Saturday, September 23, 2006


I got the new DVD, which includes both the original theatrical release and the REDUX version, with gorgeous new transfers supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and Coppola, and lots of extras. These extras are mainly remarkable for having never appeared on the initial DVD release of either version of this film. I’ll post more about them in the near future.

APOCALYPSE NOW is one of my favorite movies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it. I know that I stopped counting at 18 times during its original release in 1979. I would go to see it every chance I got, until I suddenly stopped. Screenings were becoming rarer, and prints were getting worse. I walked out of one particularly bad screening in the mid-80s, realizing that the appallingly bad condition of the print was beside the point, that I knew the film so well that I didn’t really need to see it again. I restricted myself to assorted videos/laserdiscs, which weren’t really enough but sufficed if I turned up the stereo really loud.

I still have the original programs they handed out instead of running opening/closing credits during the first runs, before it went wide. I read Eleanor Coppola’s book on the filming, entitled NOTES. As proof of my total bizarre devotion, I even managed to obtain (don’t ask how) an actual audience questionnaire from one of the original preview screenings, which asks some very interesting questions about, among other things, the sound effects.

Then along came APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, which “restored” a lot of things that Coppola had been supposedly forced to leave on the cutting room floor. A reading of NOTES gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect, mainly an extended scene involving the Playboy bunnies who appear at a USO show, and a sequence at a French plantation in Cambodia. Other scenes were re-arranged: in REDUX the scene of the boat crew surfing to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” comes later than it does in the original.

I remember being mainly glad about being able to see the film again on a big screen. I don’t think the added scenes add very much, and often detract a good deal. Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore gets a marvelous new entrance, striding forth from a helicopter like the God From The Chopper, but is finally allowed to dwindle into a mere fool: an added scene of his voice being played over a loudspeaker begging for the return of his stolen surfboard is a serious diminution. Oddly, the most satisfying element of the new footage in REDUX is the opportunity to see more of Albert Hall, playing Chief, the captain of the PBR that takes Willard up the river. What was a well played minor role in the original is more fully fleshed out in REDUX, and a new funeral sequence for one of the character’s contains the one really moving moment in the entire film, as Chief hands Willard the flag from the bodybag and asks him to accept it on behalf of a grateful nation. Hall takes what could have been a mawkish moment (just how mawkish can be guessed from the atrociously sentimental electronic score playing throughout the scene) and makes it work.

More problematic however are the changes to Martin Sheen’s Capt. Willard. The original’s Willard is a damaged piece of goods who has been too far out and seen way too much while out there, and his growing identification with Col. Kurtz through the dossier he reads manifests itself in a series of scenes where he loses patience with the bogus “army business” he sees around him: after the scene with the small sampan, Willard refers to how the more he sees of them, the more he hates lies. REDUX’s Willard seems rather less tightly wound: he steals Col. Kilgore’s treasured surfboard and laughs about it, and later, after nearly punching out a supply sergeant who seems to be more interested in running a USO show than filling Willard’s order for the boat’s diesel fuel, he trades these same increasingly precious barrels of diesel fuel for some time with the stranded Playboy bunnies (the interminable scene that follows really should have stayed on the cutting room floor, or at best a DVD extra). He even unwinds enough to smoke some opium during a romantic interlude with the wife of a French plantation owner. REDUX’s Willard is more of a participant in the “lies” and his growing obsession with Kurtz and dissatisfaction with the “lies” thus feels less convincing.

I have to admit that I simply have no idea what the French plantation sequence is supposed to mean. It brings the film to a crashing halt, and contains the film’s only really blatant homage to another film: one shot of the plantation inhabitants appearing out of the fog is lifted, with an uncharacteristic clumsiness, right out of KWAIDAN.

The old magic still worked though. The Wagner-scored air strike, the sequence at Do Long Bridge, and the final sacrificial scenes are still dazzling pieces, potent reminders that when Coppola is really on, there is nobody who can touch him.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Well. I had been planning on writing a review of the film UGETSU, which is playing in a new 35mm print at NY’s premier repertory theatre. Unfortunately, I am unable to tell you much of anything about the movie because the screening featured what is rapidly becoming the bane of my movie-going life: a pain in the ass little old woman with incessantly rustling plastic bags. A polite request to keep the bags quiet being simply ignored, I finally had to grab the plastic bag to get the old bitch’s attention and fiercely whisper to keep the bags quiet. I wasn't so irritated that I forgot to say please. I think I scared the hateful harpy into silence: there were only occasional and acceptable sounds from her direction for the rest of the film, by which time it was, alas, too late. The movie had been ruined. Evil old baggage. There's a special place in hell for her and all like her who annoy in theatres.

It isn’t like this is an isolated occurrence. I seem to be something of a magnet in this regard. My partner Bob told me that he’d never had such a problem with difficult audiences as he started having when we started seeing each other. Here are some examples:

A recent Kurosawa series had as a regular attendee an elderly Asian lady, a prototypical bag rustler. I had to ask her to keep her bags quiet at three separate screenings. I was finally thanked by another regular attendee who didn’t have the balls to do it herself.

A screening of HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN was ruined by a man with his children, who were all loudly rustling cheap plastic bags containing candy smuggled into the theatre from outside. Smuggling doesn't bother me. Why pay $4.50 for a soda when you can get the same thing at the Duane Reade on the corner for a buck? It was the noise that was a pain. Those fucking bags, in a stadium seating theatre, might as well have been rustling right in my eardrum. A polite request to please keep the bags quiet was answered with a loud “No!” (we let it go at that, and didn’t bother asking again). The charming gentleman wasn't as easygoing, though. At the end of the film he stood up and crushed a plastic bag over our heads. I managed to restrain myself from congratulating him on the fine example he was setting for his children, who all seemed cut out for a future asking strangers if they want fries with that.

A 3-D screening of DIAL M FOR MURDER was ruined by a gentleman who seemed to have been both a compulsive smoker and completely unschooled in the use of soap. He was sitting directly in front of Bob and me, and it soon became difficult to breathe. I had to wrap my scarf around my face by the end of the film. This was no ordinary stench. It had texture and body, and even impermeated our clothes and hair. We had to shower when we got home after the movie.

A screening of CAPOTE featured teenagers who loudly stomped into the theatre after the movie started, sat for a few minutes before realizing that they had wandered into the wrong movie and then loudly stomped their way out, and no less than three morons with cellphones. The third cellphoner actually answered the call and went into the first three rows of the theatre to talk. My heart was gladdened when about 3 people went up to her to tell her take the call outside.

A screening of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING featured a pair of idiots in love with potato chip bags that could be plainly heard throughout the film, and who resisted numerous requests from numerous patrons to keep quiet. Someone finally shouted to them to let us watch the final 20 minutes of the movie in peace. Think about that. Someone actually drowned out THE RETURN OF THE KING with a bag of chips.

A play entitled 36 VIEWS was ruined by an elderly gentleman with plastic bags. The bags rustled and rustled and rustled, and numerous requests for silence were unheeded. At the intermission, everyone within a six person radius of the old man descended on him. Only the timely intervention of the house manager saved him from being torn limb from goddamn limb.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect people to sit in monastic silence throughout a movie or play or whatever. It is only natural to shift in your seat, or occasionally whisper something to your neighbor, or occasionally knock over a soda can, or something. Sounds happen. But to sit there rustling those goddamn plastic bags, or gab on your cellphone, or make idiotic comments in full voice over and over again is more than inconsiderate, it is just plain flat out rude. And I’m finding my patience for these morons to be getting shorter and shorter. Today I was briefly concerned that I’d frightened the old bitch behind me into a stroke, but only very briefly. Fuck her if she’s had a stroke, I thought to myself, at least she’s quiet.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


I like the original version with Gene Wilder. I also like, with reservations, the new version by Tim Burton, with Johnny Depp. I recently read the book for the first time. Below are some kind of random notes:

The first film can be seen as a precursor of the sort of film that has become very common: a family film that adults can enjoy as well. The story is intact, but there are odd little poisonous moments that the kiddies just can’t seem to appreciate. What is a child supposed to make of Wonka’s advice to Mike Teavee: “You should open your mouth a little wider when you speak” (a direct quote from Carroll’s Red Queen to Alice in Through the Looking Glass) or the quote from Arthur O'Shaughnessy “we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” And it isn’t just Wonka. Mrs. Teavee’s mis-identification of the tune on Wonka’s musical lock (Mozart, not Rachmaninoff) and the picture of Martin Bormann used to identify the Argentinian gambler who forged the last golden ticket are all out of place in an ordinary family movie.

Gene Wilder’s Wonka comes off as a weirdly charming mystery man. His first appearance is memorable, the halting walk with the cane and the sudden somersault show clearly that all is not as it seems. His excitement over Augustus Gloop's progress up the pipe is nothing short of sadistic, he pops candy into his mouth and quotes Oscar Wilde: "The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last." There's something harder to pinpoint, though, behind the jokes and veiled threats. A certain childlike quality, an excitement that pops up on occasion, as when he pauses before activating the Everlasting Gobstopper Maker to ask the kids, "Would you like to see?" He’s also certainly a grown up, as when he clearly rebukes Veruca when she claims that Violet has two of the eternal candies: “she has got one, and one is enough for anybody.”

Depp’s Wonka is a far weirder creation. His pageboy haircut and childish voice brought almost inevitable comparisons to Michael Jackson, which Depp denied, saying that he intended Wonka to be more of a kiddie-show host. And he’s right, upon repeat viewings Depp’s Wonka does seem to owe more to Fred Rogers, or more specifically, to a Robin Williams’ version of Fred Rogers than to Jackson.

The game:
The novel has no test for Charlie. It can be argued that no test is arranged for Charlie out of a lack of time: Charlie finds the ticket the day before the tour is scheduled to take place. But that's not much of an argument. There is no test specifically targeted at his weaknesses, because Charlie quite simply has none. He wins simply by showing up. He’s the last survivor of the tour, so he wins the prize, plain and simple. It is also shown very clearly and spelled out very specifically that the Buckets are in serious danger of literally starving to death. The novel is more concerned with setting up Charlie as a good kid, and then wiping out a bunch of rotten kids in entertaining ways. It almost came as a surprise to find myself thinking of the possibility of Charlie making it to the end simply by being more devious than the others, rather than more honest and decent and pure.

The first film adds the Everlasting Gobstopper gambit. Upon finding the Golden Tickets, a figure claiming to be Arthur Slugworth, a business rival of Wonka’s, appears to offer the children a deal: if the children smuggle an Everlasting Gobstopper out of Wonka’s factory and hand it over to him, they will get lots of money. The test seems aimed particularly at Charlie: the fake Slugworth promises lots of good food and comfort for Charlie and his family in return for the candy. Thus, when Charlie hands over the Gobstopper to Wonka at the end of Wonka’s frightening fake tirade, Charlie’s honesty is proven and he is worthy of winning the Great and Glorious Jackpot.

Burton’s film eliminates this particular gambit. As in the novel, Charlie wins the until-then secret Grand Prize (a trip in the Great Glass Elevator and the Factory itself), but he turns it down when Wonka won’t let Charlie’s family come with him. Some rather heavy-handed moralizing about the importance of family follows, and Charlie helps Wonka mend fences with his own father who has been shown in flashbacks to be a cold-hearted dentist who won’t allow the young Wonka to eat candy or pursue his dream of being a candy maker. After the reconciliation, we are told that Wonka repeats his offer, and Charlie says yes this time, on condition that his family comes with him, to which Wonka assents.

The final scene of the film is very curious: Wonka and Charlie arrive in the Bucket family home after a hard day’s work, Wonka is asked to stay for dinner, the table is spread with family dinner trimmings like turkey, side dishes, etc. The camera pulls back though a broken window, and it is revealed that the Bucket family home has been transported as is, holes in the wall and poor but honest squalor and apparently permanent winter intact, to the Chocolate Room in the Wonka Factory. This has always bothered me. Why the giant salt-shakers pouring snow over the house? Why is the great free-flowing chocolate river, a marvelous symbol of Wonka’s demented creativity, shown to be frozen over? Why are the Buckets kept living in that collapsing house? If Wonka can keep his factory extra warm for the Oompa Loompas, why does he make it cold for the Buckets? And where is Dr. Wonka in this sudden orgy of frozen domestication?

The problem is that the big Pro-Family message of the film has nothing to do with the film itself. Mike Teavee, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and even the apparently single-parented Violet Beauregard all come from families, too, and all are ghastly, largely because of the families they have who either encourage their worst qualities or do nothing to curtail them. Wonka’s own family life (elements of which are shoe-horned in to the plot solely to create a final reconciliation between father and son) has been a disaster.

That this works at all is largely due to the skill and warmth with which Burton has established that the Bucket family is a pretty cool bunch of people: Noah Taylor and Helena Bonham Carter manage to convey a real devotion to each other and to Charlie and to their parents, the grandparents who never leave their beds. These opening scenes of the Bucket family could be used to dispel any criticism of Burton’s skill with actors. The warmth and affection among the 7 members of the Bucket household are beautifully presented, without descending into Spielbergian Ickiness.

Credit must also go to Freddie Highmore, the frighteningly skilled young actor who plays Charlie. He is able to encourage sympathy without getting sticky, but even he can’t help sounding rather self-righteous and judgmental when he prattles on about his family and how they always make him feel better and all that.

I don't know if any of this really diminishes the film, or not. There's a lot to enjoy in Burton's film, but I don't think it comes near eclipsing the first version. I much prefer the simplicity of the original film's ending. When Wonka offers Charlie the warning about remembering what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted (he lived happily ever after, it turns out) I always get a little verklempt.

I like both movies. They've both got pros and cons. I'll always watch them. They're a permanent part of my library.