On Neophilia, the eternal struggle

“I don’t like to rewatch movies,” it has been said. “And, if I can help it,” it has been added, without any of the necessary reservations, “I don’t usually watch old movies.” The speaker, who remains nameless, but whom you yourself have probably encountered, might as well have appropriated his or her mental attitude from that parody of modernity, Ada Chiostri Polan in Bertolucci’s epic 1900. In one exemplary scene, for instance, Ada tosses her perfectly fine poetry out the window of a moving car so as to avoid contaminating herself with the old (see the scene at the 3:50 mark in the embedded video). Though either example is ostensibly comprised of two claims, the unwillingness to return to what has been known and the aversion to what is known, both are in fact animated by the same unquenchable and untenable desire for all things new. Ironically, despite its pretension to novelty, neophilia, as I will demonstrate, is an old phenomenon.
Though it may have lent its form to the title of Christopher Booker’s 1969 sociological text The Neophiliacs, and though it may have been passed off by Robert Anton Wilson as his own neologism a short while later, neophilia was in both instances, quite ironically, an appropriation of an ancient condition. It was Chaucer’s linguistic perversion, what we might perhaps now describe his anglophilia, and which gave a centre to the English language (but not its root, nevermind what may be alleged). It was with modernism in the late 19th century that a term which had until then been taken to mean the crude and quaint–that which was of our time, rather than for all time–achieved its sanctification. Ironically, this rarified condition of modernism–the quality of being modern–is what consigned the movement to failure: for to be of the mode is to be connected to the very life that modernism sought to negate. More recently, it was the catalyst of the French New Wave, a cultural revolution which announced with its very name a turn towards the new, ironically an old ideal. The New Wave was the desire for the new as much as it was a movement towards newness. Presently, however, it is the simplified appeal of novelty, rather than the veneration of the new, that has wormed its way into modern culture as a bonafide credo. It was in London, in 1972, for example, that the Daily Telegraph hinted at its recrudescence: “The exaltation of novelty (neophilia) had been turned into a cult”. Had, we are reminded–the obsession being already among us.

 

Neophilia is also within us, and always has been, accompanying us since the birth of our humanity. At best a commensal parasite of our psyche, at worst neophilia infects us with debilitating delusions of modern perfectibility. This neophilia might be better considered as a farcical reworking of Occam’s razor: for all things being new, the most new is the best choice. Succinct, perhaps, but less than useful.

 

The cult of the new is the supreme idiocy of our age.

 

The recognition of the new as the immediate answer to a problem of old is the pretension of reason in the absence of evidence. The new is, in fact, an aspiration, which through use and tolerance is made real. The irony should be readily apparent, for through its use the new is made old, and so abandoned in favour of the new–the ever-new, the newfangled and newest of the new. This impulse, it should be noted, is not wholly without merit: the desire for the new is the desire for progress; yet its veneration is the sigh of the ideological orgasm, as brief as it is fleeting.

 

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione interior

The new of technology, the progress of progress, is the imposition of unity. This transformative movement is consigned to obsolescence, however, by its very nature as a transformation, as the bringing together (unity) of disorder. In this way it is unsurprising that these movements of the new always come in conjunction with new technologies. Modernism emerged with the Industrial Revolution, the French New Wave with a revolution in cinema technology (as an avenue to new technique). A more banal example of the cult of the new is visible in the gleaming panels of the newest cars, which with their odd bricolage of hidden gadgets (a new solution to that old problem of chaos) suggest the newest means of overcoming an age-old problem of control. Age-old since, in the beginning, so go the Ancient myths, there was only Chaos. From this primordial state arose Order–the birth of the new.  Chaoskampf, the eternal struggle, remains eternal in the Age of New’s struggle against the old to undo what is new.

Geras depicted on an Athenian pelike, 5th century BCE

The fear of Chaos, personified as it was across so much time and so many cultures in such monstrous forms, has been transposed, without merit, unto Geras (the spirit of the old from which we derive geriatrics). The shriveled form is perhaps monstrous in that it resembles what was once new. But the appeal to Hebe, Geras’ antonym, comes at the expense of both arete and kleos, virtue and glory. Without virtue, art loses its vitality; without glory, it has no after-life. Without the old then, the new art arrives already dead, and doomed to an eternal death–wholly unlike Athena in her fully-formed explosion from the mind of Zeus. The solution to this ageless problem seems one that venerates the old as it is succeeded by the new, for only then can the new succeed.
The desire for unity (entailing as it does a fear of Chaos) is not misplaced, only misjudged. The cliché rings true: Love is blinding. The sentiment is echoed in that charged tableau from 1900 which began this discussion, in Ada Chiostri Polan’s screaming declaration just after discarding her poetry. “I don’t want to see, I’m blind! I’m blind!” she wails melodramatically and shuts her eyes, giving no mind to driving the car. The distinction Bertolucci himself seems to be driving at, and why he has her repeat the line no less than three times, is that the choice is a conscious one, if entirely irrational. In the process, Bertolucci captures a key ideology of not only 1900 but the century after.

When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix.)

When one first learns that the price for a plate at Jiro’s world-renowned sushi restaurant begins at 30,000 yen, or $300, the mind reacts in two ways. Either it balks or it bargains. If it balks, then perhaps it is reminded of similar outrageously expensive food, like that $1,000 pizza in New York. In that case, the rebarbative concoction, loaded as it is with caviar and lobster, wastes its ingredients while it overcharges for them. Nevermind the idiocy of baking truffles in creme fraiche (where the fat from the latter and the heat from the oven overpowers any nuance in the flavour of the former) and serving it on a pan of bread, the whole thing arrives to the customer a greasy, congealed mess fit only for the blind and nouveau riche. Don’t even get me started on the $25,000 sundae. If I wanted to ingest five grams of gold I would just drink a few bottles of Goldschläger in a single sitting (at least that way the alcohol would stand a good chance of blocking out the thought of wasting so much money). Compared to this then, $300 for an actual meal seems like a steal. Continue reading

The Danger of Needless Script Rewrites

Film poster for Gravity (2013)

With Gravity soon to hit bluray in what I have read is an impeccable and remarkable transfer, I figured in lieu of writing another piece about why this film is so great (since everybody has been doing that lately), I’d instead approach the film from a different angle, that of responding to its critics who attack the film for what they perceive as insurmountable flaws in the film (since everybody has been doing that lately, too).

Several months ago a man wrote to me describing his issues with the plot of Gravity, and enthusiastically offered me what he believed to be an improved rewrite. As an immense fan of the film, I was suspicious, but was nonetheless taken with his bravado. Reading his version I wanted to be positive, I wanted to agree with his central premise that his version was inherently superior, but as his specious claims mounted, my enthusiasm waned. I knew immediately that I was reading the ravings of one indoctrinated by devastatingly useless ideas, lost on a vainglorious crusade for the formula of the perfect script. To be clear, the ideas were sound in and of themselves, but troubling when proffered as the “improved” version of what was an already sufficiently realized plot. It amounted to a subjective opinion being passed off as incontrovertible objectivity. It completely overlooked the merits of the film as it was to describe a completely different version of the plot as it should have been according to the tastes of one man, bearing as much semblance to Cuaron’s vision of the film as Lindelof’s version of Prometheus did for Jon Spaits original script. Though, to be fair, his was more complete than Lindelof’s hack efforts. By the time I finished I contemplated turning off my computer and never penning a reply. I had almost nothing positive to offer in my criticism. But he had asked me for my thoughts, and I had never maintained any illusions with my readers about my affability.

The problem with the rewrite was that it sought to rewrite what was already a cogent film into something approaching the vast majority of other works produced these days. The rewrite argued for a seven-step process to improve the quality of the movie, ranging from features such as infusing moments of “weakness and need” to “self-revelation” (nevermind that the latter point requires we casually overlook such moments already present in Cuaron’s version). One of his fundamental claims was that the film’s plot as-is left him emotionally uninvolved without any sufficient reasoning. Continue reading

Romantic Movies as Couples’ Therapy?

In the December issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Researchers at the Relationship Institute at UCLA published findings that the divorce rate decreased by half in couples that discussed one relationship movie per week. At the risk of coming off as an insufferable gloater, have I not argued ad nauseum the structuring capacity of film?

Reporting on the study, MDConnects.com explained that “The findings show that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple movie-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods-reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years.”

After attending a ten minute lecture on the nature of relationships, participants “then watched Two for the Road, a 1967 romantic comedy about the joys and strains of young love, infidelity, and professional pressures across 12 years of a marriage. Afterward, each couple met separately to discuss a list of 12 questions about the screen couple’s interactions.”

In historical context, essentially this study confirms what the Romantics insisted in every scrap of poetry they ever penned, every apologia produced, or idea expressed (and which the ancient Greeks would have found surprising it even needed mentioning). Take the poetry of Wordsworth’s for instance, which announced in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads with immolating candor the desire to produce a humanist literature that would remind humans what it took to earn that title of ‘human’. Film, hailed as it was the necessary extension of that idealistic (dare I say, romantic) impulse by theorists like Eisenstein, enables this potential for any who might seek its power.

In this new study we have something approaching proof of film’s humanizing potential. This new study ought to give filmmakers pause then, so that they may reflect on the potential of their art, and to consider what its continued cultivation may bring. One way to achieve this, I have already argued (indeed, this entire blog stands as testament), is by reflecting on the very methods and conditions which anticipated and produced this effect. This accountability may sound laughably idealistic, but it bears considering that to whom much has been given, much will be expected; and the more entrusted, the more demanded. Filmmakers, I entreat you.

Top 7 Rhetorical Fallacies Levied at Criticism–and why they’re all invalid

Angry naysayers in action

As digital technology enables countless voices to add their share to the din of culture, it seems necessary to remind my dear readers what passes for a valid objection or a foolish remark that ought to be dismissed outright. This is not to say the original opinion which provoked the retort is correct or valid, but to say that the following rhetoric simply does not (and never will) hold any validity. Thus do I present, in no particular order, the top seven erroneous and frankly idiotic statements intended to silence dissent and the expression of opinion:

  • OMG WHO THE HELL CARES?

Sarcastic, hyperbolic, hasty generalization. Anyone who cares enough to type out a response admonishing someone for caring enough about something to type out an equally withering reproach about a film is evidently guilty of the same crime and wholly ignorant of irony.

  • Let’s see your movie/book/video game/piece of trash, oh, that’s right, you don’t have one.

A false appeal to accomplishment and ridiculous tu quoque argument. The function of the critic is not to appeal to authority so as to win an argument from the pretense of experience. Moreover, the corollary does not hold true: having directed a film does not arbitrarily make one adept or even qualified to criticize a film. The tools of the critic are of an entirely different set than that of the filmmaker, though often they will borrow from one another. Essentially then, this argument is a non-sequitur, it makes no difference whatsoever whether the critic has made a film or not. Though yes, in future, all critics should, before ever uttering a word of criticism, make it a point to assemble the cast, crew and finances necessary to produce a feature length film, and then to have that film distributed in a timely fashion to any respondents who might be inclined to ask “where’s your movie?”

  • Seriously, it’s just a movie/book/video game/tweet

A half-hearted attempt at an argument ad absurdum. In some instances this declaration may be valid, but as always, it depends on the context. It would be foolhardy and nonsensical to criticize a movie starring Kellan Lutz for not having a more intelligent or intricate story, since one is antithetical to the other, but arguably valid to impeach a veteran like Ridley Scott for any number of his films over the past decade. This is not to say that a criticism noted above shouldn’t be made, but anyone who rails at the Legend of Hercules for being derivative hackwork is tackling a broader problem in cinema than just an instantly forgettable film and ought to be aware before undertaking the ill-advised task.

  • That movie/book/video game/tweet is so old, who cares?

Much like the fallacy above, this argument ad nauseum attempts to silence the opinion by declaring it not worth having. The criticism is not a time-sensitive matter. If the film no longer occupies a prominent position in the cultural zeitgeist all that entails is the reduction of the criticisms , and not its validity. It is precisely this presentist attitude amongst certain filmmakers, who pride themselves on never looking back, never reading criticism on anything, on not knowing Eisenstein from Kuleshov that necessitates the continued presence of the critic. These offenders are the very same who take great pleasure in treating the art of making films as an extension of high school, separated as it is by cliques, and who scorn intelligence, and fear what they can’t be bothered to understand, and who see film only as a means to make money, and demean anyone who dares to imagine its higher potential. It’s just a movie, they say. These are the same people who think literature programs and the arts are in general just a waste of time, and that the function of everything is to serve their direct benefit. There the attack also foolishly mis-underestimates the importance of cultural products in the matrix of culture. For these people culture is always and only ever the immanent here and now, defined in version updates and model numbers. For them life will only ever be the few scraps of insight they ever manage to grasp fluttering by, unaware of the vast field of knowledge that lays all around them. These people are not to be acknowledged, they are to be pitied and rehabilitated if possible, shunned if not.

  • Ya, that’s why the movie made X number of dollars, because it’s got flaws.

Argument ad populum. Just because a work is popular does not mean it is without flaws, or indeed, beyond criticism. Given the unprecedented success of the Twilight franchise I’m still consistently surprised whenever this argument gets thrown down.

  • It’s just a movie, get a life!

Borderline ad hominem. I think at this point in our culture anyone who offers the unsolicited opinion that movies are to be considered with the same enthusiasm as a used condom, and to be similarly disposed of as such, is the one who’s out of touch with what most people would describe as a life. That, or with one cliched insult the commenter has undone the entire field of cinema studies (and internet message boards).

  • Opinions are like [name your suggestive body part], everybody’s got one.

Thought-terminating cliché intended to pass as wisdom, when in fact the false equivocation is rhetorically null. If opinions are as common as body parts, then they are unavoidable. Moreover, if they are so common, they must then be unspectacular. However, the very fact that the respondent chose to utter this remark about this specific opinion designates a unique quality about this opinion which compelled the response. In the same way that we don’t respond or even register every body part of every person, we do notice and indeed even sometimes venture an opinion on remarkable features (whether desirable or undesirable). So, by calling that particular statement worthless, the attacker has ironically designated it as an opinion worthy of remarking. However, the remark is so vague as to lack all causal referents, i.e. the statement does not respond to the opinion in question, except to acknowledge that opinions are common and unavoidable. Thus the greater irony of the statement is that it contains in embryo its own refutation.

If you or anyone you know encounters any of the above fallacies in your daily routine, please report the offender to this particular page immediately for re-education.

These are just the ones I’ve encountered enough to feel it necessary to debunk, please post your own frustrating rebukes and I may just undertake another installment.

Tarantino takes Gawker to court for leaking script

According to the Hollywood Reporter,  “Quentin Tarantino has filed a copyright lawsuit against Gawker Media for allegedly disseminating copies of his script, The Hateful Eight.”

As to be expected, he’s been getting some significant backlash, first for announcing he was scraping the film, and then for taking legal action. I won’t link to these other sites making these attacks, their asinine vitriol and blatant ad hominem doesn’t merit reference. What they all seem to be missing is the extreme violation of privacy this leak represents for Tarantino. As he lamented when the script first leaked, he only showed six people–people whom he trusted implicitly with a work in progress.

Having your work leaked is like singing in the shower unaware that others came in to listen. The problem isn’t that they heard you, it’s that they violated your privacy to do so. Calling you “a child” afterwards makes them smug sociopaths, not respectable cynics.

Having your unfinished work leaked is like testing your range in the shower while others listen unbeknownst to you. Maybe you miss a few notes, maybe you struggle with a couple others, or maybe you sounded great; regardless, you never intended others to hear it like that. Adding public insult to personal injury, you then found out they filmed it and uploaded it to youtube. What’s worse, they’re broadcasting their violation just to get a rise out of you, and generate more traffic by insulting your feelings. Personally, I would pull a Charlie Meadows ala Barton Fink, but then my court order prevents me from owning matches or any implement used to make fire.

Here’s hoping Tarantino gets medieval on their asses.

A New Day for the Jackal

In keeping with the tone of the film, consider what follows as a brief dossier of notes to convince you the reader to watch Fred Zinnemann’s 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal.

The brilliance of the film’s script, as it was for the novel, is the way in which it sets up its plot. Very early on the Jackal jots down notes for his plan, seeking answers for the five Ws of journalism, which the film then delivers in short order. There will be an assassination attempt, that much is certain–and it will involve a modified sniper rifle in Paris on Liberation Day, August 25, 1963. (The Titanic is steaming towards the iceberg now…) The target will be de Gaulle, the assassin the Jackal, and the only man brilliant enough to stop it is Inspector Lebel. On your marks…

Edward Fox is deceptively brilliant in the title role. He plays the lithe killer with restraint, appearing almost languid before a quick burst of movement reminds the audience of his devastating power. Unlike so many works dealing with killers and rogues in this period, Fox never overdoes the part, never goes for lurid or cheap sensationalist antics, and never forgets that he’s playing a sophisticated sociopath for the sake of verisimilitude.

Michael Lonsdale gives his usual, unassuming composure to the role of frumpy Inspector Claude Lebel, speaking monotonously with subdued authority and yet with the unmistakable suspicion that he’s had one too many coffees (it’s the first thing his character demands when assigned to the case). Though the script gives him precious little in the way of character (his only motivation in the entire film is to catch the Jackal), Lonsdale thankfully never tries to steal a scene (a lesson Richard Gere missed for the tenuous remake) and instead manages to captivate by sheer power of his performance. In short, it’s fascinating to watch this man solve a puzzle, especially when you the audience member already possess the answer.

If you’re looking for the deadly game of cat and mouse, however, you won’t find it here. There’s a hunt, certainly, it’s the Jackal on his way to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle, but don’t expect any Bourne antics here which have recently come to typify this genre.

Edward Fox practicing his aim in The Day of the Jackal

Just like the book it’s adapted from, the film is divided into three parts, which roughly correlate to a typical three act structure. Arranged in the book under the recurring theme of ‘anatomy’, the film is also study in minutea. Perhaps ironically, this synopsis also describes the style of the film, possessing as it does an inclination for detail that borders on triviality. The most fascinating aspect of the picture is perhaps also its dullest component to modern viewers. How does a terrorist plan an operation of this tenacity? How does an assassin infiltrate a border with a sniper rifle? How does an agent track someone who doesn’t want to be found in a pre-digital Europe? What would it take to hunt a man without records in an age before ubiquitous recording devices? The Jackal is a man who exists through fragments of media. A scrap of paper here, a notation in a ledger there, but what is certain about the Jackal is that each new entry tracks the inexorable trajectory of his mission. The answers may not make for the most riveting of experiences, but they are far beyond dull. Instead, their intricacy suggests an abiding understanding of the systems involved in these occult procedures–the kind that must come from a career in political journalism, as it was in the case of first-time novelist Frederick Forsyth, whose previous non-fiction account of the Biafran war had left him with a surplus of debt and a surfeit of ideas. Taking his own research collected at the scene of Charles de Gaulle’s first assassination attempt in 1962 by the Organisation de l’Armee Secrete (or OAS, a real terrorist group mainly comprised of former Algerian nationals of French origin who sought revenge on de Gaulle for granting Algeria independence in 1962), Forsyth would appropriate both the botched attempt and the organisation to craft a tale staggering in both its complexity and believability.

So too is the film itself a document of European splendour, Paris and London circa 1973. The film lingers over establishing montages of the various cities and towns the Jackal visits far longer than modern audiences are accustomed to, but which would have suited the burgeoning touristic impulse of an early 1970s North American audience (though I suspect European audiences must have gotten a kick out of it too, the film did decent business there too). Treat the excesses as postcards of a bygone era, catered to the whims of an audience eager to sample a highlight reel of Europe.

Most impressive is the scale of the production, filmed as it was in three separate countries, with well over 50 speaking roles, and a finale on the streets of downtown Paris that shocks in its sheer logistical complexity. How does one get permission to film a parade with tanks in and around the largest roundabout in Paris, not so coincidentally named Place Charles de Gaulle? The answer is somewhat dull, so I won’t give it away here, and regardless the scene is still a masterpiece of direction and editing.

I must temper my enthusiastic praise to a small degree, however, by conceding something along the lines that the detail never quite reaches the impeccable fluidity and grace that Costa-Gavras (no doubt an inspirational influence) had accomplished in films before this like Z (which earns praise higher than I possess the words to bestow). The Jackal‘s style always feels a tad too self-impressed, as if the film’s aware it’s romping through Europe with the best of them. The pacing and the workmanlike cinematography might be the result–Z drives while The Jackal lingers.

Michael Londsdale as Lebel; our first introduction to the character he’s in a pigeon coop attending to his trapped birds, covered in their shit. It’s a fitting metaphor for his position throughout the film.

The film expects your attention, and uses craft rather than flash to sustain it. Indeed, many of its scenes succeed only if read by the viewer to determine what the editing and composition is intending to convey. Take for example the climax on the streets of Paris. Lingering as it does over unfamiliar faces and ceremonial proceedings far longer than one might expect, the procedural aspect of the film might seem sluggish until the glaring absence of the Jackal becomes as frustrating as it does worrying. We begin to scan the faces with the increasingly-agitated Inspector Claude, anticipating with grim fascination when the fatal shot might ring out. When the Jackal finally does re-emerge on the frame after nearly a ten minute absence, the filmmakers simultaneously justify the (award-winning) editing and reward observant viewers, having the Jackal emerge as he does from the crowd as a mirage that rivals Omar Sharif’s entrance in Lawrence of Arabia.

“Who is the Jackal?” ask the good old boys of London’s special branch. The answer is a paradox, since his existence solely in the marginalia of a pre-digital media culture obviates any identity he might ever have had. He exists only in the annals of recorded history; a record of a man with no name, no country, no past and no future. A man who exists only for one historic day.

Avoid the watered down, unintentionally campy remake from 1997, with Bruce Willis acting well outside his range in the Edward Fox role and the otherwise-talented Richard Gere painfully mumbling action cliches through a spotty Irish accent while he and Sydney Poitier reenact buddy-cop melodrama. Both Zinnemann and Forsyth lobbied to have the name changed to disassociate it from the property, but obviously with no success (the callous side of me wonders if that explains why Max Brooks never tried to do the same with World War Z).

“Watch out, Radioactive Man!”

Fun Trivia:
The international terrorist Carlos the Jackal (fictionalized in many of Ludlum’s novels, including the Bourne series and powerfully immortalized on screen in Oliver Assayas’ 2010 5-hour epic Carlos) received the cognomen erroneously by a correspondent from The Guardian after reportedly spotting the novel in Sanchez’s belongings. The book belonged instead to Sanchez’s roommate.

If you want to know more about the OAS featured in the film, check out this website.

Film Antecedents:
The Spy who Came in From the Cold (1965)
Z (1969)

Will Pair Nicely With:
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
Black Sunday (1977)

If Interested in Historical Context:
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Army of Shadows (1969)

If you like where these words are going follow them on Twitter @binarybastard

One shot rant: Comparing chases in Bullitt and The French Connection

This may be the sexiest shot in all of movie history.

I previously used the chase in The French Connection quite extensively in my post about the flaws of Star Wars Episode 2, and I had a fan of Bullitt ask me which I preferred.

Here’s my answer:

I agree that the chase in Bullitt is technically superior, and I personally think it’s much more enjoyable to watch, and I have the utmost respect for Steve McQueen (and not just because he did most of his own driving in that film), but I wonder if in terms of characterization whether The French Connection comes out on top. If I’m remembering correctly, the chase in Bullitt is fantastic, but it’s not crucial to our understanding of Toschi. We already knew he was a badass and the greatest cop on the force, the chase cements that. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m in no way attempting to criticize Bullitt or the chase, but the stakes are greater in The French Connection. In that film we are confronted with the truth that maybe Doyle is a little unhinged, potentially taking this crusade a little too far, and then he almost runs over a mother and her baby. And then, to top it all off, he shoots the perp in the back!

But I think at this point I’m comparing nuggets of gold, they’re both masterful.

I’m also amazed at how little reference they had available to make these chases. There had been chases in films before, notably in North by Northwest (1959) and some gangster films of the 40s and 50s (such as The Lineup from 1958), but most of the cinematography was panning shots or locked inside the POV of the car. (In the case of Hitchcock the reasoning was that he wanted you locked in the car with the character. He wanted you to feel viscerally involved with the chase, unable to escape, no reprieves to an external shot. See also the chase in his final film, The Family Plot, which crystallizes this approach. I suspect however that Hitchcock’s extreme distaste for shooting anywhere but on a controlled set may have contributed to this methodology.) Both Bullit and The French Connection, though the former especially since it came three years before, needed to invent a new language of film to describe these chases using cinematography, sound design and editing. There’s a great documentary about the evolution of the car chase on the Bullitt DVD/Blu-ray if you’re interested. Jim Emerson also has a video on a similar subject, though it unfortunately lacks much in the way of his usually astute commentary (you may remember him from that fantastic video about the visual grammar in the Dark Knight chase scene, this guy knows what he’s talking about). I’ve included the video below.

In the Cut Part III: I Left My Heart in My Throat in San Francisco from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Apocalypse Now (for the uninitiated)

For those who have yet to experience the mind-altering mad genius of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war pic Apocalypse Now, I figured I’d draft a few notes to hopefully convince the uninitiated to undertake the assignment.

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novella about colonial conquest in the Congo, Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s film essentially plays out two connected narratives involving a burned-out assassin’s search for a deranged colonel. It seems Colonel Kurtz has gone mad with power out in the jungles of Vietnam and threatens to make more than a few people look very bad indeed if his mental collapse should become known, not to mention what it could do for morale. The first plot then, the premise which initiates the film and the crux of the narrative, is Captain Willard’s mission to assassinate the colonel; the other, abstract and necessarily cerebral, becomes the assassin’s search to understand what drove the colonel mad. A road movie, or rather, a river movie; necessarily episodic yet integrally linked by some hefty and subdued excursions into the nature of the Vietnam conflict and, more impressively, the fundamental human nature that gets us involved in these conflicts in the first place. Most impressive of all, Coppola sinks the hook into our brains in the very first heavily charged shot, that infamous napalm explosion (not-so subtly mocked in the opening to Tropic Thunder) set to Jim Morrison’s near catatonic hum of “The End”, and doesn’t let go.

Martin Sheen as the strung-out Captain Willard, our often silent yet ever-observant protagonist

The ensuing journey upriver which becomes the bulk of the film’s lengthy runtime functions not simply as a necessary extension of the first plot but as a terrifying exploration of the human condition for the secondary plot. By the time our intrepid and stalwart captain arrives at the bloody shores of Kurtz compound we sympathize with his assertion that he knows a thing or two about Kurtz that the army dossier doesn’t provide. The point of the preceding two and half hours, in which blood and bullets are spent, lives are destroyed and characters scrape the depths of humanity’s worst nightmares isn’t to excuse Kurtz’ actions, but to explore the very heart of darkness that animates this film. So when near the end of the film our captain flips through Kurtz’ final report and sees that handwritten note, “Drop the bomb, exterminate them all!” (an echo, and a slight reprieve, from the line “Exterminate all the Brutes” written by the equally deranged and perhaps all the more ‘enlightened’ Kurtz of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness), we understand, based on all the horrors that we’ve witnessed, that Kurtz isn’t referring exclusively to the Viet Cong with that disturbing epitaph.

Scenes often fade one to the next, and often around symbolic images that serve as clues to the proceedings, the events complemented by an equally hypnotic and groundbreaking electronic score by Francis and his father Carmine (with some of the best hits of the late sixties for good measure).

The famous Ride of the Valkyries scene remains a virtuoso masterpiece of direction and editing, with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and his coterie of helicopters firebombing a village at the Mekong Delta to get in some good surfing (because “Charlie don’t surf”) likely to go unrivaled in scope and complexity given that it’s all captured in camera, no digital trickery required. If for no other reason than to have your jaw drop, watch this scene, then consider the meanings imbedded in Coppola’s little meta-moment in which he can be seen on-screen as a documentary filmmaker, urging Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard not to look at the camera and keep moving, almost like a fearless general urging his troops on. There’s probably a little something to that, since Coppola leased the fleet of helicopters and tanks from the Philippine army (which meant that on more than one occasion a few of his helicopters were recalled mid-flight to go combat some heavily armed guerrillas about 10 miles away). For this one scene alone multiple cameras collected over 100,000 feet of film (for perspective, that’s more than some films shoot for their entire production). Only a small percent was used to capture the very real insanity of the production—one which ultimately went fourteen and a half months over schedule and cost millions more than originally budgeted. Despite this, Coppola succeeds where any lesser director would have drowned under the deluge of footage (something approaching 230 hours, which Coppola and his team of editors spent years refining into a feature length) and crafts something that is both achingly beautiful and depressingly brutal.

Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore

After you’ve scraped your jaw off the floor, check out Robert Duvall’s unforgettable performance as Kilgore (not that you could actually miss it or forget it anyway). “Well, he wasn’t a bad officer, I guess,” Captain Willard says about him at one point, “He loved his boys, and he felt safe with ‘em. He was just one of those guys with that weird light around him. He just knew he wasn’t gonna get so much as a scratch here.” With less than 11 minutes of screentime, Duvall accomplishes the unenviable feat of convincing us of that opinion and demonstrating much more depth and nuance than a blunt instrument like Kilgore has any right to possess.

As the film progresses the scenes becomes increasingly chaotic. Willard’s journey deeper into this heart of darkness, which is at times both literal and figurative, strips the fragile vestiges of colonial power away, before the film abandons its logic to a chaotic vision of humanity, where drug hits trade between soldiers like bullets, and the boat journey increasingly comes to echo Hemingway’s line about a moveable feast.

Whether Coppola and co craft a climax worthy of the preceding two acts remains one of the animating discussions of fans and detractors alike. In truth, though, what ending could sufficiently conclude a film like this? If you stick around to watch the equally fascinating documentary Hearts of Darkness (directed by Francis’ wife Eleanor), you’ll see Francis’ infamous threat to commit suicide if he doesn’t get the ending to work. Perhaps surprisingly, the line comes off more as a statement than it does a recalcitrant threat. For what it’s worth then all these years on, Mr. Coppola, I will say that Brando’s overweight (notice how we rarely ever see him in anything but utter dark) and unhinged portrayal of a T.S. Eliot-spewing despot still unnerves, and Coppola’s allusive though perhaps stultifying finale still provokes relevant discussion about the nature of war and barbarity. The real joy of the film is that it resists definitive analysis and rewards successive viewings, while also offering a compelling and thoroughly engaging narrative. In short, it doesn’t matter so much if you care about the issues surrounding the film’s narrative and its production, you’ll still get one hell of a ride, but for anyone brave and bold enough the film provides an engaging hub for further investigation into countless other topics.

And for all you would be directors out there, the film remains the ideal case study for catharsis: Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking and colour-flooded cinematography bleeds crazy and invites everyone to let the often disorienting compositions overtake them. Thankfully, remaining true to the spirit of catharsis, Coppola contains the horror in a looping end that returns the narrative back to the start of the movie, with those helicopters clocking over a fiery stretch of jungle, the only thing missing is The Doors hypnotic and highly allusive track “The End”—though that repetition from the start of the film might have been just a tad on the nose here, at the end. Notice too the dissolve between Captain Willard’s crazed eye and the monolithic stare of the ancient stone statue, an echo of the opening montage when they were presented side-by-side. Is this an apotheotic moment for Willard’s character? (Is that a Buddha statue I’m seeing or am I just grasping here?) Is Coppola suggesting the cycle of violence is now complete, or is it primed and ready to begin again? Even if we’ll never truly grasp the full meaning (maybe it’s all a drug induced fever-dream Willard is experiencing in his dilapidated Saigon hotel room), the insanity remains trapped on the screen by the bookends. It remains, mercifully, merely a taste of madness, safely contained on the screen, that the audience is invited to sample. Be sure that you do.

Final note on the version to watch:

There are two official versions of the film, the original theatrical cut, and the 2001 Redux version. Though each has an equal share of supporters who contend theirs is the ideal version to watch, either is effective.  I prefer the hypnotic pace of the longer cut, which includes a lengthy excursion on a French plantation that, depending on your mood and your care for international historical politics, will either delight or bore to tears. Though it does break the flow of the descent into hell that the original version so impeccably crafts, and though the main gist of the scene covers similar ground to Kurtz’s own ideological musings provided through Captain Willard’s narration earlier and by Kurtz himself later in the film, I appreciated both the impeccable cinematography and set design as well as its febrile style—ending as it does with a few tokes of opium before Willard seems to awake in the broiling fog, and back on the river, as if the brief reprieve from the madness were all a waking dream. Tell you what, watch both and let me know which version you prefer.

Apocalypse Now (Apocalypse Now / Apocalypse Now Redux / Hearts of Darkness) (Three-Disc Full Disclosure Edition) [Blu-ray]

They don’t make ‘em like they used to