Tip of the Quill: A Journal
On Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.

This weekend I’ve been continuing some old quests: regular readers will know that I’ve been working my way through the AFI’s top 122 movies list (the result of combining the Institute’s original top 100 list and its revised top 100 list – 22 movies were added the second time around). As of this writing I’m a healthy 63% of the way through, thanks to watching a couple DVDs every weekend. Over the last two weeks I’ve watched Stagecoach, Sullivan’s Travels, Gone With the Wind, MASH, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Mutiny on the Bounty, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Sunset Boulevard, and this morning I watched the original 1979 version of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
I had planned to squeeze in one or two more today, but instead I walked over to my bookshelves and took down a hardcover collection of selected works by Joseph Conrad. It’s a big book, a Barnes and Noble edition that my mom had found for me at a garage sale somewhere (or perhaps had gotten for me for Christmas last year – my memory here fails me), and between its covers are four of the over 200 books that make up my personal to-read list: Lord Jim, Nostromo, The Secret Agent and, most importantly for this entry, Heart of Darkness. Plowing through this list is necessarily much slower-going than the AFI list – not only does this list have a nasty tendency to grow as I think of other books I really ought to read, but reading Gravity’s Rainbow is inherently a much more time-intensive task than watching even Gone with the Wind. The reasoning behind this list is much the same as the AFI list – a deep-seated feeling in my bones that despite my having earned an English degree from a fairly prestigious college and my Master’s degree from an even more prestigious university, there’s still so much I haven’t read, or so much I’ve simply forgotten. Since my dream is still to become an author and professor, when I consider how many huge, epic gaps there are in my knowledge I begin to feel that even if I were to succeed in these goals, I’d feel like a fraud. About three years ago now, right when I was entering MIT, my cousin Amanda and I had a long talk about our different plans. She told me that she was doing some graduate school herself, in a way – only she was doing what she called “Amanda school,” tutoring herself on all the things she found interesting. I think this is what I’m doing now, in this gap between my Master’s degree and wherever I settle in to do my Ph.D.: a “Geoffrey school” of films, novels, and programming books. It’d be easy to argue, of course, that this is what I’ve been doing all along anyway, but making a concerted effort to chew through these massive to-do lists feels like I have a good, solid way of charting my progress. Depressingly, I’ve been working on these lists since March of 2005 and there’s still an embarrassingly long way to go (after all, in many ways I’m reading books that AP students were probably reading in high school) but I think, in the long run, it’s what I need to do.
So it is that today I watched Apocalypse Now and read Heart of Darkness, both for the first time. The experience is fascinating; Apocalypse Now is not so much an adaptation of Heart of Darkness as it is a remixing of it, in the same way that CMS looks at remix culture. Both the text and the film are ruminations on the darkest parts of human nature and madness, of the fall of a golden child into the depths of despair and depravity, but Coppola’s use of the text to parse the actions of American soldiers in the Vietnam war is absolutely breathtaking. What I’d originally considered to be just another rote damnation of the atrocities of war (prior to actually having seen the film, of course – if Mr. Coppola ever happens to come across this post, well, sir, please accept my apology for my wrongheaded assumptions) instead blooms into something much more profound. Apocalypse Now is an incredible example of how adaptation can work through the benefit of each media form’s unique strengths – while Conrad uses loops and whorls of language and time to communicate the madness unfolding in his narrative, Coppola deploys music, dialogue, framing, lighting and slow-motion shots to achieve the same effect, and it works brilliantly.
Conrad’s characters are interesting but nowhere near as startling as Coppola’s, but seeing Coppola’s inspirations is quite cool. This isn’t a straight line-for-line lift, but an updating and a retelling worthy of a Shakespearean interpretation; Dennis Hopper’s American journalist is as interesting a recreation of Conrad’s Russian assistant as a reimagining of Puck, Caliban or even Hamlet might be. Conrad’s Kurtz is an intriguing sketch of a character, but Coppola’s Kurtz is a combination of Brando’s breathtaking performance, some artisan-level cinematography and, yes, the near-perfect deployment of negative capability throughout the rest of the film to build up the character at the very end. Conrad builds Kurtz up pretty well, but Coppola’s build-up is absolutely top-notch: from the description Harrison Ford gives Martin Sheen at the beginning, to Sheen’s slow discovery of the character’s history through his dossier, right up through to the very end – that was narrative, cinematic poetry.
Even the changes that Coppola makes for a modern audience are telling – while the protagonist’s mission in Heart of Darkness isn’t exactly clear, Coppola gives Sheen’s character a strong, easy-to-understand mission in the form of a clearly-stated mission. By doing so, Coppola gives audiences a crystalline comprehension of the story they’re about to be told, so that the film works at a surface level even if all the madness-of-men reflectiveness is lost on some of them. Although critics accused Conrad of being primarily an adventure writer, Heart of Darkness doesn’t function quite as well as a ripping adventure yarn because it lacks Coppola’s “go here, kill him” steely narrative core. With that intact, Apocalypse Now operates with the grace and impact of an iceberg. There’s explosions and scenery and conflict to be perceived above the water, but the vast majority of what’s going on is happening beneath – and that’s the stuff that’s really dangerous.
I wonder if I would have enjoyed either of these works half as much when I was in high school. Although I was a pretty damn bright student and English was definitely my favorite subject, I had little to no patience with works that I viewed as heavy-handed, mopey criticisms of the atrocity of human nature. I still have that issue to some extent – it wasn’t until my friend Matt filled me in on the context of The Deer Hunter that I could appreciate it as much more than an extended riff on the cliché of “life is pain”, but once I understood that The Deer Hunter was the first film to openly criticize the Vietnam war, then things began to make more sense. Knowing that The Deer Hunter opened the door for what I consider to be the much more nuanced, brilliantly shot and thought-inducing Apocalypse Now, well, that makes me even more appreciative of it. Of all the war movies I’ve been watching lately (as the AFI saw fit to include quite a few), my favorites so far have to be Apocalypse Now and The Bridge on the River Kwai – although I still haven’t seen All Quiet on the Western Front or Patton yet. I’ll let you know what I think after the project is done.
In any case, this type of thinking is precisely the sort of thing that this “Geoffrey school” is meant to bring about – and now, if I ever wind up teaching Heart of Darkness, I’m certainly going to be screening Apocalypse Now to drive the point home. If Comparative Media Studies had a Ph.D. program, this is what I’d like to think I’d be doing there right now anyway. Perhaps, even if I get fed up waiting for our program to finally get its Ph.D. and go get my degree in English literature, I’ll still wind up teaching Comparative Media Studies in spirit and in method. Honestly, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.