This is the chapter I felt was missing from “Bookseller Blues”. APOCALYPSE NOW was an important movie released during the time frame of the book and more than just a movie, it kind of summed up EVERYTHING that had taken place in America during the late sixties and throughout the seventies.
Chapter (number to be determined later)
Those of us who weren’t caught up in the Star Wars Phenomenon were not eagerly anticipating the sequel to the original blockbuster but were nevertheless waiting for a movie that would sum up our generation in a couple of hours or more of unending violence, psychic and otherwise.
Then there were those others who felt their story had already been told, who thrilled to the simplistic version of the age- old battle between good and evil, as portrayed on the screen by the clearly designated agents of either camp in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
So before Darth Vader revealed to the gallant but untried hero Luke Skywalker that he was no stranger and had walked a similarly righteous path before he ended up with his shriveled head encased all in black and his voice emanating electronically like the sound of death itself or at the very least potential doom, there was another movie. It was for all the others. For those who had not been as eager to put Vietnam behind them, who just couldn’t because it had invaded their teenage nightmares and hovered around their earliest choices in adolescence, for those who wanted to maintain control of their fantasies and live them out in the present tense, whose future had already been written and guaranteed in the psychedelic karma laden drama of ‘2001’.
And for those, whose heroes were already dead, who had known instinctively as children that there was more than a shade of difference between John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Richard Millhouse Nixon and that it was not just cosmetic- ‘Apocalypse Now’ was their movie. Released coincidentally on the tenth anniversary of the murder of actress Sharon Tate by the Manson gang, the film was beset from the beginning by myriad problems, the weather, and the actors and complexities of the story, everything that could go wrong went wrong. Director Frances Ford Coppola seemed over his head in at first in dealing with all the issues but he had dealt with the ambiguities of evil before and with a few of the same actors. Ultimately he proved his mettle and achieved by sheer persistence a truce with the relentless forces of blind nature.
Hutchinson, Graziano and Goldman sat in the first row but only because the place was packed, they were not psychically prepared for the onslaught of catastrophic images and ideas that filled the giant screen. Not to mention the music which came as a surprise, beautiful, aching and totally in sync with the forests burning out of control from the controlled dropping of the gasoline based napalm. This was the shithouse going up in flames, as predicted by the young man who may have been caught up in his own myth, but in his art was pure and direct:
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
Hutchinson had to smile when he heard the first exotic strains of one of the epic songs of the era filling the theatre specially equipped with the new Dolby sound system and he was grinning broadly when he poked Goldman in the seat next to him who was also smiling, against his own wishes, his eyes spontaneously lit from a renewed fire within.
For, the song Jim Morrison had composed in a simple act of self expression, the song he had turned into a white hot performance piece that got The Doors fired from the Whiskey a’ Go Go and subsequently scored them a record contract with Elecktra, had found its true home and subject matter. Later in the film it would return, its interior jungle rhythms totally synchronistic with the extended killing sequence, the ritualistic slaughter of Colonel Kurtz perfectly contrasted with the sacrifice of a huge water buffalo by his ragtag army of tribesman and renegade Americans.
The booksellers were totally stunned by what they saw and ravished by its intensity, to the point that when a stranger passed a joint their way up the entire aisle of the crowded theatre they poked at it with the survival instincts of men in the desert, bereft of shade and any material or spiritual comfort.
“Thanks, Man, I really needed that” acknowledged Lucien Goldman to the anonymous donor.
Similarly they grasped at all the loose ends of the sixties struggles for identity and purpose as they were gathered up and explained again for those who hadn’t been paying attention, who had followed the flow in the other direction.
There were the literary allusions manifested in the product placement of books like ‘The Golden Bough’ and ‘From Ritual to Romance’ on the desk of the supposedly ‘crazed’ Col. Kurtz. T. S. Eliot, Lucien’s favorite poet, who would later win a Tony Award for the posthumous lyrics he contributed to the musical ‘Cats’ was better served here. His breakthrough poem ‘The Hollow Men’ was read by none other than Marlon Brando, indicating to the crazed photojournalist played by Dennis Hopper, that Col. Kurtz was a true warrior-poet, with an underlying method to his madness. And to both actors and their osmotically attuned audience that the method acting they had studied years before was madness personified.
Of course, for the uninitiated and non-literary millions who were turned off by the film and what it seemed to be saying, the literary foundations were pretentious and egotistical. Even some of those who may have actually read ‘The Heart of Darkness’ were put off by this brazen attempt to translate the tale to the twentieth century, even if the characters’ name was also Kurtz.
And the politics of the film were questionable and to some anti-American depicting the country of their birth as just another example of a Colonial Empire exploiting those countries whose peoples were of a different color. They also didn’t buy into the idea that America had lost the war in Vietnam because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or because their army might have been comprised of ‘rock and rollers with one foot in the grave’, as their sage Lieutenant had put it. This was not the ‘Peace with Honor’ their President Nixon had promised and delivered upon in April 1974.
The drug use itself was despicable, the casual way in which the soldiers smoked marijuana or dropped acid in the midst of battle, though these naysayers laughed along with Col. Kilgore when he braved the flying barrage of enemy bullets in a macho display of finding the perfect wave. When his assistants try to inform him that the area where he wants to surf is held by the ‘Charlie’ (the Viet Cong), he is dismissive of their concerns, insisting ‘Charlie Don’t Surf’. End of discussion.
“If you want to understand ‘Apocalypse Now’ all you have to do is read ‘Dispatches’. It’s no wonder they brought Michael Herr onboard to provide the narrative,” said Hutchinson.
“I guess that’s the reason for the delay,” said Lucien Goldman, as they sat afterwards in a coffee shop, still minimally stoned, but more likely from being in the terminology of their generation, ‘blown away’ and by a film no less. As bibliophiles first and foremost, booksellers might also be cinemaphiles but it was not their second nature.
Lucien had been less than blown away or even partially entranced by an early seventies adaptation of the book that had remade his life, almost as significantly as ‘On The Road’ had. ‘The Great Gatsby’ had been an earlier signpost and thus his feelings about it were impervious to any foreseeable retrofitting of his sensibilities with regard to its arc and denouement and its ultimate depiction of love as inevitable but impossible to hold onto. Even when he came to be buffeted by the chance winds of change in the years that lay ahead, he would hold onto his belief in the books innate charm and its resistance to any universally acknowledged display of its inner workings. Fitzgerald’s prose was immaculate on the page but did not work as dialogue, especially coming from the mouths of a slew of miscast actors and actresses. The subtleties of its humor and the underlying tension of its dramatic core simply did not translate to the big screen.
Strangely enough, the film version of ‘Gatsby’ had been written by Frances Ford Coppola, prior to ‘Apocalypse Now’ prior to the two Godfather films. He had been unable to do the impossible with ‘Gatsby’ but he had perfectly suited to capture the bravura spirit of the sixties and to articulate why that generation’s revolution had been doomed from the start. In the patchwork quilt of literary and mythological allusions, in the perfunctory nod to the cultural icons of the era, he had framed the dilemma. If acid was the teacher, teaching us to pay attention to everything and to trace every influence back to its source, we were simply overwhelmed by a savage overload of sensory information, and lost our way, on the frightful way home. Hence Captain Willard is only home in the jungle, not with his wife back in the States, to whom he can no longer relate and not in Saigon either which is a little too civilized for comfort.
When he leaves the jungle, after finally completing his mission, no closer to a clear understanding of where the line is drawn between good and evil, an unearthly quiet descends. Willard, the scarred warrior with no discernible poetic sensibility leads the innocent, former surfer Lance Johnson down an unknown path.
“Charlie don’t surf,” said Anthony Graziano, repeating for the third or fourth time, during their post-movie discussion, what would become the film’s most repeated line.
“I love that line,” he said again.
“You’ll be seeing it on T-shirts soon,” cracked Hutchinson.