Coppola seems mighty proud.

(I haven't even mentioned here the Marlon Brando part of the documentary, speaking of F. Coppola going crazy.)


Susan said...

BJR--when I was recently teaching your book to undergrads, we watched the scene in Apocalypse Now that centers around the phrase "Charlie don't surf." The most perceptive reaction was that "the movie was very funny, like Catch-22, but I'm desensitized to violence so that didn't affect me much." It's a hard nut to crack. I'll send on this postlude to them.

barbara jane said...

Hey Susan, thanks for this. I am thinking that a general "American" POV/being desensitized to violence and war would be the characters of Lance the surfer boy and Clean (L. Fishburne). That "Charlie don't surf" scene is pretty funny, in its being totally f*cked up.

Susan said...

Yes, though I haven't seen the whole movie since the 1970s(!), I can see that the desensitized viewer is himself built into the movie.

I brought a Khmer Rouge survivor in to talk about his experiences (we're reading Corpse Watching by Sarith Peou), and the students found that he told his story "too gently." We had a good discussion of ways in which to approach horror via humor and objectification, and ways in which to protect one's audience. But it seems impossible not to have the mediation of the story get in the way of the event itself. Obviously, I'm saying nothing new, but the teaching always brings it home.

Perhaps the perfect moment in AN is when the director is shown ordering his actor troops into battle.