Friday 25 October 2019

Kubism, Part 12:
Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Having exhausted all the major movie genres except westerns, pornography and Bond films (omg just imagine), Stanley Kubrick returned to his old stomping ground - the war movie - for what would be his penultimate feature. He'd bungled the genre in Fear And Desire, nailed it in Paths Of Glory, bathed and oiled it in Spartacus and pulled its pants down to make it look silly in Dr. Strangelove, but in the two decades that followed, war had changed. Vietnam had been and never really gone, still hanging over baby boomers like a cloud of Agent Orange, its toxic effects never truly dissipating. Stan wasn't that interested in making a film about the Vietnam War itself, but saw the conflict as a chance to examine the nature of war and what it does to young men. If flawed masculinity was one of Kubrick's favourite supervillains, here was an opportunity to tell one of its many possible origin stories.
Full Metal Jacket wastes no time in making its point, opening with a production line of docile, floppy-haired kids barely old enough to drink, getting their heads shaved in a ritualistic stripping of identity and individuality. Only two of them show any sign of emotion: one (Matthew Modine) looks pretty hacked off about losing his luxurious locks, while another (Vincent D'Onofrio) sports the kind of dopey smile that suggests he has literally no idea what he's getting himself into. A cringingly unironic, pro-war, country and western song plays over the scene: the first in a playlist of unmistakable Americana that never lets you forget which country did all this to its own children.

A quick shot of discarded hair lying on a barbershop floor, like the corpses of youth and innocence, brings the none-too-subtle prologue to an end and gives way to Part One of Full Metal Jacket: forty-five minutes of flawless Kubrickian absurdity as horrible as it is hilarious. R Lee Ermey's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman is an unforgettable creation, unleashing what Kubrickologist Thomas Allen Nelson gloriously describes as "a cascade of vituperation" upon his Marine recruits at the Parris Island boot camp in an attempt to toughen them up. Smooth, deliberate camera moves and single-point-perspective shots frame Hartman's merciless deconstruction of humanity with mechanical detachment, as if each scene is part of an automated process designed to turn the raw meat of the recruits into identical sausages of death.
One sausage, however, is a little fatter than the rest: D'Onofrio's Leonard Lawrence, aka Private Pyle. (Hartman's assignation of nicknames is another in his arsenal of weapons designed to eliminate identity.) The tension between Hartman and Pyle is undoubtedly the film's most impactful achievement; its legacy is splashed all over Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and I refuse to believe the writers of Grange Hill didn't watch Full Metal Jacket several times before turning Mr Bronson loose on Danny Kendall. Pyle's treatment is horrendous to watch, but Kubrick needles you with the idea that it's an entirely necessary and justifiable way of creating remorseless killing machines. What he may not have intended is that in the context of his own filmography, it's hard not to see Kubrick himself in Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, psychologically torturing Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining in order to shape the perfect performance. What this says about Stan is best left to the shrinks, but if it's a legitimate reading then the final confrontation between Hartman and Pyle translates as what qualified psychoanalysts would call 'some fucked-up shit'.

Pyle's transformation into the ultimate weapon is slower than that of his fellow recruits, most of whom signal their early willingness to become monsters when they administer the soap-in-a-sock "blanket party" treatment that's some distance from most people's idea of the kind of party you can have under a blanket. But it's here that we see Modine's James Davis, aka Private Joker, as the only recruit harbouring any vestiges of humanity; his visible guilt over his own actions shows that he's actually the one furthest from Hartman's ideal Marine. It's going to take a lot more for Joker to realise the stone cold killer within himself.
Kubrick wraps up Part One so formidably and conclusively that you can't imagine where the story could possibly go next, and before long you get the impression that Stan himself isn't entirely sure either. Where the Hartman / Pyle dynamic created a self-contained, laser-focused, brutally unforgiving but riotously entertaining descent into madness, Part Two is a messier affair. As we follow Joker into Vietnam and actual combat, Kubo occasionally lets the film get away from him, and it suffers from the gear change. Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket gets left behind, spattered up the wall of a Parris Island latrine, and what remains is a perfectly serviceable but dramatically inferior Vietnam flick that, if you squint, could just as easily be Platoon, or Apocalypse Now, or Casualties Of War.

That's not to say there's nothing of value in Part Two: there is, it's just surrounded by a lot of repetitive scenes of Marines being the pricks they were trained to be, which gets a little wearing after a while. The idea that war is absurd and everyone involved in it is at varying stages of insanity is pretty clear, from the likes of 'Animal Mother' (a spiritual brother in arms to Aliens' Colonial Marine Corporal Hicks) and the kill-crazy door gunner, to the Colonel who seems to honestly believe that "inside every gook there is an American trying to get out". Kubrick even goes on to have Joker spell out his ideas about "the duality of man, the Jungian thing," as if his peace sign badge was too subtle a pointer to the madness of war. But what this is all leading to is the film's driving theme, and another of Kubrick's favourites: the conflicts within us, and what it takes for men to unleash the monsters within themselves.
Full Metal Jacket's final half-hour is devoted to a single scene in which Joker witnesses enough horror to finally awaken the sleeping killer inside him. At its climax, Kubrick stays on a close up of Joker for a full seventy seconds while we watch all his posturing and blustering denial drain away from his face. In slow motion we see him become the thing he was taught to be, the thing he's resisted all along; finally succumbing to Hartman's training, Joker claims his first kill. And just like Private Pyle's, it's accompanied by a kind of suicide, as Joker completes the process that began in a Parris Island barber's and destroys any remaining traces of his former self.

The theme of duality is also served by the scenes paralleled across the film's two parts: Joker being given responsibility for a fellow Marine (Pyle in Part One, Rafterman in Part Two); Pyle proving himself as a talented marksman in Part One, Part Two's Vietnamese sniper providing a mirror image; the body horror of Part One's blanket party echoed and magnified in the slo-mo bullet hits of Part Two's sniper attack. And what is Full Metal Jacket but the story of two men who take different paths to the same destination, neither of whom were born to kill (despite Joker's helmet graffiti claiming otherwise) but trained to go to war in the name of peace?

Obviously there's some terrific filmmaking going on here: the modified Steadicam, embedded in the platoon as they approach the sniper, drags us along for the ride, and the transformation of Beckton Gasworks into the rubble of Vietnam's Huế by bunging in a few palm trees and wafting a bit of smoke around is representative of Kubrick's signature ingenuity, even if - whisper it - he never quite gets the light right. But the biggest problem is the contrast between the film's primary protagonists. Despite this being Matthew Modine's eighth film but only Vincent D'Onofrio's first, the former is left standing in the latter's dust. Much of the dramatic weight of the climax is lost simply because Modine's blankness, while no doubt intentional, can't compete with the thunderous madness of D'Onofrio's batshit stare.
In an eerie epilogue, the Marines trudge back to base singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song in an uncanny last shot that sees a platoon that had been whittled down to a handful of troops suddenly number thirty-odd. The burning buildings against which they're silhouetted invite you to see them as ghosts, trapped in infernal torment forever, desperate to recapture their lost youth. You wish the film could have recovered the energy of its earlier vigour too, but it wasn't to be. Still, never mind: Stanley Kubrick's not even sixty yet, I bet he's got years of great filmmaking and loads of better movies ahead of him!

Join me again soon in a secret location for an orgy of... well, orgies, in Eyes Wide Shut! Careful where you park your bike.

1 comment :

  1. "And just like Private Pyle's, it's accompanied by a kind of suicide, as Joker completes the process that began in a Parris Island barber's and destroys any remaining traces of his former self."

    Not sure that I agree with this statement about Joker. When we reach the last minutes of Full Metal Jacket, Joker comes face to face with death for the first time. As he faces down the Vietnamese sniper, we realize that Joker’s never really been under fire before. Nor has he ever killed another human being. Oh, he’s hunkered down in a bunker during the Tet Offensive and fired wildly at darkened figures in the distance. But to look the enemy directly in the eye and pull the trigger? No.

    So Joker has reached his moment of truth, the moment that Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was trying to prepare him for. Can Joker set aside the irony, the sarcasm, the phoniness, and perform the job he signed up to perform as a Marine?

    No. Joker fails, as Hartman foreshadowed way back in Parris Island. “Your rifle is only a tool,” he said. “It is the hard heart that kills. If your killer instincts are not clean and strong, you will hesitate at the moment of truth. You will not kill.” Joker hesitates, his rifle jams, and he withers under fire. He reaches for his pistol, and drops it--like Jimmy Stewart in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). Only by dumb luck — by the quick thinking of his buddy Rafterman, who Joker tried to leave behind — does he survive.

    Earlier in the film, Joker asked the helicopter door gunner incredulously “How can you shoot women and children?” Now the question comes back to haunt him as Joker stands over an enemy sniper who is both a woman and a child (about 16, by the looks of her). The camera lingers over his face as he finally accepts the duality of man, the Jungian thing. Human beings are savage and civilized, kind and cruel, noble and deranged. Joker shoots. His killing the enemy sniper who was begging for death is also highly paradoxical: it is both an affirmation of toughness and an act of mercy.