The Classics: Chapter 8 – Apocalypse Now (1979)

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The culmination of the greatest period for American movies that began in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde. Coppola pushes the medium to its limits, and there are passages where the movie flies too close to the sun, when its genius threatens to self-destruct. In 1959, the Japanese director Kon Ichikawa released Fires on the Plain, his vision of war as hell and the human being as cannibal. Coppola takes these notions further and uses them in the context of the Vietnam War. Apocalypse Now begins as a demonstration of Western moral hypocrisy. We watch as hypocrisy turns into crippling physical and spiritual corruption. (The degeneracy is so surreal that it’s comical.) Humanity is reduced to an idea; heroism is impossible; life itself becomes as irrational as death. But this anguished existentialism doesn’t begin to explain what the movie is about. This is a journey to the underworld, to the underbelly of primitive human seediness and horror. As we go deeper into the jungle, Coppola puts us face to face with an “otherness” that turns out to be no stranger at all: he confronts us with our own tribal nature. The condemnation is so complete that it makes our ideas of civilization and even evolution seem like a farce. And the only way to cope with the madness, as Brando’s Colonel Kurtz puts it, is through godless indifference. In Fires on the Plain humanity had devoured itself; in Apocalypse Now it eats itself and claims godly rights for doing so. This, Kurtz seems to be saying, is the natural state. Vittorio Storaro’s feverish cinematography suggests a world that is burning alive. And there are fascinating, unanswered riddles, like the lone tiger in the heart of the jungle, or the Buddha’s disquieting calm. (Has he gone into exile or is he watching us?) This movie has mythological power: it’s a true modern epic. American movies diminished in size after this, almost as if sensing Apocalypse Now had gone too far. It’s a perverse, flawed, uncomfortable near-masterpiece.

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola / 1979 / US

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The Classics: Chapter 7 – The Battle of Chile (1979)

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Patricio Guzmán’s 3-part film on the fall of legitimately elected President Allende and the rise of Pinochet’s (partly US-funded) military dictatorship is no standard documentary. The camera is never still; there are no elegantly framed interviews recounting the facts; there is no remembrance. This is filmmaking in the present tense, and Guzmán takes you right into the streets, the factories and the country, everywhere where there is tension and reaction—that is to say, where politics takes place. The stance is Marxist, and the film is explosively alive, like a more grounded Potemkin. Inertia is sinful: it’s for buildings and the bourgeoisie. Though the film could be considered a piece of propaganda, it’s too great to be dismissed as only that. It shows the beginnings of a new form of organized solidarity that feels humanly truthful. It captures the seething discontent of a whole country, a state of anger mixed with euphoria for what’s to come. (Neither conservatives nor socialists are spared.) And in the scenes of the communist rallies, Guzmán’s camera zeroes in on the tension between the individuals and the groups they’re part of. Isolated, these faces express contradictions that exist outside of any manifesto. But gradually, in Parts II and III especially, we watch as these groups develop and strengthen, fueled by the semi-religious conviction that their time is ripe, only they do not sit around and pray for the rapture. This is an amazing document on a 20th century phenomenon that’s rarely explored in fiction: the masses becoming acutely aware of their own power. It’s a tragedy with no pathos: Salvador Allende is shown to be a great man and leader, but his death is interpreted as historically inevitable, a rallying cry for a “true government of the people” that would never materialize.

Dir. Patricio Guzmán / 1979 / Chile