Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse and The Ties That Bind
Commentary by Greg Wright
Never get out of the boat. Absolutely g**damn right. Unless you were goin’ all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole f***in’ program.
In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant Apocalypse Now! debuted in theaters… and, inexplicably, failed to win a single Oscar. Often described as a war film, even a Viet Nam War film, it is instead an examination of single-minded obsession–what critics, academics, and fanboys refer to as a “meta” film: one which is, in almost all respects, self-referential, about the art of film itself. The plot of the film centers around Captain Willard, a military assassin (Martin Sheen), sent upriver into Cambodia in pursuit of an insane colonel (Marlon Brando) who has gone rogue. The river serves as a metaphor for an avenue of relative safety through increasing hazards… but one you’re better off traveling down, rather than up.
The above quote from Captain Willard’s narration comes in the wake of a hazardous shore excursion, and expresses the thrust of the “ultimate” act of creativity: If you really want to be an artist, be prepared to cut yourself off from everything society considers normal. Be prepared to totally lose yourself in a form of insanity.
Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is a stunning film about the making of Apocalypse Now! It documents the years-long gestation of Coppola’s vision, and the fits-and-starts completion of the project while filming in the civil-war-torn Philippines and in spite of hurricanes, heart attacks, and drug abuse. The film nearly killed Martin Sheen, and it nearly drove Coppola as insane as Kurtz. As the film industry watched, Coppola “split from the whole f***in'” Hollywood program and created something unique, powerful, and unsettling. Already an established talent with The Godfather Parts I and II, Coppola got off the boat, and Coppola went all the way.
A 1979 graduate from Foster High School in Tukwila, I saw Apocalypse Now! as a freshman at the UW and sat up way into the morning hours discussing the film after a screening with dorm-mates and RA Wouter Ketel at the Town Theater downtown. I’d rewatch the film more often in the coming years than any other, even studying it, and would reference the film much later when I finally taught a film class at Puget Sound Christian College in Everett. I’ve watched Hearts of Darkness several times as well. It documents artistic obsession better than any film I’ve seen, with privileged footage shot by Coppola’s then-wife.
But The Ties That Bind comes a close second, at least as far as documentaries go.
Also in 1979, Bruce Springsteen was attempting to record a follow-up to 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Like a reverse of Captain Willard, Springsteen was trying to make a journey out of the heart of darkness back into the real world. Like Willard, however, Springsteen really had no idea where he was going, or how he was going to get there.
And like Coppola, Springsteen also chose a river as the central metaphor for his new masterpiece. He would, in fact, name the album The River (1980). Like Coppola, Springsteen also “split from the whole f***in’ program” and made the album outside the recording industry. He even took a preliminary version of the album back from his record company, and ultimately defied convention and his label by releasing it as a double album in order to “give it room” to tell all the stories he wanted to pack into The River. Columbia, of course, ended up with a goldmine on their hands in spite of it all.
I kind of had a ringside side to the public drama surrounding the making of The River as I was good friends with two bona-fide Springsteen addicts during my first years in college. My roommate Matt (a Kennedy High grad) saw The River as a massive betrayal of Springsteen’s iconoclastic and epically mythic vision, while my gal-pal Shari (now a Gregory Heights resident) correctly read the stories on The River as first-hand accounts of the same “characters” from earlier albums as they grow older and change their perspectives on life and relationships.
Was it Springsteen’s fault that the album actually spawned top-40 bubble-gum rock hits? Did a beefed-up Boss betray his Stone Pony past by introducing us to Courteney Cox in a teeny-bopper video on MTV? Was it really possible that Hungry Heart could legitimately connect “Jungleland” with Friends???
The HBO documentary The Ties That Bind, released last year, answers those questions pretty definitively. At one point, Springsteen declares, “A story is not a life. A story is just a story.” And in 1979, Springsteen found himself a prisoner of his own stories–disconnected from life, out in the metaphorical jungle of a rural New Jersey farm, up a river without a paddle… or a boat. He desperately longed to write a new kind of music, to “save” himself, as he puts in the documentary–to somehow get back “down to the river” and, by writing about real people, perhaps again become one of them himself. He had “family” in the E Street Band, but by his own assessment he had no life (or friends) outside that very tight creative circle. So his coincidental connection with Cox turned out to be oh-so-fitting. Springsteen wouldn’t really get grounded, however, until years later–when he forsook his model-spouse stardom and married a backup singer from his old home town.
I don’t think I really appreciated what Springsteen was up to at the time. I know I didn’t buy Matt’s “I’ll have to stop liking Bruce when he becomes popular” approach, and I found Shari’s “Bruce is speaking directly to me through his music” emotion over the top. I was more into Elvis Costello’s detached anger and cynicism, and was in the process of honing my own epic-minded and mythic alter-ego. In 1979 and 1980, I wasn’t the least bit interested in real relationships, or being a real person. I was, quite naturally, about a decade behind Springsteen, both emotionally and creatively.
But over the years I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on Springsteen’s work, and about artistic obsession–and in particular about the creative rigor of Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. And until I watched The Ties That Bind, I’d always thought of The River as something of an artistic failure.
But no longer. The River is probably to Springsteen what Apocalpyse Now! is to Coppola… that is, in the wake of The River, Springsteen finally found out how to make albums and have a life, while after Apocalypse Now! Coppola figured out how to make movies without driving himself insane. And The Ties That Bind is to The River what Hearts of Darkness is Apocalypse Now!
Great documentaries about great works of art. Check ’em out.
Stream tonight, and don’t forget to dine local first!