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 3 – Hunger (1966)

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Henning Carlsen’s brilliant film about a starving artist, set in 19th century Norway. Per Oscarsson plays Pontus, the homeless writer who holds on to his delusions of control and creativity in the midst of famine. It’s one of the all-time great performances. The town of Christiana (today’s Oslo) is populated by a swarm of strange faces. Pontus spies at these faces from a distance, convincing himself that they are the subjects of his art—that they’re his misshapen muses. As far as he’s concerned, they provide him with inspiration. The genius of this film is the gradual, horrifying revelation that he has it all wrong: the faces are staring at him and his deteriorating body and mind in disgust. The artist is transformed from subject to object, from creator to sewer rat. He becomes the grotesque character in someone else’s narrative: an anonymous narrative in which he is the joke. And so the fictions that he makes up to preserve his sense of self-worth as a human being and his role as an artist become increasingly meaner, more desperate, fueled by paranoia. He gives his last coin to a homeless man, a “true” dispossessed (he won’t allow to think of himself in those terms) to appear charitable and gentlemanly one more time, to set himself apart from the poor fellow. This portrait of the artist as a scavenger—as a cannibal toying with self-destruction because he can’t accept he’s not looking at the world from the heights anymore—has the pull of a nightmare. A true god needs no nourishment, and Pontus dreams about fighting rabid dogs for food. It makes the title take on a dual meaning: the hunger within him is more terrifying than the famine that hits Norway. Yet there is something sublime, even heroic in his determination not to bend. The artist will not be destroyed by anything or anyone but himself. He trudges on, like a cockroach after a holocaust.

Dir. Henning Carlsen / 1966 / Denmark