For 30 years, I have used Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in conjunction with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to illustrate allusion, ambiguity, irony, anxiety of influence, medium imperatives, and narrative architectonics. Oddly, the last few times I showed the film, many students were left speechless by the intensity of the experience. I was puzzled at first but then realized that their distress might stem from something that Apocalypse Now lacks: CGI. Today’s students are accustomed to computer-generated images and special effects, but CGI and full-motion capture/performance produce weightless pictorials with no substance. Avatar and 300 are forgettable eye candy, impalpable as a mirage. But in Apocalypse Now, when the script called for Col. Kilgore to order an airstrike and blow up a jungle with napalm, director Coppola blew up a jungle with napalm. Coppola also blew up a physical Do Long Bridge and expended many hundredweight of black powder, phosphorous, and fuse on a physical village of Vin Drin Dop. When a carabao is slaughtered, a real, luckless carabao was slaughtered. This gravity of actuality is shocking to today’s students for whom simulation, simulacra, and virtuality are the “natural” landscape. Film critic John Podhoretz decries CGI because
the extreme artificiality of the form creates distance between the viewer and the work. The secret about the movies is the way they trick you into believing you are seeing something realistic when you are actually watching something entirely artificial. The key is the recognizable human face and the interaction of the human body with recognizable real-world objects. Remove those from the picture and you are in the entirely stylized realm of kabuki theater.
Cyberpunk legend William Gibson contends that soon most people will live in a “blended-reality state.” The “entirely stylized” apparitions of CGI convince me that my students already live there with profound emotional and educational consequences.