IN MARCH 1976 Francis Coppola began shooting Apocalypse Now in the Philippines. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness , having been shifted from the 19th-century Congo to Vietnam in the 1960s for the purposes of the film, was not trundled out to a location which had its own surprises and ironies: borrowed Philippine Air Force helicopters which had to leave the set to fight in a civil war; South Vietnamese refugees called upon to play North Vietnamese villagers in the movie. Millions of dollars later, way over budget, harrowed by storms, accidents, an actor's heart attack, an uncertain screenplay, multiple changes of mind and Coppola knows what else, Apocalypse Now has arrived on America's screens.In Notes Eleanor Coppola offers a wife's-eye view of two-and-a-half years of the movie's creation, from the start of shooting to early November 1978, when the film was still being cut, but the panic was beginning to subside.
The Coppolas' marriage, meanwhile, was having its own little apocalypse, although Eleanor is modest enough to see that pain and distress, however authentic, do not dilute the banality of the most familiar of marital problems. She consults the I Ching and the Tarot and wonders about escaping from linear time, but her old-fashioned common sense never leaves her for long. She doesn't want to lose her husband to the Other Woman, and she sees her situation clearly: "While I was off taking hip consciousness-raising trips, enlightenment was right there in the 'Dear Abby' column."
While Francis Coppola was making Apocalypse Now Eleanor was making a documentary -- a film about the film -- and her book started out as another version of the same project. Her ambition in both cases was to observe, not to interpret. "I wanted to leave out the adjectives, the judgments. Just make little snapshots that all together would give a picture of my experience. I was the camera." The book took a personal twist when the marriage became entangled in the film, and the camera was forced to contemplates its feelings, but the original impulse was sound. Notes is far more successful as transcription than as evocation or meditation. Meals, shops, sunburn, scenery, weather, insects, houses, exotic extras, the stylish doings of the Italian camera crew, the life of a director's children when a film is being shot, the hours of hanging around that a wife puts in if she is determined to be there when her husband needs her -- all this is sharply, soberly rendered. There are attractive glimpses of Coppola at work and play too: reading a book on Genghis Khan and making notes for Brando's part in the movie; guiding Martin Sheen, a little drunk and his hand bleeding because he has hit a mirror, through an intensely personal scene; imitating Nat King Cole singing "Too Young"; replying to an interviewer who had asked what challenges were left to him after all his successes, "'I am just trying to get through today.'"
But Eleanor Coppola is not content with this and substitutes rampant, woolly metaphors for the adjectives and judgments she was eager to leave out. She remorselessly finds parallels between Coppola and the characters in the movie, all making their various journeys into darkness, and she compares herself to Michael Corleone's wife in The Godfather . At one point she writes, "We were sitting on the front porch talking about filmmaking being like a metaphor for living." If you make films for a living, it's hard to see how this particular metaphor can get very far off the ground.
Of course, we all read our lives into films and books, but when such correspondences are sought as diligently as they are in Notes, the result is an odd, slanted vision. From Eleanor Coppola's particular focus, it seems as if the film abandoned not only Conrad but also Vietnam and its own story and became simply a representation of Francis Coppola's state of mind while he was making it. Of course, we are seeing through Eleanor's own eyes, but some of the vast pretentions purveyed in Notes must be Coppola's own. "He said he thought in retrospect he could have made any film, a film about Mickey Mouse and it would have turned out the same. It would have become a personal journey into himself." She adds that her husband "realized that there was no simple solution to the script. Just as there was no simple right answer as to why we were in Vietnam." Coppola's own confusion over his project is offered as a reflection of American history. Or rather, American history is converted into a full-length mirror for the artist. At one stage Eleanor does appear to have resisted the exertions of Coppola's ego and to have told him he was setting up his own Vietnam in the Philippines. But even there, of course, the mirror survives into the accusation; poor old Vietnam is still only a metaphor. The remark of a member of the camera crew is refreshing. He is working in the midst of what seems to be chicken droppings and makes a joke about it. Coppola says, "'Well, that's life.'" The man says, "'No, that's not life, that's the movie business. In life I have a nice place that smells good.'"
However, there is one genuine metaphorical connection between Apocalypse Now and the marital troubles of the Coppolas. The reader of Notes is likely to get the impression that there is nothing much in the movie except bombs and explosions and special effects, since the book concentrates almost obsessively on the violence. Finally Eleanor Coppola writes that she and Francis have been "blowing up" their marriage "chunk by chunk over the past year." Of course, some people can blow up a marriage and stay married as the Coppolas apparently have. But the image is so perfect one wonders if it is intentional. That, among other things, was what was going on in the Philippines, as the rain fell and the actors came and went and the hours of brilliant, unmanageable film added up.