23 September 2009

Visual Rhetoric in Apocalypse Now

WARNING: This blog entry contains images that should not be viewed by anyone. And that's not an empty South Park reference. I really do mean that some of the photos are graphic and disturbing. Proceed with that in mind, or don't proceed at all.

I'm not actually going to fulfill the whole promise of that lofty blog title. At least not right now. For now, I just want to outline some thoughts about the power of imagery in Francis Ford Coppola's brilliant 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.

There's a great book by David Lubin, called Shooting Kennedy. In it, he analyzes the photographic coverage of the Kennedy family and tries to explain the power of those images. He says a great deal of wonderful stuff, but one of the major themes, in simple form, is that today's images draw some of their cultural power from images that have gone before and, in turn, they lend power to images that will come in the future.

So, for instance, one of the reasons that this image is so powerful...

...is because it calls to mind--even if it's non-conscious--this powerful image that is an abiding part of our cultural memory as participants of America's visual culture:

The feelings of nationalism, patriotism, pride, defiance, persistence, courage, sacrifice--or whatever other emotion or concept this image evokes for you (including an awareness of the constructedness of this photo and its power as a tool for propaganda)--that are infused in this Iwo Jima photo are also part of the soul of the 9/11 firefighter photo. The 9/11 photo is rendered more intense than it might be otherwise because there's an invisible echo of the Iwo Jima image contributing its power to the newer photo.

I think Apocalypse Now draws on a massive heritage of powerful representations of human suffering, punishment, and evil, drawing on their power to make the film the visual body-blow that it is for us today. Most notably, I see almost undeniable echoes of Heironymous Bosch's images of Hell and judgment, as well as Gustave Dore's engravings for Dante's Inferno.

Think of the images in Apocalypse Now of the terrified soldiers seeking salvation from the Hell of the Do Lung bridge:

I can't help but think of all the damned souls that beg Dante and Virgil for rescue as the poet tours Hell. As I watch (and reflect upon--after all, memory has the creative power to further alter the impact of images) Apocalypse Now, Dore's famous engravings of Dante's Comedy come unbidden to my mind, like the image of "the doomed souls embarking to cross the Acheron"...

or Dante and Virgil's ferry ride across the Styx, which is all the more uncanny for featuring--like Coppola's film--a river of death, and a boat navigating through corpses and the horrified denizens of Hell:

These Dore images echo in my mind while I watch Apocalypse Now, so what is already a movie about the horrors of war reaches much further into my own terror--touching on my fear of eternal torment, not just my hatred and fear of temporal warfare. (By the way, Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most aggressively proud Italians I've ever experienced. So it's not very likely that he's evoking images of equally proud Italian, Dante, by accident. Coppola might not be thinking of these exact Dore illustrations, but Dante's Inferno is a main ingredient of Apocalypse Now's visual rhetoric, one way or another.)

The scenes of carnage that Willard and the survivor of the boat witness when they arrive at Kurtz's compound call to mind images from Dore and the Inferno as well. Consider this rather typical image from Apocalypse Now where, as so often in the film, grisly death serves as an unremarkable backdrop for the characters' interactions...

...not unlike in this image from the Inferno:

Really, though, the horror of Kurtz's compound, the manifestation of evil's source in the film, is even more connected, in my mind, with Bosch's apocalyptic imagery. Consider his depiction of Hell for instance:

Or his portrayal of the Day of Judgment:

In these images, as in Apocalypse Now, naked or semi-naked, tormented bodies--dead or in various stages of dying--litter the landscape, sometimes piled one on top of another, or often hanging from poles or other rigs. Over and over again, Coppola's film seems to draw on these powerful, iconic, religious images of punishment and terror:

These images of casual agony, of course, draw from Dore as well--no stranger to piled, damned bodies:

Why am I doing this to you? Why does Coppola do it? Or Dore? Or Bosch? I think it's because only by pummeling their audiences with graphic imagery of sin's consequences or the nature of evil that these various artists can take their audiences to a place where the audience, like Colonel Kurtz, is left with only one possible conclusion: "the horror...the horror." It's a place of humility, of spiritual poverty, of utter reliance on the grace of God (or, alternatively, a place of complete despair or, more hopefully, a place where the world's need inspires your longing to effect change). Perhaps Dore drew from Bosch's work, knowing that--for some people--the emotional power of Bosch's imagery would energize his own. What's far more likely, in our age of mechanical reproduction and the superabundance of visual imagery, is that Coppola knew that his film imagery would evoke shadows of past visions of calamity, and that these visual, historical shadows would make his movie darker and more psychologically and spiritual burdensome.

As a closing note, I can't help but be reminded of how thoroughly life sometimes imitates art and, once again, the images I've seen in painting, engraving, and cinema crowd together in my visual memory to invest real-life images with even more repugnance and horror than they might otherwise have possessed. I'm thinking specifically of the photos from Abu Ghraib, where American service personnel posed and piled naked and semi-naked Arab bodies, creating scenes that seem torn from Apocalypse Now, Dore, and Bosch (whether these American servicepeople knew it or not):

As I perceive these photos, I can't stop the images from Coppola, Dore, and Bosch from informing my interpretation of them. All of the evil, sin, and demonic energy of those older images rush in and fills these images as well. The main difference? Well, other than the factual nature of the Abu Ghraib abuse, there's humor. For all their strangeness, Bosch's images aren't funny (or certainly weren't to him or his audience). There's no humor in Dore or in the casual carnage of Apocalypse Now (well, maybe a very dark form of humor in the Kilgore scenes, which are in many ways the closest thing to Abu Ghraib in the movie). No, in a truly sickening turn, these soldiers find their atrocities funny. I can't even fathom the implications of this. What does it say about our Iraq war and the depradations it wreaks on our soldiers' souls?

Anyway, my point is that images are layered on images which are layered on images. In our world, where millions of paintings, photos, and movies are available at the click of a mouse, it's difficult to find any truly impactful image that stands solely on its own symbolic power. Sometimes, the exponential layering of imagery is coincidental, or maybe it's intentional but subtle. In other cases, the layering is an explicit strategy for employing the power of the preceding images, either simply to borrow their energy or, in some rare cases, to redirect it, reshape it, or even redeem it. In my search for images for this blog entry (a search that left me reeling, dizzy, and nauseous--quite literally), I stumbled across this painting, one from a larger collection (which, by the way, is well worth checking out):

It's weird how the original photos were such seering testimonies to our ability to dehumanize our brothers and sisters. This painting (by Fernando Botero) seems to me to draw on the raw emotion of those photos (and the facts they emblematize) but for the opposite intent: to humanize the victims, to transform them, symbolically, from a pile of flesh to a persecuted fraternity of men--ones whose blindfolds cannot hide their human faces and whose humiliation somehow cannot destroy their dignity. (Botoero's work is highly controversial, so maybe this painting won't work for you the way it did for me, this morning, after all the other images I looked at. But that's the cool thing about art, I suppose.)

I hope that Apocalypse Now does something of the same thing. Perhaps it doesn't personalize its victims quite so beautifully (again, imho) as this painting, but I do believe that it brings the horror of war home to each viewer, perhaps reminding us that both the victims and the perpetrators of war's evils are just like us.

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