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.

Truly Epic: The Vikings (1958)

The VikingsNo earthly power could have saved the videocassette, its coppery bowels mangled and limply hanging out of its ruptured belly, like the entrails of a dying warrior.

This now-useless object had enlivened more evenings with my family than I could possibly count. My father remembered The Vikings from his boyhood. He recognized the movie and insisted on acquiring it when we went to buy a bundle of orphaned videotapes at the closing sale of a local video store, as the VHS format was rapidly expiring.

I didn’t know it at the time, but The Vikings had been one of my grandfather’s favorite films. I never met my grandfather, so hearing that he had loved this movie—to the point that he would even imitate the haunting sound of the Viking trumpets—made me feel close to him.

I clutched the tape. My parents looked at me with sadness. “On the count of three,” I said. They knew what to do. “One, two, three…”

“OOOOOOODDIIIIIIINNNNN!” We cried in unison, invoking out the name of the Norse King of the Gods, in ardent hopes that the spirit of this VHS cassette would go straight to the video store in the sky.

Why do I love The Vikings? Passionately, ardently, unreasonably? Because it’s in my blood. I will fight anyone who deprecates this saga.

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For instance, the film editors of The UK Guardian, whom I usually respect, brought down a vendetta on their unsuspecting heads with their take on this classic. The article in question didn’t even mention that the legendary Jack Cardiff served as the DoP. The Guardian‘s reviewer gave The Vikings a C+ overall grade for being too silly.

(UPDATE 2016: Wow, I was kind of a bitch at age 22, huh?)

Whoa, now, 99% of movies, from Casablanca to Manos: The Hands of Fate could be accused of being silly or unrealistic. And the other 1% are usually pretentious and dry as dust. Seriously, if you want to downgrade a film on that basis, you will not find a single A+ among narrative cinema, I attest.

Here are 10 reasons to watch this masterpiece that dances on the line between sublime and ridiculous. And, just a warning, there are some spoilers in reason number one.

10.  Tony Curtis in leather hotpants and proto-UGGs boots.

Tony has breached court etiquette, I’m assuming. (This is where the silly comes in.)

9. A superb prologue voiced by Orson Welles… over credits styled like the Bayeux Tapestry.

8. One of the most strikingly violent scenes in cinema history up to that time.

Not much is shown, but there’s something so primordially frightening about a man losing his eye to a hawk.

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7. The script, full of so-obvious-it’s-genius wisdom along the lines of:

“We’ll talk this over later—when you’re more drunk or more sober.” (Borgnine as Ragnar to his son, Einar.)

“Love and hate are two horns on the same goat.” (Spoken by the soothsayer Kitala)

“Take your magic elsewhere, holy man.” (Spoken by uber-viking Einar as he crashes through a Christian church window)

6. An astonishing, symphonic score by Mario Nascimbene.

Lots of male choir chanting, soprano wailing, and epic horns—perfect to accompany grandiose shots like this one below. Music like the love child of Richard Wagner and Ennio Morricone.

5. You’ll witness the resurrection of an ancient custom.

This stunt, jumping along the oars of a Viking ship, hadn’t been done for over a thousand years before the making of this film. Stuntmen were queued up and all ready to go when Kirk Douglas insisted that he go first. The cast and crew expected him to fall, but, to their amazement, as the camera rolled, Douglas leapt from oar to oar with flawless technique. It’s caught on film. It’s uncanny.

4. Because it’s so raw and… male.

A certain fantasy world (not mine, since I have two X chromosomes) comes alive. And, hey, I’d rather you watch movies like this than be like this.

3. Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine gnawing the scenery—to brilliant effect.

2. Cinematography by Jack Cardiff

Largely filmed on location in Kvinnherad, Norway and on the Hardanger Fjord. Pure Technicolor rapture.

1. Because the film has an irresistible mythic power.

A man loses a hand to give a clean death to an enemy—who turns out to be his father.

Brother versus brother, each ready to hack each other apart for a kingdom and a woman—in a climactic fight of dizzying high angles.

I give director Richard Fleischer (of The Narrow Margin and Armored Car Robbery talent) a lot of the credit for this moving work, possessed of a virility and splashy poetry that doesn’t exist in any other big-budget film I can think of.

He gave this story a soul—it’s about a cruel barbarian who becomes human at the exact moment before he dies. He cannot bring himself to kill his brother, and so dies at his brother’s hand. All that depth is communicated without a word in the film’s climactic fight scene. The Vikings revives the brutal, direct beauty of the silent cinema.

You must give this film a look. Movies can be great in many different ways. The Vikings is great—though, not in the same way as Citizen Kane or —because its colorful, rough-hewn spectacle and stripped-down plot tap into some primal part of human nature. Melodramatic, operatic, and grand, The Vikings entertains and serves up moments of pure cinema.

Whatever you do, though, you will probably not have the solemn pleasure I had in grieving for a VHS of The Vikings so loved that it cracked into pieces and ascended to Valhalla.

Nevertheless, I still encourage that you cry, “ODIN!” when it’s all over.