During this marathon class, we not only watched but also discussed Coppola's Apocalypse Now in its entirety. The hidden question behind our discussion was as follows: why are we watching this movie in a class on the epic? What specifically is epic about this film and in what ways does it differ from the epic tradition we have explored so far? Class pointed out that what we are seeing is a prototypical epic scenario: the invasion of an alien culture, much like Odysseus's attack on the Cicones immediately following his departure from Troy. We even have an epic-like hero: the fearless Captain Kilgore who has "an aura about him as if he knew he would survive the war unscathed." In support of this thesis, I showed the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now. We might say that we have in this scene a new version of epic machinery, except that instead of actual gods (like the Valkyries from Germanic mythologies, supernatural beings that took the souls of dead heroes to Paradise to serve the gods) what we have instead is an idolizing of the machinery of war (helicopters, automatic weapons, explosives, and napalm). The difference from past epics is that, although the film does seem to idolize destruction to some extent, it also presents the face of the destroyed victim, as in the the Valkyries scene; that is, the film also includes a certain critique of the colonial endeavor, as Jen Slawson and Luke Jacoby explained. As a result, even the epic-like hero is parodied to some extent, hence the name: kill-gore, as pointed out by Lilly Ewing. D. J. Dangler also suggested that we have in this scene and in Kurtz's speeches a perverted example of the sublime: the mystery of the wilderness, the search for the dark side of the psyche, the fear associated with one's own extinction, the transcendent. The difference is that Coppola is taking the figure of the Satanic hero into even further "moral terror" than did the Romantics. It is worth noting, by the way, that in both the film and Conrad's book Kurtz is portrayed as a poet (a "poet-warrior," as the reporter puts it in the film). We could also say that there is a relation being posited between military technology and the sublime; after all, napalm could be said literally to expunge the former locus of the sublime, leading Capt. Kilgore to state perversely: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" Indeed, Jen Slawson and Lilly Ewing implicitly explored one aspect of this equation when they discussed the role of trauma in both Apocalypse Now and Conrad's Heart of Darkness. In both, some traumatic event at the heart of the narrative drives the various levels of further narration, as if each new level seeks to find meaning for the trauma through storytelling. Cannot the same be said about the essentially traumatic experience of the sublime? Consider, for example, the layers of narrative in Wordsworth's Dream of the Arab sequence in The Prelude: Wordsworth tells a friend (1) about reading Don Quixote (2), which led him into a dream (3) in which he is confronted by an Arab (4) who gives him a Shell (5) that speaks to him an Ode (6) that reveals the truth of the Apocalypse (7).
Let me also add that Jasmine Criswell, a former student in this class, made the superb suggestion that Coppola is exploring the separation of reality and desire in the film, a separation that is one feature of the postmodern condition. In the Playboy-bunny sequence as well as the Valkyries scene, we are presented with an alignment of sex and violence (remember that the "bunnies" were dressed as cowboys and indians with fake pistols; you might also recall the covering of the genetalia in the helicopters). This alignment leads to a separation from the suffering of others. Desire is no longer about intimacy but about impersonal destruction.
The discussion about whether Apocalypse Now idolizes war or critiques it leads us to the question whether the Heart of Darkness idolizes or critiques imperialism. Is Conrad's book racist or does it criticize the inherent racism of colonialism? This is a debate that has gone on about Conrad's book almost since its publication. (Indeed, Chinua Achebe's book, Things Fall Apart was written in part as a response to Conrad's text, which Achebe views as inherently racist and ethnocentric.) Consider, in particular, the following excerpts of Chinua Achebe's famous criticism of Conrad's novella.
Let me say a second time how impressed I was with your stunningly brilliant discussions of both Apocalypse Now and Citizen Kane
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