Wednesday, April 22, 2009

F.G.F. #3 - Apocalypse Now (1979)

Last night I watched the remastered and extended "Redux" version of Francis Ford Coppola's epically weird masterpiece "Apocalypse Now". The extended version is three hours and twenty-odd minutes long, and like the first time I watched it when it was released in the theater, the experience is downright surreal - despite the film's length, there seems to be no passage of time while watching it, as if the viewer has entered a kind of phantasmagoric dream state.

Apocalypse Now is not an easy movie to watch, and it carries with it a weight of controversy. I know a number of Vietnam vets who loathe the film for its (largely negative) depiction of the war and, more pointedly, its depiction of the soldiers involved in the conflict. I won't argue this opinion one way or another - it wasn't my generation and I wasn't there. However, one point that I will argue is that Apocalypse Now isn't really a "Vietnam War Movie". The way I see it, more than anything else, Apocalypse Now is a re-envisioning of Homer's The Odyssey seen through the lens of the Vietnam war. Captain Willard's journey up the fictional Nung River in search of Col. Kurtz has more in common with Odysseus' journey home across the Mediterranean Sea than it does with any reasonably true depiction of the Vietnam war circa 1969. In this sense, I don't see it as a Vietnam War movie because to me, the film so obviously has such little bearing on real history that to argue otherwise, you might as well take Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere as a real depiction of the London Underground, or J. J. Abram's Alias as a true representation of modern CIA operations.

What I really want to look at with regards to Apocalypse Now is a continuation of the two columns I wrote earlier about "Evil Settings". The "setting" of Apocalypse Now is one of true malicious insanity, a world gone utterly and horribly mad. The film is really a series of vignettes, each more disturbing and surreal than the last, and taken as a whole they build a picture of the world Willard and Kurtz and the other characters live in. This is the key - although even from the first moments of the film you are shown the madness of the war, therein lies the key - you are shown it, not told about it. Although Willard has monologues and makes reference to the insanity of the conflict, this isn't the primary descriptor of the "setting" - Coppola and Co. let the experience of the film do that.

Now, translate what we're talking about into gaming terms. You want to create an evocative and disturbing campaign setting. When presenting this setting to your players, do you tell them "Hey, I'm creating an evocative and disturbing campaign setting for you guys"? Probably not. It comes back to the old writer's axiom of "show, don't tell". If you want to create a world of madness and barbarity, make it mad and barbaric. Plunge your characters into chaos and horror right at the very beginning and allow the experience to set the tone of the setting, not your descriptions. This is something that sounds relatively easy and straightforward, but truth be told, it isn't. Players (and GMs) tend to have a fairly detailed catalogue of campaign setting tropes rattling around in their brains, and dislodging these tropes can take a lot of effort.

For example, a friend caught some of Apocalypse Now recently, and when I mentioned I was going to watch it, he talked about how utterly ridiculous the film was, "...then the guy with the machinegun just goes nuts and shoots everyone! Why would you put someone who's so unstable in charge of the machinegun?" he asks me. Another friend watched a YouTube clip of Colonel Kilgore and remarked "...walking around without a shirt on and wearing a Civil War cavalry hat - yeah that's realistic...". If you're not immersed in the experience of the film from the beginning, and aren't willing to allow yourself the benefit of "disbelief", having your pre-conceived ideas stripped away, then indeed you're going to get annoyed with the film. In fact, this is really the crux of the problem that most film-makers and storytellers run into - creating a gripping narrative that can deviate from "the truth" without causing a break in the involvement of the audience, the "suspension of disbelief" that is the holy grail of fictional storytelling.

So it is the job of the GM to build the experiences of the players and their characters in such a way as to suspend their disbelief with regards to the campaign setting, while at the same time creating something unique, evocative, and engaging. The issue is, of course, that the further you take things in one direction, the harder it is to balance them out. I've talked before about Dark Sun and speculated on the reasons why the setting died out, and I do think this is one of the problems - the setting was too far off the centerline for your "typical" D&D campaign setting, but at the same time, I think a lot of DMs had trouble making the setting livable and engaging to the players - they were too entrenched in "normal" settings to wrap their heads around the paradigms of the Dark Sun setting.

Ultimately, I don't know how one goes about "making it work". it's an elusive mixture of the right players, the right GM, the right setting, and the right gameplay introduction into the world that will mean the success or failure of this venture. All I can say, is that when it comes together at the perfect angles, the whole can be a truly amazing experience.


Brunomac said...

I'd wanted to see Redux since it came out, mostly because I wanted to see the new scene with the Playboy bunnies. I saw it last week on HBO, and was broken hearted that it wasn't really a dirty scene at all! It was actually a scene that had the only sweet and non-insane moments in the movie.

I got the Dark Sun box a few months ago on Ebay, but not sure what to do with it. I'm not sure my current players would prefer that be their fantasy campaign. I do plan to at least have a portal in a dungeon at some point teleport them to the world - which I have been thinking of making a sort of magical post-apoc version of my regular game world (sort of "what if the darklords won a thousand years ago" deal).

Regular characters would have to fight like hell against all the races wanting their metal weapons...

Anonymous said...

How can you review this movie and make no mention of "Heart of Darkness"?

To expect any sort of rationality from this movie is itself irrational. This is a trip into man's own "heart of darkness," the evil that exists inside him. Combine that with the fact that the trip is made during war time (which is insane in itself) and any sane moments are the exception, not the rule.

Badelaire said...

I avoided "Heart of Darkness" mostly because I'm not reviewing the movie so much as using it as mental fodder for gaming ideas. But you are right, almost anything I say here is equally applicable to the novel.

Andreas Davour said...

Thanks for a interestign take of Apocalypse as gaming fodder. I get all fuzzy inside when ever I hear about my favourite film. :)