A new Final Cut illuminates questions about the place Apocalypse Now holds in cinema history
One of the first issues of Film Comment I ever bought contained an article by writer-director Paul Schrader, “CANON FODDER: As the sun finally sets on the century of cinema, by what criteria do we determine its masterworks?” In 2006, when the article was published, I was beginning communications studies in CEGEP. For the previous three years, I had devoted myself to film history using my library membership and frequent visits to my local video store (RIP Avenue Video). I understood the greatest films of all time through video list shows like AFI’s 100 years… 100 movies, but I had never considered how or why we came to those conclusions until I read Schrader’s article.
It introduced me to ways of thinking that were previously inaccessible. It suggested the importance of philosophical and historical consideration in approaching film writing and exposed the fragility and fallibility of one critic’s work. Much like his film characters, Schrader always had a way of teetering on the edge of masculine bravura and intense fragility. Even in his discussion of the parameters, his internal debate of making the cut-off date 1975, the year he began making movies, exposes both strengths and weaknesses of creating a film canon, whether individually or by committee. Each canon is shaped by the voters’ experiences and the world. A canonical list reflects trends in taste, politics and accessibility of its makers more than anything else.
The release of a new version of Apocalypse Now this week (the Final Cut), coinciding with the deadline for submission of the once-per-decade Sight & Sound best film poll vote, made me think of the film’s placement in the canon. Not that it’s under specific dispute — a decade ago, the film ranked in the top 15 among critics and in the top 10 for directors — but rather how the conditions of the present moment reflect a massive change in the perception of film art. Two decades into a new century, cinema as we know it is no longer the dominant screen art. The way we watch movies has changed. Slowly, filmmakers’ and influencers’ demographics have also shifted — broadening to include different points of view and experiences.
What place, if any, does Apocalypse Now have in a new canon?
The release of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut answers at least part of the question. There remains enough sustained interest in the film that warrants a theatrical re-release in an era where filmgoing is low. While in his canon-forming ideas, Coppola disputed a populist approach (perhaps that’s why he did not include Apocalypse Now among his choices) in favour of an elitist one, and it’s difficult to make an argument for a film’s canonical placement without taking into consideration its continued sway and influence, if not on the public, on the industry. As long as directors like Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Susanne Bier and Athina Rachel Tsangari continue to bat for it, its place is all but secured.
Discussing Apocalypse Now within the “present” moment revives some old debates. Since the film’s release, it’s been under scrutiny, accused of being both pro and anti-war. Coppola said it’s neither, saying instead the film is “anti-lie,” which exposes the truth of the American industrial complex, for better and worse. Much like another late ’70s Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter, the films can be understood less as reflections of the values of the filmmakers (particularly in regards to the dehumanization of the Vietnamese) but as greater reflections of a society and a military operation that sees outsiders as less than human.
In some sense, Apocalypse Now reflects what critic Edward Mendelson called an “encyclopedic narrative,” as it attempts to “render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture” in its storytelling. Though it may seem strange to argue that a film that does not take place in America could reveal more about the totality of American culture than most 20th-century works of art, displacing U.S. values and archetypes of the 1970s abroad only further underlines how ingrained American culture is on the psyche. Unmoored by rules of operation, we witness unabated where those values inevitably lead: inequality, carnage and death.
Apocalypse Now stuns because it finds beauty in that ugliness — the red glow of jungles on fire, the earthy beauty of Michael Sheen, the thrill of “The Ride of the Valkyries.” It’s no accident that some viewers see the film and ignore the darkness at its heart; America, at its core, celebrates the cruelty and destruction on display. It finds beauty in death, creating a well-fuelled propaganda machine that transforms war into a celebration of power and national pride.
In 2020, Spike Lee released Da Five Bloods, his response to Apocalypse Now in many ways. Set in the present (though featuring extensive flashbacks), the film focuses on four Black American veterans as they return to Vietnam decades after the war. It utilizes some anti-lie techniques that Coppola does while further disputing the myths and images ingrained by Apocalypse Now. It’s an attempt, at least, to create a truthful film about the nature of American warfare that considers the Vietnamese point of view while also suggesting something more profound and darker about the Black American experience within that context, something only alluded to in Coppola’s film.
Is Da Five Bloods a better film than Apocalypse Now? Not necessarily, but it exists in conversation with history and our perception of cultural value. For better and worse, Apocalypse Now’s placement within the canon reflects its outsized influence on the culture. Like many great films, Apocalypse Now is complex and challenging; those aspects of filmmaking should not be understated. ■
Apocalypse Now: Final Cut screens exclusively at Cinéma du Parc as of Friday, Aug. 12 and opens wide on Aug. 19.
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