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The End and Apocalypse Now
by Andrew Poppy
[original introduction to music and feature film given at the National Film and Television School]


I would like to put the opening of the film we are about to see in some context by playing a song, a track from an album from the 1960s and by asking you to think about two different things. Firstly the poetry of the lyric expressed through words, images in language and sounds and secondly the music expressed through the organisation of sound in time. I would particularly like to draw your attention to the pulse of the music.

 

Listen to The Doors The End from CD

Watch the opening scene of Apocalypse now.

For anyone who has not seen Apocalypse Now the bald facts are these. In Viet-Nam in the 60s a Captain Willard is sent on a mission to kill a Colonel Kurts. Kurts is a brilliant American Soldier who has run a muck and set up his own army.

What are the questions we might ask? What does music do in a story about a soldier in Viet Nam? How does it contribute? Why is music there at all? When we see this opening sequence to the music and we see the face of someone overlaid by images of jungle and fire. Does this imply that this someone is listening to the music?

Is the music a way of getting us comfortable? Does it function like the early opera overture where there was some kind of fan fare to tell people to finish their drinks, the show is about to begin. Does The Doors track reminds us of the 1960s American culture?

Letís explore this last idea. How can we summarise the American 1960 cultural context. It is the now hackneyed image of peace and love. It is sex, drugs and rock and roll. It is pleasure, sensual experience and liberation.

The dark side of pleasure is pain and violence and at a national level for America this meant the pleasure of war. The pleasure of war seems like a contradiction but it is certainly one the director acknowledged. It is clear Coppola wanted to make a profound film, a political and moral film even, but also an entertaining block buster. He was aware of the contradictions and moral dilemmas he faced in attempting to hold these contradiction in a single frame. (A struggle very well documented in a film made by his wife called Hearts of Darkness.) The contradictions are held together in the theme of the film: War as a trip. The word Trip starts from its associations with recreational drugs but moves into our legitimate pleasure and entertainment values and the story of Captain Willard and his river boat journey.

At one point the young soldier Lance who is escorting Captain Willard down the river gets a letter from home. His friend describes the experience of Disney Land. "There could never be a place like Disney land could there," the letter says. Lance looks around and replies "its here" This "itís here" refers to our experience of the film also. This moment seems to the clearest articulation of the theme of the film: war as a trip to the cinema.

Having said all this the decision to open the film with the song The End by The Doors is much more than just scene setting. It is probably the most important single decision of the film. Everything that we experience is filtered through the world of this song. More than this, the song and the music gain significance at the pay off moment at the end of the film when the music reappears as the music of the ritual sacrifice. The meaning of Kurtís death is transformed from being the job of an assassin, to the ritual violence of sacrifice. This mythical moment would not have been communicated without this music.

 

But: why should this particular music be appropriate for this role? We could say that the poetic language of the song and the persona of Jim Morrision the lead singer of the Doors have something to do with it. Morrison, the Shaman, the master of ritual ceremonies. He ushers in Apocalypses Now from his fund of nihilistic stories. The presence of Jim Morrisonís voice is important here. He is the narrator from beyond the specific world of the fiction. But the voice and the language are not strictly speaking the musical content. What is it in the music that is so appropriate? The drone like repetitive pattern of the bass guitar not only suspends us but connects us stylistically to non western music particularly of the east. Whilst still being a Californian rock band the guitar plays flourishes which could technically be call arabesque. The guitar style of sliding around between fixed pitches also conjures or refers to a non western musical world. But these are superficial things. What is most interesting about this music and its use in Apocalypse Now is something else.

A definition of what music is, might be: the organisation of sounds in time.

And it is time that this track explores so profoundly. For most of the song the music moves with a slow sense of pulse until about two thirds of the way through it reaches a most astonishing climax. A climax that builds in speed, twists and changes time until in destroys itself. The music destroys its own time. Ritual and violent death is the profoundly centre of this film and this music. Significantly the song does not end at this point so this musical image is presented with extraordinary clarity.

The moment is The End. The End of time. The musical image expresses the disintegration of the story, the hero and America values in a war without meaning or integrity. This is Kurts knowledge but he himself cannot return with it. This understanding can only be communicated by Captain Willard as messenger. Kurtsí message home is the film Apocalypse Now. So Kurts is sacrificed that time may begin again. The Christian iconography is appropriate. At a moment of utter self loathing a plea for cleaning and a moment of hope made possible through the traditional symbolism of ritual sacrifice. Finally Jim Morrison sings: "The end of laughter and soft lies. The end of nights we tried to die"

© 1997 by Andrew Poppy


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Created by Keesjan van Bunningen. Last modified on October 4, 1998