Operatic Melodrama in Apocalypse Now

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Operatic Melodrama in Apocalypse Now

The political and social unrest of the 1970s provided Hollywood with some of its most influential films, often stemming from unlikely sources; two decades after melodrama's heyday, the genre re-emerged in an original form that continues to affect modern filmmaking. The historical influences of Italian opera and Hollywood family melodramas spawned a type of film that has been described as "historical, operatic, choral or epic" (Greene 388). Filmmakers of the 1970s explored the traditional modes of melodramatic expression in order to address the socially charged times they lived in. Filmed in the wake of the Vietnam War, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now is a complex treatise of human morality and modern warfare that expresses itself through melodramatic conventions. Coppola contained his war movie to the personal level, in order to make larger criticisms of the Vietnam conflict. The central narrative, based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, follows an Oedipal trajectory similar to those found in many 1950's family melodramas. The surreal, and often ironic use of music provides a startling counterpoint to the actions on screen. The film is imbued with many of the representative motifs, such as sexual dysfunction and alcoholism, which are found in earlier melodramas. Apocalypse Now helped to establish a new film genre - the operatic melodrama - that combined the historical representations of classic melodramas with the raw spectacle of modern filmmaking.

Although distinctive melodramatic traditions developed in multiple countries, the Italian model is the most similar to that of the 1970's epic. While some melodramatic traditions evolved through novels or the theatre, "in Italy, ...

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... out of a 1950s woman's film. The melodramatic influences of the film continue to manifest themselves in the newer release, just as Apocalypse Now continues to influence the epic movies of contemporary filmmakers. The unison of operatic spectacle and personal conflict spawned an original genre in the 1970s that remains an effective method of addressing social concerns. As we enter another period of political unrest and social change, it is likely that a new wave of melodramatic films is beginning to form on the horizon; there are certainly parallels between a government that declares war on terrorism and the U.S. army in Vietnam, who "knew everything about military tactics, but nothing about where they were or who the enemy was" (Cowie 143). From Conrad to Coppola, nuclear family to nuclear terrorism; never get off the boat, unless you're willing to go all the way.

In this essay, the author

  • Analyzes how the political and social unrest of the 1970s provided hollywood with some of its most influential films. the historical influences of italian opera and hollywood family melodramas spawned a type of film that is described as "historical, operatic, choral or epic."
  • Compares the italian model of melodramatic traditions with that of the 1970's epic. the influence of italian opera on early hollywood film continued to shape moviemaking throughout the twentieth century.
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