You really can’t watch Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 tour de force, without cringing. The film begins with an ominous zwit zwit of helicopter blades, a sound that grows louder and more ominous as a lush palm jungle appears in the frame.
We are in a hazy, stiflingly hot Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War, following the journey of an army captain whose psyche is fraying. From that tense beginning, with Jim Morrison of The Doors singing in his upper register, “This is the end, beautiful friend,” there’s no escape. This is a film that never lets up. Its grueling final moments include the unspeakably gory murder of one of its only charismatic characters, Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, played bizarrely and brilliantly by Marlon Brando. He is executed at close range with a bill hook at the same time an ox is being sacrificed. Most of the film takes place during the upriver journey to Cambodia through “hot” zones of the Vietnam War that is more like a descent into hell.
On that patrol boat, Captain Benjamin Willard (played by Martin Sheen), a drunk, hallucinating, self-hating pawn in a senseless war, studies Kurtz’s impressive file and we, like him, begin to feel an affinity for the brave colonel Willard has been sent to liquidate. But Kurtz’s methods—effective as they are at beating back the Viet Cong—have been deemed “unsound” by the American military commanders and his fate is anticipated from the moment Willard leaves the city.
There’s death in nearly every scene in this movie and a dark grotesque humor that has elevated the film to cult status, not unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or Repo Man (1984). In one of the movie’s most controversial scenes, a lieutenant colonel named Kilgore (what else?) orders his men to go river surfing during rocket-filled combat. In another, American soldiers chasing scantily clad Playboy Bunnies (played by Cynthia Wood, Linda Carpenter, and Colleen Camp) fall 30 feet into the river from the helicopter in which the playmates are making an emergency escape. Apocalypse Now is a sweaty, psychotic, dissonant nightmare. It’s also a brilliant film, full of literary references: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is its theme, but the film also riffs off Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Inferno, T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men,” and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. And it’s a film that can be very hard to watch.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Apocalypse Now, which tied for the Palme D’Or when it debuted at Cannes in May of 1979. In honor of the film’s anniversary, the 18th annual Ashland Independent Film Festival, which runs from April 11 to April 15, has taken the idea of apocalypse as its theme. Talking about all this—the dark humor in Apocalypse Now, the problems on set shooting the film (which ran ridiculously over time and budget, and was such a debacle that a documentary film about its making, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, was released in 1991)—makes AIFF director Richard Herskowitz almost gleeful. A fast-talking New Yorker by birth who has been in Oregon for ten years, Herskowitz has a contagious enthusiasm. He appreciates the layers of interconnectedness, the literary references, and the backstory behind this movie, and all the other films that have been chosen for this year’s Festival.
As part of that appreciation, Eleanor Coppola, director of the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, will attend the festival. Hearts of Darkness is being screened at the Festival and audience members will have a chance to interact with the 82-year-old Coppola, who is also Francis Ford Coppola’s wife and director Sofia Coppola’s mother. If that’s not enough of an inducement to come to this year’s event if you’ve never gone before, I don’t know what is.
“It feels to many like we’re living in apocalyptic times. This is a theme that’s really resonates right now,” says Herskowitz, who explains that in addition to the chosen theme and an emphasis on classics, the Festival has two other focuses: art and activism.
Another overtly apocalyptic film that will be shown this year is One Man Dies a Million Times, a film based on a true story but set in the future.
Directed by the Louisiana-born Jessica Oreck, this film, which is in Russian, was inspired by the German siege of Leningrad during World War II when botanists at the Vavilov Institute were desperate to protect and preserve rare seeds for the good of science found themselves in an ethical conundrum. The siege lasted nearly 900 days and over a million citizens died, many from hunger. Science or starvation? The Russian scientists chose to starve to death for the good of the future of humanity.
While this all seems unspeakably depressing and it’s easy to get mired in worldly concerns—genetic engineering, global climate change, divisive politics, government shutdowns, international conflicts—enjoying this year’s AIFF will be an antidote to despair. As anyone who’s ever rushed tickets already knows, even just waiting in line can be exciting. “We get ninety percent of the rush line into the films,” Emily McPeck, the Festival’s Communications Manager, says. “So the odds are good that if you get into line, you’ll get in.”
But, McPeck says, even if you who don’t end up with a ticket you’ll have a lot of fun in line. You strike up interesting conversations, compare notes about the films, and exchange ideas about how art, creative expression, and social activism will help us all save the world.
An Alternative To Hollywood
My kids are 19, 17, 15, and 9 and it’s a feat for us to find films we all enjoy. I managed to convince even the teenagers to see Mary Poppins Returns. We went to a matinee, sneaking sandwiches into the theater, and we all enjoyed the big sound and big choreography. Mary Poppins Returns is the opposite of apocalyptic: bold and bright, full of impressive dancing and computer-generated animation. There’s a long dance scene, reminiscent of the 2016 blockbuster La La Land, where a group of soot-covered leeries (working-class men who light the gas streetlamps in London) exchange rhyming jives, contort their bodies in impossible ways, and sing their lungs out. They also ride trick bikes and run up walls with 21st century flare.
It was a fun movie but I couldn’t help wondering, as I was watching it, does the world really need a remake of Mary Poppins? Or Dumbo, for that matter, which is being released in March 2019?
Hollywood is all about remaking movies that have done well, Richard Herskowitz tells me. Which is why so much of what comes out of Hollywood is “familiarity and formula.” Hollywood loves sunny and funny (a sneak peek at the newest Dumbo trailer led CinemaBlend reviewer Gina Carbone to express relief that the snippet of previewed film goes “for laughter over tears”), and it seems like mainstream American movies, even ones that are dark around the edges, have to end on an upbeat. Some of these remakes really don’t work.
A second coming of Mama Mia ten years after the first swept the box offices in the summer of 2018. Though it was one of Meryl Streep’s biggest hits, according to Forbes, the Ashland teens I talked to found the movie plotless, anachronistic, and overly full of flashbacks, with music that also fell flat.
My 17-year-old boycotted on principle the 2018 remake of The Grinch (“We already have an amazing Grinch movie. Why make another one?!”). My nine-year-old and I enjoyed it, even though the movie was full of such badly written poetry and saccharine forced rhymes that I couldn’t help imagining Dr. Seuss groaning in his grave. Not all the recent remakes have been disappointing. The 2011 French film Intouchables got an Americanized remake as The Upside, which hit theaters in January 2019. I found it compelling and funny, a little more fantastical than real and a little too materialistic, but certainly enjoyable as a sentimental Hollywood film on first viewing.
Herskowitz says Hollywood’s focus on familiarity and formula is a business decision. “The number one goal is profit making,” he reminds me. It’s not about challenging the audience, which is a business risk, but creating films that viewers will be certain to pay money to see. “You want the biggest mass audience as you can get … it’s an industrial system attempting to reduce uncertainty.”
Independent filmmaking, which has no profit motive to speak of, is a completely different beast. These films are about creative expression, taking risks, and self-expression. Independent of Hollywood, indie directors push boundaries and challenge existing tropes in all sorts of ways.
Making Art Out Of Pain
One independent filmmaker working outside of Hollywood’s restrictions is Irene Taylor Brodsky, the Portland-based director of a new documentary, Moonlight Sonata, which will be screened at the festival.
I reach Brodsky and her producer, Tahria Sheather, by phone during their 10-hour drive to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where the film was about to debut. Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements tells the story of Brodsky’s son Jonas, who decides to teach himself to play the Moonlight Sonata, the piece Ludwig van Beethoven was composing in 1801 as he was slowly losing his hearing.
This is not just the story of a young boy learning to play a difficult piece on the piano. Jonas himself is deaf. Though he could hear as a baby and learns to speak, he starts going deaf as a toddler until all sound is gone.
Jonas’s grandparents, Brodsky’s mom and dad, are also deaf. Brodksy and her two siblings are hearing. Out of her parents’ ten grandchildren, Jonas is the only one who is deaf.
As the film exquisitely and painfully documents with footage that Brodsky shot at the time, Jonas has an operation to embed cochlear implants in his skull when he is four years old. If this is a world that’s unfamiliar to you, you might not know that cochlear implants use electronic medical devices to send sound signals by directly stimulating the auditory nerve. Cochlear implants are tools, rather than treatment. They don’t restore normal hearing but they make hearing possible.
In one particularly hard-to-watch scene, Jonas’s grandfather is trying to deal with his little brother Gil’s shrieking. Gil’s having a huge and noisy meltdown because he wants his grandpa’s smart phone. Papa can’t stop the crying but he can block out the sound. While the internal wires stay in place, a person with cochlear implants can turn off the functional part of the machine.
“Dad has a super power,” Brodsky says in a poignant voiceover. “He likes to shut out sound by turning off his cochlear implant.”
Over a decade ago, Brodsky made a movie about her parents, Hear and Now, which won the 2007 Sundance’s documentary audience award.
“I don’t ever make a film trying to make a point,” Brodsky tells me when I ask if part of her mission is to normalize deafness and help hearing people understand what deaf people experience. But, she also says, in directing this film she has come to understand that Beethoven’s music was not made in spite of his deafness, but because of it.
“It contributed to who he was and what he was capable of doing,” Brodsky says.
Jonas’s deafness also sets him apart. When he’s beyond frustrated, hiding under a blanket in the window seat in his home, his mom comes to comfort him.
“Do you know what Papa said to me today?” she asks her son.
“What?” Jonas answers.
“He told me he thought his life was better because he was deaf.”
I cried my way through this movie. Bring a handkerchief. Even though as a hearing child of deaf parents, she’s seen that barriers between people are dissolving, and that hearing people are much less patronizing than they were in her father’s era, I found the genetic counselor who interacts with her parents to be almost unbearably patronizing. Whether it’s deafness, blindness, learning differences, or physical challenges, Brodsky thinks the world is changing in how we treat people with differences. “We’re not reaching down and pulling them out of the trenches anymore,” she says. “We all have a place at the table. And isn’t this meal more delicious because we are all here?”
Tahria Sheather, who did the field sound, some cinematography, and was also the assistant editor for Moonlight Sonata, jumps in with an example. One of the film’s animators is on the spectrum. Brodsky and her team did all their work with him remotely, exclusively via email, and Sheather and Brodsky don’t expect to ever meet him in person. While some employers might think of this as too much of a challenge, Sheather and Brodsky were grateful to have him on board. “What made him different is what made him strong for the more minute elements of animation,” Sheather explains.
“Pick Any Film, Even One You Think
You Won’t Like”
John Stadelman lives downtown, in a high-ceilinged book-lined condominium with a sweeping view of Ashland and the hills beyond. He has just returned from the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which he and his 88-year-old mom, who also lives in Ashland, attend together every year.
Stadelman goes to Palm Springs, as well as to the Vancouver International Film Festival in British Columbia to enjoy the movies and also to scout for short films on behalf of the Festival. With an MA in film from the University of Southern California, he’s worked on both theater and film sets, and has also acted in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre. The owner of a landscaping company for many years, Stadelman is retired now. But as an AIFF Senior Programmer he’s always on the lookout for shorts—both narrative stories and documentaries—to bring to Southern Oregon.
He shows me his office, a tidy room that was slated to be a walk-in closet now converted into a work studio. There’s a wide-screen desktop computer on the left and a drafting board in the middle covered with handwritten pink, yellow, and blue sticky notes. A smiley face on a sticky note indicates the short is comedic. I was not allowed to read them, because the final shorts selections had not yet been made when we meet.
But the program is set now. This year the Festival will offer a whopping 11 short film programs: five of which are curated by Stadelman and his team of programmers. There will be two narrative programs, “Short Stories 1” and “Short Stories 2,” and three documentary programs, “Short Docs 1,” “Short Docs 2: Black History,” and “Short Docs 3: Northwest Grown.” The Northwest Grown documentaries are films made in and about the Pacific Northwest. The Festival will also screen short films made locally (“Locals Only”) that are offered at no charge at Ashland Street Cinemas as well as three other short programs: CineSpace, KidFlix, and “Animated Worlds: Familial Bonds with Mark Shapiro.” Mark Shapiro is with Laika, the animation studio that created Coraline. If you don’t seek out the shorts, you may see some anyway: there will be three or four short films to watch before some of the feature-length movies.
In the same way that readers who devour novels are sometimes reluctant to read books of short stories, if you’re not a movie buff or a Festival regular, you may feel a certain instinctive resistance to attending the shorts. But John Stadelman encourages everyone to suspend their disinclination and come to one of the shorts screenings. Great ideas, new ideas, he says, often first show up in shorts, adding that directors who make short films often go on to make feature-length films to great acclaim.
I tell him that our family loves the shorts because they’re always so off-beat, creative, and richly diverse. Stadelman adds that watching shorts is less of a commitment than watching a feature film or a feature-length documentary.
“If your attention span is shaky, change is right around the corner,” he laughs.
When I ask him for advice for the overwhelmed but interested potential festival attendee, he recommends just going to the Varsity theater, marching up to the box office, and buying a ticket—to any film—even one you think you won’t like.
“Even if it sounds depressing, go for it,” Stadelman says. “You’ll enjoy it more than you think.”
Herskowitz agrees that you can’t go wrong, even if you pick a movie at random. A champion of what he calls “live cinema,” Herskowitz says the Festival is set up so that filmgoers can experience cinema in an interactive way.
“We want to break out of the confines of the movie theater and make it more participatory,” he explains when we talk. Going to a film or two—or as many as you can—is the first step.
There’s also a companion art exhibit at the Schneider Museum of Art on Southern Oregon University’s campus, as well as opportunities to listen to original music composed and performed to accompany the theme of apocalypse, meet and talk to not just the film directors and some of their crew but also some of the actors themselves, and an in-town art exhibit.
“It’s the first time we have an exhibition that spills beyond our walls and into the downtown community,” says Scott Malbaurn, who directs the Schneider Museum of Art.
“Like the film festival which happens at multiple sites around town, we have a satellite location this year … We’ve put together a wonderful exhibition for our audiences.” At the exhibit at the Schneider, which runs from April 10 to May 25, you will find the work of Stephanie Syjuco, a multi-media artist highlighted in PBS’s show Art 21, who was born in the Philippines and now lives and works in San Francisco; as well as that of Morehshin Allahyari, an Iranian new media artist based in Brooklyn, New York who exhibits internationally; and two artists based in the Rogue Valley, sculptor Matthew Picton and digital artist Bruce Bayard. A fifth artist, Deborah Oropallo, who trained as a painter and is now known best for her digital montage, will have installations at the Hanson Howard Gallery at 89 Oak Street in Ashland.
Festing On A Budget
So what if you want to see films and participate in the Festival but you feel like you can’t afford it? My advice is to borrow some wise words from Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, author of the bestselling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom: “Anything worth doing is worth doing half-assed.” Don’t feel you have to go to everything. Even attending just one film can be life-changing.
If you’re completely broke, the “TalkBack” and “Locals Only” programs are free (tickets are required in advance). The expanded cinema exhibits at the Schneider Museum of Art and Hanson Howard Gallery are also free, as are the nightly “AfterLounges,” which AIFF hosts at various venues throughout town from 8 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. Don’t miss these—they’re a chance for fans and filmmakers to mingle, talk, and celebrate the day’s events. There’s are also a limited number of free tickets available to residents of Southern Oregon and Northern California who would not otherwise be able to attend. Last year AIFF raised enough money to let 300 people in to one film for free. McPeck says to contact the Festival by phone (541-488-3823) or email email@example.com for more information.
Finally, AIFF offers discounted tickets to older adults (you have to be over 62!) and to students with valid IDs. They also have group rates for parties of 12 or more. A final insider tip: if you have an Oregon Trail Card you can purchase tickets for just $5 a film.
So now that I’ve given away the Festival’s best kept secrets, you have no excuse not to come this year. Spend some quality time with a program to map out your route. Clear your schedule so you can see the audience award films that will be shown on Monday, April 15. You’ll see some amazing movies and meet some fascinating people. The apocalypse is coming. And you’ll be prepared.
A regular contributor to the Jefferson Journal, Jennifer Margulis, PhD, is an investigative health journalist and book author. She graduated from Cornell University, earned a Master’s degree from University of California at Berkeley, and a PhD from Emory University. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine. Her most recent book, The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery (HarperOne), is co-authored with Paul Thomas, MD. Learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net.