What Colonel Kurtz Contributed to My Library (Or, How creative people watch movies)

snail I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving . . .” Colonel W. E. Kurtz, from the movie Apocalypse Now.

When Marlon Brando uttered these words over the voice-recorded tape of a reel-to-reel machine in the epic Coppola movie Apocalypse Now I was immediately engaged in discovering who this mad man was. I knew he was mad for two reasons: because I had been told through the perspective of Capt. Ben Willard by the U.S. military that Kurtz was mad, and because years before seeing the movie I had also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the basis for Coppola’s film, and had likewise been informed through the person of Marlow that the merchant named Kurtz had been lost in the dark recesses of a foreign landscape. I had expectations of Kurtz’s madness.

And in my eagerness for the revelations of the story I discovered some truly tantalizing details in the movie Apocalypse Now, none more profound than those found in the books stacked about Kurtz’s dark den: Goethe, The Bible, From Ritual to Romance, and The Golden Bough. What had begun as a journey to discover the madness of Kurtz suddenly became a research project into the madness of myself. Though a fictional character, Kurtz expressed thoughts and ideas that made me wonder what the definition of madness really was. And when, toward the end of the movie, the camera panned over his stack of books, the details revealed in that momentary glimpse excited my curiosity beyond the end of the story.

What I discovered by paying attention to the information on the screen made me realize the critical and deliberate purpose of information in storytelling. What we are told in fiction writing 101 is that the details propel the story. Undoubtedly this is true. It cannot be argued. But what really makes the reading experience worthwhile is the way the story takes us beyond the confines of the moment. When the story ends on the page it does not yet end with us. After Kurtz’s death and Willard’s return to “civilization” the credits roll and the movie is over. But what has not been completed in us, if we have the mind to ask, is the question of what it was that Kurtz discovered in reading those other books?

Like a hidden bibliography the texts revealed in Apocalypse Now weighed in my mind like answers to previously unasked questions. Why those books? Did they make Kurtz insane? Did they make him a genius? Would they make me insane or a genius? Would they make me rich? Would they make me disintegrate into a pile of ash?

Although I did add the books to my library, and I even half read them, it isn’t important that I had these specific questions. What is important about those books, about that detail, is that I paid attention to it in the first place.

The creative person is deliberate (or should be) in what she adds to the story. The details need to do more than just propel the story forward, they need to carry the reader beyond the border of the page and make them think, make them spend money, research, or travel. Art is about ideas. One would hope that all people pay attention to the details so that the ideas can be communicated. This is the purpose of telling stories, whether through words, music, or visual arts. Look closely and see what is on the fringe. There is where we find the secrets to understanding the characters and actions exhibited in the work. As a creative person each of us stands to benefit from finding and contemplating these details, in allowing ourselves to be taken beyond the borders of the page and carried into the research of our own madness.


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