Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever by Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel's nostalgic book Summer of 68 looks at that historic year through the lens of a baseball fan.  The tensions of the decade came to a crashing head with the Vietnam War, racial tension, and political assassination dominating the headlines.  Baseball in the words of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams, remained the only constant in American life.

The 1968 season was the end of an era (for lack of a better term).  The NFL and NBA began to overtake the baseball in popularity.  Football and basketball were much better suited for television because they were fast paced and seemingly made for the instant replay camera.  Meanwhile, baseball seemed seemed slow . . . and boring.

Even the style of the game in 1968 looks archaic by today's standards. Pitchers were still obligated to bat and were not relegated to pitch counts.  Most games were still played during the day  And there was no extended post-season as we know it today, the best two teams from the American and National League advanced immediately into the World Series.  Free agency still loomed on the horizon, as players usually remained the property of their owners.

Baseball historians remember the 1968 season for one thing: dominant pitching.  Bob Gibson (St. Louis Cardinals), Luis Tiant (Cleveland Indians), Don Drysdale (L.A. Dodgers) put up record breaking statistics.  Denny McClain won 30 games for the Detroit Tigers.

Wendel brings all these personalities to life.  Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 ERA and struck out 17 batters in Game One of the World Series.  Wendel wrote of Gibson's World Series heroics:

For there is something in the way Gibson pitched that perhaps wasn't simply directed at the hitters he faced, but rather at the world in general . . . Gibson unleashed pitches as if he were a man on fire.
Gibson fires a fastball.

Wendel devotes most of the book to the 1968 Detroit Tigers, a motley group who ended up winning the World Series against the powerful St. Louis Cardinals.  Starting pitcher Mickey Lolich, who served in the National Guard during the 1967 riots, won three games for the Tigers, including the climatic Game Seven.

The heroics of the Tigers helped assuage a city on the edge. Baseball gave everyone in Detroit a much needed respite from the challenges their city faced.

Weidel's writes with a novelist touch, providing a acute perspective. An educational trip back in time for any baseball fan.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott

In Better Living Through Criticism A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, makes a case for the validity of criticism.  Scott examines lofty questions of beauty, interpretation, and aesthetics - sometimes to the point of ad nauseam.

Scott relates a twitter exchange he had with actor Samuel L. Jackson over his review of The Avengers.  Jackson tweeted "A.O. Scott needs to get a real job" in response to Scott's sarcastic review. A flurry of twitter hate came down upon Scott, poster child for the elitist and out of touch critic.

Mutual disgust between artist and critic goes way back. Artists often label critics as failed artists, ever resentful of those who make a living off their art. Artists believe they go to a place critics could never understand.

Scott sees it differently; in their own way critics are also artists of a sort:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name - its proper name - for the defense of art itself.

He goes on: 

Criticism is art's late born twin.  They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.

Many figures have blurred the line between art and criticism.  T.S. Eliot's contribution to modern literature extended to poetry and critical essays.  French New Wave filmmakers Godard and Truffaut began their careers as critics and progressed into making their own movies. Quentin Tarantino famously gorged himself on movies as a video store clerk, film school on the cheap.

I wish Scott had focused more on his own vocation of film criticism.  Instead, we get a dissonant history of art.  Some of the chapters are self-indulgent with strained analyses of culture wars, tensions between art and commerce, and post-modernism. Neither is Scott averse to placing himself among the critical masterminds of history (at one point he points out - see, I'm writing like David Foster Wallace here!)

Scott also ignores how the internet changed everything.  There's little on the bloggers who write extensively about movies.  No mention of a number of the innovative podcasts that are reinventing film scholarship and criticism. Most of these folks do the work for free, inspired by their own passion. Scott's musings wreak of the Ivory Tower, he seems to have no use for the amateurs. 

However,I do agree Scott's premise: criticism should matter.  Critical thinking about art, politics, culture are desperately needed - especially now.

Critics don't matter.  They matter more than ever.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

George Martin: An Appreciation of the "Fifth Beatle"

Tonight I got the news George Martin, the producer of nearly every Beatles album, passed away at the age of 90.  While the story of the Beatles is an often told tale, it never seems to to get old.  Many individuals played a pivotal role in the Beatles career, but few are as integral as Martin.

A longtime producer at EMI records, the Beatles came to know Martin as a producer of "The Goon Show", a popular comedy show starring Peter Sellers. 

In 1962 Martin began working the Beatles as a producer on their initial hits such as "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me."  In the early days Martin worked closely with the group and encouraged them to write their own material.

In time John Lennon and Paul McCartney surpassed Martin and they took on more of the producing responsibilities (the only advantage Martin had over them was that he could read music).  

Martin arranged many of the orchestral arrangements for the group, including 'Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."  Some of the most sublime moments on Beatles records feature Martin.  His piano solo on "In My Life" comes to mind; my favorite moment on Rubber Soul.

The high point of Martin's collaboration with the Beatles was during the making of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. He admired the group's interest in experimentation and never stood in their way, never told them to stick to a formula. I recall a moving interview when Martin recalled the making of "A Day in the Life." He watched John perform the song for the first time and added a wistful reflection, "Even in this early take he had a voice that could shivers down your spine."
Photo from Sgt.Pepper sessions.

Martin continued to work the Beatles on their final records.  During the making of the epic "White Album" Martin grew disenchanted with the band's increasingly erratic approach to recording and often expressed his dislike of the double album for its sloppiness.  He returned to produce the Beatles final effort, Abbey Road. I suspect the lavish and poignant production on side two of Abbey Road owe much to Martin.

He went on to work with a number of other artists and continued to work with McCartney, most notably on the James Bond soundtrack Live and Let Die.

Over the years many referred to Martin as the "Fifth Beatle" and I am inclined to agree. He began as their mentor and evolved into an important collaborator on their road to immortality.  Martin witnessed all those magical moments in the studio; a guiding hand to some of the most creative music of the 20th century.

RIP George Martin (1926-2016)

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's engrossing memoir on his passion for running and writing is one of the best books I've read on both topics.  In his late 50s when he wrote the book, Murakami writes of highlights from his life as a runner and his struggles to keep competing in marathons and triathlons. For Murakami the act of writing is a sort meditation activity, not unlike the act of writing.

Murakami pinpoints the exact moment he decided to become a writer.  On April 1, 1978 he attended a baseball game shortly before he turned 30.  He witnessed a player hit a perfect double down the left field line and experienced a Eureka moment:

And it was at that exact moment a thought struck me: You know what: I could try writing a novel. I can still remember the wide open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat.  Something flew down from the sky at that moment, and whatever it was, I accepted it (29).

And so he went to on to write several novels.  What I liked is that he doesn't fill the book with pretentious musings on his "creative process."  For Murakami, writing is all about determination and persistence.  That's where running comes into the picture.  Running consistently and well takes determination. It is painful and grueling. 

Murakami admits the same goes for writing novels: writing them is not a healthy activity. It means being anti-social and devoting long hours to minute details.  Naturally, writing over long periods of time can trigger anxiety, but also a unique sense of accomplishment. The same goes for running, pushing yourself to the limits is painful and confidence building, more mental then physical at times.

Two specific episodes from his running life stand out: his decision to run the historical marathon route in Greece and ultra-marathon 62 mile race he ran in Japan.  After completing the 62 miles, Murakami writes of a mental change that happened inside him, the moment he reached his plateau:

I'd lost my enthusiasm for the act of running itself.  Fatigue was a factor, but that wasnt the only reason.  The desire to run wasn't as clear before. I don't know why, but it was undeniable: something had happened to me.  Afterward, the amount of running I did, not to mention the distances I ran, noticeably declined (116-117).

Murakami's tone is easygoing and unassuming throughout. 

Admittedly, I have not read any of Mr. Murakami's fiction.  I certainly plan to now!  And for anyone that runs, the book's an awesome motivator to get out there.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: I Am Spock by Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy's memoir I Am Spock is humorous, lighthearted, and informative account of his lifelong relationship with the iconic fictional character he created. The son of immigrant Jewish parents, Nimoy began acting as a child. He spent years playing bit parts until his big break came when he won the role of Spock for Gene Roddenberry's NBC series Star Trek (1966-69).  The book's title is a response to to an earlier autobiography he wrote with the sardonic title I Am Not Spock.

Nimoy relates the early years of Star Trek and how he developed the character of Spock for the series. Much to the network and Nimoy's surprise, the character quickly became a cultural phenomenon, even a sex symbol (most of Nimoy's fan mail came from women). He relates many colorful anecdotes from the original shows as well.  Days on the set were long and grueling. He developed a friendship with co-star William Shatner.  After three seasons NBC canceled the series and Nimoy assumed his days playing Spock were finished.

I Am Spock also covers Nimoy's career outside of Star Trek.  He appeared as a regular on the popular ABC series Mission Impossible for a few seasons.  He had a thriving theater career with leading roles in Fiddler on the Roof, even wrote and performed a popular play on the life of Vincent Van Gogh entitled Vincent.  Despite his impressive list of credits Nimoy continued to be associated with the Spock character, sometimes to his chagrin.

As Star Trek grew ever more popular in syndication and fans began organizing conventions, the franchise found new life.  When Star Wars was released in 1977 outer space adventures were back in so Paramount green lit a movie.  The final result, Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in December 1979.  Although the reviews were mixed, in time Star Trek became a highly popular series of movies. They remain staples of cable television.

Nimoy's accounts of the Star Trek films are a nice complement to Shatner's own Star Trek Movie Memories.  Everyone remembers when Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Nimoy wrote of the death scene:

I'd spent many years inside this character's skin, and I felt a great deal of respect, admiration- and yes even fondness for him (210).

Nimoy directed the next two films in the series, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, arguably the best entries in the series.  He also appeared in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode and in the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek.

Reading I Am Spock, you will discover Nimoy was much more than the iconic character he created, a true artist who worked in theater, film, and photography. 

Nimoy's passing almost a year ago left a gap in a pop cultural landscape Nimoy and his character Spock did so much to create.  He will be missed.  I Am Spock belongs on the book shelves of all Star Trek fans.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Book Review: Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad

A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, is a well detailed and no holds barred history of the early years of SNL.  The bulk of the book covers the first five seasons with the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players", with a few chapters on the 1980s and the rise of Eddie Murphy.

For American television in the 1970s, Saturday Night Live signaled a new era.  TV comedy appealed mostly to a middle aged audience with humor from a bygone era.  There were precursors to SNL such as The Smothers Brothers and Laugh-In.  In England, Monty Python set the template for SNL: witty and irreverent. 

Lorne Michaels, a comedy writer and producer from Canada envisioned a Saturday night TV show to reflect the counterculture ethos: confrontational, irreverent, loud, taking on the powers that be.  In the mid 70s, Saturday night remained a dead zone of reruns and old movies.  

Saturday Night Live debuted on October, 11 1975 with George Carlin hosting.  While the first show looks unremarkable in retrospect, it did set the tone for what was to come.  Unable to perform in skits, Carlin performed his stand up material.  One routine mocked the idea of God, setting network executives through the roof.  The opening sketch with Belushi and Michael O'Donoghue set the tone.

The first season of SNL could very well be the best.  Chevy Chase dominated the season.  A veteran of National Lampoon, a syndicated radio show and magazine, Chase epitomized their fratboy/political humor the show continues to this day.  Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford as a clueless klutz who fell down all time may have tipped the scales in favor of Jimmy Carter.

When Hollywood came calling Chase left midway through the second season.  And the show evolved into something else entirely.

John Belushi, long resentful of Chase's success (envy and jealousy plagued SNL), proved the most funniest and unpredictable cast member with countless classic skits that still hold up, my favorite is the "no coke, pepsi skit" set in a deli.  A Jekyll and Hyde personality, Belushi had the reputation of blowing up at anyone without notice (and would usually immediately apologize).  As his star rose after the Box Office smash of Animal House, his drug use and erratic behavior increased, often too drunk or high to perform on live television, but even in his inebriated state he was electric.

Dan Aykroyd, according to Eric Idle was the only SNL member who could've made it as a Python, proved the most dynamic writer and performer. A mysterious character who believed in the supernatural and UFOs seemed an enigma to many on the show.  He found a soulmate in Belushi. They created the Blues Brothers together which turned into a hit film.  

Bill Murray replaced Chevy Chase and seemed the most unlikely of all to have the most successful movie career.  A native of Chicago, Murray was a working class tough from Chicago who liked to start fist fights. When Belushi and Aykroyd left the show, Murray had to carry their weight.  He went on to a successful movie career with Stripes and Ghostbusters and in recent years reinvented himself as a hipster deity.

The female members of the original cast typically had to step aside for the guys.  Gilda Radner created many memorable characters, including "The Nerds." Lorraine Newman's refusal to do recurring characters and instead be a chameleon by playing all sorts of roles. Jane Curtain, known for distancing herself from the rest of the cast, basically saw SNL as just another job.  Her rivalry with Belushi often veered from friendly to hostile.  

The 80s proved a shaky decade.  Only when Eddie Murphy came along did the show find its footing.  Murphy's work on the show remains unsurpassed: pure comedic genius.

At the heart of SNL is a drama of excess, ego, addiction, rivalry and creativity.  Drug humor proved a big part of the early years and it's well known most of the cast partook in the drug of the era - cocaine. The untimely death of Belushi at age 33 seemed an indictment of 70s and 80s show business culture above all else.

For anyone looking for a definitive account of the early years of SNL, this is the book to read.  

Also, see Live From New York by Tom Shales to hear from the actual players themselves.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas: The Chaos and the Control

George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola

For movie fans the names Coppola and Lucas often trigger wistful nostalgia and quiet frustration. Both began their careers as cinematic revolutionaries determined to circumvent the studio system. They aspired to make “personal” films expressing their own unique visions like the French New Wave directors. 

Their early work displayed great promise.  Unfortunately they got caught up in the very system they despised. By the late 70s their early careers came to a dramatic culmination with Lucas’s epochal Star Wars and Coppola's surreal masterpiece Apocalypse Now.   

For a long time Lucas planned on directing Apocalypse Now, triggering an irresistible what if scenario.  In many ways Apocalypse Now is the Rosetta Stone of their filmography, the key to understanding their work.

They met during the making of Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Coppola first major Hollywood production.  Lucas, already a rising star at USC film school with several award winning films to his credit won an internship to assist Coppola. Like most film school graduates, Lucas had little interest in conventional Hollywood movies. Coppola took on Lucas as a protege, and gave him a job on his next film The Rain People.

They were alter egos from the get go.

The Master and the Apprentice  

Coppola grew up in a large Italian-American family of musicians and artists.  A lackluster student, he found his calling in the theater and went on to UCLA film school.  Not yet 30 when he made Finian’s Rainbow, Coppola was already a seasoned director of low budget films like Dementia 13 (1963) and You're A Big Boy Now (1966).  A highly sought after screenwriter as well, Coppola won an Oscar for writing Patton (1970).  

Lucas came from a  middle class background in Modesto, California.  Indifferent towards school until he almost perished in a car accident, Lucas took to film school, discovering his passion during an exciting moment in cinema history.  Movies from Asia and Europe were dramatically expanding the possibilities of the medium.  Lucas liked to the technical side film making: editing, sound, special effects, cinematography.  Shy and introverted by nature, Lucas earned a reputation through his strong work ethic and generosity.

Their creative endeavors would shape the 1970s.  Coppola was and still is devoted to the printed word, viewing film as an extension of literature, frequently alluding to modernists like Joyce and Woolf who revolutionized storytelling in ways film never explored.  And he loved the process of making movies: working with actors, improvising on the set, and letting a project evolve organically.        

But Lucas seemed more in tune with future course of cinema, one separate from literature, a pure visual medium with its own set of rules; one where the possibilities of technology were limitless in telling a story. Lucas’s early films used mostly montage and sound to tell stories, almost a throwback to silent cinema, yet modern at the same time.

The Rain People (1969) told the story of a middle class housewife who leaves her husband and drifts aimlessly on the road in a futile search for meaning. Coppola asked Lucas to do a “making of” feature documenting the challenges of being an independent director. The making of documentary Filmmaker remains a compelling time capsule of the era and a fascinating portrait of Coppola.  We  see him haggle with producers on the phone, argue with and inspire his cast, improvising on location, and grandiose monologues on putting everything on the line for his art.
Cast and Crew Photo of The Rain People.

Next Coppola launched Zoetrope Studios, San Francisco based film company conceived as an alternative to Hollywood. Coppola wanted to attract new directors and artists who were plentiful in the dynamic counterculture of the city.  Coppola decided Lucas's film THX-1138, based on his UCLA Master’s thesis,  would be be the first full length feature developed by Zoetrope.

By all accounts Lucas enjoyed filming THX-1138.  When Warner Brothers insisted on cutting five minutes Lucas swore to never relinquish final cut to a studio.  But THX-1138 lost money and met with mixed reviews.  Nevertheless,  it has aged remarkably well.  Although the look and tone of THX-1138 are unbearably alienating (that was the point) its themes of deadening technology, drugs, government repression, and mind control remain strikingly prescient.  

The Vietnam War shaped the consciousness of New Hollywood and they all aspired to make the definitive film on the defining moment of their generation. Lucas initially wanted to make a documentary about Vietnam, one that would blur the lines between reality and fiction along the lines of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969).  In 1967, Lucas asked film school pal John Milius to pen a screenplay for what became Apocalypse Now, originally titled The Psychedelic Soldier.  Inspired Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, Milius completed a screenplay at some point in 1969 with Lucas set to direct.

After THX-1138 failed to take with audiences, Coppola encouraged Lucas to write something more commercial, with more of a heart.  So he wrote American Graffiti, a semi-autobiographical film about his teenage years in Modesto, a nostalgia piece about early 60s teenage life. American Graffiti came out at just the right time. Audiences welcomed a return to a more innocent time.  It proved the box office smash of 1973, a coming of age story with shades of subtle melancholy, giving Lucas the cache to make an even more ambitious film.

Columbia Pictures bought the Milius script for Apocalypse Now. Lucas sent producer Gary Kurtz to scout locations in the Philippines. He envisioned a low budget film shot on 16mm with a cast of nonprofessional actors.  In interviews, Lucas spoke of a “satirical, comic book tone” exposing the insanity of the war.  
John Milius in the Middle, going over a script with Spielberg and Lucas.

According to Lucas biographer Dale Pollock, a bad business deal ended Lucas's involvement. Coppola agreed to produce the film, but the deal allowed him 25% of the gross box office, much to the chagrin of Lucas and Milius who were both obligated to split their 25% share.  The success of The Godfather made Coppola the hottest director in Hollywood and by all accounts his already outsized ego went into overdrive.  

By that time Lucas was already developing another project entitled The Star Wars.

A Tale of Two Movies

Many books have documented the genesis of Star Wars, in particular The Secret History of Star Wars by Michael Kaminski and How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor.  Everything influenced Lucas: Silver Age Comics, Kurosawa, Flash Gordon, John Ford Westerns, and countless fairy tales.  Themes Lucas had wanted to explore in Apocalypse Now found their way into the story, namely, the idea of a committed group of revolutionaries defeating a technologically superior empire.

By the spring of 1976 Lucas began principal photography on Star Wars, a production beset by many problems. The sheer scale of the project nearly overwhelmed him.  Mild mannered by nature, Lucas seemed way out of his depth.  Post-Production was equally troublesome: disastrous rough cuts and special effects delays took Lucas to the brink of sanity. Only when a new editing team was brought in did Star Wars coalesce into something coherent.  The classical score by John Williams proved a last minute master stroke.
Lucas on the set of Star Wars

Almost simultaneously Coppola’s crew arrived in The Philippines to began Apocalypse Now in what became the most written about “troubled” production in movie history.  

Coppola made many revisions to the Milius script, drawing deeper inspiration from the novel Heart of Darkness, although many scenes from the Milius script survived.  The most substantial change involved Colonel Kurtz, who appears early in the script wearing a beret hat and a loin cloth surrounded by groupie natives as “Sunshine of Your Love” plays on the soundtrack.  The comic book Nietzsche of Milius gave way to Coppola's literary sensibility.
The shoot of Apocalypse Now dragged on for 16 months.

After an expensive and by all reports insane shoot, an agonizing post-production followed. One day towards the end of filming, Coppola collapsed into tears on the set and went into a seizure.  Believing he was dying, he allegedly said, “If I die, George will finish this.”  

But Lucas had already was devoting everything to his Star Wars trilogy.

When Apocalypse Now was finally released to the world it secured Coppola’s reputation as major international filmmaker, but he spent most of the 80s and 90s working as a director for hire after a series of flops.

Within and Without the Empire

Apocalypse Now tells the story from the perspective of those within the empire, while Star Wars highlights characters on the fringes of empire.  

Coppola emphasized the chaos, illogical, and mindless ego of the American war effort in Vietnam.  In the initial scene that sets up the story, Captain Willard’s superiors explain that a renegade Colonel must be killed with “extreme prejudice” for reasons they never really explain.  Basically, one of their went rogue.  The guardians of the empire want Colonel Kurtz eliminated, a Frankenstein of their own creation.

Being a loyal soldier, Willard wants his mission to succeed, yet the irony of assassinating a fellow officer is never lost on him.  As they journey up the river Willard becomes increasingly intrigued with Kurtz.  Here we get a slight divergence from the Milius and Coppola scripts: Milius imagined Kurtz as a desk bound officer who discovers the "superman" within himself. Coppola wrote Kurtz as a superior officer who develops a God complex.

Early in the film Willard’s crew require helicopters to transport them, forcing them to confront Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall).  Kilgore is the ideal American warrior movies never stop glamorizing.  His air cavalry unit live by the ethos of the Old West, a set of values fabricated by Hollywood movies. An unhinged John Wayne.

Kilgore decides to bomb a village of peasants so his men can surf the waves.  After the successful raid Kilgore’s men build campfires, reflect on the triumphs of the day, drink beer, grill steaks, and of course surf. The Wagner music conjures visions of Nazi Germany, a fetishization of militaristic values, inviting the audience to participate in the orgasmic pleasure of war - and its madness.
Robert Duvall as Colonel Kilgore

Each sequence gets more surreal. During the Do Lung Bridge scene Coppola takes us to the very edges of the Vietnam War, where all the lines start to blur, as if the LSD the soldiers imbibe is working its magic on the audience.  The Americans rebuild the bridge only to have the Vietcong blow it up the next day. Here we get a trope on the absurdity of war: mindless fighting with no purpose, a staple of First World War war literature.  Kubrick’s Paths of Glory also comes to mind.
The Do Lung Bridge/Psychedelic War

Later Willard’s crew come upon a USO show featuring Playboy playmates.  Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine sold a cool masculinity that helped launch the sexual revolution.  During the mid-20th century Playboy introduced many American boys to sex, their first glimpse of a naked woman.  So something primal comes out during the scene, the ridiculousness of transporting American pop culture into a dangerous war zone, violent, sexy, terrifying.  As the show descends into chaos, the sexual excitement descends into something else entirely.
USO Show

Towards the end Willard comes upon a decaying French plantation, an example of the “colossal wreck” of empire, a foreshadowing of where America is going.  The remaining French are addicted to opium and engage in long winded debates on world politics.  Coppola included the scene in Apocalypse Now Redux and it sounds like something he wrote.  The scene holds more relevance in a post-9/11 America where subsequent administrations, regardless of their politics, remain committed to maintaining the American Empire. The use of drones, torture, and perpetual war in distant locales are passively taken as a given by the majority of Americans.
The Wreck of Empire

When they finally meet Kurtz, an imposing, but borderline comical Marlon Brando, we see the conflicted nature of humanity personified.  Kurtz has transcended notions of nationality and politics, just seeking power for it’s own sake.  Like most audiences, I find the final scenes of Apocalypse Now compelling, but anti-climactic.  We know Coppola agonized over the ending.  I'll defend it by asking, Does anyone remember the ending of On the Road?  It’s all about the journey.
Kurtz and Willard.

Star Wars: Toppling The Empire

Empires rise and fall. An ineluctable fact of history.  Star Wars thrusts the audience into a chapter of a very long history, not unlike Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune or Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking Foundation series of novels.  Lucas wanted to attempt something similar with Star Wars.

While the tone of Star Wars is a far cry from Apocalypse Now, they do share similarities in their political outlook.  Power, without the perspective of wisdom and compassion, will corrupt everyone.  Protagonist Luke Skywalker matures from naive farmer to messianic leader of a rebellion to restore old values, not necessarily to create new ones.  Darth Vader personifies the corrupt and evil empire.

When the story begins, Luke is a restless farmer on the remote planet of Tatooine.  After two droids land that are being pursued by the Empire, Luke finds himself involved in the wider world of galactic politics.  After storm troopers murder Luke’s aunt and uncle, a scene filmed in direct homage to John Ford’s The Searchers, he decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi on a “damn, foolish idealistic crusade” against the empire.

The politics of the Star Wars universe, as they are presented in the original trilogy, are for the most part vague.  Empire bad.  Rebel Alliance good.  Scenes on the Death Star conference room resemble Axis powers planning their next campaign.  The Death Star itself has a cold, mechanical atmosphere, very similar to the world of THX-1138.  There’s no heart at the center of the Empire, a technological monstrosity using its power to control the galaxy.  But the rebels we meet are saintly. Simplistic, but powerful in their iconography.

Death Star Conference Room

So we get a Sci-Fi liberation epic, a triumph of of the will over technology. Revolutionaries continue to inspire, whether it be Che Guevera, Thomas Jefferson, or Joan of Arc.  Although its buried in special effects and b-movie dialogue, Star Wars remains deeply rooted in the political ethos of the New Hollywood: anti-materialistic, suspicious of authority, and idealistic.

Darth Vader, the Kurtz like character in Star Wars, symbolizes the ethos of Empire, strong on the surface but pathetically weak on the inside.  He depends on life support, but can also kill at a moment's notice.

The most direct allusion (and it's an awkward one) to the Vietnam War in Star Wars appears in Return of the Jedi in the unlikely form of the Ewoks.  A primitive society defeats a technological superpower, just as North Vietnam, “a raggedy ass fourth rate country” in the words of LBJ, were able to defeat technology with primitive weapons.  

Luke, a full fledged Jedi Knight by the end, vanquishes and redeems his father and stands poised to fulfill his destiny.
The circle is complete.

Underwhelming Second Acts

Lucas and Coppola began their careers as cinematic mavericks. At times their life struggle intertwined with their art.  As Francis’s wife Eleanor pointed out, he became Kurtz during the making of Apocalypse Now: caught up his own madness and ego. A series of misfires like One From the Heart forced him to work as a director for hire throughout the 80s and 90s.

Meanwhile Lucas became a CEO of Lucasfilm and stopped directing altogether.  They changed the movie industry, but not in the way he intended.  All the merchandising, massive box office receipts, and momentum to create sequel after sequel set off a tidal wave that continues to dominate thinking into the current age of comic book extravaganzas. Lucas got caught in the maelstrom of his own creation. Those experimental films never materialized.
Cultural Phenomenon=Cash Bonanza

Alternative Paths

Imagine an alternate scenario.  At some point in mid 1975 Coppola and Lucas decided to switch projects.  With Lucas unhappy with his script, Coppola offers him the chance to direct Apocalypse Now.  In return Coppola asks to direct Star Wars.   At first reluctant, George agrees and hands over his story to Francis.  How would things have gone differently?
So Lucas went off and made Apocalypse Now, finishing the film after a fast 40 day shoot.  The style and feel of the film combined elements of THX-1138 and American Graffiti, a war movie alienating and humanistic at the same time.  The tone combined Dr. Strangelove with Catch-22.  Lucas included a controversial subplot following a band of Vietcong who are fighting the Americans.  Critics hailed the film.  Although Lucas’s Apocalypse Now flopped at the box office, it proved influential and ahead of its time.
Meanwhile Coppola took over pre-production of Star Wars, excited to create something fresh and innovative after the droll Godfather movies.  In a last minute script change, inspired by an earlier draft Lucas wrote, Coppola decided to make Princess Leia the protagonist of the story.  And he expanded the role of Darth Vader into a more complex and troubled villain, with shades of Michael Corleone and hints of a mind blowing back story.  
Ralph McQuarrie's original concept art for Star Wars.

Coppola crafted parallel stories of an empire falling apart and a rebellion taking shape under a charismatic heroine. Shakespearean subplots abound throughout the film. Unlike Lucas, who wanted to focus on universal themes of storytelling for a new generation, Coppola made a space opera/character study.
Coppola’s Star Wars proved a moderate success.  It ran over three hours and went much darker than Lucas ever intended. Feeling revitalized, he also crafted the sequels, with each installment getting darker and more philosophical, including experimental narrative constructions with leaps back and forth in time.

After completing his trilogy, Coppola pledged to stop making big budget films and go back to guerrilla film making.  

To finalize his promise, he sold over the rights to George Lucas, who pledged to someday reveal the backstory of Darth Vader.

The End

Just a thought experiment.

Coppola continues to view cinema as an evolving medium with unlimited possibilities.  While Lucas envisions technology as pointing the way towards the future.  

As artists they make for an excellent study in contrasts.  Lucas continues to be more influential than Coppola, as special effects and non-stop action continues to be a staple of Hollywood blockbusters, and at the risk of stating the obvious, Star Wars remains a highly profitable brand.

For the past decade Coppola has returned to making his own films with mixed results.  His long talked about Sc-Fi project Megalopolis will probably not get made. 

Today’s climate frowns upon exuberant filmmakers. Quite possibly history will repeat itself in some form and the current system will crash and auteur will rise once again.  Irregardless, the careers of Coppola and Lucas will long be remembered for their struggle to overcome a system and the visions they did give to the world.
Circa late 60s