In conjunction with Ken Burn Vietnam I just watched Apocalypse Now, and it will take some time to digest it’s powerful metaphors. I felt like I was going into Dante’s Inferno, into the tiger itself. Who dares go there? The utter madness of the war with its juxtaposition of America culture against the native culture, and who when these two realities rubbed together it created the Horror…Not only of the war but of the horror within ourselves that we avoid, that we insulate ourselves from by our culture.
There was such a powerful moment when in the peaceful jungle at night that reminded me of a primeval garden this tiger leaped out. to devour them. The horror!
And all through the Rembrandt portraitures of shadows you have the interplay of Buddha statutes. Is Kurt a Buddha or not. Don’t judge me, he said…you can kill me but don’t judge me. And like the buffalo he willingly gave himself to the hacking sacrificial knife.
When Sheen rose out of the river painted like a primitive, he had returned to the roots mind of man that was prior to the Culture of Lies that Kurt had left.
What is it like to live outside of the shell of Culture, outside of the “stench of lies?” The movie is a slow agonizing trip to the headwaters of humanity, into the interior like David Livingston, the African explorer who left civilization and lived among the primitive tribes for years.
Livingston wrote that once when a lion attacked him and grabbed him by the neck and shoulder and began to shake him, he went into the transcendent state of consciousness that was beyond fear. As Kurt said, you have to make the horror your friend.
Many of the vets telling their story to Ken Burns reports of the elevated consciousness or being they experience in combat when they know they are going to die.
So what was Vietnam? On the historical objective level of time, it was a great mistake, a tragedy. Apocalypse Now, however, is not about the objective war but the Subjective inward journey through the madness of culture itself to the root of our humanity that is beyond good and evil and judgment.
Truth is subjectivity said S. Kierkegaard. Most of our great movies are about this truth, metaphors that point to history with one finger and with the other to the truth of our being.
I just saw the meaning of the chalk covered natives guarding the entrance to the Cave of Kurt. The walking dead, the Grateful Dead…a land beyond life and death…beyond the boundary of the known.
And remember the show for the troop with gun totting girls sent to drive the men mad.
But again, I suddenly see this as the journey of the hero who unable to live in society or at war. When home he wants to be there, when there he wants to be home. And so he takes a mission, he wants a mission. He is sent to assassinate an officer who had dropped out of the world insane sanity. What was real and what wasn’t….Our hero had to find out, he had to know. And so with single minded intention he sets out to…know. He had to perform a mad act. He had to enter into madness in order to find sanity, in order to transcend the “stench of lies.”
Having performed the sacrifice, having done the act that was not a lie, that was not ambiguous, the tribes put down their weapons and he passed through them.
We lost the Vietnam War because the American civilization/culture is a lie, hypocritical and narcissistic. Its enemy was not. Our mind was divided; their mind was not. For the enemy the war was simple: either win or die. Americans didn’t want to die, didn’t want to make friends with horror.
I mentioned Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. What Capt. Willard was doing was the classic quest of the Holy Grail or the secret of Life. Culture/civilization was the “stench of lies.” The Hero’s Journey is to find truth through action, truth through heroic action, not thought or theory. Avatar is about this quest. The Life of Pi is about this quest. All moves are about this Quest in some form or another. The Quest for wholeness and completion. The quest to be free from time and karma and Ground Hog Day.
Put in the context of the violent Vietnam War, we get confused and think the movie is about the war, a condemnation of war. But the movie is deeper than that, and you have to travel to its headwaters to have this deeper truth revealed to you in a SNAP. It’s as if the movie were written by a Zen Master and as a koan it is a puzzle you have to solve. Just as Capt. Willard had to solve a puzzle, the puzzle of his own life and his inability to live totally in this world without wishing he were somewhere else then where he was, and when he was somewhere else, he wished he was here. Apocalypse Now is about living Now. It’s about making a friend of Death.
And this is Buddhism. We have to make friends with our own morality, we have to make friends with impermanence if we are going to be able to ride the Tiger.