To the Editor:
In his commentary on Apocalypse Now [Movies, “Coppola's Folly,” October 1979], Richard Grenier commits a common critical fallacy which at present seems prevalent in popular journalism relative to appraisals of Coppola’s ambitious project. . . . [He] focuses on Coppola’s egomania, pomposity, and pseudointellectual aspirations and proceeds to bolster this thesis with misinformation about . . . the film’s production which has little to do with an objective evaluation of the work itself. Given the singlemindedness of many such recent attacks, it seems necessary to correct some assertions so we can proceed with a reasonable dissection of the film’s aesthetics and philosophy.
Mr. Grenier states that a mark of Coppola’s intellectual caprice is the release of the 35mm and 70mm versions with two separate endings. This is simply incorrect—the two prints are identical except for a set of ornate titles added to the 35mm film in general release. Related to this issue is Grenier’s notion of Coppola’s fixation on the lap-dissolve, with the implication that Coppola deluded himself into believing he reinvented the technique. Clearly this is not what is stated in Mrs. Coppola’s book, Notes, nor are the particular dissolves used all that common in recent film history. Coppola stated he used a video unit for effectuating his dissolves and, indeed, the method, as evidenced in the film, is most unusual.
Finally, Mr. Grenier belabors the already overemphasized account of the mishaps involved in the production of Apocalypse Now. Surely if Coppola had a preference he would have avoided a typhoon that destroyed his sets, a heart attack that almost killed an actor, and the snobbery of the critical community suggesting such problems were either orchestrated or in some sense emblematic of the solipsism of the director’s enterprise, paralleled only by Von Stroheim’s Greed.
The issue of The Golden Bough and intellectual pretension notwithstanding, genuine criticism of a work cannot exist amid the furor over superficial concerns. Mr. Grenier would do well to follow the dictum he quotes from T. S. Eliot regarding the necessary detachment of the artist from his work, which would seem to apply to a critic’s reading of same. The scope of Apocalypse Now at this juncture may appear inflated because of our fixation on the artist’s mystique; certainly the perpetuation of this mystique becomes as much the fault of journalists as industry insiders. Until we can dispense with such concerns, the simplicity of the film—the story of how moral consciousness disintegrates in the face of war, especially the . . . general confusion that was Vietnam—will continue to elude serious scholarship.
C. B. Sharrett
Richard Grenier writes:
I must be frank. I find C. B. Sharrett’s letter so jargonbound and incoherent that I am not even certain of what he is saying, and when I can decipher his meaning I can rarely connect it to the article I wrote. Whatever does he mean by “solipsism”? “Mystique”? How does one “orchestrate” a typhoon?
Mr. Sharrett writes, “nor are the particular dissolves used all that common in recent film history.” But that is exactly what I said, going so far as to state, “For two decades now motion pictures have been in the Age of the Straight Cut.” Mr. Sharrett writes, “Surely if Coppola had a preference he would have avoided a typhoon that destroyed his sets, a heart attack that almost killed an actor. . . .” But who could possibly think otherwise? I would probably not even have mentioned these disasters if Coppola himself had not drawn them into the arena of public discussion, pushing them forward eagerly as evidence that he had lived through experiences fully comparable to those recounted in Apocalypse Now.
Mr. Sharrett seems to be suggesting throughout his letter that, in the classic expression, I should review “the work, not the man.” But once again I wholeheartedly agree with him. All my criticism of the film is grounded entirely in the film itself (which I feel went terribly wrong). But when Coppola, in all his public statements, invites me to peruse the circumstances of his film’s making in order to gather penetrating insights into his art, I certainly feel free to accept his invitation. Moreover, when a director quotes extensively in a film from the works of T.S. Eliot, and portentously displays in this film as clues to its meaning copies of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and Jessie K. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, I hardly think I am invading his privacy if I read these works to see if he has understood them. (He has not.)
Wading through Mr. Sharrett’s verbiage, I can find only three points clearly enough put to attempt to rebut:
- Mr. Sharrett writes that my statement that Apocalypse Now was released with two different endings is “simply incorrect,” affirming that the two prints are “identical except for a set of ornate titles added to the 35 mm film in general release.” I must point out to Mr. Sharrett that the “ornateness” he is witnessing behind the extended closing titles in the 35 mm version is nothing less than an air strike by the U.S. Air Force destroying by napalm and high explosives the locus of all the last scenes of the movie, and this in elaborate and specific detail. If Mr. Sharrett feels that creeping away in a boat at night leaving a demented jungle kingdom intact is “identical” with destroying it by napalm, there is little I can do for him. I can only agree with Coppola, his distributors, his exhibitors, his publicists, the trade publications, and every journalistic account I have seen, that they are different endings.
- Mr. Sharrett thinks I draw an unfair inference from the published writings of Coppola’s wife that the director deluded himself into thinking he “reinvented” the dissolve. Actually, I think that in the hysteria of creation he deluded himself into thinking he invented it. Here is Mrs. Coppola on her husband, sitting at his editing machine, dissolving images: “It was amazing. Three layers of image. It was spatial. Francis says it changes the whole editing ball game. Pictures can be laid down layer upon layer. . . . I got a rush, standing there, contemplating the possibilities.”
- Having indicated in his opening paragraph that he is going to proceed with a “reasonable dissection of the film’s aesthetics and philosophy,” Mr. Sharrett concludes in his last paragraph that the story of the film—the “simplicity” of which “continues to elude serious scholarship”—is purely “how moral consciousness disintegrates in the face of war, especially the general confusion that was Vietnam.” Debating Mr. Sharrett is decidely heavy going. I do not think the disintegration of moral consciousness is simple. And I don’t see how even he can think that the “general confusion that was Vietnam” can be simple. But most of all, I don’t think Apocalypse Now aspires to be only a story of war turning men into brutes. If this were the case, why would the director have his Colonel Kurtz quote T.S. Eliot (not a well-known war poet)? Why Frazer? Why Weston? Why, for that matter, Joseph Conrad, author of the original novel, who wrote very little about war, and certainly was not concerned with war in Heart of Darkness? I do not think Coppola was at all successful in attempting to charge his film with these extra levels of meaning, but we have his own word for it that he tried. The cadavers of his hopes, in fact, are in the film.
Leaving Mr. Sharrett aside, I would like to address myself to a new point, which seems to have been neglected by all critics of Apocalypse Now, and which I myself neglected, perhaps as concerning literature more than the cinema. Analyzing the politics of a writer of the intellectual complexity of Conrad is not without its perils, but. I consider it stunningly obvious that a bedrock assumption of Heart of Darkness is that European (Western) civilization—gunboat diplomacy or no—had moral values of shining incandescence compared to the savagery obtaining in much of what we now call the Third World. Kurtz is not damned in Heart of Darkness because he is too zealous a representative of the West, but because he goes over to the enemy. Any reader with a knowledge of history (I assume this would exclude Coppola) must realize that Conrad, although closer in time to us than to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, has more in common with Cortez and his men, who gazed at the bloodthirsty ceremonies of the Aztecs with the utmost horror, considering them plainly the works of Satan, than he does with a modern anthropologist, who would probably feel it his duty to view such ceremonies with scrupulous neutrality. There are other levels of meaning in Heart of Darkness, too, of course, psychological, metaphysical, even religious, and the Third World has certainly changed vastly since its publication—but not so much as to make seemly the perversion of a great novel to vilify Western values when one of its clear original purposes was to uphold them, to cling to them, in fact, with desperation. In the modish lexicon of current Third World apologists, Joseph Conrad’s views on the preeminence of Western civilization might make him a reactionary, but this is a question they will have to take up with Joseph Conrad. They cannot invoke him as an ally when he was not.