The stars aligned for me yesterday in a way they seldom do. My wife took my eldest son away for the morning, and my youngest son decided to have a nap, so I had what turned out to be something more than two hours all to myself. I was initially too overwhelmed with my good fortune to know how to use it, but I eventually decided to watch one of the many documentaries that I have collected but have never had a chance to watch, Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which follows the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
Apocalypse Now is, of course, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book that holds some intense memories for me. I read Conrad’s novel several years ago in strangely appropriate circumstances. I was working in a fiberglass manufacturing plant, in what is called the winding tunnel, a long hallway situated beneath a gigantic vat of liquid, boiling glass. The heat and the noise were so intense that someone had scribbled above the entryway, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” the words that are written above the door to hell in Dante’s Inferno. It was right there on the factory floor, amidst these hellish conditions and these equally hellish allusions, that I read Conrad’s account of a man’s journey into the unknown darkness of the African interior and of his own soul.
My impressions of the novel are obviously heavily marked by the circumstances in which I read it. It was as if I was experiencing the heat and the humidity of the jungle with Marlow, the novel’s protagonist. I actually felt myself to be in the atmosphere of Conrad’s story, and it is this atmosphere that I now recall far more than the details of the narrative. The descent into the darkness of the human condition, into my human condition, was almost a palpable thing, like the moisture on my skin and the heat on my face. The heart of darkness was something that I felt through the body rather than read through the intellect.
It is perhaps for this reason that I did not read Heart of Darkness as portraying the Congolese natives in racist ways, though many have made this argument, and though it is one that I think is valid to some degree. It is certainly true that Conrad’s depiction of the Congolese people and of the jungle itself is one that emphasizes the primal, the fearful, the dark, the savage, and the evil. Marlow’s journey is a descent into the mysterious and originary desires of human nature, and what he finds is violent and savage and fearful. Conrad makes the jungle and its peoples the physical correlates of this spiritual place, and so they too are portrayed with its darkness.
In many ways, the same kinds of criticisms could conceivably be made of both Francis Ford’s Apocalypse Now and Eleanor’s Hearts of Darkness as well. Francis Ford’s film ostensibly portrays Vietnamese natives, but it is perfectly content to substitute Filipino natives in their place and to film them in the ruins of buildings that are neither Vietnamese nor Filipino nor anything else outside of some Hollywood set designer’s imagination. Clearly, his concern is not with representing these people with any accuracy. They are merely figures, as they were for Conrad, for something dark and savage and unknown, merely part of the scenery in the heart of darkness.
Eleanor’s documentary is different in that it is at times quite concerned with the native Filipino tribe that is providing the extras for the film, but her interest often seems to be in the native merely as an aspect of her husband’s own journey into the heart of darkness that is the shooting of the film, a journey which she never fails to compare to those of Willard and Marlow. Again, there is a sense that the people and the scenery are equivalent, that they are of interest only because they represent the darkness and the strangeness of the filmmaking journey on which Francis Ford has embarked.
In all three of these texts, the novel, the film, and the documentary, it is easy to argue that the native cultures are stereotyped and racialized, whether they be from the Congo or Vietnam or the Philippines. All three of these texts seem merely to employ native cultures as convenient figures for what is dark, primal, and savage. They are part of the strange and originary darkness where the too civilized English sailor, American soldier, and Hollywood director can go to discover their own darknesses and to find an epiphany of primal and forgotten violence.
Even so, I think it would be a mistake to understand these portrayals as entirely racist. In each case, though less obviously with Eleanor’s documentary, I would argue that the native peoples are not intended to represent real people at all. They appear only as metaphors and stereotypes because that is all they are intended to be. Their function is not to correspond with real people in a real world, but to correspond with what Western culture has traditionally imagined the primal and the savage to be. This imagination certainly contains many racisms, and it could be easily argued that all three texts serve to reinforce these racisms, but I do not think that they themselves function in racist ways.
I have little in the way of obvious proof for this assertion, but let me return, by why of providing anecdotal evidence for what I mean, to the place where I first read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In that tunnel of heat and sweat, feeling the text like a physical presence, it was always clear to me that the natives were not natives at all but fantastical beings, like elves or Lilliputians. I never paused to consider how Conrad was portraying the Congolese people because I did not for a moment see his natives as corresponding to real people anywhere. They were creations of fantasy, not stereotypes of reality.
I recognize the danger with this kind of argument, and I am not even entirely comfortable with what I am saying, yet I think it may also true of Francis Ford’s film and even of Eleanor’s documentary. The natives of Apocalypse Now are Filipinos who are playing Vietnamese who are standing in for Congolese, and they exist in a scenery and an architecture that has no real correlate. They are entirely unreal fantasies.
The natives of Eleanor’s Hearts of Darkness are similarly unreal. Despite voicing a claim to a kind of ethnography, the documentary shows a people who have no connection to reality. They perform their traditional ceremonies in a building constructed by a production crew on the set of a Hollywood film. They are buried to the neck to play severed heads, with umbrellas perched above them to protect them from the sun between takes. They are unreal fantasies. They do not correspond to real natives. They exist only as part of the heart of darkness that Eleanor represents Francis Ford as enduring to produce his film.
Does this fantastical element justify Conrad and the Coppolas? I am not sure that it does. I am only certain that there is a difference here, perhaps a significant one, between a racist depiction and a fantastical depiction that happens to participate in racist cultural assumptions. I do not intend this distinction to be a justification of anything, but I will suggest that it contributes to the fact that I have a good deal of affection for all three of these texts, despite the problems they pose for me.