“Regensburg… shit. I’m still only in this pandemic…”
As we slog toward the end of the first year of this in-and-out lockdown, and begin parting the curtains for Act II, this beautiful, dark opening for Apocalypse Now swings into my imagination. The nihilism that Francis Ford Coppola reveals in the American soul is on full display even today the same as it is in these opening moments of a deeply nihilistic film about an utterly nihilistic period of history. Jim Morrison’s lyrics ring like prophetic commentary on the year that was, 2020:
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes again.
Can you picture what will be?
So limitless and free
Desperately in need
Of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land
Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain
And all the children are insane
All the children are insane
Waiting for the summer rain, yeah…
It hurts to set you free
But you’ll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end.
Nowadays I wake up one hour earlier every day to resume our daily Quarantine Retreat. We love the smell of incense in the morning… it smells like — victory.
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[ As a side note: I remember the first time I saw this movie. I actually brought my parents to it — two members of “the Greatest Generation,” the one that had overcome Nazi dictatorship in Europe and Japanese dictatorship in Asia. They had lost many friends in the war. My Dad had volunteered for the effort the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Dad thrived on the triumphant black-and-white docu-reel war programs ever since as long as I could remember.
I don’t know where I got the extremely dumb idea to think they would get something out of this. For one, they never ever EVER went to the movies. There was massive hype about the making of this film in the media at the time, and I thought it would be a great thing to bring them to. But this was before the Internet, and I did not have access to enough information (or basic intellectual insight) to suss out what I was exposing them to. There had been some grand hoopla, at the time, about “the return of Marlon Brando” to the big screen after years hiding out in Tahiti. I figured this same On the Waterfront persona might appeal to them, maybe some connection they might have felt since their youth growing up with his personage bled through their wartime. I definitely thought it would be excellent for Dad to experience one of his beloved war films this time on a big screen. Francis Ford Coppola was declared to be a genius auteur, for reasons I had none of the basic intelligence to understand. What could possibly go wrong?
At the end of the movie, I was stunned by something I could not nearly grasp. When the lights came on, I reached over to search his reaction, and he looked glum and even violated, deeply offended. His furrow was knit tightly. Dad walked out of the theatre very, very disappointed. It took me years to really appreciate why. But suffice it to say, he had been raised on war-cinema wherein America fought on the side of the good, and won clear, decisive, distinctly praiseworthy battles. He was not accustomed to the moral unflushed-toilet that Coppola depicted. Dad could certainly be excused for not “connecting” with war movies like this that showed America creating its own “heart of darkness.” The napalm-brightened opening scene, and Martin Sheen’s heroin-inspired hotel room dance of madness, the nihilism that Coppola pointed to in this 60s-wasted “American exceptionalism” gone genocidally amok, the open use of drugs by the American troops, the mesmerising, trippy music, and the abject moral ambiguity on every single level, right down to Brando’s shadowy, demonic half-emergence from the dungeon of his character Kurtz’s debased moral self-implosion — all of this was a sweaty intellectual orgy too-far for the parents. I guess I only realised “why” some years after college study. I had brought them to the film when I was 16 or 17, at a theatre on sunny Cape Cod. My Dad didn’t really say much to me for the rest of his weekend visit to the Cape. It wasn’t exactly light family viewing for a summer’s evening, you could say. ]