Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) “Tragic Character of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz”

Preliminary remarks: There are several different versions of Apocalypse Now, including the theatrical release, the Redux version which is 53 minutes longer than the original and the 259 minutes long “VHS” version, which is now all but lost. This article is based on the Redux version, while the ending of the VHS version will be mentioned, and will be crucial to the interpretation. The Redux version significantly changes the film thematically, it draws the film closer to the book on which it is based, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

While speaking in Cannes, Francis Ford Coppola said that the film was not about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. The very conditions of the shooting resembled the madness of war so closely that, in the words of the director, the crew went mad. In the famous documentary about the making of the film Hearts of Darkness: Filmmaker’s Apocalypse Coppola said that they had too much money, too much equipment and that the crew (and Coppola himself) descended into madness step by step.

Martin Sheen had a heart attack during the shooting and Coppola’s response was that no one was allowed to have a heart attack on his set. Quentin Tarantino said that this was the moment when Coppola’s madness had started. When interpreting the film, one can take into consideration various sets of ideas which put a different light on the movie. The emphasis could be laid on the clash of civilizations, the critique of imperialism, the Vietnam war and the character study of Lt. Kurtz. This interpretation will connect the last two and focus on Lt. Kurtz, an army officer deeply commited to his ideals and his descent into the abbys.

In the remarkable opening scene we see the trees in the wind and The Doors’ song The End is playing. The forest is soon engulfed in flames and the face of captain Willard (Martin Sheen) appears which conveys emptiness bordering on despair. He is naked, drunk and dancing, breaks the mirror and his hand is bloodied.  He is shown in the most vulnerable position and says that, very hour he spends in the room he gets weaker, while they get stronger. We see a gun and from the very beginning we understand that we are in the realm of thanatos and despair.

 

He is taken by the army and set upon a task to find and assassinate an army officer named Kurtz who resides deep in the jungles of Cambodia an whose methods, as the army officer says, have become unsound. Kurtz is accused of ordering assassinations of the Vietnamese intelligence agents he believed to be working for the enemy. It is important to note that in contrast to Marlow, who in the novel Heart of Darkness embarks on an imperialist journey in Africa as an advanturer, Willard’s journey is not of his own will. This can be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that the Americans were “thrown” into Vietnam without choice, considering the balance of powers. This thesis is soon rejected when we hear Willard’s thoughts: It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s memory any more than being back in Saigon was an accident.

Willard’s superiors emphasize that Kurtz was brilliant and outstanding in every way, but has “obviously gone insane”. We hear Kurtz’s words on the cassete player:

I watched a snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering along the edge of a straight razor and surviving… But we must kill them. We must incinerate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army. And they call me an assassin. What do you call it when the assassins accuse the assassin? They lie and we have to be merciful to those who lie. Those nabobs. I do hate them.

Nabobs were British governors in East India, wealthy individuals who worked for the East India Company. Here, we witness the first reference to imperialism and Kurtz associating the Americans with imperialist powers. A snail crawling on the edge of a straight razor is a metaphor for Kurtz’s own condition and the Americans in Vietnam. His words can be compared to the condition of the crew working on the film in the Phillipines, going mad step by step. Kurtz advocates mass killings, the destruction of animals, villages and armies; he sees hypocrisy and lies around him and proclaims the Last Judgment in the Christ-like manner, as Michelangelo depicted it in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel. His agenda is annihilation as a reaction to the utter moral corruption and meaningless destruction. At the end of the film, we can see the following words written in blood on a temple wall: Apocalypse Now! A military officer says to Willard: “Out there with these natives, there must be a temptation to be God.” This is the very definition of hubris which for the Greeks meant the will to become like gods.

Willard’s first reaction to the order to assassinate Kurtz was: Shit, charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. As Willard reads documents on Kurtz he finds out that he graduated on Harvard with a thesis on the Philippine uprising in 1898. The American invasion of the Philippines in the end of the 19th century was clearly an imperialist conquest. This is the second allusion in the film which associates Kurtz with the critique of imperialism. In the famous scene in which the American helicopters invade a Vietnamese village and Wagner plays on the stereos the American understanding of the spectacle is more than evident.

 

The spectacle and the killings merge in an all-out show wich when compared with the scene with the Playboy bunnies portrays the interplay of eros, thanatos and spectacle. The scene in which a military officer explains how they bombarded the hill for hours and found out that there was nothing there, and that the smell later was of victory shows the non-utilitarian destruction which was commonplace in Vietnam. Hannah Arendt in her book Imperialism writes: “The most radical and the only secure form of possession is destruction for only what we have destroyed is safely and forever ours.”

The vision of French soldiers in the mist, which appears only in the Redux version of the film, casts a new light on the narration. Now, the allusion to imperialism is explicit. We can conclude that the scene with the French was important for Coppola from the beginning, since he mentions it in the documentary, but somehow it did not reach the theatrical version. The French are presented as phantasms of the past, who refuse to leave Vietnam, although the situation for them is hopeless. They persist with the idea that Vietnam is their home, that they cannot and will not leave. They discuss the foreign policies of their country with Willard and criticize the American endeavour as a fight “for the biggest nothing in history”. The old Frenchman keeps on saying I know that we can stay… We can stay…

 

Vigorous line:

The horror, the horror…

(said in a whisper)

Colonel Kurtz

At the very end of the movie, when Willard comes to the temple where Kurtz resides with his followers, Willard sees bodies hanged, heads on the ground and a deranged photojournalist who speaks frantically about Kurtz, calling him “a warrior poet” and recalling the scene when Kurtz wanted to kill him. Willard is in contact with a plane squadron bearing a suggestive name “Almighty”, which is prepared to bomb the temple, Kurtz and his followers. This reference to the Divine is a suggestion that Kurtz is a false deity, a golden calf, and the Americans are called upon to restore the Divine order by destroying the idolatry and restoring the true order. It can also be interpreted as Coppola’s suggestion that  hubris of the Americans is even greater than that of Kurtz. The Americans see themselves as the impersonation of the Divine will and thus their will to be gods is absolute.

When Willard meets Kurtz, his silence is indicative. He was mesmerized by Kurtz while reading documents about him and when he meets him he is captivated by the grandiose image Kurtz projects. Kurtz says that his allies are “horror” and “moral terror”. It is obvious that his motives are of moral nature and the reading of late Nietzche’s philosophy strongly suggests that crimes done in the name of morality are the most atrocious. Speaking of his recollections when he saw the Vietnamese cutting the arms of inoculated children, Kurtz speaks of the purity of the act and the bravery those men were capable of. He is the only one who refers to the Vietnamese as men, while the rest of the characters dehumanize them (gooks). What is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of Apocalypse Now is the easiness with which Coppola transposed the behaviour of the Europeans toward African natives from Heart of Darkness  to the Vietnamese setting. Kurtz says that he can be killed, but cannot be judged; this is most probably a direct reference to Nietzsche’s Will to Power in which he wrote that for nihilism to be prevailed, values that pass judgment must be prevailed as well.

In stark contrast to the ending of Heart of Darkness in which Marlow lies to Kurtz’s wife about his demise, Colonel Kurtz wants Willard to tell his son the truth about him. The question which needs to be posed is whether the truth about someone so inhuman yet all-too-human can be said to those who live in the comforts of civilization. This is one of the tragic elements of Kurtz’s destiny. During the scene in which by brilliant editing (cross-cutting) Willard’s murder of Kurtz is shown (who wanted to die like Socrates, if we are to believe Nietzsche), it is juxtaposed to the ritual slaughter of an animal. This suggests that Kurtz’s murder is also of ritual nature; in ancient civilizations the ritual slaughter of an animal was associated with an act of purifiction. Thus, Kurtz’s murder is puryfing, in the first place for him, since his life had become a circle of death and madness without end. His last whispers the horror, the horror, suggest that proposition.

When considering Nietzsche’s philosophy, it is necessary to highlight the distinction considering the word “tragic”, which exists in Croatian language. These are “tragično” and “tragičko”. The first one denotes the everyday use of the word “tragic”, which borders on banal. On the other hand, “tragičko” is characteristic of Nietzsche’s philosophy which foresees a tragic age (which existed in the pre-Socratic Greece) which will be the age of great purification, outbursts of genius and creative energy, but also the destructive age abundant with horrors and disasters.

Nietzsche saw Greek tragedy as the affirmation of life, but it must be highlighted that tragic characters in, for example, Aeschylus’ tragedies brought their fate upon themselves by their hubris. The same is implied for Kurtz; when he accepted to play role of a deity for the natives (as have all the imperialist powers) he precipitated his doom. The tragedy of Walter E. Kurtz is that the best of us can be tempted, fail to resist and fall into the horror of darkness. When Kurtz is killed, Willard sees a book in which the following written: Drop the bomb, exterminate them all. In the longest version of the film, the natives surrender and nevertheless, the bomb is dropped on them and they are all exterminated, as is vividly shown as a spectacle in the ending credits. Allmighty strikes, and the “Divine Order” of annihilation is established.

 

Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2013) “Nature or Nurture?”

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son explores the meaning of the proverb in the film’s title and whether it can be the justification and the solution to the tragic choice characters in the film are forced to make. Ryota is a workaholic and a successful businessman, hardly spending time with his family; his wife tells him that he has been telling them for six years that they will spend Sunday together. He says that he does not have time for losers, believes that the strong succeed while kindness is nothing but vice. Their lives change abruptly when they find out that their son Keita is not their biological child and that the children were swapped in the hospital. Ryota’s first reaction to this discovery is: “Now I understand.” He feels that his son’s Keita’s lack of strength and gentleness is an explanation for his not being his son, due to his self-image of success and strength, which he projects on others as well. Soon they meet the parents of their biological child (Ryuseki) and they have to decide whether they will swap the children or raise the one they already did for six years.

In his book Moral Dilemmas Daniel Statman writes: “Tragic choices are situations in which whatever a person does, he would irreparably damage one of the projects or relationships which he pursued and which shape his life.” The choice Midori and Ryota have to make, as well as the couple who raised their biological child, certainly falls in this category since whatever they choose, they will irreperably damage their lives. Either they have to give up the child they grew to love over the six years they raised him or they have to give up raising their biological child. Ryota’s co-worker calls the situation a tragedy, and certainly it is tragic. In the hospital the staff say that 100% of couples decide to make the swap. Nevertheless, the decision cannot be made in advance since a variety of factors are to be considered; ethical, emotional, the well-being of a child, the psychological effect this will have on him and so on. The fundamental question for the parents is whether the heritage which defines parenthood is strictly biological or a matter of socialization as well.

Eating Our Meal

Eating Our Meal, Japanese girl, age 7

Found on https://library.illinoisstate.edu/icca/exhbits/japanese.html

Yukari, who raised Ryusei, is Ryota’s opposite. He is a shopkeeper, spends a lot of time with his children, bathes with them, flies kites and behaves like a  child himself when he is with his children. In his Twillight of Idols Friedrich Nietzsche writes: “Leading a long life, having many descendants [my emphasis], these are not rewards of virtue; rather, virtue is itself a declaration of the metabolism that brings about (among other things) a long life with many descendants…” At one point in the film, Ryota suggests to Yukari that he raises both children, since their future must be taken into consideration. In other words, since Ryota has much more financial capital, is younger and “stronger in metabolism”, he has the right to more descendants than Yukari does. Yukari is of course, deeply offended by that suggestion and refuses it. Things change dramatically and in an ironic fashion when Ryusei, Ryota’s biological son, comes to live with him. Ryusei runs away from Ryota’s apartment and comes back to Yukari, whose wife says: “We have no problems with having both Ryusei and Keita.” Although Ryota has a larger financial capital, it turns out that a child’s desire for care and attention is stronger than for things Ryota has to offer, and it seems that Yukari is the one who is more virtuous than Ryota.

 

Vigorous lines: 

I’d like him to live with us, he is of my blood.

Ryota

Your blood? In our time and age it does not matter.

Ryota’s lawyer

 

The problem posed from the very beginning of the film is whether being of one’s blood is still an argument strong enough to consider one’s biological child one’s own, in favor to the child a person has brought up. Ryota’s lawyer argues that blood does not matter “in our time and age”, while in premodern or early modern societies this kind of dispute could be easily solved – blood is more important than emotional bonds, or the subject of nurture (exceptions were adoptions by feudal lords for an example). Psychonalysts would say that we as human beings are formed in our early childhood; although Ryusei and Keita were brought by their non-biological parents, their psyche is formed through the influences of their “foster parents”. In the hospital the staff says that incidents of this kind were happening in the  60’s and Keita’s grandmother says that adoption was not uncommon during the wartime years and strong bonds between children and foster parents were formed, in other words she opts against the swap.

Ryota’s father says: “Well, have you got to know him?… Does he look like you? Of course he does. That’s what family means. Ones children are like one, even if not living together… Listen to me, it’s a matter of blood. It’s the same in humans as it is in horses. This child will be more and more like you.” While his father opts for the swap, his mother says that living with someone and loving him makes him more like you. In these observations the eternal question whether genetics or our upbringing make us who we are can be discerned.

DNA (2)

In his writings, particularly Being and Time Martin Heidegger stressed out that Dasein (for Heidegger the term means the existence which makes his being an issue) is temporal, not merely because it exists in time, but because it is rooted in temporality – the unity of past, present and the future. By encountering himself in his historical “heritage”, he opens up possibilities of his being. Dasein is authentically historical. His authenticity, which Heidegger understands as the appropriation of himself, can be attained or not. The key figure in regard to this observations is Ryota’s biological son Ryusei who fights being transferred to another home without any explanation whatsoever. He becomes authentic in the acts of defiance, he understands his heritage in terms of his upbringing. Keita remains passive throghout the whole affair. The historical character of Dasein is revealed throughout the movie and the main debate is, as noted above, in the character of that historicity.

In the somewhat ambiguous ending, Ryota and Keita are walking down the separate paths and Ryota is apologizing to him. They meet at the end of the paths which at some point come together. Symbolically it may mean that although they were living together throghout Ryota’s life, they were walking separate paths. Symbolism can be twofold. They were walking seperate paths because Ryota never spent time with him, and on the other hand, because he is not his biological father. Nevertheless, at some point they do come together and the ambiguous ending offers a possible solution. Whether he will stay with Ryota or not, we can only guess, in the same manner in which the problems posed in the film are a conjecture themselves.

References:

Daniel Statman, Moral Dilemmas, Amsterdam-Atlanta, Rodopi, 1995

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twillight of the Idols: or How To Philosophize With a Hammer, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1986

 

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012) “Inner Eye of the Beholder”

Holy Motors is a French film directed by Leos Carax; it competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. In its quaint particularity it approaches themes like sex, modern life, libertinism and aesthetics, completely justifying the aforementioned honour. It opens wih a shot of people in the theater watching a film, suggesting that film-watching experience is a dreamlike state. The film follows a day in the life of Monsieur Oscar who is, as we can tell, a businessman who performs during the night (aiming to escape his stressful life lacking meaning). 

The roles he plays are arrranged by a woman named Céline (possibly an allusion to the great French novelist). As an actor Oscar symbolically murders his own persona, performs as a beggar, a derranged person and an old man on his deathbed – all of these roles are parables of  the place of man in contemporary society. This is Carax’s hommage to cinema, but also an exploration of the limits and nature of cinema as an art form – the director includes characters from his other movies into Holy Motors. Combining music (a very powerful scene with an accordion – “trois, deux, merde!”) with hypnotic shots of driving down distorted streets Carax presents a hypnagogic spectacle for the senses.

When Richard Wagner was composing and writing the libretto for Tristan und Isolde, he was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and his vision of the world as Will (irrational, mindless, aimless), beneath the world as we perceive it (representation). Tristan and Isolde, during the second act, are together during the night (world as Will) and must be apart during the day because Isolde is promised to King Marke (world as representation).

The same can be applied to Holy Motors. During the night, Oscar lives as he truly is, he follows his primordial instincts, and during the day he is a successful businessman. It is true that the graveyard scene and the one with a model happen during the day, but we must keep in mind that Oscar is masked. It is an another argument that can be interpreted by means of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics which implies that the world is our representation.

One may be inclined to use the term “surreal” to describe it, and one may not be wrong. Nevertheless, the film’s main point is not in its surreality, but in the distortion and chaotic misrepresentation of reality aiming to transform our perception of  it; at least during its running time. It is a powerful satire that is sometimes sentimental but does not reach the “point of no return”. The scene with Kylie Minogue in its sincerity and restrained sensitivity is one of the most captivating moments in the film. One of its many virtues is that it does not take itself seriously; its main aim is to provoke reflection.

The most interesting (and possibly shocking) scene in the film is the one with a model (Eva Mendes) which is abducted by monsieur Oscar. The shots with him putting a veil on her and him lying naked are particularly interesting to analyze; Michel Houellebecques’ novels Submission and The Elementary Particles deal with such issues.  Holy Motors presents the modern man stripped down to his instinctual desires; he is aching for liberation. It is as if Carax proclaims “the death of man” as Michel Foucault does.

Vigorous line:

Beauty? They say it is in the eye of the beholder

Michel Piccoli’s character

And if there’s no more beholder?

 Monsieur Oscar

Eye of the Beholder

This line presents the traditional notion of perspectivism, as supported by Nietzsche and lately by postmodernist authors, but expands its scope. It is no longer self-evident that we will find beauty in a piece of art or an object of possible aesthetic worth simply by enjoying it and contemplating it. According to Mr. Oscar, that is no longer simply a truism. When he questions the existence of “the beholder”, he questions the capability of man to perceive beauty according to his aesthetic inner eye (if it exists).

 Modern man has gone a long way in the advancement of technology, but as it is pointed out earlier in the conversation, technology may very well be the destruction of beauty (Martin Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology particularly adresses the question of dangers that technology brings).

Oscar says: “I miss the cameras. They used to be heavier than us. Then they became smaller than our heads.” With the advent of the internet it is possible to view artistic works of Botticelli and Raphael (to take an example) for free. It makes a great difference if one views paintings online or goes to a “pilgrimage” to Toledo to see the El Greco Museum. If something is free, its value in the eye of the beholder downgrades. This simple truism reminds of Oscar’s nostalgia that points to the fact that as soon as technology reaches a certain point of development it radically changes the very way we perceive reality.

In line with Mr. Oscar’s arguments, it can be concluded that the beholder is annihilated. Nowadays, art is consumed, eaten (as Refn’s The Neon Demon suggests); the beholder’s inner eye for beauty is distorted. The other notion that Oscar’s line adresses is the transformation and disfiguration of an eye that does not perceive the world aesthetically, but through pragmatic lenses. Remember that earlier in the film the photographer maniacally cries “Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!”. When beauty becomes an obsession in a crude manner, it ceases to be beauty and is a distortion of  mind that sees only an object before him, not a piece of art with its soul, rhythm and vigour. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified.”; his interpreter Raymond Geuss asserts that the world justifies itself if it offers an aesthetically pleasing spectacle to an appropriately sophisticated observer. In other words, when these notions are juxtaposed to the words of Mr. Oscar, an appropriately sophisticated observer [the beholder] may cease to exist.

Hrvoje Galić