Let’s talk about war, shall we?
“You have to have men that are moral, and at the same time able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill; without feeling, without passion, without judgement. Because it’s judgement that defeats us.”
– Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Drop the bomb! Exterminate them all!
When I think about Apocalypse Now, I think about where it ends – in a green, foggy haze. Marlon Brando mumbling a mantra equal parts survivalist and absurdist. Crazy-eyed Martin Sheen wielding a machete under orange lights, while Vietnamese men perform a ritual ax murder of a (literal) golden calf. This is a surrealist film, right?
To describe a scene where a military Lieutenant by the name of Kilgore demands a California surfer ride a wave in the midst of an active bombing sounds like a nightmare, but in real-time, it looks entirely plausible. Of course blasting Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from the incoming helicopters would scare the shit out of the natives, it scares the shit out of me! In fact, everything about the first two hours of Apocalypse (I’m watching the eons long Redux), is not only believable, but I imagine, as close to the feeling of being in a war I’ll ever get (I sincerely hope).
It’s really, despite my lasting visions of it, a film firmly rooted in realism. It’s a war movie.
A movie about the Vietnam war, war in general, and about masculinity’s role in it. About men who go to war, and what they are capable of.
War, as presented here, is an inherently male act.
To say the women are objectified by Coppola’s camera is a little silly – they’re objectified by the whole narrative, the whole concept. To be objects is their sole purpose. They barely exist – if you watch Redux, they have a slightly extended appearance as Playboy Bunnies stranded in a helicopter, and a few members of a French family living out a lavish sort of lifestyle in the middle of the jungle, but the effect is preserved, if not enhanced.
They’re there to have sex with, to fondle, to bear children, to keep house: to remind men what they should be fighting for. The women in Apocalypse are offensively easy – but they are the only ones who seem to fully grasp the simplicity of what is going on around them. Roxanne says it to right to Willard’s face: “The war will still be here tomorrow.”
Colonel Kurtz looks like a man crazy with power.
When we arrive at the nest of Colonel Kurtz (and it is like a nest, isn’t it? where he lives, and hides, and keeps his bits of family safe), he has descended into madness. But from the shadows where he all but pleads to be put out of his misery, he speaks little kernels of truth from beneath his supposed insanity.
He’s written his own bible of sorts. He speaks in huge swaths of text that are the ramblings of an insane man, but one that’s seen everything there is to see. “The horror, the horror,” Kurtz says, and it is just that – how do we deal with the things we’ve seen? How do we stop them?
Do we watch from the sidelines, or do we choose to intervene?
Willard makes the choice the war has asked of him. But when he does it, he looks an awful lot like Kurtz.
Green Room (2015)
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Music is shared live. It’s time and aggression, you gotta be there. And then it’s over.
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a horror film about war and masculinity, too. Only its green and hazy landscape is confined to four walls (and a secret basement) inside a white-power punk rock club in rural Oregon.
I sought out Green Room as a follow-up to Blue Ruin, Saulnier’s debut feature; a brilliant, violent little movie I found while stumbling aimlessly through Netflix. His color-themed titles may be entirely coincidental (when is anything, ever?), but it shifts with the tone so beautifully that it is, in fact, what made me seek out Apocalypse Now just a few weeks after.
Green is the color of war.
If the blue of Blue Ruin lay in its epic loneliness and deeply sad violence of its main character, then the green in Green Room implies something much more sinister: a literal barrier between men with different moral codes, a sickness that spreads, and even something that looks like the most perverse envy. A place where the most unlikely man will paint his face green and “play war” if he has to.
Anton Yelchin plays Pat – guitar player, punk rocker, overall nice Jewish kid; though that detail is never made explicit, it’s impossible not to think about it (Yelchin was born to Jewish parents in Russia). Alia Shawkat’s character jokingly threatens to out him to the skinhead crowd, and we laugh a bit. Just a bit. For this crowd, she doesn’t really look white enough, either.
Nazi Punks Fuck Off is a lot like Ride of the Valkyries.
Only, instead of frightening the neo-Nazis into submission, the protest song does just that – protests, incites, provokes. It sets the tone for future violence. It gives off the kind of false power that Kilgore really seemed to enjoy. It gives the band a platform to stand on, which, in retrospect, maybe they didn’t want.
To keep it spoiler-free – a thing happens, it divides the room, and the band is locked inside. A very physical line is created between the green room and what’s outside of it. A supremacy that seethes just under the surface of one side, threatening to break the wall and eliminate the other. Not out of simple hatred, but a complexity that presents itself with intervention. This didn’t have to happen – but now that it has, there is simply no way out but to fight.
And isn’t that a war?
Beyond the color association, which I admit is abstract (it’s what I do best, folks), what Green Room has most in common with Apocalypse is a horrific attitude toward violence. Both films are awash in it, and both suggest it as an inescapable cycle filled with regret and remorse and satisfaction.
Both see it as racial, hyper-masculine, and abusive. But potentially surprising, is that they both present it as unnecessary.
War is unnecessary only until we make it necessary.
For Pat, it all comes down to a game of paintball with a team of army vets. They played the game like it was real. And so it became the violent sort of thing that isn’t a game at all – it was war. Faced with the opportunity to breach the barrier and end the thing, he knows he’ll have to play again.
Or, you can take it simply from Kurtz:
“It is impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies.”
Some deep shit here. Check it out if you’ve got the stomach for it.