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Happy film productions are all alike; every unhappy film production is unhappy… well, it is unhappy in almost always the same way.

In Hearts of Darkness the angst, agony and ecstasy of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now receives a masterful dissection. That it doesn’t descend into parody for one minute is an accomplishment of Herculean proportions.

Coppola had originally intended upon shooting Apocalypse with George Lucas during the Vietnam Conflict. Screen writer John Milius wanted to stage the thing in Vietnam. Studios wouldn’t go near it for obvious reasons, and Coppola had to settle for making The Godfather I and II.

By 1976 he had parlayed that success into American Zoetrope and developed enough clout to make the epic.

Hearts is full of ghosts. The first is that of Joseph Conrad.

Conrad can have a funny influence on people. His books caused this reviewer (an ardent pacifist) to join The United States Navy. He inspired both Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola to tackle “Heart of Darkness.” Challenged would be closer. Should the Necronomiconesque qualities of the dour Pole be doubted, consider the Unabomber.

Welles must have felt the chill in the room. Before rolling a frame, Welles was looking at twice his allotted budget, butting heads with the studio and lost his screenwriting partner. No mention is made as to whether Coppola sought out Welles when beginning an adaptation of the same novel in a different war, but his shadow looms in any event. It is a substantial coincidence that after Welles’s aborted Heart of Darkness he went on to make Citizen Kane. Considering that Welles and Coppola respectively released what many consider to be the Number 1 and 2 films in the history of cinema, the idea of an odd type of curse is pervasive. “You may try,” we find Conrad taunting, “and for your efforts you will be rewarded. But I will be damned if you make the thing.”

Coppola is obviously cognizant of the connection. While we watch the priceless footage shot by his wife Eleanor, the feeling that he is willing the thing to be a fiasco is omnipresent. It is hard not to speculate as to whether Coppola wanted a failed production. He certainly played his hand into it. Negotiating a deal with Ferdinand Marcos whereby Philippine helicopters were leased with the caveat that they could be taken back at a moment’s notice should they need to be used for counterinsurgency. Giving his lead actor the sack and hiring on Martin Sheen, at the time something of a loose cannon. Casting the temperamental Brando as Kurtz and advancing him $1 million. (Why not just shoot the moon and have Orson play him?) It doesn’t require an undue amount of cynicism to postulate that the fruition of the film was the real failure in Coppola’s mind. As tapes of his conversations indicate, Coppola was motivated by something much larger than just a movie. With each outburst it seems that he’s aiming not so much for “Heart of Darkness” as “Dead Souls,” “The Anathemata” or Orson Welles’s Don Quixote. Though completed works make legends, those testaments to a creative genius delving so deeply into a work that he loses himself entirely make myths. 

Were this the case, it is the likeliest explanation of how the bloody thing got done at all. Marcos was repossessing his helicopters, Sheen had a heart attack, shooting was woefully behind schedule and Brando hadn’t read “Heart of Darkness.” Dennis Hopper was in the picture! The budget was busted and Coppola exhausted and in hock to finance what he started referring to as “a $20 million bomb.”

Somehow Apocalypse Now did get made, and despite Hearts of Darkness letting us in to see it happen it is still hard to fathom. A laundry list of what would intimate awful ideas work. Vittorio Storaro shares the impulse behind placing Wagner’s “Die Walküre” in Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore’s Attack Scene. This shouldn’t work for a host of reasons. It is over the top and out of place alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Susie Q” and The Doors’ “The End.” It should be unforgivably ham-fisted. But it works. Not only that, it even does justice to Wagner. A typhoon hits. What does Coppola do? He shoots in it, of course. Marlon Brando was becoming difficult to deal with and threatened not to show up, advance and all. Coppola is taped considering Robert Redford as his replacement. The temerity of taking on the unattainable Conrad with the incomprehensible Indochina experience alone begs for celluloid disaster.  

As Hearts of Darkness illustrates perfectly, it is not a matter of accident. In the scenes shining a light on Coppola’s directing prowess it is evident that he is more than capable of getting the best out of his actors. (Would that it could be genetic.) Aspiring filmmakers should study the footage compulsively to see how the right combination of autocrat, madman and zen master (he counsels Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget ‘em.”) adds up to cinematic magic. This voyeuristic look into a man skipping along the precipice of a bottomless abyss is complimented brilliantly by the selection of footage from Apocalypse as well as readings by Mr. Welles. Hats off to Bahr and Hickenlooper for projecting Francis Ford Coppola as a filmmaker with all the vision of the great Orson Welles and twice the character of conviction.

As a portrait of Coppola it is inestimable. Beyond that, it begs important questions about the analogues of Vietnam and Iraq. As the film points out, the U.S. culture of the 1960’s was seeping into Southeast Asia, resulting in a “psychedelic war.” It is difficult to foresee what kind of “Idiodyssey” could become of the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely such a meditation could not be made until those wars end, provided they ever do. Contorted self-realization and institutional ennui infected the Vietnam Conflict throughout. It is frightening to ponder just what kind of disaster today’s callous and apathetic culture could ignite. The fate of an alien civilization having American Kulchur circa 2006 thrust upon them? The outcome seems beyond even Kurtz’s choked utterance. 

Hearts of Darkness educes all this and more. In many ways it is more of a trip than the movie whose creation it documents. Francis Ford Coppola’s Kurtz immersed personality takes the viewer on a self-doubting ride up to the very end. At one moment you’re convinced that he is playing up the “genius director” role. He is difficult, obsessed, prone to self-sabotage. He seems to play all media attention in an effort to cast himself in the public eye as a mythical character. Just when those elements lull a person into considering him something of a charlatan, a scene of the man at work forces reevaluation. Did he respond to the zeitgeist or contribute to its creation? The question remains unanswered and the finale to Hearts of Darkness maddeningly cryptic. The Failure of St. Francis Ford could well be the completion of a film almost destined for I, Claudius type mythology. He would be forced to settle for an enduring classic of modern cinema. Hearts of Darkness, on the other hand, mystifies. For the course of the ride, we’re made to feel as though the scenes therein are the final stamp on any lingering questions regarding the masterpiece. In fact, the audience is finally presented with the trappings of film chimeras: after ninety-six minutes, we are presented with a riddle.

Bryan Newbury

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Andrew on November 13th, 2015 at 3:45 pm 

I just ordered this book from Amazon today! : )You are goouregs..then and now. I well remember those dresses. In 1974, I was graduating from HS. I had several dresses like that…back when I was thin and leggy and had long hair. That seems a lifetime ago!I love the SF area and those great houses. I agree with Andrea’s comment…that bed looks like one you would do. Heck, you are just as grand a design diva as Jessica in MY book! Okay, when can I buy YOUR book!?Have a sweet weekend!Hugs,Sue on December 7th, 2015 at 8:06 am 

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Merci pour votre attention. Effectivement, il y avait un bug qui provoquait ces écarts. Il a été corrigé. Merci de me signaler si vous observez d’autres dysfonctionnements.

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