Baudrillard on Apocalypse Now

Last week, I rewatched Apocalypse Now for what seemed like the thousandth time. It’s been one of my favorite films ever since I saw it as a teenager. It made such a lasting impact on me and on my general appreciation of cinema. Considering how I always recognized it as one of the greatest films ever made, I was surprised to discover how strongly Jean Baudrillard, one of my favorite thinkers, disliked it. Personally speaking, I think the film is a true marvel of the cinema, an absolute masterpiece, but Baudrillard would probably say that my reaction to the film is to be expected. Why? Because I’m an American. As we’ll see below, Baudrillard thought that Apocalypse Now was the American film par excellence. Now, it would be very tempting and convenient to write off Baudrillard’s criticism of the film as the mere product of his cultural default setting. The French have a powerful tendency towards insularity and also, yes, a certain snobbishness towards American pop culture. Baudrillard dismissed Apocalypse Now as a pure spectacle of America’s techno-military might, an orgiastic celebration of our global dominance. He thought that the film had no real meaning — just fireworks. Baudrillard linked the film to the Vietnam War. “That is why the war was won by both sides: by the Vietnamese on the ground, by the Americans in the electronic mental space. And if the one side won an ideological and political victory, the other made Apocalypse Now and that has gone right around the world” (America, p. 48).

The American cultural critic John David Ebert puts forth a diametrically opposed interpretation in his commentary on the film Apocalypse Now: Scene-by-Scene. Ebert argues, very convincingly, that the film has an incredibly rich semiotic texture. I think it’s very interesting to watch the film with both Baudrillard and Ebert in mind. As I rewatched it, I could totally understand why Baudrillard felt the way he did, but, simultaneously, I was constantly viewing scenes through Ebert’s insights, which led me to see new meanings in the “cloud” of its semiotics. What really struck me in my revisiting of the film was how much I could appreciate both of their perspectives on it. It left me reflecting on how much our cultural defaulting setting, our habitus (to talk like Bourdieu), bears on our experience of cultural artifacts. Anyway, if you yourself haven’t seen the film, then I highly recommend you watch it as soon as possible.

Baudrillard’s interpretation of Apocalypse Now is contained in his famous book Simulacra and Simulation. What follows is the full text as well as my commentary notes on it. Baudrillard’s words will all be in bold. I’ll quote a full paragraph and, then, underneath it, I’ll share my commentary remarks. Also, I plan on posting more exegeses of sections from Simulacra and Simulation in the future. I’ve already written some of them. Even though Baudrillard was highly critical of the film, he still felt compelled to discuss it in what many consider to be his most important book. This alone indicates the fact that Apocalypse Now is worth engaging with. Whether you despise it like Baudrillard or celebrate it like Ebert and I do, it deserves our attention. Before getting to Baudrillard’s own words on the film, I think it’s a good idea to watch this short video Ebert made to introduce his commentary to the public.

Coppola makes his film like the Americans made war — in this sense, it is the best possible testimonial — with the same immoderation, the same excess of means, the same monstrous candor . . . and the same success. The war as entrenchment, as technological and psychedelic fantasy, the war as a succession of special effects, the war become film even before being filmed. The war abolishes itself in its technological test, and for Americans it was primarily that: a test site, a gigantic territory in which to test their arms, their methods, their power.

Coppola makes his film like the Americans made war — in this sense, it is the best possible testimonial — with the same immoderation, the same excess of means, the same monstrous candor . . . and the same success. In other words, American-style war and American-style cinema are structured in a similar way. In fact, one could argue that they are modeled on each other in a kind of hermeneutic circle that blurs their very boundaries. Traditionally, war has always been considered to be the most real of realities, the hard kernel of human will and struggle, whereas film is thought to be the exact opposite, i.e., the purest distillation of our imaginations. The distinction between war and film can, therefore, be seen as the fullest instantiation of the distinction between the real and the imaginary. However, the “real” war in Vietnam and its “imaginary” counterpart or representation, Apocalypse Now, drastically problematize this very distinction — they form one overarching American hyperreality which is neither real nor imaginary. In ‘After the Orgy’, contained in The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard argues that the political, the athletic and the aesthetic have all become modeled on one another, which means they have formed one homogenous and integrated network. This amounts to saying that their real otherness (true difference) has been neutralized and that they can no longer challenge one another in any meaningful way. The same insight is at work here. The reality of war has been neutralized in it taking on a cinematic and spectacular quality, i.e., the becoming-imaginary of war, and the imaginariness of film is collapsing due to how real it now is. Both the “war” and the “film” are third-order simulacra that work together to form one overarching third-order simulacrum. Or as he put it: The war as entrenchment, as technological and psychedelic fantasy, the war as a succession of special effects, the war become film even before being filmed. In a sense, wars have now become pure entertainment modeled on the orgy of special effects. If wars are primarily fought for the sake of spectacle (shock and awe), a spectacle that signals various coded messages to foreign governments, then are they really wars? The war abolishes itself in its technological test, and for Americans it was primarily that: a test site, a gigantic territory in which to test their arms, their methods, their power. Baudrillard also wrote of tests in the contexts of the hypercommodity, which is a commodity that is a test or a series of tests. He was big on the test model in Simulacra and Simulation. For him, tests have to do with third-order simulation and deterrence, but not with anything real or meaningful. The question is: why do tests lend themselves to the third-order of simulation? That is what must be answered. Tests are mechanisms of simulation. In this case, Vietnam was just a playful test or a training procedure. But real wars are not silly games wherein nothing is at stake. The moment war becomes a fun little showcasing of one’s military power, fireworks on the 4th of July, is the moment when it ceases to be war and starts to become entertainment (imaginary). The real kernel of war is, however, absent.

Coppola does nothing but that: test cinema’s power of intervention, test the impact of a cinema that has become an immeasurable machinery of special effects. In this sense, his film is really the extension of the war through other means, the pinnacle of this failed war, and its apotheosis. The war became film, the film becomes war, the two are joined by their common hemorrhage into technology.

Coppola does nothing but that: test cinema’s power of intervention, test the impact of a cinema that has become an immeasurable machinery of special effects. According to Baudrillard, all of Apocalypse Now is a series of tests. Can cinema do this? Can it do that? What about this? America itself is just about seeing what it can do, what it can technologically master and achieve. This means that it never really serves the function of the imaginary or cinema proper. It fails at producing in us new ways of imagining things that preserve the very distance of the imagination. The film is too real and the war is too imaginary. However, both have the same underlying structure and aim: the playful testing of American power — a power that is hyperreal (spectacles that only refer to themselves). Remember, Baudrillard started off as a Marxist. His concept of reality was one based on the idea that the really real was social conflict (dialectics, class struggle, etc.). For someone with this concept of reality, a social event with no real stakes, without a meaningful antagonism, isn’t a true event at all. In this sense, his film is really the extension of the war through other means, the pinnacle of this failed war, and its apotheosis. The film extends the war, it carries it on, by flooding the world with the spectacle of what American techno-power is capable of. “See what we can do? Murica, bitch!” More so than any actual military might, America’s power is that of the image. Every breakthrough in cinematic special effects is American, e.g., King Kong, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Apocalypse Now, Tron, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Avatar, Inception, etc. Whether it is the media images of our “wars” or those of our cinematic marvels, we are waging war on the minds and imaginations of all people around the globe. If we judge the Vietnam War by older criteria of victory, then we lost. However, if we view it according to the newer postmodern standards of simulation and hyperreality, by the power of signs and spectacular images, then we see that we undoubtedly won the war. Our victory is that of the image. Now, the images contained in Apocalypse Now are far more powerful than of those of the American press. This is why Apocalypse Now is the apotheosis of the Vietnam War, i.e., it is its victorious peak. Bask in the power and glory that is the American image. We all love the smell of napalm in the morning. The war became film, the film becomes war, the two are joined by their common hemorrhage into technology. The point is that the war and the film are both basically just exploits of technological child’s play. Yay, now lets drop some napalm! Wee! Both the Vietnam War and Apocalypse Now are what happen when American children get handed new toys and gadgetry. However, the biggest takeaway from this statement is that America is essentially spreading a viral hyperreality across the planet that serves to maintain and reproduce its global power.

The real war is waged by Coppola as it is by Westmoreland: without counting the inspired irony of having forests and Phillipine villages napalmed to retrace the hell of South Vietnam. One revisits everything through cinema and one begins again: the Molochian joy of filming, the sacrificial joy of so many millions spent, of such a holocaust of means, of so many misadventures, and the remarkable paranoia that from the beginning conceived of this film as a historical, global event, in which, in the mind of the creator, the war in Vietnam would have been nothing other than what it is, would not fundamentally have existed — and it is necessary for us to believe in this: the war in Vietnam “in itself” perhaps in fact never happened, it is a dream, a baroque dream of napalm and of the tropics, a psychotropic dream that had the goal neither of a victory nor of a policy at stake, but, rather, the sacrificial, excessive deployment of a power already filming itself as it unfolded, perhaps waiting for nothing but consecration by a superfilm, which completes the mass-spectacle effect of this war.

The real war is waged by Coppola as it is by Westmoreland: without counting the inspired irony of having forests and Phillipine villages napalmed to retrace the hell of South Vietnam. To make the film as “realistic” as possible, Coppola napalmed an entire fucking beach. So where’s the difference between the war and the film? The irony lies in Coppola thinking he was just making a movie or a copy of the war — he was waging it himself. As Robert Ebert put it, “Apocalypse Now achieves greatness not by analyzing our ‘experience in Vietnam’, but by re-creating, in characters and images, something of that experience”. Again, the film lacks the distance necessary for any sort of artistic reflection, but, instead, drops us all into the jungle. By the way, William Childs Westmoreland was a United States Army general who is best known for commanding U.S. forces during the Vietnam War (1964–1968). One revisits everything through cinema and one begins again: the Molochian joy of filming, the sacrificial joy of so many millions spent, of such a holocaust of means, of so many misadventures, and the remarkable paranoia that from the beginning conceived of this film as a historical, global event, in which, in the mind of the creator, the war in Vietnam would have been nothing other than what it is, would not fundamentally have existed — and it is necessary for us to believe in this: the war in Vietnam “in itself” perhaps in fact never happened, it is a dream, a baroque dream of napalm and of the tropics, a psychotropic dream that had the goal neither of a victory nor of a policy at stake, but, rather, the sacrificial, excessive deployment of a power already filming itself as it unfolded, perhaps waiting for nothing but consecration by a superfilm, which completes the mass-spectacle effect of this war. What a fucking sentence. For fuck’s sake! Anyway, he starts off by alluding to the expenditure, the excess, the accursed share, of Apocalypse Now. The film is basically a huge, wasteful feast of money, technological means, and indulgence in the curiosity of Coppola’s imagistic tests and experimentations. Coppola, in some strange sense, knew that the war in Vietnam would count as nothing without the film. It’s as if the war was a pre-season football game, whereas the film was the Superbowl. The war was just preparation for the film (the “real” war). But, again, this inverts, or worse, it blurs the line between the real and the imaginary. Now, this might be the first time in his writings that Baudrillard said that a war never happened. This means that there was never anything like a real referent, a real war in the standard sense, in Vietnam. Of course, countless people lost their lives, atrocious violence raged, but does this amount to an actual war? Is it what’s essential about the “event”? What we call the Vietnam War is “really” a collection of wild images and sweaty fantasies about America’s godlike power. Wars have traditionally been fought for the sake of ideological differences, policies, class struggles, cultural antagonisms, etc., but not simply to test one’s mediatory-technological capabilities. Everything that can be said to have actually occurred in Vietnam served only as the necessary conditions of the creation of the hyperreal images of Apocalypse Now — global spectacle of American muscle.

No real distance, no critical sense, no desire for “raising consciousness” in relation to the war: and in a sense this is the brutal quality of this film — not being rotten with the moral psychology of war. Coppola can certainly deck out his helicopter captain in a ridiculous hat of the light cavalry, and make him crush the Vietnamese village to the sound of Wagner’s music — those are not critical, distant signs, they are immersed in the machinery, they are part of the special effect, and he himself makes movies in the same way, with the same retro megalomania, and the same non-signifying furor, with the same clownish effect in overdrive. But there it is, he hits us with that, it is there, it is bewildering, and one can say to oneself: how is such a horror possible (not that of the war, but that of the film strictly speaking)? But there is no answer, there is no possible verdict, and one can even rejoice in this monstrous trick (exactly as with Wagner) — but one can always retrieve a tiny little idea that is not nasty, that is not a value judgment, but that tells you the war in Vietnam and this film are cut from the same cloth, that nothing separates them, that this film is part of the war — if the Americans (seemingly) lost the other one, they certainly won this one. Apocalypse Now is a global victory. Cinematographic power equal and superior to that of the industrial and military complexes, equal or superior to that of the Pentagon and of governments.

No real distance, no critical sense, no desire for “raising consciousness” in relation to the war: and in a sense this is the brutal quality of this film — not being rotten with the moral psychology of war. Full immersion in the image — total saturation in the “war”, in the “jungle”. This is the extension of the war, or, rather, its zenith. There’s no phenomenological distance that would allow the viewer to maintain a critical-aesthetic breathing room, that is, a space in which one could reflect on differences between the war and its cinematic portrayal. No! Just pure, unadulterated American exhilaration. Feel the red, white and blue, baby! In this film, America touches your body, it overloads your senses and moods. Baudrillard thinks that it would be bad enough if Apocalypse Now was filled with images that made us reflect on the type of psychological states people dealt with in the war and how these issues relate to morality, but the film doesn’t even do this. It just bombards us with highly intense images of American technological capability. The film doesn’t want you to critically reflect on anything — it wants you to feel American hyperreality. Coppola can certainly deck out his helicopter captain in a ridiculous hat of the light cavalry, and make him crush the Vietnamese village to the sound of Wagner’s music — those are not critical, distant signs, they are immersed in the machinery, they are part of the special effect, and he himself makes movies in the same way, with the same retro megalomania, and the same non-signifying furor, with the same clownish effect in overdrive. But there it is, he hits us with that, it is there, it is bewildering, and one can say to oneself: how is such a horror possible (not that of the war, but that of the film strictly speaking)? Baudrillard basically just said, “Hey, fuck you, Francis Ford Coppola!” According to him, there is no semiotic dimension to the film — it is pure technological spectacle or “non-signifying furor” and “horror”. Coppola is Kilgore — both are the same “archetype” of the wildly violent American, i.e., the dancing clown of weaponized technology. However, this is largely a French rant. Think about it, this film is the exact opposite of the sort of films the French made, e.g., The 400 Blows. Let’s be honest, most Americans would rather get a cavity filled than watch Breathless. Apocalypse Now was just far too American for Baudrillard. Does he get at a truth? Yes, I think he does. A lot of people around the world likely had reactions similar to Baudrillard’s. Did his French sensibilities blind him to wonderful aspects of it? Undoubtably. John David Ebert’s commentary shows just how much semiotic depth the film possesses, which is to say, it’s not just fireworks. Nevertheless, for Baudrillard, it is the film that is . . . the horror, the horror. Notice that he says that Coppola “hits us with it”. You mean like how Murica hits the world with it? With the overloading marvels of American technology? In a sense, Baudrillard felt somewhat victimized by the film (America). He felt as though he had been violently attacked or punched in the faced. But there is no answer, there is no possible verdict, and one can even rejoice in this monstrous trick (exactly as with Wagner) — but one can always retrieve a tiny little idea that is not nasty, that is not a value judgment, but that tells you the war in Vietnam and this film are cut from the same cloth, that nothing separates them, that this film is part of the war — if the Americans (seemingly) lost the other one, they certainly won this one. How is such a “horror” like Apocalypse Now even possible? There’s no way to fully answer this question with all that it entails. Fuck it. Just enjoy this trick for what it is. What we can say without any moral judgment or nasty condemnation is that the Vietnam War and Apocalypse Now form one overarching system (hyperreality) of technological images “cut from the same cloth”, i.e., we have a trans-war and a trans-film — a war that is cinematic and a film that is warlike or military. We can argue over whether or not America won the war in Vietnam, but what is certain is that we won the war of images (simulacra) thanks to films like Apocalypse Now. America’s power is more powerful than power. It’s simulatory power far exceeds its real power, which is saying something. America? More powerful than power. More real than reality. More violent than violence. More deathly than death. Brought to you by the good folks at Simulation Inc.

And all of a sudden, the film is not without interest: it retrospectively illuminates (not even retrospectively, because the film is a phase of this war without end) what was already crazy about this war, irrational in political terms: the Americans and the Vietnamese are already reconciled, right after the end of the hostilities the Americans offered economic aid, exactly as if they had annihilated the jungle and the towns, exactly as they are making their film today. One has understood nothing, neither about the war nor about cinema (at least the latter) if one has not grasped this lack of distinction that is no longer either an ideological or a moral one, one of good and evil, but one of the reversibility of both destruction and production, of the immanence of a thing in its very revolution, of the organic metabolism of all the technologies, of the carpet of bombs in the strip of film . . .

And all of a sudden, the film is not without interest: it retrospectively illuminates (not even retrospectively, because the film is a phase of this war without end) what was already crazy about this war, irrational in political terms: the Americans and the Vietnamese are already reconciled, right after the end of the hostilities the Americans offered economic aid, exactly as if they had annihilated the jungle and the towns, exactly as they are making their film today. In hindsight, the film reveals that the war was dealt with, on the part of the Americans, as if it was a film. “We will reimburse you for any damages we caused in the making of our movie . . . oops, I mean in the waging of war.” After the war ended, it was as though no war had been fought. It’s like how boxers hug it out after sparing. But this is not what the aftermath of an actual war is like. Tension and animosity remain intense for many years. Again, the making of wars and the making of films are essentially indistinguishable in America — they are one and the same. Despite the symbolic dimension of 9/11, we knew on that day that Hollywood would immediately plan films based on this event. Sure enough, we got United 93 and World Trade Center in 2006. However, unlike Apocalypse Now, which was able to seamlessly continue the war in Vietnam, the films based on 9/11 were utter failures and did not merely continue the event. They couldn’t, since the event was symbolic and not simulatory, as Baudrillard pointed out in The Spirit of Terrorism. This inability on the part of Hollywood to extend the event of 9/11 shows just how much of a symbolic challenge it was to America. The Vietnam War and Apocalypse Now were just parts of the unilateral spectacle of power that America (capitalism) flooded the world with, whereas 9/11 was a moment of symbolic exchange or reversibility that brought this flow to a screeching halt (at least, it did for a little while). One has understood nothing, neither about the war nor about cinema (at least the latter) if one has not grasped this lack of distinction that is no longer either an ideological or a moral one, one of good and evil, but one of the reversibility of both destruction and production, of the immanence of a thing in its very revolution, of the organic metabolism of all the technologies, of the carpet of bombs in the strip of film . . . The sameness of the war and the film is not one of ideology or morality, but of simulation. Here, “reversibility” just seems to mean one thing turning into another, i.e., destruction is production and production is destruction. To say that something is immanent in its very revolution seems to mean that something is already there before it is there (it’s there in a virtual or larval form). If a revolution is that which sets x free or establishes it, then the revolution would be a simulation if x had been there all along. The lack of distinction between war and film is one aspect of the “organic metabolism” between all of America’s modern technologies. Our current technologies, be they military or cinematic, really form one overarching system of technological deterrence that menacingly shouts at the rest of the world, “Do not fuck with Murica!”. Everything is now a testing of technological might and the power of electronic images. America’s power once lied in its ability to disseminate this techno-system of simulation to the far reaches of the world — simulation that erased all realities opposed to its all-encompassing hyperreality. Death to death! Death to the real! Death to symbolic exchange! To clarify, a metabolism is “the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.” To speak of the lack of distinction between “different” forms of technologies as the metabolism of the technological order is to say that it is this very lack of distinction that allows this order to maintain its existence and spread itself across the globe. We can no longer use representational criteria do pin it down. It is impossible to semantically keep up with it. As Baudrillard argues in ‘After the Orgy’, it is this lack of distinction, specificity, determination, etc., that enables simulation to go viral or fractal (the fourth-order). In this short essay on Apocalypse Now, we could talk of trans-war and trans-cinema. The war transcends itself in cinema and cinema transcends itself in war. Baudrillard ends with a great image. If we bomb entire beaches or villages just to shoot a short sequence of a film, then film is war and war is film. The third-order simulacrum that is operative here is the concealing of the absence of real war and real cinema. The hyperrealism of both conceals the fading away of the real itself. We are left wandering in the desert of the real. We are all riders on the storm — the storm of simulation.

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