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Sunday, 3 February 2008

Apocalypse Now Redux, released in 2001, is the extended version of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 war movie and it is ideally summarised by Paul Byrnes, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday while reviewing a more recent film (There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis): it "has an overwhelming presumption of its own greatness".

Lewis is possibly the equivalent, today, of Marlon Brando, who made Apocalypse Now (the original, better version; Owen Gleiberman was correct to say the new version is a "meandering, indulgent art project that [Coppola] was still enough of a craftsman, in 1979, to avoid") a success. So a film with him in it that is about the sins of the American fathers, is bound to become Oscar material.

But this ray of sunshine is accorded by pure default. I'm not the only viewer to think the pace of Apocalypse Now Redux is slow. The Wikipedia page rightly points to the French plantation sequence among the chief offenders.

Another scene without merit shows the helicopter badged with the Playboy logo, adrift in the confusion and madness of war. Inside it, the bunnies give sexual favours to select soldiers. The only merit of this scene is to show that Lance, the surfer, has a kind heart. He puts makeup on one of the girls, a dreaming blonde who talks non-stop, oblivious, it seems, to the part she is expected to play. Her dream is to be (an actress? it's not clear) but certainly not simply to be the fuck-bucket of stir-crazy marines.

But we would anyway know Lance is kind. Later, he will snatch a puppy from the Chef's hands following the nasty slaughter of a boat-full of Vietnamese farmers. And when Clean is shot while listening to an audio cassette sent by his mother, it is the puppy Lance frets about, not the young, black 19-year old soldier. "Where's the puppy? We've gotta go back!" he screams as he flails around the plastic gunboat, hundreds of miles from civilisation.

The French heavies, in any case, are unconvincing from the start: more like a street gang than a group of farmers intent on retaining their land in the face of overwhelming social change. At the well-appointed table, the chief of them lists the losses in war suffered by the French, only to finish (striking the table so the glasses rattle): "We will never leave! Never!" Are the French always (at least since the memorable successes of the Napoleonic years) presuming as to their own greatness?

This thought brings me to ponder the fashions of youth, particularly the retro-chic valued today by 18- to 21-year-olds. Is this new conservatism a sign of incipient downfall? Is it not, perhaps, true that war is always (pace predictable pronouncements of such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright that it is "never justified - there is no just war") a catalyst?

Touring the Australian War Memorial on 28 January, it struck me that the changes made possible by war (Indian emancipation, the Roaring Twenties, American triumphalism since 1775; the list is endless) are not able to be achieved any other way. Somebody (not always the son of god, it would seem) must make the 'supreme sacrifice'.

On 26 January, I attended, with a Chinese friend (for whom I had to explain the meaning of 'supreme sacrifice'), a small ceremony at the corner of Sussex Street, near Darling Harbour. There, an ascending spiral of horizontal slats commemorates the war service of Chinese-Australians.

One woman, with red hair and the green suit of the Lions Club, by the name of Denise, told a little story of a sniper at Gallipoli named The Assassin. His real name was Tpr William Edward (Billy) Sing.

This also brings me to contemplate, especially now (the other day, shopping at Woolworths, I saw the shelf of check-out mags all showed Heath Ledger on their covers), how death enables a set of words, otherwise never heard, to emerge in the public sphere.

Words such as 'generous', 'kind', 'unforgettable', 'wonderful' seem always (and without exception) to attach themselves to individuals who, should they have been mentioned in the press while still alive, could not have had such words associated with their names.

As Camus endearingly wrote, when producing an introduction to the reprint of a youthful work: "everything must be done so that men can escape the double humiliation of poverty and ugliness" (Lyrical and Critical Essays, Vintage edition, 1970).

Poverty leads to war. But do we not nevertheless need to experience periodically the richness of language produced by war: to revitalise a culture exhausted by the demands of the pursuit of capital?

Is it possible to achieve such a revitalisation without death? I suggest this question should be posed to a devout Christian, the religion whose founding narrative (expulsion from heaven) was buttressed by a "superiority of belief, not superiority of people" (Michael Galak, Anti-Semitism, Its Origins and Prognosis, Quadrant, January-February 2008, p. 22).

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