Sometimes a film can get a reputation way beyond its worth, yet still be a good film. In watching the DVD release of Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Eleanor Coppola’s documentary on the making of the war epic Apocalypse Now, by her husband Francis Ford Coppola, this struck me as true. The title of this hour and a half long film, of course, comes from the source material for Apocalypse Now, Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart Of Darkness. While there is no doubt that Apocalypse Now is a great film, the documentary about it is not. Yes, it is a useful and instructive document, but, in many ways, it reminded me of the documentary about the making of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny And Alexander, which had almost no commentary. Yes, this film has commentary, shot both contemporaneously in its phase of production, and fifteen years later, in 1990, before the release of the documentary, but it’s mostly grandiose and self-serving. Coppola- the husband, sounds less ego-maniacal and more bewildered. Eleanor, however, seems to not have much at all to say.
Now, the DVD does come with a 2007 commentary by both Coppolas (Francis even mentions that he is recording this on the day that the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni occurred), recorded separately, and in that we learn that Francis never wanted the documentary released, for he fretted over it being too focused on him, or showing him in a callous light for not caring too much over the heart attack suffered by Martin Sheen (who played Lieutenant Willard- the protagonist, in the film), yet, again, while Francis does his usual exemplary job of describing his ideas, memories, and thoughts on the film, the documentary, and things since, Eleanor comes off as rather dull. She simply has little to add, and one wonders if the documentary would have been better served if it had been filmed and made by one of Francis’s assistant directors, or second unit men, for them there would have been a more objective and structured pattern to the film; the documentary, that is.
Eleanor’s wooden style is most obvious when she narrates the documentary. Interestingly, according to the commentary by Eleanor, they had originally hired a professional actress to read the narration, but it was Francis who insisted that Eleanor do it. Bad move. A good move was to allow filmmakers George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr to shoot the 1990 interviews that were interpolated into the old footage. The difference in objectivity is striking, and not just for the passage of time. And, indeed, the thing that makes the film a good document of the making of the feature film is the insertions by the two pros, not the hodgepodge shot by Eleanor. Still, that this film went over so big at film festivals like Cannes is a bit startling.
With tag lines like ‘the magic and the madness,’ a subtitle like A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, and claims by Francis that, ‘The film wasn’t about Vietnam, it was Vietnam,’ the documentary seems as ripe for parody as for legendry. Yet, it does hold an interest, if not in any deeper revelations of what was onscreen, offscreen (Marlon Brando was an arrogant, unprepared pain in the ass- surprise, surprise!), and behind the camera, it does give a glimpse of artistic improvisation nonpareil. If there are another half dozen films where the end product was so different (and consequently much better) than the original material than in Apocalypse Now, I’d like to read of them, and see the films.
The DVD, put out by Paramount Pictures, also includes a bonus hour long documentary by Eleanor Coppola, called Coda: Thirty Years Later, which follows Francis during the making of Youth Without Youth, in Romania, during 2005 and 2006. While more amateurish in style, it nonetheless gives a far more revealing portrait of Francis than the longer film. I have no idea the comparative quality of Youth Without Youth vis-à-vis Apocalypse Now, but, after nearly a decade hiatus from filmmaking, Coppola funded this film by himself, and seems all the more comfortable with the film and his place in cinema, speaking of not being the worst nor best filmmaker ever.
The film being documented stars Matt Damon and Tim Roth, and its subject matter, about life, time, reality, and subjectivity, seem ripe subjects for Coppola to deal with. One hopes it is a return to his smaller, more intimate films. Unlike the larger film, this one features no commentary, but because it does focus more exclusively on Francis, who seems far more relaxed than in any of the footage from Hearts Of Darkness, the film is a bit easier to revel in and appreciate.
As example, Hearts Of Darkness glosses over one of the more important aspects of the film’s creation, the hiring and firing of the first actor, Harvey Keitel, to portray Lt. Willard. We are simply told it was not working, and cut to Francis’s hiring of Martin Sheen. But, we never see any of the footage shot with Keitel, we never learn if he was simply too different from Francis’s vision of Willard to work, or was he simply doing a poor job, a malcontent, or clashing too frequently with Francis. For a so-called documentary to leave such wide open says much of the aims of the documentarian, in this case Eleanor. Also left open-ended is a much talked about aspect of the filming that the documentary does not cover, and that is Francis’s infidelity on the set, and how that contributed to the distance between the couple. How this affected Eleanor’s documentary, much less Apocalypse Now, is certainly ripe for discussion. This is the rare instance where such is not mere gossip for gossip’s sake, but pertinent information about the director’s state of mind in the improvisatory aspects of the film. Was his film more gloomy because of the infidelity’s consequences? Hearts Of Darkness does a great disservice to its viewers by totally avoiding such questions, even as it claims a rare intimacy, due to Eleanor’s claim to have surreptitiously recorded conversations without Francis’s knowledge.
Overall, the DVD package is barely worth an investment, especially if a Coppola fan, but once again the studio that put out the DVD could have offered so much more for so little an investment. Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is a good and worthwhile ‘Making Of’ feature for a DVD release, but, as a stand alone documentary, it is rather lacking. Thus, with two making of documentaries, and no real feature, the package is saved by the aforementioned pluses alone. Better than nothing, but most viewers will wind up asking, ‘Well, that’s it?’