Sound and vision: never get out of the boat; never get out of the fucking boat!

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About a week ago, I stopped avoiding films with soldiers in them and watched Apocalypse Now!. I was reading a text, Music and sonicity. Sonic Nostalgia and Les Triplettes de Belleville by Daniel Goldmark, which referred to the sound design in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now!, in which Martin Sheen is stationed in a hotel room in Saigon awaiting news of a further mission in the Vietnam war. The sounds are played-with temporally and mixed in with synchronous sound: the ceiling fan becomes the sound of army helicopters arriving in the war zone but the visuals stay in the hotel room. I began watching the film with the intention of turning it off after the first scene, but the character, the story and the attention to detail drew me in.

Apocalypse Now! is an anti-war film. It creates understanding about how a soldier can become so cold and cut off from feeling that he can hurt his own family when he returns to them – this is the work I took from the film in relation to my father, who was a soldier in the British Army; he killed himself in 1980 and was given a hero’s funeral with lots of pomp and ceremony – they didn’t know the things he did to us behind closed doors, but that’s another story. In Apocalypse Now! Martin Sheen’s character demonstrates coldness when the captain of the boat he’s hitched a ride on stops to search a Vietnamese boat. By this point in the film, the soldiers in the boat are jumpy and it doesn’t take much for their trigger-happy fingers to let the bullets fly at the Vietnamese. One woman is injured; the rest are dead. The captain of the boat states they have to get her some medical aid. Martin Sheen’s character shoots the woman in the head and states, “I told you not to stop,” in a cold tone to the boat captain. Then he walks to another part of the boat. It’s as if he was talking about some mundane act and I suppose that’s what killing has become to him.

An unusual perspective on war is also included in Apocalypse Now! in the form of the character, Lance, a former surfer before his drafting into the army. I wrote this about him in my journal:

“In the last scene Martin Sheen’s character kills Marlon Brando’s character and comes out of the building. Everyone stares at him. He throws his knife down and walks down the stairs. As he approaches the people they throw their weapons down. He walks through the crowd and sees Lance; he takes him by the arm and leads him back to the boat. Lance is childlike in a lot of scenes. In one scene Lance says, ‘it’s better than fucking Disneyland,” as he lets off a purple flare and wanders around the boat holding it; he’s referring to the war in Vietnam. Children fire arrows at the boat, but they’re just sticks, and Lance laughs as he picks one up, breaks it in half and attaches the halves to the sides of his head. When the captain of the boat dies, Lance takes him in the river, cradles his head and sings to him before releasing him – his body floats away downriver. Lance is gentle.”

I wrote this about the effects of war on the individual:

“How can a man settle down to the life he had before after seeing and doing things that are considered wrong and illegal in usual circumstances yet, when it suits the government, are sanctioned? How can he settle down with people who don’t know what he’s been through and who make demands on him as if he’s still the same man he was before he went away? “The horror. The horror.” These are the last words Marlon Brando says in the film, as his character dies. He shared a story with Martin Sheen; it was the point at which he lost his sanity. In order to cope with what he’d witnessed, he went towards the horror – to perpetrate it and condone it as a way of using strength to win the war.”

The film is long – over three hours – and I watched it wearing headphones so that I could experience the sounds panning. It is a hard film to watch – I took four cigarette breaks – but I’m glad I watched it. Lance is gentle; Marlon Brando’s character perpetrates the horror he witnessed; Martin Sheen’s character is a cold-blooded killer but has some kind of sense of duty to mankind. Each character deals with the war differently, psychologically speaking. There’s no right way. There are ways.

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One thought on “Sound and vision: never get out of the boat; never get out of the fucking boat!

  1. Pingback: Sound and vision: a story within a story: Wael Shawky’s Al Araba Al Madfuna II (2013) | everything is art

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