Using darkness to bring light to Cannes

Richard Corliss June 11 1979

Using darkness to bring light to Cannes

Richard Corliss June 11 1979

Using darkness to bring light to Cannes


Richard Corliss

Soon after takeoff, the captain of a transatlantic flight to Nice, France, announced apologetically that none of the crew seemed to know the title of the in-flight movie. “Maybe it’s a sneak preview of Apocalypse

Now,” said one movie-wise traveller to his companion. “Francis has always wanted to screen it before a captive audience.” Before, during and after this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Francis Coppola’s Vietnam epic—a full decade in gestation, five years and $30.5 million in the making and subject to an unprec-

edented amount of gossip and secondguessing—dominated the film chat of 40,000 moviemakers, minimoguls, middlemen and occasional students of the liveliest art. Even the festival’s huge Canadian contingent seemed more interested in the adventures of Coppola than in the traumas of Trudeau.

Coppola’s 141-minute film was shown as a work-in-progress in competition for the grand prize, which it shared with Germany’s The Tin Drum. Already it’s the most analysed film since Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the John Kennedy assassination. Cannily programmed as the festival’s centrepiece, Apocalypse provided festival folk with a week of feverish anticipation (“How long will it be? What ending will he use?”) and a week of postulations and postmortems (“Can it make money? Why did he use that ending?”).

Like Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad novella that provided screenwriter John Milius with his initial inspiration, Apocalypse Now tells the story of a boat ride into the jungles of human horror and despair—set this time in the jungles of America’s own nightmare, Vietnam. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is sent from Saigon on a mission to “terminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a model career soldier driven insane by the war, and who now rules over thousands of Cambodian Montagnards as a demon divinity, á combination of Jim Jones and King Kong. The river journey that comprises the movie’s first 90 minutes contains some of the most spectacular war footage—and filmmaking—in cinema history. As surreal ; as Werner Herzog’s German mastero piece Aguirre, Wrath of God, yet filmed o with the grace and energy of the best 5 American thrillers, these early se3 quences both involve and implicate the * movie’s audience in the unholy thrill of g frontline carnage. You are in the cockpit of a bomber as it dives toward its target, strafing villagers and demolishing huts. When the all-American technician of death, aptly named Kilgore (Robert Duvall), says mystically, “I love napalm. It smells like . . . victory,” you can both deplore his madness and savor it. And as the film reaches its climax, you may smell victory in Coppola’s hard-fought battle to make his film.

Apocalypse Now never quite matches this scene, or recovers from it. Kilgore is such a superb embodiment of official American insanity in Vietnam—the heart of darkness with a Teddy Roosevelt smile and a John Wayne strut— that Brando’s Kurtz can provide only a murky anticlimax, quoting T.S. Eliot and looking like a suntanned Telly Sav-

alas. At the moment when the film should reach its denouement, it limply unwinds.

At Apocalypse's first Cannes screening—for 2,500 film journalists—Coppola himself provided a slam-bang climax. In the course of an onstage press conference, Coppola denounced the

American press (the U.S., that is: Canadian journalists remain above reproach) as “decadent, lying, and unethical,” and charged that not one accurate story had been written about his movie. Apocalypse was, he asserted, “not a movie, it’s a work of art”—and it wasn’t about Vietnam, it was Vietnam. “The mentality that made this film was Kurtz’s mentality.”

A few members of the press corps recalled that Heart of Darkness had been based on an expedition Conrad had taken into the Congo in 1890, and from which he emerged a changed man. Sixteen months in the Philippine jungles must have had something like the same effect on Coppola. The godfather of the New Hollywood now saw himself as an isolated artist, a lonely guru deserted by “guys that I had made into stars.” Others saw him, on the evidence of Apocalypse Now, as a most talented film-

maker who had moved so close to his own heart of darkness that he had lost perspective on what was, finally, “only” a movie.

Festival director Gilles Jacob, who had chosen Apocalypse after seeing an hour of it, and who said that Coppola had decided to enter his film in competition because he believes that “every film should compete,” agreed with the consensus that the U.S. had, at least for now, the most interesting national cinema in the world. Indeed, without Apocalypse and its attendant controversy— and without a strong lineup of Ameri-

can films (Manhattan, Hair, John Huston’s mordant Wise Blood were shown out of competition)—Cannes 1979 would have been one of the dullest in years.

The fault lies not with Jacob but with the static state of world cinema. Directors who five years ago were revolutionizing the notion of narrative film with their own baroque and frightening visions have turned increasingly to the kinds of projects that would have pleased Irving Thalberg: careful adaptations of successful novels, plays, and old movies. The new conservatism proved a challenge only to the journalists: there was much scurrying to the English-language stalls of local bookstores, the better to “re-read” Conrad, Flannery O’Connor ( Wise Blood), Henry James (Jim Ivory’s The Europeans), and Georg Büchner (Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck), and Günter Grass. It was

Volker Schlondorff’s film of Grass’s The Tin Drum that, in this year of cinema somnambulism, at least kept audiences awake and entertained with its series of black and blue skits about an ornery midget growing—well, not exactly up—older in Hitler’s Germany. There was little surprise when the festival jury headed by novelist Françoise Sagan split the main prize between the most notable ambitious failure (Apocalypse) and the most agreeable raunchy pastiche (The Tin Drum). Acting awards went to Jack Lemmon for The China Syndrome and Sally Field for Norma Rae.

And where were the Canadians during all this? Well, they weren’t represented in the main competition. And they weren’t making many waves with the dozen or so films shown at the Cannes theatre rented as a national showcase. The action wasn’t in the theatres or in the hotel rooms—it was on the beachfront terraces of Cannes’s two poshest hotels, the Carlton and the Majestic. And the Canadians weren’t talking mise-en-scène, baby. It was all megabucks, and a larger, tastier slice of the English-language market.

The Canadians showed that they had learned an important lesson: Cannes is big business. Forget what you have heard about its being an exposition of film art. For two weeks, millionaires in T-shirts advertising their latest film sit with their backs to the Côte d’Azur and take part in the industry’s gaudiest garage sale. The Canadians came prepared to exploit this opportunity—with one of the largest foreign contingents at Cannes and with a warehouse full of “product” designed to appeal to the international market. Michael McCabe, the dynamic executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, has persuaded producers and distributors from around the globe that Canada was ready to compete—if not for the Palme d’Or then for a more bankable kind of gold.

The idea of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver as significant outposts of Hollywood is an appealing one, especially when the new government may be looking hard at the CFDC as a moneymaking (or at least money-generating) state agency. The question remains, though, for Canadian film-makers in Cannes and back home: will the influx of Canadian pictures, with foreign stars and foreign co-financing, result in good movies that are also recognizably Canadian? Will the new green wave leave an Outrageous, a Wedding in White on its shores—or faceless action-adventure movies like City on Fire and Running? The Canadian film industry could do far worse than it’s doing; Canadian film could hope to do a bit better.