Words that every deep-dive film aficionado should be able to recite by heart.
It’s no great mystery to me why images of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now, have been roaring through my mind for much of the last month.
Those lines, the whoop-whoop throb of a Saigon ceiling fan, and frustrated young Martin Sheen as Captain Willard – punchdrunk and bloody – have taken on special significance. In that way that only great art can. Morphing and twisting in allegorical soup. Mosquitos in the jungle.
Coronavirus is here.
Bringing with it fear, isolation, a sense of listlessness – and the journey into something unknown. But clearly threatening.
Billions across the globe are under some state of lockdown – or legal constraints that were simply unimaginable at the start of the year. Although the situation in Germany is somewhat more relaxed than in other countries – restaurants, bars, hair-dressers, tattoo parlours, and all businesses deemed non-essential are closed. Tourism is dead. Dead.
A strange economy of nothingness has emerged, business not as usual, and an urgent sense of war – against an invisible enemy. With face-masks and food shortages, and massive unemployment to boot.
The industry I have been hiding myself in for the last fifteen years has vanished overnight.
But. The mighty conjunction. It is still possible to step outside. In pairs at most. Keeping a suitable distance from others.
Exercise is permitted. No sitting on benches. No picnics.
The lack of humanity on the streets is having a measurable impact. Animal rights groups are aghast: save the starving pigeons!
“A pandemic does not take a vacation,” German chancellor, Angela Merkel, announces. Three negative Covid-19 tests. But she remains in self-isolation.
Take no chances.
Flatten the curve.
Netflix and chill.
I think of Willard in his hotel room. And the confrontation he is determined to find.
Fiction is some kind of strange sanctuary now. Perhaps because fable and symbolism succeed where historical comparisons fail.
Sales of Camus’ Plague are booming. Stanley Kubrick is also not far away. Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand why.
Even if no previous pandemic arrived under these circumstances.
There were no iPads during the 1918 influenza outbreak – and that infected 500 million people.
By the start of the 19th century, the ‘White Plague’ (tuberculosis) had killed one in seven of all people that had ever lived.
Nobody got to stay at home then and be a hero while speculating about how Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining represents everything that needs to be known about too much time with family.
Yet, when I reach out into ‘Internet World’ (yes, we have that now too) – I often encounter Jack and his cabin fever woes. All dull and no dull makes dull.
I can only imagine tuberculosis and influenza made people go crazy too.
When The Shining was released in 1980, Stanley Kubrick was desperate for the kind of success that his previous release, Barry Lyndon, a plodding period drama about the aristocratic aspirations of an Irish opportunist, failed to achieve.
With much artistic license, Kubrick managed to turn one of horror writer Stephen King’s early works into an aesthetic dagger-to-the-face (or axe to the door). Establishing an easy-to-reach point of reference which sure has a lot to say to the millions of people who can afford to self-isolate in these strange days. And the billions more who are struggling with the financial burden of desperation in desperate circumstances. Existential angst of a more pressing kind.
Let’s not forget the story of a man slowly losing his mind, in a secluded hotel, and trying to kill his family, starts with him needing a job. Even if it is to facilitate his desire to become a writer.
Like Apocalypse Now, it is a journey – into insanity.
How as circumstances change, our darkest thoughts manifest, and we are tested.
Coppola’s story, though, is one of the consequences of sanity. And the established veneer that maintains it.
The hotel room. The boat. The playboy bunnies in the jungle. The secluded jungle camp and the final act.
While Jack in The Shining transforms into a killer and succumbs to a supernatural form of cabin fever, the moral message of Willard’s journey in Apocalypse Now is more complex.
Yet, what unites them both is a simple axiom: change the location and change how you look at the world.
Once this has passed – and the apocalypse has been postponed – life may return back to normal. The streets may soon be busy again with life. People may forget what crept unexpectedly up their spines.
The locations may be the same; but different.
Maybe, just maybe, this pandemic is a sign of some kind of end of days – the advent of a messianic kingdom – or great culling of human life. An armageddon, or eradication of the species. Certainly if we end, the earth would just shake us off with complete indifference.
BUT, this certainly doesn’t feel like any kind of apocalypse. The skies are blue, the air is clean. If Berlin is in the shadow of anything; it is silence and clear skies.
And although there are plenty of bicycle riders on the roads, there is no sign of any horsemen.
For now it looks like scriptural prophecy and modern virology could not be more at odds.
And that science and human ingenuity will prove to be the solution to this crisis.
As, once business as usual is resumed, they should be the solution to many of the other problems we face as a species.
It would be a shame not to use this opportunity to discover something about ourselves. Perhaps that we did not even know was there. Certainly, acting out murderous impulses while stuck in a snow covered hotel is no acceptable reaction to the circumstances many of us find ourselves in.
While I struggle to comprehend fighting a global virus as part of my skillset – we are told it has never been easier. Stay at home. Limit contact with others. Eventually – and with the dedication and sacrifices of untold numbers of medical professionals – this will all blow over.
For now, in Berlin at least, we can still step outside.
And look around to check that the city is still there.
On April 1st 2020 – Berlin (temporarily) reduced to a ghost town…