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Hearts of Darkness details Coppola's frustrations at coming to grips with his material in some measure. And initially there's something poignant about his confusion - it's almost as if we, the audience, were there on the set, egging him on despite the years, to complete the movie. The immediacy of this film record is remarkable. But a realization intrudes on our sympathy, and it has to do with the image of an apolitically "pure" artist Eleanor Coppola evokes in her softly rendered recollection (where she speaks of Francis's dreams and nightmares with Biblical awe) - an image to which Coppola himself clearly nods with approval. Francis Coppola talks about directing as one of the "last dictatorial posts in a world getting more and more democratic," and the film is about the madness of ego-induced revelation. While Apocalypse Now is too brutal to be construed as pro-Vietnam, you do ask yourself, as this director plots out each brilliantly staged battle sequence from his helicopter, that had replaced Westmoreland with Coppola, the real war might have been won. That's the disturbing aspect - the portrait of a master manipulator and part-time, military strategist is one ill-at-odds with the ideal of a pristine artistic sensibility as espoused by, say, Thomas Mann.
There are some loose ends in this documentary, too. I wish we had seen some footage of Harvey Keitel, who was fired and replaced by Martin Sheen, as Willard. All the principals save Brando make appearances - a good idea, as Brando's mythical presence is better served in absentia; we also get to see an outtake of Marlon wincing while swallowing a bug as he proceeds with Kurtz's pontifications. But why wasn't Michael Herr interviewed? The author of the definitive Vietnam novel, Dispatches, composed the narration Willard intones throughout Apocalypse Now, and his opinion of the labyrinthine screenwriting process would have been fascinating. Instead we get John Milius's Conrad-inspired machismo and twaddle regarding his relationship with Coppola resembling General Von Rundstedt's with Adolf Hitler.
In spite of its investigation of the failed artist - more because of it, actually - Hearts of Darkness is compelling, necessary viewing. You can forgive Coppola's exhausting hyperventilation about his fear of pretension, his search for answers "on about 47 different levels," life and death, and what he calls "this transmutation, this renaissance," when we have chapter upon chapter of riveting sequences in Apocalypse Now, replete with one unforgettable image after another. And finally, Coppola perhaps is a figure of nobility - a windmill-jousting Knight of the Woeful Countenance, if you will - for beckoning us, as Morrison does in "The End," simply to "come on and take a chance with us."
HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER'S APOCALYPSE
Written and directed by Fax Bahr with George Hickenlooper; documentary footage directed by Eleanor Coppola.
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