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Community: Apocalypse Soonish

by Ethan Alter November 18, 2011 12:00 pm
<i>Community</i>: Apocalypse Soonish

By now we've all heard the news that NBC, in its infinite wisdom, has removed Community from its midseason schedule with plans to air the rest of Season 3 at an unspecified date. It's a disappointing development, but not altogether surprising since the show's already low ratings have dipped even further since its return in September. And, quite frankly, episodes like last night's "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux," an elaborate spoof of the excellent 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness -- about the making of Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now, featuring remarkable behind-the-scenes footage shot by his wife, Eleanor -- won't do anything to turn Community into a ratings monster.

But if pursuing bigger Nielsen numbers means not producing inspired television like this, then we'll take an enforced midseason hiatus any day of the week. Simply put, "Documentary Filmmaking: Redux" is one of the best Community episodes ever, an ingeniously written and executed half-hour that both expertly sends up its specific source material and uses it as a way to explore new facets of the show's own characters and the world they inhabit. Honestly, we have no idea how the episode might play to someone that's never seen Hearts of Darkness or, for that matter, Apocalypse Now. (And, for the record, we disagree with both Abed and guest star Luis Guzman. As terrific as Hearts of Darkness is, Apocalypse Now remains a one-of-a-kind masterwork.) So to help those viewers out, here's the way the individual members of the Community gang map onto the folks from Hearts of Darkness.

Dean Pelton
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Francis Ford Coppola (Director), with a heavy dose of Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz)
Coming off the twin success of The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, Coppola headed off to the Philippines in March of 1976 for what was intended to be a five-month shoot for Apocalypse Now. Over a year later, he and the rest of the production team finally left the country wearied and battered, having weathered typhoons, unexpected health issues and other extensive delays. During this protracted production period, Coppola famously plunged off the high-dive deep into the waters of self-indulgence, allowing costs to mount and making excessive demands of his cast and crew. Over the course of filming a new commercial for Greendale -- designed to replace the sixteen-year-old ad (complete with awesomely early '90s ensembles!) that currently plays during late-night marathons of Fantasy Island -- Pelton hilariously follows a similar trajectory. He finishes the first day of shooting on time and well under his $2,000 budget. By the time production wraps 12 days later, the commercial is $17,125 in the hole and the ego-maniacal director has alienated his entire crew (including special celebrity guest star, Luis Guzman) and is reduced to lying on the floor of his office Kurtz-style muttering over and over, "I'm horrible, I'm horrible." Fortunately, he shot enough usable footage on that initial day for Abed to stitch together a "good enough" ad. We dunno -- like Apocalypse Now, that commercial seems better than "good enough."

Troy and Britta
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Martin Sheen (Captain Willard)
In one of the most harrowing scenes in Hearts of Darkness, we're shown footage of a clearly exhausted and sick Sheen in the midst of a full-on emotional breakdown while Coppola goads and prods him from off-camera. Not long after, the then-36-year-old actor had a heart attack. Nothing quite as dramatic happens to Troy and Britta, but spending 12 hours filming multiple takes of their scripted hug while Pelton barks at them to do it better leaves them shuddering wrecks afraid to even touch each other.

Jeff
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Harvey Keitel (Captain Willard)
Coppola's original choice to play Willard doesn't actually appear on camera during the documentary, either in the archival footage or new interviews. But, like Jeff, he was sent back home several weeks into filming when he and the director clashed over the way he was playing the role. We imagine that Keitel was far less broken up about being replaced than Jeff was.

Annie
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Dennis Hopper (Unnamed Photojournalist)
We don't think that script supervisor Annie was high on drugs for most of the shoot like her surrogate clearly was. But that wide-eyed, manic attitude she adopts as the production drags on (and on and on) is vintage Hearts of Darkness Hopper, as is her vow to protect her obviously crazy director's vision or die trying. We're waiting for her impersonation of Hopper-as-Frank-Booth next.

Pierce
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Marlon Brando (Colonel Kurtz)
He doesn't shave his head and gain a bunch of weight as Brando did before arriving in the Philippines to shoot his scenes as Kurtz, but Pierce's excessive demands and refusal to emerge from his trailer to start shooting follow The Godfather's playbook to the letter. Brando capricious attitude frequently brought production to a standstill as Coppola tried to coax him into shooting something, anything so that they could get some film in the can. At least Pelton was smart enough to not indulge Pierce's snit fit.

Shirley
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Frederic Forrest (Chef)
Perhaps the most sympathetic figure in Hearts of Darkness is veteran actor Frederic Forrest, who just wanted to do his job and tried not to indulge in the same madness that afflicted his director and some of his co-stars. Likewise, the sunny Shirley manages to avoid going upriver with Pelton and her pals into the heart of darkness. Sometimes it helps to think that you have God on your side.

Abed
Hearts of Darkness Surrogate: Eleanor Coppola
Acting as the filmmaker behind the filmmaker behind the camera, Abed creates the definitive documentary about the making of a community college ad, in the same way that Hearts of Darkness is arguably the best document of a film shoot ever made. (Though Burden of Dreams and Lost in La Mancha are pretty great, too.) We totally agree that he should take this film around to festivals -- it would easily bring the house down at South By Southwest.

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