By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com
Ebertfest Dispatch: Apocalypse Now, Revisited in More Way Than One
I tend to hit the point at every film festival where I need some quiet time away from the theater and the chatter of people talking about movies to just decompress and process my own thoughts a bit, and today at Ebertfest I hit that wall of needing some down time. So, much as I wanted to catch Departures, instead I’m sitting in Aroma, this lovely coffee shop down the street from the Virginia Theater, by myself at a quiet table with only my laptop and some swingy old standards playing over the sound system for company, and it’s lovely to pause a moment and have some space and catch my breath.
I think I’m especially feeling the need for some downtime today because I’m still recovering from last night’s three-hour-plus screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux. Every film critic (well, at least those with whom I’m personally acquainted) has some gap in their personal film-watching checklist, and this was one of mine. I last saw Apocalypse Now when I was 11 years old (Yeah, I know … my dad also took me to Alien and Coma, what can I say? But it’s part of what made me love movies, being exposed to those films). Now, I lacked both the context and intellectual development at 11 to fully appreciate Coppola’s film, but for some reason my exposure to it at that age has made me reluctant in my adult life to, well, revisit it. Until now.
So when I saw that Roger had programmed Redux on the slate, I was trepidatious. In fact, I came very close to not staying for the screening at all; I got there early to snag a seat and get some work done, and as it got closer to screening time I started feeling claustrophobic, almost panic-attacky (no, that’s not a real word or medical term, but work with me here). My chest felt tight. Maybe I had another pulmonary embolism, I thought hopefully (that this thought even crossed my mind at all should tell you how emotionally reactive I was to even seeing this film at all, n’est-ce pas?).
I started making more excuses to myself for why I should leave. I was tired. I had a headache. I was hungry. I wasn’t really up for a three-and-a-half hour film. Who really needs to see Apocalypse Now Redux, anyhow? So I got up and left, paced around outside like a nervous cat, had a cigarette, paced some more, then finally paced my way back into the theater where, as if Fate itself had preordained it, the aisle seat I had chosen previously (all the better to bolt surreptitiously if I found myself bored or overwhelmed) was miraculously still open. Sigh. Alright, Fate. I sat down and mentally buckled my seatbelt.
I’m so glad I stayed, and so glad that I saw Apocalypse Now Redux at this gorgeous old theater, with its huge screen and great sound, and with a crowd of enthusiastic movie-goers along for the ride with me to virutally hold my hand.
As the marvelously vivid images flew across the screen at me for over three hours, I was absorbed in the film, the story of Captain Willard, of course, and his journey to find the insane Colonel Kurtz and fulfill his mission. But other thoughts flitted across my brain as well. For one thing, I finally realized last night that certain recurring images that have populated the dreamscape of my nightmares for years have been born of images burned into my subconscious by this film 30 years ago. I never realized until last night where they came from, and they were right there bigger than life on that big screen, and I thought, holy geez, is THAT where that came from?
I was drawn to Martin Sheen’s crazy-brilliant performance as Captain Willard, and I thought, my God, that man can act. I watched Dennis Hopper as the photojournalist and realized that Woody Harrelson these days reminds me a lot of a younger Dennis Hopper. All of them — Sheen, Hopper, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne … there they are, forever captured in this film in their youth and glory and blazing acting brilliance, forever and ever, amen. I love that who they were then, what their characters stood for, and most of all this slice of what things were like then — the scent of napalm that wafted through the air all the way from Vietnam to middle America and shook things to the core — lives on forever in Coppola’s vivid imagining of war and Americana merged into this remarkable film.
As the colors from the screen painted a watercolor wash over the heads of the audience in front of me, I was struck again, perhaps more than I ever have been, by how the Ebertfest audience tends to skew a bit older than a lot of fests. And what hit me the most, watching this film with that crowd was this: I have never been to war, or served in the military, or seen a man blown to pieces next to me, or watched a village burn as little children, women, men, scream and run and fight for their lives. And if these scenes have this much emotional impact on sheltered, priveliged me, how must it feel to be watching this film as a veteran of Vietman, or Korea, or World War 2? To watch those scenes and be reliving, in your head, your own techicolor memories of the grim reality of war and death, accompanied by Coppola’s hypnotic imagery and rock-and-roll soundtrack? I think, if I had ever fought in a war, that I could not watch this film without tears rolling down my cheeks.
I could do without the French plantation scene (that was a good time to step out and call and check on the kids) and the Playboy Bunny business — sorry, but I think any attempt to paint a feminist label on that bit is an exercise in creatively stretching one’s imagination and intellect. Beyond that, I thought the first 2/3 or so of the film are brilliant, but I enjoyed the “journey” part of the film much more than the “Island of Doctor Moreau” vibe once Willard gets to Kurtz. I know it probably seems a travesty to say I think the last act of the film has a little too much Brando, to the point of redunancy and a sense of Coppolla being overindulgent in feeding the audience so much Brando for the sake of Brando, but there it is.
Still, the film overall was an amazingly visceral, almost overwhelming experience. As the closing credits rolled, I strolled outside; the film left me with an almost post-coital sense of being simultaneously wired and exhausted, overwrought and tingly and in need of a moment to collect myself. Outside the Virginia Theater, five or six other smokers were out there, with the same blissed-out look on their faces as they inhaled and exhaled, and the non-smokers were walking around dazed, stargazing, or talking excitedly over the details of this or that shot with friends.
This, my friends, whether you love Apocalypse Now Redux or hate it, is cinematic bliss, and everything that makes movies — and a fest like Ebertfest or any smaller fest worthwhile. This opportunity: to see a film like Apocalypse Now Redux in a theater like the Virginia, with such a crowd, is the stuff of which once-in-a-lifetime memories are made.