Experimentation with sound

Francis Ford Coppola's entire career seems to have been driven by a need to innovate and to find artistic solutions to narrative goals. Early in his career, he used music to suggest that You're a Big Boy Now (1966) was more than a story of one teenager, but rather—like George Lucas's American Graffiti (1973)—the story of an entire generation. In The Conversation (1974), he elevated the sound effect to the equivalent of dialogue. The film's lead character is a private investigator who specializes in sound recording. Listening is his vocation, understanding is his obsession, and misunderstanding is his fear. In short, he is consumed by sound. Coppola was adventurous in using sound, particularly effects and fragments of conversation, to reflect his character's shifting state of mind.

Perhaps the greatest concentration of Coppola's innovation in sound is his film Apocalypse Now (1979). Working with Walter Murch as sound designer and Richard Marks as editor, Coppola created a film as innovative in its use of sound as Cavalcanti's documentary work in the 1930s. We turn now to Apocalypse Now to explore the use of sound to introduce ideas into the narrative and to see how sounds are juxtaposed with the other elements of the film.

Apocalypse Now is the story of Captain Willard who is assigned covert operations that often include infiltrating the enemy line and assassinating the opposition's military leaders. Willard (Martin Sheen) is assigned to travel deep into the war zone, cross into Cambodia, find Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), and kill him. Kurtz, who was also assigned covert operations, has gone beyond orders, killed officials of South Vietnam, and started to operate independently. Convinced that Kurtz is now a danger, the army and the CIA want him killed.

Willard is transported to his mission on a small Navy gunship with a crew of four. Their voyage is presented as a voyage into "the heart of darkness," from modern, organized life to a barbaric primitivism. Along the way, they are aided by American helicopter gunships under the control of a colonel (Robert Duvall) who is an avid surfer. He professes to "love the smell of napalm in the morning" because "it smells like victory." Later, when they meet Kurtz, an other-worldly quality is evident. Kurtz's camp looks like a wartime version of hell, and Willard releases Kurtz from his torment by killing him. The dying Kurtz whispers, "The horror, the horror.-.-.-."

A verbal description cannot capture the non-narrative character of this film. For the audience and for Coppola, it is a voyage into the American heart of darkness. The non-narrative elements of the film, the sound track particularly, help create the interior world that lies beneath the images that Coppola and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro created.2

The opening of the film features a visual and aural barrage that immediately implies an interior journey. An image of a forest alight as napalm bombs hit and explode is followed by a shot of a helicopter hovering. The soundtrack does not emphasize the natural sounds of these images. We do not hear the bombs explode at all, and we hear the helicopter rotors whir quietly. Instead, the soundtrack features Jim Morrison and The Doors singing "The End." A close-up of Willard in a hotel room is superimposed over the images of the helicopter and the napalm explosions. The visuals could reflect the end of the world or the plight of a man going mad. The intensity of the close shot of Willard supports the notion that Willard has lost his mind.

Eventually, the scene turns to the waking moments of Willard, who, as he tells us in the narration, is waiting in Saigon for an assignment. As he looks out at the street, the sounds of the street emerge, but as he talks about how he would prefer to be on assignment, the sounds of the jungle replace the sounds of the city and the silence of the hotel room. Coppola used sound effects in this sequence to create the interior space that Willard occupies. He would rather be in the jungle, and what we hear are the sounds of where he wants to be rather than the sounds of where he is.

As Willard begins his tai chi movements in his room, he enters yet another state, and the sitar music and its pace articulate his descent into a state of pure aggression. Only when he smashes his hand is he brought back to the physical world. The sounds keep carrying him into an internal state, however. When two army officials arrive with his orders, natural sound returns.

A second important element of Coppola's use of sound is the narration. Willard serves as the narrator as well as the lead character. This is an unusual element in a feature film. Because the nature of the feature film is to create a believable illusion, the story is usually presented through unfolding action that is edited to create continuity within the confines of dramatic time. In a feature film, narration reminds viewers that they are watching an experience through someone else's filter. Woody Allen can use narration successfully in feature films because we relate to him on two levels: as a writer-performer and as a narrative filmmaker. In the work of most other filmmakers, narration alters the relationship of the viewer to the film to the detriment of the latter.

A few filmmakers other than Woody Allen have successfully used a narrator in their films: for example, the Fred MacMurray character in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and the William Holden character in Sunset Boulevard (1950). In both examples, however, there was a plausible basis for the narration. In Sunset Boulevard, Wilder used the narration at the beginning of the film as a prologue to pique the audience's curiosity about the death of the Holden character. He used the narration later to allow the character to comment on the people who killed him: his agent, his producer, and Norma Desmond and her waxworks. In Double Indemnity, the MacMurray character also has been shot. Before he dies, he tells his story into a dictating machine for the insurance investigator. This confession is the basis for the narration, which again plays the role of arousing the audience's curiosity.

In Apocalypse Now, the role of the narration is to reinforce Willard's interior journey, which provides the subtext of the film. The narration provides continual observations, insights, and interpretations of events. Willard repeatedly shares information about Kurtz through the narration. Because Kurtz is an important character who does not appear until the last 25 minutes of the film, the narration provides the necessary background about him. At one particular point in the narration, there seems to be a fusion between Willard and Kurtz. Willard professes to be puzzled about Kurtz, but as they proceed deeper into the jungle, his puzzlement is replaced by respect. Before they meet, the narration links the two men and hints that Kurtz is the dark side of Willard's personality. When Willard kills Kurtz at the end of the film, he kills or denies part of himself.

Beyond this dimension of the narration, its tone and pitch suggest that confidential information is being shared. Whenever another character asks about his mission, Willard replies that the information is classified. Willard holds himself aloof from the others; he seems to be self-reliant and doesn't interact unless it's necessary. Through the narration, therefore, Willard shares more with us than with his fellow characters. In this way, the narration further supports Willard's interior world. His secretiveness with the others is not exclusive, but his tone in speaking the narration suggests he may soon totally withdraw from the others.

Willard's state of mind also drives the use of silence in Apocalypse Now. Sound in all its manifestations is omnipresent in the film. The sound track is not as crowded as in Robert Altman's Nashville, but nevertheless it is full. In the midst of this sound, silence is unusual. It, too, introduces an idea whenever it becomes predominant: the idea of mortal threat.

Three examples from the film demonstrate how Coppola exploited silence. First, when Willard and Chef (Frederic Forrest) are deep in a jungle thicket, the noise of the insects and animals is overwhelming, and the sound of their movement through the thicket is pronounced. Suddenly, the insects and animals become silent. As the two characters become aware of the developing silence, they slow their movements, anticipating danger. The silence becomes more obvious, and suddenly a tiger pounces out of the jungle at Chef. Willard shoots the tiger, but the terror of the silence and its aftermath are too much for Chef. He collapses, swearing he will never leave the boat again, and he doesn't.

Later, during a skirmish with Montagnard tribesmen, the sounds of machine-gun fire, the panic of the crew, and the whistle of arrows rushing through the air give way to an almost total silence at the instant that Chief Phillips is killed by a Montagnard spear. Everyone is incredulous that, in the midst of the boat's superior firepower, it is the primitive spear that is the killing instrument. The silence at this moment underscores the feeling among the crew members.

Finally, as the patrol boat enters Kurtz's camp and is greeted by boatloads of primitives, the silence suggests the danger that the three survivors now face. The silence and tranquility of the boat's movement suggest that its occupants are holding their breath. This is a moment of fear and anticipation: They have finally found Kurtz. The silence is powerful in this scene, and it foreshadows the death that will come in Kurtz's camp.

If silence anticipates death, then electronically produced sound effects play a similar role when they replace natural sounds in Apocalypse Now. As the patrol boat proceeds down the river in search of Kurtz, the crew becomes increasingly unnerved. Willard is the exception. As they move downriver, they become involved in various armed conflicts. After the crew experiences two losses, four of the crew members enter a continuous drugged state. One of them paints his face as camouflage.

During the panic attack on a civilian sampan, the natural sounds of life and death permeate the sequence. Afterward, though, the sound effects become increasingly synthesized and unnatural. By the time the boat has reached the last American outpost, totally synthetic sound has replaced natural sound. Only gunfire, dialogue, and rock instrumentals can be heard. The transition from natural sound to synthesized, abstract sound supports the idea that the crew members are losing their sense of reality. As they move deeper into themselves, whether out of fear or self-loathing, the loss of reality is signaled by the introduction of synthetic sound. By the time the crew reaches the last outpost, they've entered another world and they are primed for the last part of their journey into Cambodia to find Colonel Kurtz.

With Walter Murch, Coppola used sound effects and narration to create a sound space that suggests the interior worlds of Willard and, later, the crew. He used a very different approach to the deployment of sound in the external action of the story. The approach is highly stylized, as illustrated by the helicopter attack on the enemy checkpoint on the river. In this sequence, the helicopter unit's colonel becomes enthusiastic about ferrying the boat around the enemy checkpoint when he discovers that one of the crew members, Lance (Sam Bottoms), is a champion surfer. He and a few of his comrades are also California boys who love to surf. They will keep the enemy busy while Lance takes advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate his skill. They attack at dawn, and after losing a number of helicopter gunships, effect the transfer of the gunboat from one part of the river to the other. They also manage to surf. The absurdity of war mixed with recreation presents a different kind of madness from that of Kurtz or Willard, but it is nevertheless a form of madness.

The attack begins at dawn with a cavalry bugle call to charge. This sound effect has no meaning for the enemy—they are too far away to hear—but it provides a reference to the past. The cavalry charge is reminiscent of the golden days of the American West, and the colonel's cowboy hat supports this mythology (Figure 24.1).

As the helicopters approach their target, the colonel orders that music be played. His helicopter is equipped with loudspeakers, which play Richard

Figure 24.1 Apocalypse Now, 1979. Courtesy Zoetrope Corporation. Still provided by Moving Image and Sound Archives.

Wagner's Die Walküre. This powerful and majestic music stylizes the approach of the helicopters and transforms them into creatures of the gods, bearing a thunderous message. The editing of the approach emphasizes this stylization and moves the attack from realism toward mythology. Only by crosscutting the scene with shots of the Vietcong outpost and its children and civilians did Coppola bring the sequence back to reality (Figure 24.2).

Once the attack begins in earnest, the music and effects give way to the colonel's dialogue. His dialogue, which is brave, foolhardy, and commanding, is another anchor that holds the sequence to realism. When the helicopters and Marines are on the ground, the agony of death and war take over. Although the colonel does not seem vulnerable to this aspect of the war experience, his men are, and their screams of agony are presented in a very realistic, almost cinema verite, style. This contrasts with the presentation of the colonel and the attack he staged on the outpost. The deliberateness of the colonel—the cavalry charge, the opera music, the comments about napalm and victory—is presented in a stylized, nonrealistic manner. The result is an uneasy mix of the stylization and abstraction of death and the intense chaos and realism of death. With their use of sound, Coppola and Murch suggested that these two realities coexist (Figure 24.3).

Figure 24.2 Apocalypse Now, 1979. Courtesy Zoetrope Corporation. Still provided by British Film Institute.
Figure 24.3 Apocalypse Now, 1979. Courtesy Zoetrope Corporation. Still provided by Moving Image and Sound Archives.

In Apocalypse Now, examples abound of sound creating or suggesting a new interpretation of the visuals or introducing a new idea to supersede what the visuals suggest. Coppola and Murch were relentless in their pursuit of creative possibilities for the use of sound. In their films a decade later, David Lynch and Martin Scorsese followed in Coppola's path, exploring the notion that sound can be used to introduce new ideas and new interpretations.

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