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DVD Review: Hearts of Darkness – A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

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Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse was originally released in 1991. It follows the many roadblocks encountered by Francis Ford Coppola during the making of 1979’s Apocalypse Now. It also incorporates cast and crew interviews shot in 1990.

The new release includes new commentary by Coppola and his wife, Eleanor, who shot much of the footage used in Hearts of Darkness. The release also includes the documentary CODA: Thirty Years Later, about the production of Coppola’s 2007 film Youth Without Youth.

It really says something that the most striking aspect of Hearts of Darkness is also the most striking aspect of the much newer CODA. Watching Hearts of Darkness, I was struck by Coppola’s sincere enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness. On set in the Philippines, perched high off the ground in his director’s chair, Coppola discusses his vision, plans, and fears with remarkable candidness. Clearly he is not posturing for the press: he sits slightly slumped, scratching his bare chest as he sees fit throughout the interview. He is so excited by the material, and so focused on completing the film (for which he is footing the bill), he doesn’t stop to consider how he appears.

It reminds me of when Peter Jackson showed up at the Academy Awards being awesome and creative but without having bothered to shave. He took a lot of flak for that, as I recall, but the move tickled me. In the same way, it’s great to see a respected artist like Coppola focused more on the creative process than on his appearance. It was probably this unwavering creative focus that allowed him to keep going on the hellish Apocalypse Now shoot.

The commentary, recorded during August 2007, is interesting. Francis and Eleanor look back on the ‘70s with all their current wisdom, and are often amusingly self-deprecating. In CODA, we peer in on Coppola as he directs his first film in nearly a decade, the artsy adaptation Youth Without Youth. Even with another 30 years of experience under his belt, he has not lost his infectious enthusiasm for material that excites him. Coppola adapted the screenplay from Mircea Eliade’s novella Youth Without Youth. Eliade (1907-1986) was a Romanian-born religious historian. What attracted Coppola to Youth Without Youth, he explains, were Eliade’s probing questions about the origins of consciousness and the nature of “good” and “bad.”

“I believe that when you make a film it’s like asking a question,” Coppola says. “And when you finish the film you maybe know, a little bit, the answer. So this film is my asking a question about consciousness, human consciousness, how it really works, what it is.”  Coppola explores these timeless themes through his chosen art form, despite their philosophical magnitude. When Eleanor brings up the complicated nature of Youth Without Youth’s themes, he seems to take it as all the more reason to explore them.

“I think one thing the movie-making public does want is movies that do talk about interesting things,” he replies to his wife’s observation. “What is the nature of time? What is the nature of consciousness itself? You know, that’s interesting.”

He says much of this while lounging on what appears to be a hotel bed. Sometimes he’s lying down, and we see a bird’s eye view of him. At times he props himself up and faces the camera. The effect is, again, one of extreme candidness. He’s not in some fancy studio, dressed up and ready to dazzle. He’s hanging out, thinking and talking about what excites him. And his enthusiasm can’t help but leak out and onto the audience. How often do you see a 68-year-old man this jazzed about anything?

Coppola is definitely charming, as is his wife. Together they are amazing. At one point in CODA, Eleanor is addresing the camera. Francis sneaks up behind her and begins to gesture and make faces. When she finally catches on, he darts up and kisses her on the neck before scampering off.

Whether or not you are familiar with Coppola’s work, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is a fascinating look at the dedication of a respected director. It is also an inspiring look at two people who have not lost their joie de vivre and genuine fascination with the wonders of life.

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