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Favorite Movie Series: Tom Murphy on Apocalypse Now Redux

I enjoyed bringing guest writers in for the Favorite Movie Series last month so much that I've decided to make it a regular column. Expect new favorite movie guest posts every Wednesday until I run out of people to bug. For the first weekly column, I solicited a piece of writing from one of Denver's finest. Tom Murphy is a well known fixture of the Denver music scene due to his role as a music writer for Denver Village Voice affiliate Westword and more importantly his unparalleled passion for local music. What has always struck me about Tom is that though his professional focus is music, he has always been able to hold his own in movie discussions, and I daresay probably has seen as many or more cult and obscure movies than I have in his time. When I asked Tom to participate in the Favorite Movie Series, I was not expecting to receive such a personal and honest essay in return, and frankly I'm blown away…

Everyone who has bothered to pay attention or even gone so far as to see the documentary Hearts of Darkness knows of the trials, perils and tribulations endured by everyone involved in the making of Apocalypse Now from having filmed a good deal of the movie with Harvey Keitel in the role of Willard before Keitel and the production parted ways and the former was replaced by Martin Sheen. Now, one can hardly imagine anyone else playing Willard because Sheen so strongly put his personal stamp on the role and it remains the most intensely and brilliantly acted role of his long career.

Those of us who saw Apocalypse Now in its original form, whether in the theater or through some other outlet got to see a movie with some of the plot cut out and many of us rationalized that the disjointed quality of the film was part of Coppola's attempt to make the movie reflect the fragmented, episodic view many people held about the war in Vietnam. Upon seeing the film at the age of twelve or so, on HBO of course, because, after all, this was 1982, I appreciated how well the music was used and I thought some of the dialogue was very memorable even if most people, myself included, remember the "Napalm smells like victory" spoken by Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore in a form much abbreviated from the actual lines from the movie. But I did feel like the movie was problematic and it seemed a bit uneven for some reason. Visually, it was arresting and mysterious and dark like few movies ever were. But I liked other movies much more as a youth and well into adulthood.

When Apocalypse Now Redux was released in the summer of 2001, a friend of mine, who had spent some time in the army and in the French Foreign legion, of all things, coaxed me into seeing it even though I had my reservations. I mean, how does one improve upon such iconic film by adding forty-nine minutes? But it was a director's cut so I went to see it and was not prepared for the effect it would have on me.

Never has a film been so gripping to me in a theater because of the story. Part of the reason for that was that I had myself been through my own personal hell. In April I went through a month of excruciating pain due to a tooth infection and no dentist I could afford could see me for that long. I couldn't sleep for more than an hour at a time and then only by taking heavy doses of over the counter painkillers. A month after that I began a long journey of five or so root canals and paid over five thousand dollars out of pocket after insurance. During one surgery, it went on so long that the anesthetic wore off before the procedure was done and I was struck with blinding pain I endured just so the whole thing could be completed instead of drawing it out some more. I had been struck with panic attacks during all waking hours for a couple of months before I went to the doctor to get some kind of medication to deal with them and the medication was almost as bad as the attacks themselves. Then, in August, the date Apocalypse Now Redux was released, I was woken up out of a dead sleep by the stabbing grinding pain of my first kidney stone--a pain so sharp and powerful that you can't move. You can't think to dial a phone for help. You can't even talk. All you can do is clench muscles and cry out. This went on for longer than I can remember and when I was finally able to crawl all I knew was that I wanted the pain to end no matter what.

That was the backdrop of my going to see Redux. The other factor involved in it becoming such an important movie to me was the fact that my alcoholic father had been in Special Forces during much of the Vietnam War after having served in Korea and during World War II. He was a pathological liar and both physically and emotionally abusive--mostly the latter. He wasn't without his virtues but I was so angry with him, at that point in my life, for not being a proper father that it was eating me up inside and pushing me down with a great psychic weight. I used to tell people he could tell me he was alive and I'd reply, "Dad, when did you die?" He tried to be nurturing and he was vaguely affectionate and he had a good, if not always functional, sense of humor but those are things you don't look at when you're mad at your parents.

When I saw the Redux I was struck by Willard's desperation, his self-abuse, his conscience and his inability to lie to himself about what the actual truth was no matter how much the people around him were able and willing to lie to themselves and choose to believe lies that made them feel comfortable about how they conducted themselves and existed in this world. I, too, have never been able to, at heart, lie to myself in those ways either. And it wears on you. Sometimes I think it would be better to be able to be so mired in tapestry of self-created illusion that you don't have to deal in the unvarnished truth. Some of the best writing of the movie is Willard's internal monologue and how it manifests in how he deals with the other characters. Particularly his notion that when he was out in the straight world, perhaps working in a factory in Ohio, he didn't really feel like he fit in and that what he was doing was meaningless. But out in the jungle on a mission, he lived life with more vitality and an immediate sense of purpose. That was something I could relate to and the scenes in the beginning of the movie where Willard is self-medicating and abusing himself while waiting to be called again to duty resonated with my own sense of being a person trained by education and inclination to doing things well outside the realm of a call center or any other job I thought I could get. It's that feeling you get when you know deep down that this is not how it should be for anyone and that we've constructed a Kafka-esque and Russian novel-esque world for ourselves that fulfills no one who is awake to his or her own spirit.

But unlike Willard, I couldn't exactly go on missions of assassination and instead had to vent that malaise into creative endeavors of some kind. And yet, I did consider what a lot of people without that outlet end up doing and it is exactly self-medication or other self-destructive behaviors that seem irresponsible but which are one of the few ways to purge the psyche of an impending sense of the pointlessness of existence.

Most of my life I had considered anyone who drank or did drugs to be, for the most part, a psychologically and emotionally weak person who depends on a chemical to get by and lacking in the creativity to do something meaningful. But after the summer of pain, I realized I would do anything to end that pain. While watching Redux I abstracted that idea to pain that isn't physical and how does one deal with that. Men of my father's generation, at least working-class men like himself, didn't go to psychiatrists. That was for the rich and the privileged. You took care of your own shit. But he didn't. Nor did he have the tools or the language, really, to deal with his own psychic anguish. That made me rethink a lot about how I approached the world and I was able to forgive him for being such a "weak" person instead of a "real father."

Turns out that the plot made much more sense and was far more powerful with the deleted scenes, including the part at the French encampment, than the originally-released version of the movie. The film had been, in a sense, healed in its re-release and that putting in the missing links paralleled my own lack of seeing things clearly about life and about my father. Even though the film ends with one of the most arresting sequences of scenes ever to appear in film up to and including the murder of Colonel Kurtz by Willard and the aftermath, a dark catharsis that rings potently true, I came out of the movie deeply reflective and a great sense of weight dropped off my shoulders.

When I saw my father a day or two later, he looked to be in bad shape and I told my mother that she needed to take him to the hospital, "If not tonight, tomorrow morning." I worked the next morning, September 8, 2001, and couldn't be reached for hours afterward. My father had died in the living room from heart failure as my mother tried to get him ready to go to the hospital. I never got to reconcile in person but I'll always think of Apocalypse Now Redux as not just a film rich in imagery, symbolism, brilliant dialogue, interlocking stories and artful melodrama, I'll think of it as the movie that conveyed, without trying too hard, in no uncertain terms and with a poetic grace the idea that if you believe that life was meant to be lived and not just endured, you're right and that life is too short to carry unnecessary baggage. I probably would have come to forgive my father on my own but Redux sure made the path to closing that chapter go a lot quicker and burned that process in my brain a lot more vividly than would have otherwise been possible. In the end, the film is almost like therapy for anyone who ever thought there's so much more to life than being the servant of The Man and the bland machinery of commerice.

RUSHMORE by Luke Hunter James-Erickson
GREMLINS by Ryan Thompson
A NIGHT AT THE OPERA by Justin Couch

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