At Last! Hearts of Darkness Out on DVD!

Francis Ford Coppola, photographed during the production of 'Apocalypse Now'

“When Francis comes this weekend…I will say, Don’t be scared. Remember those guys that jumped out of the windows when the stock market crashed? They thought they were their money. You are not your movie. If people think it is great, you are not God. If people think it stinks, you are not a fool. You are a human being who gave it everything you had. You didn’t spare anything, or anybody, including yourself. There is no more courageous act than that.”

– Eleanor Coppola, Feb. 17, 1978 diary entry written during the editing of Apocalypse Now. As published in Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now (Limelight Editions, 1991), p. 237.

“I swallowed a bug.”

– Marlon Brando, in an outtake from Apocalypse Now included in Hearts of Darkness.

I gather that news of this has been burbling around for a month or so, but at long last an official DVD edition of the remarkable film Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) hit the streets on Nov. 20. (Read the official press release from Paramount Home Video.) The overwhelming consensus among fans, reviewers, and bloggers is “it’s about damn time.” The film has been out of circulation (except, of course, for fading collectors’ copies and cherished bootlegs) since it was released on VHS in 1991. That it was not included in the 2006 “Complete Dossier Edition” of Apocalypse Now was a universally-noted surprise and huge disappointment.

This new DVD release is uncut (whew!), in the original 1:33 aspect ratio, and includes commentaries by Francis and Eleanor Coppola, as well as CODA: Thirty Years Later, a new promotional documentary by Eleanor about the production of Francis’ first film in 10 years, Youth Without Youth, which has been beset with its own trials and travails. CODA enjoyed a brief round of theatrical screenings, mainly on the festival and special-venue circuit, this past spring. I’ve not seen it yet but, from what I can gather from online reviews, notwithstanding its title it has little or nothing to do with Apocalypse Now, Hearts of Darkness, or the impact of either or both on Francis as a film artist. [Update: On first viewing I did not find CODA very engaging, especially after watching Hearts.  Maybe it will be better the second time, without having to suffer the fate of following the headlining act.]

Here in Seattle, the Hearts of Darkness DVD is available at Scarecrow Video (natch) and I’m sure it’s available at most decent mass-market video retailers. It can also be found at Amazon (currently for 25% off SRP). I may just have to make a special exception for Buy Nothing Day. [I did. I mean, c'mon! I've only waited a decade for it, fer cryin' out loud.]

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or maybe are just in your 20s), Hearts of Darkness is a feature-length documentary (originally produced for Showtime but later released theatrically) about the legendarily-troubled making of Apocalypse Now, working largely from behind-the-scenes footage and written and audio diaries kept throughout the extended production by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor, who also narrates. Production outtakes as well as interviews filmed well after the fact add further substance. It is a no-holds-barred, harrowing, and often brutally honest visit behind the curtain of a film production that mirrored the through-the-lookingglass insanity of the Vietnam war it depicted, and the entire era and cultural seismic shift that war came to signify. It is every bit as brave and unflinching as Apocalypse Now. Which is saying something.

I’ve long maintained (and I’m not alone) that Hearts of Darkness is not only the best “making-of” documentary ever made, but probably one of the best films about filmmaking, period — even if its subject can hardly be considered a typical production. The only close contenders that come to my mind are Les Blank’s masterful Burden of Dreams (1982, available from Criterion), about the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcaraldo; the unjustly-obscure Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (1988, included on Kino’s DVD of The Sacrifice), Michal Leszczylowki’s remarkable documentary following the great director during production of The Sacrifice, made while Tarkovsky was dying from cancer; and probably RKO 281: The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996), the PBS American Experience documentary later included on the 2001 remastered DVD edition of Citizen Kane.

(Wim Wenders’ excellent and moving Lightning Over Water (1980) is also worthy of mention in this context, although it is ultimately more of a deeply personal essay/documentary about Nicholas Ray’s final struggle with terminal cancer, also serving as a kind of platform for a meditation on creativity and what it means to be an artist. A phenomenal if almost-unknown film that you really must see.)

Like its subject, Hearts of Darkness has suffered its own troubled history. Despite its being hailed by critics and audiences alike during its initial runs on cable and then in theaters, it rather mysteriously vanished after its home video release. Once the DVD format took hold, it routinely appeared on lists of most-desired “lost” films.

Following the release of the (in-)Complete Dossier set, it finally emerged that Francis Coppola himself was opposed to Hearts being circulated. George Hickenlooper, who co-directed along with Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola, said in a 2006 message forwarded to an IMDB discussion thread that Francis felt “the film is not a flattering portrait of him”. Around that time I located interview quotes from Francis (which, alas, I cannot now track down) that confirmed he felt the films was unfair in key respects.

At that time (2006), Hickenlooper made it known that he was striving (unsuccessfully) to convince Francis to sign off on a DVD re-release of Hearts, and that he (Hickenlooper) had been having discussions with Criterion along those lines. This was greeted with jubilation by fans, albeit tempered by the knowledge of the Coppolas’ strong resistance.

In the end, Criterion did not get the contract, with Paramount handling this new release. What’s more, Hickenlooper reports (in a comment thread at Hollywood-Elsewhere.com) that he had no advance knowledge of the release, learning of it only after stumbling upon a press release on the Web. Clearly there is still bad blood betwixt them all. As a result of his being excluded from the project (or even told of it), the DVD does not include commentary from Hickenlooper — a significant shortcoming. Others in the aforementioned comment thread have suggested/invited him to record his own commentary for distribution as a free MP3 (as Darren Aranofsky recently did following the bare-bones DVD release of his latest, The Fountain). No official announcement as yet, but he sounded very open to the idea.

Its disheartening to learn of abiding acrimony amongst the creators of such a remarkable film. But the saddest news about this new release has to be the poor quality of the image, noted in reviews on the DVD Beaver and DVD Talk web sites. Part of this is certainly due to the original source material — 16mm film shot in the humid torpor of the Philippines, un-mastered raw outtakes from Apocalypse Now, and even mid-’70s-vintage video tape…all of which were already more than 10 years old when Hearts of Darkness was made.

However, it is reported (by Hickenlooper anyway) that the print source for this DVD was the very same one-inch video transfer made for the 1991 VHS release. Video capture tech has obviously improved considerably in the last 16-odd years, nevermind inevitable deterioration that time brings to video. But worse still, Paramount apparently did not give it even a cursory digital touch-up before shoving it out the door. As a result, says DVD Talk‘s Preston Jones, the quality “is only a step or two above my VHS copy of the film. The ragged, worn look does evoke the proper atmosphere, but the screens of text lack sharpness and often the newer interview segments look flat and a bit washed-out.”

Nevertheless, Jones avers that “it might just be enough that it’s on disc” at long last, and concludes this release is still “essential viewing” and “highly recommended.” Indeed.

Update: After watching the DVD, the transfer quality ain’t that bad. Yes, the text is a little mushy, but most of the visual detritus is clearly from the original negatives including (somewhat surprisingly) camera dust on the comparatively newer interview footage.

Meanwhile, the message boards and blogs are rife with (perhaps justifiably) cynical speculation that 2009 (being the 30th anniversary) will bring yet another “complete” box set that finally brings together the original and Redux versions of Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness, perhaps on whatever HD format inches ahead by then. We’ll see. (It’s worth noting in this context that, according to Coppola, the original negative of the 1979 version literally no longer exists. In one of the extras on the 2006 “Complete Dossier” edition, he explains that when Redux was made, he and editor Walter Murch actually dissected the final-cut of the original AN and combined it with the additional footage.)

Films, like people, can sometimes be “black sheep relatives.” Funny thing, though — the “black sheep” are often the ones with the truest understanding of the family that banished them, and that often explains their second-class status within the fold. I’m very much looking forward to having a conversation over a few beers with this particular black sheep.

For the record (since it’s a bone of contention/confusion): Hearts of Darkness was directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, with production documentary footage directed by Eleanor Coppola. Script written by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, including significant text and audio quotes from Eleanor Coppola’s production diary (cited above) and contemporaneous personal audio recordings. Clearly the film was a collaborative effort, with all parties contributing significantly, and all said parties should be encouraged to get over themselves. Movies are always a joint effort, wot?

Cover of the new DVD edition of 'Hearts of Darkness' (1991)

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