Film #83: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

film 83 hearts of darkness
Rating: 4/5

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

Film buffs will probably at least be aware of how troubled the shooting of Apocalypse Now was. Filmed in the Philippines (like so many exploitation films around the same time), it was initially intended to be a six week shoot; principal photography eventually ended after sixteen months. Plagued with difficult actors, hurricanes, and political unrest that regularly forced Coppola to stop filming so that the government could use the helicopters that they had provided, not to mention copious amounts of drugs and the general day to day challenges of living in the jungle, what was meant to be a fairly quick, though ambitious, adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, became a monster that threatened to not only make everyone involved insane, but even almost killed its lead actor.

Today, Apocalypse Now is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, capturing the horrors of the Vietnam War, still fresh in people’s minds when it was released in 1979. I’ve not seen it, and my knowledge of it is limited to general trivia and quotes (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”), and the references to it in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode (Restless). It didn’t really appeal to me, but Hearts of Darkness, which documents the problematic shoot and presents a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a filmmaker determined to see his masterpiece come to life, instantly caught my attention, and did not disappoint. It’s a gripping documentary, with great on-set footage (shot by Coppola’s wife Eleanor) and secretly recorded conversations between the director and his wife. Early in the film, we hear Coppola plaintively stating: “My greatest fear is to make a really shitty, embarrassing, pompous film on an important subject, and I am doing it. And I confront it. I acknowledge, I will tell you right straight from… the most sincere depths of my heart, the film will not be good.” Yet despite the countless problems and issues, he refused to give up, and the results speak for themselves.

It’s hard not to be impressed, particularly today, at just how determined Coppola was. The money and time that was spent making his vision come to life, not to mention the amount of sheer man power (and explosives) is truly incredible – while a similar shoot today would no doubt substitute jungle life for green screens and napalm for CGI post-production effects, the 1970s were a notably different time for filmmaking, with the likes of Coppola, Scorcese, Kubrick, Lucas and Peckinpah paving the way as the creators of “New Hollywood.” Hearts of Darkness demonstrates how determined these new filmmakers were – no longer content with studio work, the 1970s saw a new kind of filmmaking, one that prided itself in realism and politics. It’s fascinating hearing Coppola talking about Apocalypse Now, and equally fascinating to hear his wife discuss her life as a result – the director dragged his whole family over to live in this troubled region. He is revealed to be dogged, obsessed even, and willing to do anything and everything to see his film completed. After Martin Sheen suffers a heart attack during shooting, Coppola responds by saying “If Marty dies, I wanna hear that everything’s okay, until I say, “Marty is dead,” perfectly capturing the dogmatic, ruthless supremacy of The Director.

This behind-the-scenes glimpse into Apocalypse Now, and the filmmaker(s) determined to bring a vision to life, is wonderfully honest, and filled with instantly recognisable faces – Marlon Brando, paid vast sums of money to appear in a small, though crucial role only to turn up on set tremendously overweight and sufficiently embarrassed about his physical condition that he refused to be portrayed as what he was; Dennis Hopper, clearly high as a kite during the shoot; George Lucas ruminating on Coppola’s vision and choosing to steer clear; a young Sofia Coppola suddenly relocated to the jungles while her father goes, as he himself admitted, insane. The stories told are evidence of the insanity, as the cast and crew remain isolated from the “civilised” world of Hollywood and the comforts of American living, as the money fritters away and the critics become more and more doubtful as to whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s a true testament to Coppola’s determination that Apocalypse Now was finished – although one gets the feeling that, even had half his cast keeled over, if a hurricane had wiped out the country, if he had been declared bankrupt, he would have carried on, and even if it had killed him, his last breath would have been used to shoot that final image to see his movie completed.

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Film #41: Waltz With Bashir (2008)

film 41 waltz with bashir

Rating: 5/5

“Do you ever have flashbacks from Lebanon?”

Were it not for Movie Lottery, Waltz With Bashir would have languished on my shelves, unopened and unwatched, possibly forever. I should point out that I did see this documentary in the cinema, and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, but its subject matter – the Lebanon war in the 1980s – is not necessarily the most inviting when sitting at home in the evening after working all day. It’s a great example of the kind of film that benefits most from the enforced randomness of our viewing selection and, while I must still confess to know or understand little of the complex politics of the events portrayed, I was horrified and captivated in equal measures.

Writer-director Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary is fascinating on both a technical and a psychological level; recollections of war represented through a distinctively comic-book-inspired aesthetic. Folman’s personal journey is triggered by a friend and former comrade’s recurring dream, which opens the film – a pack of wild, snarling, rabid dogs charging through an urban landscape. There are twenty-six of them, as there always are, and they don’t stop running. It’s a violent onslaught to the senses; as Folman’s friend later explains, his dream is directly related to a specific moment during his war service. While his friend is tormented nightly by his memories of war, Folman doesn’t dream, but this conversation unleashes something in him. Waltz With Bashir is the filmmaker’s attempts to discover why he can’t remember anything about his involvement in one particularly tragic, terrible event – the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when up to 3500 civilians were brutally murdered in refugee camps in Beirut – and why he is suddenly plagued by his own memory, in which he emerges, naked, from the ocean with some colleagues as the sky above him is lit brightly with falling flares.

Folman’s decision to present his story in animated form raises some interesting points. On a purely opportunistic level, it is perhaps the only way his documentary could be made. One interviewee states that he’ll only talk if he’s not filmed; Folman instead asks if he can draw the man and his son playing in the snow. Yet his reasons are not just to ensure his colleagues’ anonymity. Today, with the almost constant images of war on the news and recreated in movies, I’d argue that the general viewing public has become somewhat desensitised. Here, Folman shows us something unique – his memories, and the memories of his friends, are haunting and dreamlike. The animation subtly acknowledges that the images shown are the product of fallible recollections; they can be twisted and warped, they may not be accurate, they are the product of a mind that has been, quite probably, traumatised. Just as Folman himself has apparently locked away the truth to protect himself from his own memories, the images on screen can be fragmented, unreal, stylised, and edited.

The animation also has a direct impact on how the audience relate to the events being portrayed. The images, set against an evocative post-punk 80’s soundtrack, are shown in a detached manner – the lack of realism and the high-contrast graphics remove the viewer from the action, just as Folman has apparently emotionally removed himself from it. In flashbacks, his younger self’s handsome face is tinged with constant sadness but his expression never changes; he is blank, absent. Yet the stylised animation, which is beautifully rendered, creates an emotional barrier between the audience and the events, while simultaneously emphasising the true impact of the violence on those involved – and I mean here the soldiers, rather than the civilians caught in the crossfire. Their coping mechanisms – denial, amnesia, broken memories – reflect their sheer inability to deal with what they have witnessed and what they have done. In a sense, the animation reveals what Werner Herzog might describe as “ecstatic truth” and, just as Folman gets one recurring image stuck in his head, there are many moments in Waltz With Bashir that linger long after the film has finished.

In the film’s final moments, Folman makes the decision to suddenly jolt the audience into reality, showing newsreel footage of the aftermath of the massacre. It’s manipulative, but effective, and serves as a stark reminder that, despite the dreamy beauty that has enveloped the story to this point, these events were real, and dreadful. Thinking retrospectively about the film, I realise that much remains unanswered; yet maybe that is the point. As memories, the truth is only what we convince ourselves of, and our recollections are constantly changing, growing, evolving. Waltz With Bashir seems to acknowledge this, and the result is a harrowing, haunting, and profound documentary that, somewhat ironically considering its aesthetic choices, puts a very human face on a complex war.