Apocalypse Now

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979) by Francis Ford Coppola
© Ufa 2002 (DVD)

In Apocalypse Now, various experimental sound-design techniques overlap in all the layers of the narration. As is often the case in opening scenes, the viewer is immediately introduced to a particular style. In this film, it is the surreal moment of a borderline war experience which is maintained to the bitter end, reaching what is nearly an unsurpassable climax in the final showdown. The loss of touch with reality – in terms of mental and physical disorientation – is a basic theme.

The initial scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most complicated that can be found with respect to the debate on subjectification. Captain Willard gradually emerges as the focus of subjectification, although his name is not yet mentioned in the scene. The initial multiple exposure creates a connection between Willard’s face, a burning jungle, and a ceiling fan. The pounding noise of a helicopter and the visual analogy of the rotating blades perceptively tie the ceiling fan to the helicopter. Willard (lying on the bed) sees the ceiling fan nearly the same way the viewer does. Another camera angle exposes the narrator’s voice as a meta-diegetic voice-over: we see his face and hear his voice, but his lips are not moving. After Willard has been established as the focus, it is plausible that the transformations be attributed to his perception.

Numerous formal strategies can be identified. The global strategy is the dissociation of sound and image. Dissociation is a distinct, perceptible separation of the acoustic and the visual presentation – the two only sporadically coincide. The hallucinatory loss of reality expresses itself for the most part in the absence of appropriate sounds that are consistent with the world of diegesis being represented visually. Even at the beginning of the film, the subcomponent pounding of the rotor blades of the sound object helicopter is not only considerably drawn out, but is also isolated, lacking the context of a concrete location.

This narrative movement away from a real location and toward a complete and frenzied dissolution of orientation is developed in the ensuing sequences through the accelerated percussive music in combination with the frantic dance shown in slow motion, in which the sharp sound of the mirror shattering – the only diegetic element – creates a brief moment of an apparently authentic relationship with reality. The visual focus may be outside the character, yet the slow motion corresponds with a subjective perception of time in terms of a mental subjectification. The absence of sounds, which are replaced by the dominating music, can be interpreted as an auditory subjectification. The acoustic symbol of complete loss of touch with reality is Willard’s silent cry.

The ideas of sound designer Walter Murch, who oversaw the overall concept, and Richard Beggs, who assembled the helicopter sound and as music re-recording engineer was responsible for the spectacular interaction between noises and music, masterfully approach the limit of what is possible at all in the culture of mainstream film.