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Deconstructing Francis
Apocalypse Now and the End of the '70s
by Darren Haber

Success is a drug. It's like a woman: if you chase it, you won't get it ...

--Francis Coppola, as quoted by
wife Eleanor in Notes

It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.

--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness



A jungle held in long shot … the distorted echo of choppers, swarming like birds of prey … satanic vultures … a dreamy strumming, sexy in its coldness … and suddenly the jungle explodes, a firewall of smoke and flame, a silent conflagration as we hear only music … this is the end … beautiful friend, the end.… The moment is seductive in its horror, hypnotic. The destruction rivets us, slack-jawed, as we simultaneously recoil. It is senseless, it exists for itself, it has no assigned goal or purpose.… There may have once been a reason for it – maybe Charlie’s in the jungle or maybe he isn’t – but now it doesn’t matter: all motive and reason has evaporated in the hazy swamp, this vaporous no-man’s-land.…

| View explosion (animated) |
| Audio excerpt ("The End") |
[audio requires Real Player]

    Then a close-up of a man upside down. He is staring off into space … images of fire and flame, swarming in his head. Is he remembering or merely dreaming? Is this a wish? A prophecy? A nightmare of endless regret? Perhaps it is both reality and dream, the convergence of future and past in the mind’s vast spaces. The story unfolds in just this manner – as a dream, a fever dream of someone who having lived through the unspeakable now madly imagines it before our eyes. Was there a war, did anything happen, or is it only this man’s lonely nightmare?

| View Willard upside down |

(Can you picture … what will be…)

    It is 1976 when Francis Coppola makes the final decision to direct Apocalypse Now. George Lucas will not direct it. He will. He is flush after the success of the second Godfather movie, which proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he is the new king of Hollywood. And if a king can do anything, why not another epic? An epic about an era – our era. Because the war is over, the lefties have put Carter in office, the rumblings of the counterculture are fading … this counterculture, in fact, fast becoming culture, with the domination of rock music and Saturday Night Live and a long string of New Hollywood successes. An era is ending, the epic, American-sized cataclysm grinding to a halt. It takes a big man to make a big statement, sum up what we have lived through. And Coppola, the grand poobah of the New Hollywood, is just the man to do it.

(his ideas and methods became … unsound)

    A voiceover starts… Saigon. Shit. I'm still only in Saigon. This first 7 minutes of the movie, one of the greatest sequences of 70s cinema, is over, and the narrative begins to take form.
    And yet it is over before it has begun, since nothing matches the dizzying intensity of this opening – the explosions, choppers … our hero’s long night of howling madness. (Yes, he seems a bit off his rocker from the very start.) This is the movie’s greatest moment, this haunting sequence the summa of Coppola’s work post-Godfather, good as he gets after leaving Michael alone in his empty kingdom, it seems to say everything, the film could end here and we would all go home happy.…
    Yet the voiceover begins. A few things have to be explained. This is usually bad news for a movie, which more than anywhere is the land of show, don’t tell; voiceover is usually the first element to be parodied and the last to be added, as studio executives did when they saw a cut of Blade Runner and panicked.

| Audio excerpt (Willard monologue) |
[audio requires Real Player]

    This voiceover, added in post, comes off as a pallid imitation of a world-weary gumshoe, a ‘Nam-era Sam Spade. This is a man who knows too much, who has seen everything and wishes he hadn’t, knows that mankind is rotten at the core, that our contemporary morality is a stinking swamp. Yet unlike with Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, we never have a touch of humor, a moment of grim levity (however black), a wit which is always present in the best cynical noir. Without this dark humor, the cynicism on display here falls short of believability. It is this bleak gallows humor (as, for example, in Burroughs, Hubert Selby, John Huston, Sam Fuller, and so on) that makes the horror of the world even more credible. But there will be no wisecracking here. With Willard, it’s strictly business.

(They call me an assassin…)

    Willard is a lost soul right from the get-go. Unlike Spade or Marlowe, he will fall into a "mission" that is something of a chimera. His motive is not so much justice or vengeance but simply the need to escape his room. He needs a mission because he has nothing else to do. He is alone in that room, the walls closing in, in some godforsaken city, without purpose or reason. He is a slacker, a tramp from Beckett who happens to have dropped a lot of acid.
    He doesn’t know where he belongs – and, it is therefore implied, he has no idea where he is. He is displaced, fallen. He reports to us, grimly, that when he was in the jungle he dreamed about being in the city … and now that he’s in the city, he wants to be back in the jungle. In other words, he is neither here nor there … he is nowhere.
    The visuals suggest this; the voiceover hammers it home. Willard dreams of grand destruction, choppers and exploding jungles, visions which appear to drive him to madness, to the smashing of his own reflection. This is a nightly ritual, or an oft-repeated one (he has, we assume, indulgent neighbors). And yet he always awakes, sober, to sunlight, stewing in this memory of madness, fading fast, though this madness awaits him at the end of the day when darkness flares, a vicious cycle of anguish that never ends. In this sense, he is rather like Kierkegaard’s "Unhappiest Man," a man metaphysically displaced, removed from time, whose visions of the future echo the horror of the past … a man who anticipates the future yet whose future has become this enervating present. Thus dreaming of the future is futile, and instead of hope he sees more disappointment, this eternal anxiety.
    It is a cycle from which he can never escape – a punishment of sorts. Something in his life, we surmise, has left him forever tainted, stained him with a fatally disappointing insight into humanity, and into himself – such as, perhaps, an atrocity committed during wartime, a wide-scale horror in which he participated, an event which fatally robbed him of innocence…. His memories confounded by the light of hope, in his hope deceived by the shadows of memory (Kierkegaard). He sees ruin in all directions, smells napalm everywhere, drowning in death wherever he looks, from all angles and trajectories, a suffocation of shattered self-reflections, within which he dreams of an innocence he can never reclaim, a time which is vanishing even as he reaches for it. And in this sense, Willard has already told us the whole story. He has dreamt the whole movie, at the beginning is The End. He is already in both places at once, everywhere and nowhere. He is a man who has fallen out of time….
    The first seven minutes tell us this.… We don’t need to go any further, though of course we need to, this being a movie, a Hollywood movie.…

(Eleanor: It seemed Francis metaphorically lived every foot of the film he shot…)

    Coppola’s great achievement, which made him king of the New Hollywood, was to comprehend the tragedy that lurked behind the lust to rule – specifically, that naïve American lust that appears to us as "business as usual." His protagonist – his Oedipus – is Michael Corleone. (Harry Caul in The Conversation, while haunting and inspired, is but a lesser reflection of the Don.) The Godfather movies obsess on how our specifically American lust for power seduces the soul into its own corruption, how we plant the seeds of our own ruin and sow them little by little, until they grow into monstrous vines that strangle us. Our ruin later seems inevitable, chosen not by us but by fate, as though (looking back) the situation were really hopeless from the start.

| View Michael at the conclusion of The Godfather |

    Michael’s "free will" leads him, like Oedipus, into exile and isolation – a punishment for a tyrannical arrogance and the assumption of powers not meant for humans. His past is stored in the brain as a kind of knowledge – a kind of nightmare, the unhappy dream of the unhappiest man, who is ejected into the present, a nowheresville of isolation and haunted self-consciousness. Ignorance is bliss, and happy is the man who walks the corridors of life without shame, without this painful self-awareness, this sense that one’s "free choices" have led to exile!
    Michael knows something, he knows himself, in the images of himself, he knows that he has lost something essential, something beyond his family, which he destroyed with his own hand to, paradoxically, make it stronger. We see him there at the end of the movie in a kind of throne, in the middle of nowhere – haunted, lonely, silent … a man who dreams of an innocent past, his father’s birthday, his father being a king who is welcomed in a way that he now can never be. When his brothers rush to greet the father, off-camera, Michael stays at the table … and right there it seems he knows what’s coming. He can see his own doom written on the walls, he is a loner, in exile. It's only a matter of time before his future catches up with him.… In the end, he dreams the beginning … though perhaps there is some dim hope.… Perhaps he can avoid the Family, avoid fate, avoid this painful, eternal banishment.… An especially prophetic image for Coppola himself, as we shall see.

(badda-bing…all over your nice ivy-league suit!)

    Michael joins the army to avoid the sinister machinations of the Family, but like Death and Taxes (Ben Franklin missed one), Family cannot be avoided. That’s not me, Kay … ah but it is, Mikey, it is.… But do you think that the Family is evil, some soulless institution that spreads its infectious emptiness into the heart of our decent if confused protagonist? Coppola suggests otherwise. Young Michael is tempted to the dark side by doing what is "necessary" to protect his own, tossing in a suggestion to murder a rival thug and a policeman, nothing personal, only business – except he himself becomes the assassin … the executor of a horrid, unforgettable slaying.
    Once he has crossed that line there is no turning back. It is only a few short steps from here to the sadistic orgy of killing and betrayal … until at the very end his Family implodes, and out of "necessity" he is "forced" to slay his own brother … which is the end for Michael, of course, because after that the Family, like his soul, is no longer a garden but a weed-strewn backlot.
    In his end is his beginning – he begins by acting to save his family and ends by destroying it. The nightmare of power, Coppola so lucidly shows, lies precisely in this contradiction – that we cannot separate brutality from necessity. To make an omelette in this country you have to break a few eggs, that’s the Chicago way, it is part of our own intractable American perversity that when it comes to "business as usual" – in the Corleone family (or the studio system) – the violence seems beyond question, justified. To succeed we must all be murderers. The man in the white hat is a filthy lie, says Coppola, because to succeed we cannot be the good guy. We can only be Richard III.…
    And these movies, these successes, made Coppola the king of Hollywood. Hollywood, yes, that very Family he wanted to wipe out and replace with a kingdom of his own. Coppola had his own heart of darkness to contend with.…

(I’m with you, pop, I’m with you…)

    It is 1976, and the '70s are already evaporating. King Coppola wants to have the last word. His pals George and Steven are off playing with light-sabers and UFOs. They are not serious. They are comic-book. King Coppola wants art. It's up to him to put his Midas touch on the last Big Movie of the '70s, with its Big Subject – the Vietnam War, the one we lost. An era is ending and someone needs to say something. And he, the meistersinger of the New Hollywood, is just the man to say it.
    Except the project from the very beginning seems doomed. Curious, this. Coppola has directed two all-star epics and yet, right from the get-go, sallies straight into disaster.
    In the first place, what is the film about? It is based on a script by John Milius, which Coppola finds tainted with a kind of comic-book machismo, not much of it usable really, this script "loosely" based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though Milius himself downplays his source, perhaps because he has tried to do what even Orson Welles could not do – i.e., adapt the book – and perhaps because like Welles he discovered that some of the Great Books (most, actually) will not make the leap to celluloid.
    Coppola doesn’t have much of a skeleton to build on, not much of a foundation, but he decides to make the movie anyway. Already he is tempting fate. Let’s see what ya got, kid, he tells himself, making the bold decision to "recreate" Vietnam as a kind of psychedelic haunted house, within which Willard will wander in his desperate search for Kurtz. The filmmaker will take the journey with him, exploring that haunted labyrinth, in the blind hope that the "experience" will itself provide meaning. He will journey with Willard as a kind of modern-day Homer, the haunted house a maze leading (he prays) to Kurtz, the minotaur at the dark center – who will provide the final metaphor, the symbol of ultimate Evil, shedding light on the War’s evil, Kurtz revealing himself in his demonic glory as the prime dreamer of the war.…

| View Kurtz's first appearance |

    Immediately the film fails. It is a failure, it goes nowhere. Coppola, by using "Vietnam" as a skeleton, has already doomed himself. This is because this skeleton like the war itself is unfinished. He is trying to say the unsayable – namely, what the war was supposed to be about, which no one at that point is able to say. Its meanings are charged with an obscure ambiguity – unfocused, murky. There is no luxury of distance here, or perspective – the country is still recoiling from this failure and keeps averting its eyes.
    The failure must have appealed to Coppola. It lends the war an aura of high American tragedy. Our boys died for nothing, it seems, despite the noblest of our noble intentions. There is an evil lurking at the heart of this, a darkness which seduces the storyteller … namely, our arrogance at the start of the war, our indifference at the end, the fact that we didn’t even want to look at our soldiers when they returned, these boys who fought and died so miserably in the swamp. No ticker-tape for them – they were not Astronauts or apple-pie home-run hitters. ‘Nam was a failure we did not want to face but that Coppola will make us face, the evil of arrogant Government, these fathers who could not face their defeated sons.…
    But this is a Family without a face, perpetuating an evil that is, in a sense, transparent. Its goals are not defined, its temptations appear and reappear. It is not clear in which direction its seductions lie – and, moreover, it is not clear what we are trying to achieve or who we are fighting. We never even see Charlie, like we do the Tataglias, because he is so good at hiding in the swamp. And so out of frustration – our slighted arrogance, stupid American pride – we begin to bomb wherever we think he might be … destroying villages and villagers while blasting "Ride of the Valkyries" from the skies … high-tech Gods, out of control, bombing civilians, ripping young innocents in half.

| View the helicopters |
| Audio excerpt ("Ride of the Valkyries") |
[audio requires Real Player]

    Vietnam was called "the television war", and in that sense its meaning is truly postmodern in that it signifies meaning at the same time that it deconstructs it. It approaches meaning but never quite arrives. Its famously horrific events seem to erupt out of nowhere, from some shadowy nether-region of the mind, snapshots connected by a tenuous thread … My Lai, Hamburger Hill, Operation Breakfast, the Tet offensive … scattered drippings on a map, horror without origin.… As Colonel Harry Summers has said (who served in Vietnam and edits Vietnam magazine), "There is not one truth about Vietnam but a thousand truths" – a truth whose face, in other words, is invisible.
    One postmodern philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, has termed this invisibility "The Transparency of Evil," describing a phenomenon wherein our best intentions become our worst, not because we see through it but because it sees through us, moves through us and reverses our actions to produce the brutal opposite of what we intended. Thus a "police action" to keep the world safe from democracy begins honorably, if arrogantly, and leads to America’s un-finest hour. (And thus, later on, our wrenching "conscience" towards embattled Sarajevo – Baudrillard uses this example – becomes a vast muteness in the face of non-action, a statement of moral impotence.) This is said, of course, 25 years after the fact; Coppola lacked the luxury of perspective. At the time, he wanted to put a face on this uniquely American evil. He was searching for the face of the minotaur…

(Never get outta the boat … unless you are goin’ all the way)

    Coppola, in addition to these mythological tangles, was on the horns of several other more practical dilemmas. The location, for instance – a quagmire. Roger Corman warns him not to go to the Philippines. You’re going to get socked by the monsoons, he says. Don’t go to the jungle. Lucas urges him to leave only when he has a finished script. Coppola goes anyway, and the monsoons arrive right on schedule. The sets are destroyed, shooting delayed, most of the cast and crew are living in the swamp. This is a mixed blessing anyway because George is right: the script needs a lot of work. Coppola sits down at his typewriter, begins to realize the enormity of his project. He is not just making a movie – he is hunting the white whale.…
    That white whale is Kurtz, and his ocean is the war in the jungle. And, like the ocean, Vietnam’s meanings are fluid, nothing you can quite hold in your hand. Still Coppola persists. The movie will suggest the war, except the goals of the war like the subject of the film is elusive. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that the evil of the war is without a face.
    Coppola was already deep in quicksand.…

(I swallowed a bug…)

    The war itself is elusive – like some swamp-like animal it lurches, retreats, hides, slumbers, explodes and disappears.… It lacks the Aristotelean arc we had at that point come to expect from wars, the moral punch of the classic events – no Pearl Harbor, Normandy or Hiroshima here… Where are the stormtroopers? Where is the Red Baron? John Wayne wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to start. That is because, in this case, the enemy is invisible – on the battlefield, and at the heart of our own seedy motives.… Coppola didn’t seem to realize this until the quicksand was at his chin.
    But even then he reached for the grand gesture. He still wanted to finish the war for us, put it in some kind of perspective, arrive at the true nature of evil. He failed, but he failed spectacularly.
    Yes, but what a failure! It is mesmerizing, this failure, perhaps the most hypnotic of all possible failures. The boldness of this failure, in fact, almost warrants it a success. But it is still a failure – because of the sour turn of the story – not just the movie but the context of the movie, the meta-movie … the movie of the life of its grand creator, the audacious spellbinder and ringleader of the New Hollywood, the gifted and doomed Francis Coppola…



(I don’t see any method at all … sir…)

It takes the documentary, Hearts of Darkness, to complete the movie, the meta-movie about the rise and fall of the audacious spellbinder. The production, the recreation of Vietnam, is for Coppola what the war itself is for Willard, a blue-screen backdrop upon which he can project all of his raving technicolor mishigoss.

| View Francis Coppola from Hearts of Darkness |

    A comi-tragic carnivale emerges in the documentary, something wondrous strange … burnishing this production itself with the aura of legend. The documentarians attempt to do what Coppola could not do, namely nail the right bracket to history – if not Vietnam, then the movie about Vietnam…spinning the story of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors going over the edge in the Philippines. The documentary is even better than the film because it restores the movie to a human scale, tells the story of concrete Coppola, and not shadowy Willard.… We end up with a better snapshot of the howling storm that swept Coppola into the void. Yet it is not quite enough because most of the drama is hidden, invisible. The real drama takes place in Coppola’s head.

(I took the mission… What else was I gonna do?)

    Coppola is after big fish here. He is gambling quite a bit on the hope that he will find Kurtz at the center of the psychedelic funhouse … the swampy labyrinth of Vietnam. Kurtz is Coppola’s white whale, and the filmmaker is sailing the maze, wagering that he will find his Monstro – the shadow of evil that lingers in the soul, not only the evil of unchecked power but – it is implied, as the PBR sails past the Do Long Bridge and heads into unmarked territory – of mankind itself.
    It is an ambitious bet (perhaps too much so). It goes beyond the usual Hollywood casino-game that filmmakers and studios play with each other, the game of time and money, the chips doled out by the house as meagerly as possible, the tiresome arm-wrestling over how many chips are allowed and for how long they might be kept (although, in any event, the House always wins). This game hardly interests him; he tosses his chips in the air with a contemptuous flourish. He throws in his own chips, raising the stakes, betting his own bank account, his house, the future of his family. This is his game, not the studio’s. He pushes himself to the verge of one bankruptcy after another, all for another spin of the wheel.NOTE 1 All these chips are immaterial, they are mere fishbait for the grand leviathan that he is trying to snare.
    But then suddenly … he disappears, and this is not the game, there is no game. The production like the war stops, lurches, retreats, hides, explodes.… Something sinister is afoot here.… Our captain may have lost his mind. It seems Francis doesn’t want to play. He wants out, to abdicate the captain’s chair to someone, anyone, though he can never do so because it is his hunt, his mission. He himself has built the walls of this funhouse. He hides in hotel rooms, swims in clouds of marijuana smoke, burrows into the laps of Playboy bunnies….
    The ship is drifting into the weeds, the boat rudderless. Chaos reigns, and no one is in charge. One crew member compares the production to the sequence at the Do Long Bridge. Who’s in charge here? Ain’t you? The cast is stoned, the crew malarial, all are exhausted, the studio wants its product and the impish press is starting to call the movie Apocalypse When?

| View Do Long Bridge |

    When, indeed? For something grim is happening to Francis. His psychology is unraveling, leading him further and further into dark, unmapped corners of the funhouse. He’s nuts. He’s losing it. But what exactly is happening? He spews questions to his wife Ellie – in between confessions of his infidelities – over just what he is doing, what the rules and boundaries of this game are, whether the game even exists, whether the specters in the funhouse are real or imagined. No one can say but him, of course, no person can hire a mercenary to slay those inner demons (no mercenary, no therapist or doctor…), we all must bear the weight of the sword.
    But Francis isn’t in the mood, even though he’s $20 million in and his rampaging ego is stomping on everything in its path. The pressure builds, the skein loosening. Suddenly his lead actor has a heart attack (!)… The journey ends, the funhouse walls cave in and collapse, and Coppola has an all-out epileptic seizure. The apocalypse is at hand, he moans, and I am the devil. Foaming at the mouth, banging his head against the wall, he mutters that Lucas will have to finish the movie (sans Wookie, he hopes). But then Coppola recovers, and within days, he is back in the captain’s seat, unleashing the same chaos all over again.NOTE 2
    This journey seems never to lead to discovery, only anguish. Coppola is the king of pain. His pain … tragic in intensity, comic in origin – since he himself is the architect of this funhouse. It is of his own making and therefore all the more dangerous. How could he have led himself to the brink?
    Yet he seems tempted by this very edge, which he winks at, skates away from. He is a neurotic Ahab, infantile and kingly – a man crying out for resolution, an escape from the corner he has painted himself into … though he himself holds the brush. He has written the rules for a game that, it seems, can only end painfully. And, actually, if we look at his decisions in miniature: his unpreparedness, his disorganization, his unrealistic budget, his unmanageable location and constant disappearing acts and marijuana binges, crazy behavior conducted under his watchful artist’s eye.… If we lay these things out like props on a carpenter’s table, we see that they come to resemble nails and a hammer and long planks of wood, as though he is building not a ship but a cross, as though he is in search of his own crucifixion….NOTE 3

(Ellie: All of Francis’s scripts … are about things he is in the process of working out within himself, rather than from things he has resolved and can be detached and objective about.…)

    It has come to light in recent years that Coppola had epic-sized ambivalence toward the success of the Godfather movies – that he felt these commercial successes were in some ways a betrayal of the purer, more artistic career he’d always envisioned for himself. Before the first installment of the Corleone saga, he imagined himself – as did his friend George Lucas, curiously – an "experimental" filmmaker, one whose duty was to discover a more "personal" vision, a man who would make Jules and Jim, in other words, not The Greatest Show on Earth. (History had surprises in store for both of them.) The Godfather came to him almost arbitrarily, handed down to him from Bob Evans after a number of other directors passed. Coppola didn’t want to do it, felt the material was beneath him, though he needed the money and, in the end, Paramount made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. (Lucas helped talk him into it.) It was a mission, in other words, and for his sins he accepted.

(I drink more wine than I used to…)

    Success is a funny thing in Hollywood. It is seductive, intoxicating, and highly contradictory. Because despite all the hard work, the blood and sweat, it often carries a sense of randomness. Projects fall into your lap out of the blue, a director is fired and you are hired (or vice-versa) and suddenly you find yourself sitting on a great script. Or maybe it only seems great but has a hundred hidden problems, or it seems problematic but somehow comes together anyway. No one knows anything, to quote screenwriter William Goldman, and success is the product of chance as often as it is talent. This does not satisfy the ego.
    The ego is challenged by the very nature of film productions – which are intensely chaotic and collaborative by design. The question often arises as to who is truly responsible for a film’s success – who, in other words, is really the "star" of the movie: the director or the writer, the producer or the cast, the editor or the hot DP. Who was responsible for the success of Chinatown? Nicholson or Polanski? Polanski or Robert Towne? (Correct answer: all of the above.) What about Dog Day Afternoon or Midnight Cowboy? The script or the star, the director or editor? (Ditto.) Oftentimes there is no definitive answer, yet the ego, encouraged by a culture that pathologically prizes "stars," rushes in frantically to find the spotlight.
    Francis Ford Coppola was an ambitious and, let’s face it, incredibly vain young man, a burgeoning director caught in the vice-like seduction of the auteur theory (where each director had to do it all or else he could not be in the club and was, he came to fear, most probably a hack). These questions feed the ego’s appetite like a black hole in the brain.
    Coppola wondered, after the success of Godfather I, if this success was indeed a fluke, if Brando were perhaps responsible, or Gordon Willis, or maybe Puzo or Pacino, or maybe though very probably not him. He did enjoy this success, in his usual worldly fashion, gorging on women, cars, and houses … even as the void widened. It started to speak to him, asking if he were truly an artiste. Because he did not originate the material, it was Puzo’s pulp novel he adapted, so wasn’t he merely a parrot of another’s ideas, not the true Creator he yearned to be? Never mind that there are worse fates than being a parrot – that Hitchcock, for one, was not a writer, and even great writers like John Huston and Billy Wilder and Kurosawa regularly collaborated. But that was then, this is now. It’s the early '70s and an aura of auteurism hangs stubbornly in the air, the noxious notion of "director as rock star" blossoming like a poison cloud … and Coppola – who painfully failed to win an Oscar for The Godfather – still has a vast emptiness to fill.
    He decides to make Godfather II, but should he have made it? He felt the call to do these more "personal" movies, get away from big studio successes to do "smaller," European-type pieces … so why didn’t he? Because his appetite like his ambition is protean, it will take quite a lot to fill that widening mouth.… The hole is hungry now and the Godfather of Paramount, Charlie Bludhorn, dangles a million bucks in front of him, which our hero grabs and gulps in one fell swallow.
    You say anyone is a fool not to take the money? I suppose. Though I think that this money and worldly success was also a toxin that did him in.
    Anyway, the temptation is too great. It will always be too great. You always take the money. This apple is the toxin that will continue to pollute all rebels who get that first perfumey head-rush of worldly success. And Coppola bites that particular fruit, plucked from the Hollywood orchard. He bursts forward once again and goes beyond Puzo, generates his own material, his own design.… This time he wants to prove he is truly an auteur, standing above his contemporaries, ruling with a masterly hand…
    Which he does, in spades. He succeeds again, brilliantly, and this success is so intoxicating that it nearly puts him in a coma. Peter Biskind, in his terrific Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, reports that after this success, "no other figure, not even Welles at his most grandiose, or Spielberg at his height, enjoyed the wild acclaim bestowed upon him.… His ego exploded."
    And yet something is still wrong. He is dogged by a feeling of hollowness. He surrounds himself with flunkies and groupies of all stripe, the more adoring the better, as his wife goes ignored, her loyalty flaunted in the face of his numerous affairs, though he can do no wrong in the eyes of his idolaters. His methods are … unsound, although he nurtures his role as God, knowing he is only an impersonator. Yet he persists, recklessly … out of loneliness, out of arrogance – clever Coppola knows this worship is shadow-puppetry but proceeds anyway … begging, in a way, for punishment … or at least resolution… an end to the thrashing of his split, secluded heart.

* * *

Stories are like prophecy: they often have a strange clairvoyant quality, a dream-like vision that, in the flow of time, slowly mutates into fact. Life reflects art, and certainly Sophocles’ tale about the blinded king seems to foretell Western civilization. Oedipus’s unchecked arrogance will forever be a warning sign, from the palace at Thebes to the Titanic. (Jim Cameron, are you listening?) It is a lesson we never learn, a Sisphysean rock that always returns to crush us. In an artist, this punishment, this blinding, amounts to a kind of silence…

(I do renounce him …)

    Coppola saw it coming. He knew the contradiction, knew the Hollywood game he was playing, understood it might split him apart the way it tore apart Michael. Only a man who intuitively understood something about the divisive effects of this corrosive success could have placed Michael at the altar, standing godfather to his nephew while sanctioning murder.NOTE 4

| View Michael at the baptism of his nephew |

    Michael is Ivan Karamazov with a gun, an assassin winking at God. The more power and control he exerts to protect the Family, the more he loses what he is protecting. Michael is a snake eating his own tail, giving birth to an empty shell. I do renounce him, he says, referring to Satan, winking at God while carrying out the devil’s work, as success – in this realm, the nocturnal realm, the dream realm – becomes the parabolic opposite of that which occurs in daylight: success here is a descent downwards … a willing dip into the void.…
    This is why, in the Godfather saga, the tragedy is really tragic. It lacks the giddiness, the folk-hero mythos of Penn and Ashby and Rafelson. The montages that close parts 1 and 2 are haunting and horrendous to watch. It's impossible to forget Mo Greene taking it in the eye … or the man and wife slayed by spraying tommy-guns … the woman’s mouth contorted by a wrenching anguish, the pain of someone unfairly having to die.NOTE 5 Or, at the end of part 2, the grotesque parade of slaughter that ends in Fredo’s death, with Michael watching in the window – isolated, removed, small… as the filmmaker whispers in our ear with the proper gloom… this is Michael, your hero … here is this empty and polluted man, this conniving, lying, successful Corleone.…

| View the murder of Mo Greene |

    Coppola goes beyond the usual '70s underdog mind-set, abandons "us vs. them." Instead he indicts all of us across the scale … shows us these massacres, not so much a catharsis as a punishment we will all share in together. This fable carries a bitter sting because we too are part of this world, a system that triumphs the corrosive values of Michael Corleone and (by implication) the Hollywood spellbinder.

(What are you gonna do, Mike, wipe everybody out?)

    Michael the son had become the father, and he flourished … until the means of his success destroyed him from within. And Coppola, in his search for independence from the "old ways of Hollywood," achieved the wildest Hollywood success and embraced it, slowly interiorizing a void.
    It is the same void that Michael confronts at the end of part 2, as he sits in his desolate throne, paralyzed by self-knowledge, having unmasked his own emptiness. He knew the impossible price of power, the cost of playing God. To imitate God, to swell ourselves on that mirage-like fullness is, paradoxically, to become empty. To chase a shadow is to become one. As the great E.M. Cioran says (in his essay "The Fall Out of Time"), Self knowledge always costs too much.… Once we have penetrated someone, the best he can do is disappear.
    Coppola was, after the Godfather movies, not quite at the point of disappearing, but he was already close. (He realized this later.) The more he puffed himself up, the more he shrank into his shell. His success fed a bottomless desire, gorging on an emptiness that swelled his belly until (as we shall see) he literally exploded with nothingness…
    Should he have made the Godfather movies? He could never escape their success. Success at that point is like drowning in honey. It has an embalming effect. The only possible move would have been to have done something truly bohemian, for Francis to have said "screw success" and played by his own rules. But he could not do this. He could never escape the Studios – because, like the Family, they kept pullin’ him back in.… When all was said and done, he chose to reside not in the artistic slums of the Left Bank but in in self-designed, expensive palaces, to wander in the power corridors of Burbank and Studio City while yearning for the freedom of the ghetto. It is the Hamlet syndrome yet again: only one person can wear the crown (the poet or the Godfather) … though at any rate it always turns into a crown of thorns…

(I do renounce him…)

    Oh wicked success! Once you make a successful film, you are inextricably tied to it, defined by it. Blockbusters are like liquid nitrogen – they freeze you in history, in time. Coppola himself says, "I will always be the man who directed The Godfather."
    He realized this after the second Godfather movie and saw the danger of becoming embalmed in the past … and so he dreamed of being master of the future, by making a brilliant film about the present, about Vietnam…
    But this itself is a fatal contradiction. Because Vietnam, as we have seen, is a present that does not exist.… It is a reflection of an ambition that ends in ruin, a desire that leads to doom, future and past caving in on each other. The jungle like Willard’s mission is a chimera – so Francis, don’t go! You can’t win! He knows this. He goes anyway.
    Coppola was about to lose the big gamble…



(There is an exhilaration of power in the face of losing everything…)

It seems to have dawned on Coppola halfway through the production that he was in deep trouble (he expressed as much to his wife). He had a glimmer, like Oedipus, of "where he was in calamity." This foreshadowing concerned the end-point of his journey, which did not exist and might not exist, because he could not envision an ending for the film.
    He couldn’t see an ending because he couldn’t see a Kurtz. His white whale was out of focus, blurry … because Kurtz was right next to him in the mirror. Coppola himself, drunk with power and success, had become that power-mad King he sought to critique. He had become a Hollywood-ized Charles Manson with sunglasses, champagne and cigars, not to mention the frothing cult of followers, hanging on to every word of his prophecies of cinema. He spoke of a grand future, as the current project slipped through his fingers. The present was smiling back at him from the mirror.
    Kurtz also had much in common with Willard (who himself is another reflection of Coppola). These two are nearly identical, both tainted by the same homicidal instincts, the same noirish seeing-through of the world’s hypocrisy. With this in common, they have nothing to teach each other. They share the same pair of eyes – and in the mirror see only a look but not a face. Coppola, alarmed, responds by freighting them with so much symbolism, manically sketching in the margins, that their portraits are harried and blurred. He imposes a "seriousness" on them that erases the absurd reality and has the effect of rendering them invisible.
    Still, it is too late to turn back, and Coppola needs a Kurtz (almost any Kurtz will do). But Kurtz has been puffed up so far into the mythical that he no longer resembles anything human.

(It’s bigger than I thought … just bigger…)

    There is no way out, no escape hatch, the game is up and Coppola knows it. You can hear it in his voice. In the documentary, his voice grows edgier as production-days mount behind him like corpses. He knows he is sailing toward something far from wisdom … not the Alexandrian Library but the Devil’s Triangle. Since he cannot (or will not) find Kurtz, the dark heart of his movie contains … nothing. Or rather, a nothingness. A vast, amorphous, epically expensive nothingness at that.
    Failure at this point appears inevitable, except – and ay laddie, here’s the rub – he still wants to succeed! Who doesn’t? He still has his ego to contend with, to say nothing of all of those chips piled up in front of him. He has bet the whole enchilada. Too much is at stake to walk away from the table. But he wants to. But he can’t. But he wants to. But he cannot, and cannot afford the self-punishment he so desperately craves but doesn’t want. The contradictions caved in on him. Coppola imploded.

(It must be a temptation to…be God…)

    His soul, crushed on all sides by contradiction, became the battlefield for a virtual civil war. Howling at his own self-confinement, he lashed out, shattered his own reflection, became a clashing kaleidoscope of selves. If ‘Nam was "the war of a thousand truths," then here was the movie of a thousand Coppolas, none of whom were willing to compromise: the artiste wants a tone-poem, the showman demands a blockbuster. The film will be both experiment and grand entertainment – "in the tradition of Irwin Allen" but with the soul of Rimbaud. It is poetic, it is entertaining, it is absurd, and it is poignant. But what is it?
    Whatever it is is drowning in an oversaturation of meaning … blanketed by meaning … elusive … vanishing. When he talks in the documentary of "all these different levels," what he means is all these different Coppolas… all of whom desire a different movie, all of whom lead an army of one, all on different missions of their own devise … wandering solo in the labyrinth: colliding, bumping into each other, collapsing, getting up again, cursing and hugging and trying to slit each other’s throats all at once.… Coppola’s Big Statement was mutating into the mirror scene from Duck Soup, a reflection disintegrating into countless discordant reflections, shimmering facets of a huge, glittery nothingness…

(we had too much equipment, too much money…)

    This, as you can imagine, grows exhausting, and the spellbinder is wearing himself out. Despite what is happening in his head, he still appears to the world, still rises in the morning as one person … one worldly reflection which will be judged a success or a failure.
    But this journey has led to the edge of the abyss. It takes great energy to fight that abyss – which pulls like a magnet, tempts with the vast orgasmic crush of finality … to struggle to hoist sail and maneuver upstream … before you allow the current to drag you back to the edge again. He is tired, his crew is tired, he must finish the film.
    What if, he asks himself, I go over?
    This appears as the last hope – that he might go careening over, howling spectacularly before snuffing out. It shines like a light in his skull, this idea … through the haze of pot and napalm and Morrison. What if I go over? It sounds insane, yes, but isn’t that the point?
    This word, "insane", is something he lights upon like a holy beacon. (A word he repeats often in the documentary.) He is playing a dangerous game here, in flirting with insanity, but perhaps insanity is an experience which you must experience to know. Perhaps the Truth will rise from the ashes … the other side of the looking glass. That’s where Kurtz lives, he intuits – not here, in this mundane earthly reality … but there, on the other side, living among the shadows of the dead.… There is Kurtz, and there is the ending: the endpoint of that descending cone of darkness. Coppola is going all the way.

(Willard: Trouble is, I’d been back home, and I knew it just didn’t exist anymore…)

    To try and make the Grand Statement this way is not merely to tempt the Furies but to throw yourself directly at their feet. It is to risk everything, and Coppola – judging from what he lost, the toll it took on him – really did risk everything. Regardless of what we are tempted to call him, and there are many things to call him, he didn’t flinch when it came time for the big wager. He was reckless, yes, and courageous … though it is the misguidedness of this courage that lends a Quixote-like quality to the tale: the tale of the grand spellbinder, feverishly chasing a windmill that will turn out to be his last.… And he does charge after it, at full gallop, ready to hurtle over the edge.
    Except the distance between here and the edge keeps expanding. There is always a little more to go. He lopes after it, exhausted, like one of Beckett’s narrators. He can’t go on but he’ll go on because he still has to finish the damn movie. He rushes toward the void as the void shifts again, sending Coppola into a brick-wall. Like the bull from the Bugs Bunny cartoon, he shakes it off, charges forward again, and within moments is again seeing stars.

(Guys, I don’t have the movie yet…)

    His search fades from madness to the absurd. The highly-touted "insanity" he has bet so much on is, in the end, unconvincing. It fails to convince. In the first place, because Willard is crazy from the beginning, and where can we go from here? He is an assassin before he meets Kurtz, in shooting a helpless peasant girl (the movie’s most horrific killing) … in addition to standing witness to countless destruction. He doesn’t care about what he sees. He only has his mission to complete, at any cost … though this too is madness, an insanity transparent to Coppola.

| View Willard on the boat |

    Anyway the insanity he is pursuing is, in fact, impossible to show on film. The best way to discover this sort of brilliant lunacy is in the lunatic scribblings of the insane (or maybe on the Jerry Springer show). Often this scribbling is not heated, but cold … not in the sense of the detached, calculating homicide of Hannibal Lecter (the seductive cruelty Coppola wants) … but something staid, dull, repetitive. Not a metaphysical snuff film, but something like a montage of repeating fragments, countless slivers from countless infomercials, pieces of banal pop jingles stitched together and replayed ad nauseum … an endless nightmare of banality, the normal acceptance of which is itself insane.
    This is the madness Coppola doesn’t want, and gets … the direction in which we are suddenly all heading at the end of the decade: disconnection … fragments of sentences but never a phrase … not so much a babbling which brooks great meaning, but an impending catatonia … which for a filmmaker is like losing his voice … a blindness.

(Cioran: The real vertigo is the absence of madness)

    The great joke is on Coppola because he gets what he asks for, but not what he wants. The Furies are in the mood for a bit of cruelty and serve him up an insanity served not piping-hot but bone cold. It is a plate so frozen that his tongue sticks to it. It is still stuck. This "insanity", this end-point of the project, turns out to be a Medusa that freezes him forever.
    This Medusa takes a familiar form. It wears a mask that, like the Trojan Horse, slips easily through our defenses: Not the cool face of Evil, but the bored face of a movie star … not that hypnotic, seductive sadism … nor, in the end, a wild ride of insanity … but, instead, the Wild One himself, 40 years later. Yes, at his end is his beginning, and here returning to Coppola is the original Corleone – a kinder, gentler version, to be sure. And the Don, as ever, likes not to shout but to mumble. And he will punish us for our blind worship by mumbling through the finale. This is how the Grand Statement ends: not with a bang but a whisper…

(Remember, he’s the traitor…)

    Coppola fought hard for Brando, paid him a king’s ransom for a couple weeks’ work, went through all sorts of trouble to accommodate him – including setting up his own private houseboat, which the crew had to carry over a mountain by hand … and yet Brando famously knows nothing about the story, has read neither script nor Conrad, and keeps asking Coppola the most banal sort of questions. (For instance, Why was Willard in a boat?) Brando knows nothing and can do nothing for Coppola. He is but a detour on Coppola’s grand voyage to exile.
    Another irony lurks here in that Brando – as Kurtz dimly reflects Willard – distortedly reflects Coppola. His decadence is not the metaphysical wasteland Coppola dreamed for Kurtz but rather the banal material success lived by Brando. Both deliver up a sort of rich man’s evil: a mind-game in the jungle, speculation in shadow, nothing you can put your hands around. Gentlemen, the evil is right under your noses! Evil need not be a flash of cruelty – it can merely be an acquiescence, a rubber-stamp, a quick change of the channel, a shrug. (All of which Willard has passed through casually, sloughing off countless horrors in the midst of his Grand Search.) This evil, however, like Coppola’s desired Truth, remains transparent. Kurtz arrives, and Coppola gazes so intensely at him that he sees right through. This ironic invisibility is the gift-wrapping on Coppola’s final present from the Furies, this shrink-wrapped, hypnotic nothingness that paralyzes him.
    Yet he must finish the film … he must by all means finish the film … yet it’s getting late in the fourth quarter. Coppola spends precious hours upon hours reading Joseph Conrad out loud to Marlon Brando, bedtime reading for the Don, helping him to process what he was too lazy to read on the plane. Brando was Coppola’s safety-net; Ellie writes, Francis knows Brando will be great – but he is not great, not prepared; given Brando’s own comments, he is not even there. And so Francis’s swan-dive into the void turns into a resounding belly-flop.
    The actor himself says, in his book Songs My Mother Taught Me, that I was good at bullshitting Francis, and persuading him to think my way, and he bought it, but what I’d really wanted from the beginning was to find a way to make my part smaller so that I wouldn’t have to work as hard. (Don’t worry, Marlon, you’ll still get your millions.) Still, he is asked to dig deep, to improvise … and one of the most painful comic spectacles of Hearts of Darkness is the "jazzy improv" of Brando and Coppola attempting to arrive at a single usable aphorism for Kurtz.NOTE 6 They search in the haystack for a needle of truth, some Nietzchean gem that might burnish some meaning onto this deteriorating story. But the gods once again have the last laugh, as Kurtz’s most memorable line is one from an outtake – "I swallowed a bug." Kurtz winces, his face contorted. This is how the '70s end: not with a bang but a blooper. Within a couple of months Coppola is on Lithium.

(Cioran: There is a certain mystery in downfall…)

    It is a fate worthy of Ionesco – for here is a man who for 18 months has announced that he is on the verge of profound proclamation … and then raises the curtain on himself and, after a few flashy diversions, mildly announces that the show is over. The audience stands and mills quietly to the door, stunned with disappointment. The storyteller is stuck onstage … mute … with nothing more to say.
    This, truly, is the horror. Because he finishes the movie as the movie finishes him. It trails off, leaving its creator stuck in silence, for good. He utters a few phrases from hereon in … a few brilliant ones to be sure, parts of Rumble Fish and Tucker and Dracula (nice costumes) inspire and then fade just as quickly … though mostly what we get are not statements so much as grunts. Now, of course, he is reduced to adapting John Grisham novels, his ambition emaciated, embalmed in catatonia….NOTE 7

(Sophocles: Any greatness in human life brings doom…)

    In one sense the movie, when it was finally released, had already become irrelevant. Time had run out on Coppola: the buzzer on the era had already sounded. It sounded, actually, when the counterculture seized the reins of culture and made itself irrelevant, starting in ‘75. Saturday Night Live, for instance, became mainstream and parodized seriousness … and did it so brilliantly that seriousness disappeared. By 1979, parody was already heavily in the air; gone is the reverence that the movie needs to have impact. Kurtz, after all that build-up, comes off as John Belushi’s parody of the Don, and we are more ready to laugh than brood. And Vietnam, the "TV war", is fast on its way to becoming one of several relativized installments on The History Channel (together with the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the election of Ronald Reagan). Its images, exhausting, are themselves becoming exhausted. Besides, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home have already stolen its thunder, won their lion’s share of awards, despite the fact that these movies, however moving, are but Polaroid snapshots in light of the epic mural that Coppola desired. Apocalypse was to be his "Guernica." It is a stunning mural, at first, but in time it dissolves – like the history it reflects – in dissipation…

* * *

At the end of the movie Willard’s face is superimposed in darkness as the boat trails off in the background … as though he is once again preparing for sleep. And his sleep will be ours, the dreamless sleep of the '80s: out of the psychedelic haze comes a revamped John Wayne projected by lasers … our new President, a retooled image of the macho cowboy. The counterculture has been absorbed like a tremor: within seconds, it seems, the New Hollywood is over and "high concept" is rolling forward, flattening narrative to make room for a high-tech, corporatized cultural landscape which makes no room for ambition save those of the marketplace.NOTE 8

| View the final image from Apocalypse Now |

    Thus by 1979 Coppola has fallen not only out of time but out of context. He has nothing to say and no stage on which to say it. He will remain, after all is said and done, the guy who made the Godfather movies in the early '70s … frozen in the past … exiled from the present … a man who has fallen out of time.
    Cioran calls this exile, this frozen-ness, an "inverted eternity" … a present that refuses to budge despite the soul’s exertions. It is rather like having an active mind caged in a frozen body, a metaphysical paraplegia. This is hell, a recurring monotony that leads no further than itself, a maze that always deposits you in the same listless present. Here, on this patch of frozen ground, un-self-conscious productivity is the Garden of Eden … the ongoing present, a sterile silence.
    It was a fate of Coppola’s own making and yet it wasn’t, and within that contradiction lies the tragedy. Cioran, again: A man who seeks to be more than he is will not cease to be less. But that he ended up with so much less seems like a sadistic prank. He did, after all, attempt nothing less than a movie about Vietnam … about history and the evil need for domination. But in Coppola’s attempt to reflect the nothingness of history, history (cruel jokester) inverted the mirror to reflect the nothingness of Coppola.
    Apocalypse Now is, in its way, the first postmodern movie about nothing … or rather, an exploration of the nothingness at the heart of itself. But it is different in that it still has a bit of content, before all of culture like History evaporates, and turns to recycled simulation … and America becomes a machine churning out spectacular fever-dreams that are empty at the core.
    Movies … our national dreams … are forever different from now on, as a kind of recycled nothingness becomes the main subject of Hollywood. Until the time, roughly, of Apocalypse Now, movies could be simulated images of history, a simulation of a world that we could assume existed beyond the soundstage … until images began to dominate history, and history itself became that simulation. We can mark the Reagan era "A.C.": After Coppola, where simulation overtakes history, to the point where both have now conflated. (See, for example, the Gulf War.) We live in a culture of the Xerox without the original, signifier and signified having imploded in a single stream of recycling, a cannibalization of history … as Oliver Stone now "presents" the '60s and Steven Spielberg "presents" slave-liberation and the Holocaust. A recent book, The Making of Schindler’s List contains a photo insert wherein images from History – the real Schindler, the real Amon Goeth and Schindler Jews – blend seamlessly into Spielberg’s simulations of same. Apocalypse Now is one of the first of the virtual era to so flagrantly blur this distinction … our film was Vietnam … it was a grand voyage over the border, into that realm where historical reality, human reality (the very stuff of art and poetry), is forever obscured by electronic mediation. Reality is now virtual-reality’s identical twin. Both are two-dimensional, interchangeable: time, even, has been terminated with extreme prejudice and now seems to exist only in the virtual. Coppola broached that border with dazzling Hollywood flair – and, like the historical, evaporated.

(Cioran: Every form of sterility and impotence participates in hell…)

    In this light, Coppola’s sin seems forgivable. His arrogance and cruelty still pluck when we read of it, but it did come back to haunt him. Apocalypse Now was a game he lost from the start, the deck so loaded against him. He played but he didn’t play because it was a rigged game, a virtual game with (demonically) real consequences. He lost his voice, his vision … in other words, everything, the worst possible punishment for the audacious spellbinder. (He certainly landed on the wrong side of the laugh.) Now, of course, he directs adaptations of John Grisham novels, his ambition all but emaciated.
    How sad for all of us who love film, love stories, that we lost the great spellbinder and his whole stomping horde. We lack those outspoken rebels when we most need them … here in our current malaise, this ongoing "sterility of meaning" and aimlessness of narrative that has become so unbearable. Isn’t there a chance for regeneration? After all, even the blinded king returned to triumph on that small patch of soil … even those fickle gods gave him a second chance. Can’t we hope for the resurrection of at least one of the old guard, if only for one story, one film.… Mightn’t Rafelson or Friedkin or Coppola resurrect before the final curtain for one last shot at glory, a howl, a yelp that might wake us from this stultifying dreamless dream? Mightn’t they somehow stumble, by the Gods’ good graces, into their Colonus, their redemption?

Darren Haber is a writer living in Los Angeles. He writes screenplays, fiction, and essays. He is currently writing a film script about a Buddhist monk who comes to Hollywood.