NEW YORK -- I first saw Apocalypse Now on an October night in 1979, in the larger auditorium of the two-screen Quail Creek Theater in Shreveport. It was no more than a week after the film had opened in the city; it might have been the local opening night but was probably on Saturday because I'd driven from school in Baton Rouge to see it. I went with my friend Mike Riddick, who was the only other member of my social circle who might possibly have self-identified as a movie geek.
Mike and I went to the movies often in those days, usually on Tuesday nights when tickets were $1. But this was no Tuesday night sortie. We'd made special plans to see Apocalypse Now. We paid full price but seriously miscalculated the crowd the movie would draw. We almost didn't get in. We had to watch the movie from the front row.
Which meant we didn't passively watch the movie, we were mauled by it. Or at least I was. Sitting too close to take in more than a part of the screen at any one time, grain swelled and blurred, colors flared and flashed as ghostly whoops of helicopter blades followed by Robby Krieger's sitar-like guitar stinging through the space followed by Jim Morrison's intoning "This is the end ..." and Martin Sheen's upside-down eyes snapped open in panic.
I surfaced from the nightmare 152 minutes later, after watching the ritual slaughter of a water buffalo by the Ifugao, an indigenous Philippine tribe posing as the Montagnard disciples of the mad U.S. Army Special Forces commander Col. Walter Kurtz, himself concurrently terminated "with extreme prejudice" by haunted Capt. Willard.
I'm not sure I followed the thread of the film that night. It rattled and shook me, as did the proximity to the screen. We were close enough to make out the perforations that allowed those pulses of sound to slap me in the face (though I was getting it from all sides, as director Francis Ford Coppola had envisioned Apocalypse Now as a simulacrum of war itself, an immersive experience meant to knock the audience off balance).
I might not have been able to tell you what was happening, I might not have been able to describe the arc of Willard's journey upriver to the heart of darkness, but I was colonized by the film, and it has held onto me for 40 years.
I rarely rewatch movies, but I've likely seen Apocalypse Now 30 times. I've seen every iteration of the film I know about, including the nearly five-hour-long "workprint" bootleg, except for the most recent one, Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, which premiered here at Tribeca Film Festival the other night. (My colleague Piers Marchant caught that screening, and reports he likes it better than 2001's Apocalypse Now Redux, which re-edited some sequences and restored"49 minutes of material cut from the original film. The new allegedly definitive version is some 20 minutes shorter than Redux).
Then Tammie Rosen, the festival's executive vice president of communications and programming, called our attention to the premiere of Midge Costin's Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound, purportedly the first documentary ever about Hollywood sound design. While the subject matter is interesting enough in its own right, a panel discussion was scheduled immediately after the film. One of the members of the panel was Walter Murch, who essentially invented the art of sound design with his work on Apocalypse Now.
If you don't know about Murch, you might seek out novelist Michael Ondaatje's 2002 book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film. Ondaatje met Murch--who edits both sound and picture--on the set of the movie adaptation of his novel The English Patient, and the two began talking about the art and craft of editing (and writing, history, literature, music, art, dreams and the I Ching).
Murch is one of the most fascinating figures ever to work in Hollywood, a genuine intellectual gifted with an uncanny sense of time and rhythm that he's brought to bear on some of the most important movies of the past 50 years including The Conversation, American Graffiti, all three Godfather films and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles' A Touch of Evil. He joined Coppola and his University of Southern California film school classmate George Lucas when they opened American Zoetrope Studio in San Francisco in 1969.
Murch has said he saw his mandate on Apocalypse Now as the sonic equivalent of an interior designer; he'd been given a bare space in which to "hang sound," a room with four walls, a ceiling and a floor which he needed to fill up with sound.
While some movies, notably The Robe (1953), the first film released in the widescreen process CinemaScope, had employed multiple speakers for four-track stereo effects, Apocalypse Now was among the first to experiment with genuine quadraphonic sound that allowed Murch to move any sound across 360 degrees of the space of the room. He could move the sound of the helicopter rotors which he'd deconstructed and processed with a synthesizer--around the periphery of the roof, then bring them straight down on the heads of the audience.
So concerned were Coppola and Murch about the technical specifications of the film--which Coppola vowed would only be shown by those distributors who demonstrated that they could and would present the movie as he wanted it presented--that for a time they hit upon the idea of building a theater expressly for the purpose of screening the film. Coppola and Murch would oversee its construction, somewhere near the geographic center of the country, perhaps in Kansas. This would be the only place anyone could watch Apocalypse Now; it would exclusively screen the movie for 10 years or so.
Coppola imagined Americans would road-trip to see his movie, that they'd make a vacation out of it, like going to see Mount Rushmore.
Had that vision come to pass, I doubt my family would have made the trip. We might have waited for it to eventually make its way to Netflix.
But we only had to go across town--from the East Village to Chelsea--to see Making Waves and hear Murch talk. It might have been a half-hour walk.
. . .
"When we went out into this slightly chilling atmosphere of Hollywood in the late '60s, early '70s, everything was cut and dried," Murch says during the post-screening Q& A. "This is how you do it, you use these sound effects and you have to get them done by such and such a date. It was all done on a business level and we all hated that. One of the ways to avoid it was simply to get out of Hollywood, into an environment where there was not that kind of restriction."
So American Zoetrope set up shop in northern California, where the strict divisions of labor applied to most Hollywood productions weren't in effect. One of the founding principles of American Zoetrope was a determination to treat editing holistically, to break down barriers between picture editing, sound editing and sound mixing.
"There was ... in Hollywood... a very strict division between sound editing and sound re-recording," Murch says. "The analogy with picture would be that the lighting director was in an entire separate organization from the camera operator, and they had completely independent criteria."
Isolated in San Francisco, the movie brats of American Zoetrope were free to employ a more fluid creative process. On Lucas' science-fiction THX 1138, Murch co-wrote the script with Lucas, then edited the sound at night after Lucas had worked on the visuals during the day. On The Godfather, Murch continued his experiments with musique concrète and manufactured sounds.
He describes the screeching soundtrack to the scene in which Michael (Al Pacino) kills a rival gangster (and forever binds himself to the family business) as the sound of "his neurons clashing against each other."
And, after that, Apocalypse.
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Editorial on 05/05/2019
Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Sound and vision