Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

2“Never get out of the goddamn boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Kurtz got out of the boat. He split from the whole f**king program.”

I’ve loved Apocalypse Now from the first time I watched that orange feathering of napalm burn through lush tropical forests to the lilting, funereal strains of “The End.” That opening shot spoke to me, whispering the truth of how ugly things can be beautiful and how the camera can charm that beauty forth.

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It was like looking through the eyes of another, not through a point-of-view shot, not even through the lens of a different philosophy—but through the eyes of madness, of someone for whom destruction was lovely. I had never felt anything like it. It horrified me, shocked me, inspired me, and changed me. It may have been the first time in my life that I encountered Art, that grand, fearsome, traumatic thing that we hear so much about.

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On the other hand, Black Narcissus refused me any such revelation until it was almost over. Having bought a Criterion DVD at a jumble sale (the poor fool who threw it away!), I played it one lazy morning. For the first hour or so, I liked it, thought it was visually pleasing and stimulating in an academic sense. It wasn’t until Sister Ruth revealed her awful, predatory true self that the movie pulled me into the heart of its darkness.

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The bottom dropped out of reality. I just didn’t expect a pensive, patient little art film to do that to me—to come at me with a rush of cosmic fury and not relent for almost twenty minutes. “Holy ****!” I exclaimed to myself. “Sister Ruth got out the boat!”

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both won Academy Awards for cinematography thanks to the hypnotic, ethereal camerawork of Jack Cardiff and Vittorio Storaro, in 1947 and 1979 respectively. (Both films should have won Best Picture, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

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Above: Jack Cardiff. Below: Vittorio Storaro on location for Apocalypse Now

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Apart from the two movies’ shared aesthetic interest in exoticism, they are extremely different. In contrast to the classically trained, crafted acting style of the performers in Powell and Pressburger’s film, Coppola chose a stable of hardcore method actors. While Black Narcissus seemingly fits into the mold of a women’s drama, Apocalypse Now has claimed an immortal place in the annals of cinematic machismo.

Black Narcissus departs utterly from realism by shooting not in the Indian mountains, but in England—against huge blow-ups of aerial photographs of the Himalayas, brightly painted to striking effect. We all know that the production of Apocalypse Now, filmed on location in the Philippines, mirrored its plot. As Coppola lapsed into the Kurtz mentality and actors started to succumb to the harshness of the environment and the strain of shooting, reality bled into fiction.

Nevertheless, I cannot separate these films in my mind. To me, they’ll always be spiritual sisters. I don’t doubt that Cardiff’s vision for Black Narcissus influenced Storaro’s photography for Apocalypse Now, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

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Fearsome transformations….

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I have seen a precious few films that seem to be aware that they’re in color. I mean, yes, the costumes, the sets, the lighting in most non-black-and-white films have all been carefully selected for their hues and tones, but the emotional powerhouse of color remains untapped.

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Warpaint of different hues…

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Color speaks to us in ways that defy rational thought. Baudelaire once noted that color is the most important element of a painting, because even before we can make out the figures, at a distance, the harmony or dissonance of colors allows us to intuit the essence of the scene.

In my opinion, color needs to “put the zap” on our heads, to paraphrase a few lines of Milius’ brutally insightful script for Apocalypse Now. Seriously—this is why I tend to prefer black-and-white films. Why show me colors unless they’re going to astonish me? Color needs to tell us something, not in terms of symbolism, but in terms of emotion and reaction. Both Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now define dreamlike, vividly colored places, jungles and mountaintops, which not only magnify our perceptions, but also unleash our inner natures.

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Shades of observation: Sister Clodagh and Captain Willard.

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Apocalypse Now is not an anti-war film any more than Black Narcissus is an anti-religious film. Both of them transcend such unambiguous messages to tell us something much more vast about the soul of civilization. Sister Ruth certainly isn’t the charismatic genius that Kurtz is, since men have a cultural outlet for their madness—war—whereas women just get neuroticism. However, these two figures both revert to something primal and frightening. (Eventually Captain Willard does, too.) Sister Ruth and Kurtz split from the program of lies and moral rationalizations that govern the minds of their peers. Rather than persisting in fighting the call of the jungle, they give in. Their madness prompts some of the most fantastically beautiful images captured by a camera. 

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We watch traditions and codes of conduct plunge into a flamboyant psychosis that wasn’t so far away all along. Seductive, unreal colors, enhanced by sinuous camera strokes, hold us captive and enable us to feel the strength of those impulses towards annihilation, impulses that enthrall those who “got out of the boat.”

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As Nietzsche theorized, great tragic art must balance a tendency towards orgiastic self-destructiveness (the Dionysian) and the tonic splendor of appearances and expression (the Apollonian). If Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both depict the triumph of the Dionysian, of chaos and entropy, they nevertheless uplift us rather than depressing us. They temper our despair in mankind with our faith in art.

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Cardiff and Storaro extensively studied the great masters of painting—the color palette of Narcissus was based in part on Vermeer, and there’s quite a bit of Caravaggio in the way Apocalypse Now uses virtuosic contrasts of color and blackness. The compositional brilliance and luminosity that the cinematographers lend even to scenes of abhorrent violence or confusion strike a balance between these elements to produce cathartic experiences that, for me, have not been equaled by any other films.

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From lips to eyes… and from eyes to lips. Contemplating empty faces (Sister Ruth’s and the face of a Khmer statue) with camera tilts.

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Jack Cardiff had to campaign to get the sort of surreal, opalescent color contrasts he harnessed for a subliminal effect in Narcissus: “I was always fighting with Technicolor [representatives] because they wanted complete realism, whatever that was.” Instead, in certain scenes, he filled shadows with green light and colored the arc-lights slightly blue to suggest the distracting crystal coolness of the skies. Cardiff reflected that few viewers, perhaps one in ten or fifteen, would consciously notice these things, but that the choice would impact the mindset of the audience and contribute to the story.

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In addition to these more subtle manipulations, gathering momentum as the film unfolds, Black Narcissus overwhelms us with exaggerated panoramas of the edge of the world. The screen celebrates the giddy delirium that courses through Sister Ruth as she rings the bell on the edge of the cliff. We experience the rush of that chasm, shown in breathtaking canted angles.

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Later, through the translucent deep blues, febrile oranges, and acid pinks of her freak-out, we feel the terrifying release of Ruth’s transformation into a strange, unnatural creature—part modern woman, part painted devil.

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Kurtz’ poetic insanity penetrates the eerie iconography of Apocalypse Now. The glowing amber quality of light, the oppressive Prussian blue skies, the sulfuric yellow and psychedelic lilac gas flares, the impenetrable greens of the jungle all exteriorize the jewel-like ferocity of his Zen psychosis.

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“We’re all his children, man…”

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Kurtz, this faceless demigod, the diamond who cuts through bullsh*t, realizes that those who win wars must fully embrace “the horror.” But that appalling clarity, that knowledge also rots away at him from the inside out. Captain Willard’s voice-over tells us some of this, but such verbal information would be meaningless if Storaro didn’t paint this decay into every lopsided, eclipsed shot of Kurtz.

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Storaro, referring to his revolutionary use of color shading in Apocalypse Now, spoke of how he used the visuals, especially rich shades of black, to get in touch with the barbaric, “unconscious side” of humanity that Conrad’s novel conjured up: “The heart of darkness that he was looking at does not belong to another culture, another place, but part of our self.”

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Cardiff and Storaro both found intense, wordless ways of representing this slip into a primordial darkness, into a place beyond reason. When Sister Ruth begins literally to “see red” the screen suddenly snaps to pure blue as her rage forces her to lose consciousness.

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The first time I saw it, I though there was something wrong with the DVD, it startled me so!

Similarly, Apocalypse Now gives us an amazing shot in which the camera literally turns upside-down and then right-side-up, and then up-side-down again as Kurtz’ acolytes drag Willard through the mud to meet the elusive Colonel for the first time.

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Cinematography literally means writing with light and motion. Cardiff and Storaro wrote disorientation and temptation into the screen with shadows, with movements, with delicate shadings of color.

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The call of the jungle… Sister Ruth and Captain Willard stalk their prey.

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Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now both dwell in the realm of exoticism, in the amplified Other that’s really just another guise for something flickering within us. These movies let me see Western civilization, the epicenter of my own values and all that I hold dear, transplanted and fragmented into a vibrant nightmare by the prism of madness.

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They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.

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~          ~          ~

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three of the nicest ladies, coolest movie mavens, and best film bloggers out there, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Check out their blogs and this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

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6 thoughts on “Getting out of the Boat: Black Narcissus and Apocalypse Now

  1. Pingback: Presenting Week 3 of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon | Paula's Cinema Club

  2. i went right to this article because i love apocalypse now and have seen it many times. i cant say the same about black narcissus but im a big fan of jack cardiff. Reading your insights about the similarities between them makes me want to watch it. this piece was just amazingly written and analyzed. fantastic work!

  3. I’ve seen both of these many times, but never made these connections before. Love this: “They also take me full-circle back to the primitive psychic engines of that civilization—Eros and Thanatos, sex and aggression—without asking that I transgress, without asking that I myself get out of the boat.” I need to watch these together. Genius post ND, thank you.

  4. They’re both marvelous films, and so far I couldn’t see any similarity between them. You called my attention to that. The colors are stunning, the theme of madness and the two powerful performances make the films stay side by side in film history. Oh, and I have to say that sister Ruth was gorgeous with makeup.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    Le

  5. As a fan of Apocalypse Now, I was thinking of shooting something this week end with the half lit style used on Kurtz and discovered this post through a google search. I love Black Narcissus and adore its patiently revealed ”Dark Side”. Yet I am amazed how you pair both films together, it just makes complete sense but never even thought about it! Congratulations, looking fwd to read more of your posts.

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