Cinemax, in a wonderful bit of programming, is airing Apocalypse Now Redux, the extended cut of Francis Ford Coppola's flawless 1979 Vietnam War epic. It's a top three film of all time, entering the top two on any given day, flip-flopping with A Clockwork Orange for the reigning-champ slot. All three-and-a-half hours, impossible to turn off once its begun, impressive in infinite ways during every single frame.
The first time I saw Apocalypse Now was in its "redux" form. Super late to the game, and I'm somewhat ashamed to say that the only reason I saw it at that time (early into the Fall semester of my sophomore year at college, late-2001) was because the film class I was taking required me to do so. Professor Brady (a great man, who just so happened to be a large, dead ringer for Col. Sanders...."Something must be wrong with his madula oblangada!"), aware that Redux was playing for a limited time in a Dolby Surround Sound theater in the heart of Times Square, made seeing Apocalypse Now Redux our weekly homework assignment.
So I went with my friend/classmate Alex on an especially-frigid October evening, the wind blowing and howling into freezing bursts of face-punishing air. We bought our tickets, filed into the theater. Noticed that we made up the theater's entire population, a cool Two In Attendance. Of course, we sat many-a-seat away from each other, completely ignorant to the head-smashing experience that was about to rear its profound head. The movie started, the sounds blaring in crisp-force that would've made an IMAX screen jealous. And as the film progressed, I found myself lost in a seriously-warped mindstate. Obviously, I'm way too much of a spring chicken to have any clue as to what being in Vietnam felt like, but it's nearly impossible to not feel a certain "I'm actually there" sensation while watching Apocalypse Now, especially while seated in a dark, lonely cinema.
Coppola should forever be held atop a shrine for the feats he accomplished. Visually, every scene in the film feels brutally authentic, honest. Acting-wise, there's not a one even-teetering-on-mediocre performance in the lot, from the topliners (Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Laurence Fishburne) down to the nameless soldier who when asked by Sheen's "Captain Willard," "Hey, who's in charge here?" devastatingly responds in a panic: "Ain't you!?"
I won't delve too deeply into the technical astonishments of the film here, mainly because the film holds a much more personal meaning to me. There couldn't have been a better time for me to have seen Apocalypse Now for the first time than that nippy October night back in '01. Take a second to think back to what had just gone down at that time: 9/11. Being a New York City college student, the mood of fear, paranoia, an uncertainty sparked by those Twin Towers attacks held us all in a vice-grip for months. The strongest of fears I felt at that time was the potential "Army draft" that was ready to be reinstated. I love this country, sure, but fuck no; no way I wanted to go fight in any war, let alone one in enigmatic Iraq. How savage is the fighting over there? What good would my dying in combat really do over there? Am I strong enough to withstand the mental tug-of-wars and destruction-in-daily-plain-view?
Endless questions, zero answers. But then, I saw Apocalypse Now, right at the peak of my own nervous self-inquisitions. I saw what could be myself in teenage "Mr. Clean" (played by a young Laurence Fishburne, in his first major film role I believe), specifically during his death scene; as he's listening to a recording made by his mother back in the Bronx, updating him on all of his family's doings and declaring their undying love and support for him, ready for him to come back home after having "avoided those bullets." The boat is lit up with gunfire, and Clean is hit, dying instantly. We see his bloodied corpse sprawled out in the middle of the boat, as the recording keeps playing. I imagined my own mom's voice, telling me how Zoey was getting so big, and that my cousins ask about me on a ritualistic basis: "When is Matt coming back home?" And how she, while thinking about me and looking at pictures of yours truly alongise my pops, would have no clue that I was in fact lying dead inside some tank in the Iraqi slums.
In a movie overflowing with haunting images and surreal realities of a time past, Mr. Clean's death is the one that has since stuck in my head. I often play Clean's final moments back within my thoughts, despite not having seen Apocalypse Now in a couple of years (until today, that is; I own it on DVD, but haven't revisited in quite some time). It's a mental stain, but not a "stain" in that "fuck, I just spilled fruit punch on my sofa, and now it'll never come off" way; it's a "stain" in that the scene is permanent while being totally welcome, acknowledged as something important.
By the time the already-cerebral masterpiece reaches the dark jungles of Cambodia where once-celebrated-Army-titan-and-now-insane-war-criminal Col. Kurtz (played with controlled lunacy by the great Marlon Brando), I'm so lost in a trance that the sights of Dennis Hopper's drug-riddled, "Renfield"-ish madman and the real-as-sin animal slaughter hit like illegal punches after the bell has rung. The film is a reinterpretation of the classic story "Hearts of Darkness," a tale about a sane man who loses his marbles while amidst a primitive, savage society, realizing that his more-advanced ways could be seen as almighty, and proceeds to act as a sort of God for the primitives. That's exactly what has happened to Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, and it's scary to think just how tasty sudden-power can be. So delish that it could shatter a man's sanity, make him forget about his loved ones and any code of ethics he once cherished.
Apocalypse Now....easily the most eye-opening, mentally-lasting film I've ever had the privilege of seeing in a theater. Really, I haven't scratched the surface on the many things I take out of this film, every time I sit down with it. But regardless of my given mood, the death of wee-lad Mr. Clean is the most unavoidably tattoo-ed.
I wanted to end this with a brilliant quote from the flick, but didn't want to go with the obvious ones: "The horror....the horror" or, "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning....it smells like victory." So, I've opted for:
"You see, there are two of you: the one who kills, and the one who loves."
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