starring Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Ermey
screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford, based on Hasford's novel The Short Timers
directed by Stanley Kubrick
by Alex Jackson One of the most noticed Stanley Kubrick trademarks is a scene in a bathroom. I haven't read too much about why there is always a scene in a bathroom, but rarer still are comments related to what goes on in the bathroom. Different activities have different meanings. Urination (A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut) is a sexually arrogant act. It's the one bathroom activity in Kubrick's films that is done with the door open. Bathing (Spartacus, Lolita, Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange again, The Shining) is a hedonistic, bourgeois indulgence and an escape to a safe place. Kubrick is not beyond exploiting the bath's mythological, symbolic connotations as the unexplored subconscious (the subversion of Aphrodite iconology in The Shining) or the womb (Star Child Alex in A Clockwork Orange); bathing is largely a private activity, you see. It is sometimes interrupted, but when that happens the invasion of privacy has significance. (James Mason's interrupted bath in Lolita, for example, had purely narrative- and character-based implications. He regarded it as just another humiliation to add to the pile.) Defecation is even more private, so private that a Kubrick character has never interrupted it. To defecate (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey) is human, you see. Everybody has to take a shit, but to shit is shameful. The perfect human being would not shit, would indeed be beyond shitting. The HAL computer doesn't shit, does it? Does the Star Child shit? I sincerely doubt it!
The few readings I've encountered about the bathroom's role in Kubrick have been curiously shit-centric. Again I would argue that Kubrick's films are too rich for this simple misanthropic conceit. The bathroom leitmotif allows Kubrick to make a consistent comment about society and human nature, as well as to cement his auteurism. Full Metal Jacket is significant in that nobody in it ever defecates, urinates, or bathes. Defecation betrays physical limitation, bathing shows psychological limitation, and urination is what supreme beings do. Since none of the privates in the film urinate, this means they're not beyond defecation and bathing. They aren't idealized Star Children, but rather "worms," "maggots," "pieces of shit." The effect of war in Full Metal Jacket, however, is dehumanization in the fullest sense of the word: The recruits aren't dehumanized in that they evolve into Star Children, nor are they dehumanized in that they devolve into apes. They are dehumanized into ciphers. Though the cause for Pvt. Gomer Pyle to go insane and kill both himself and Sgt. Hartman is typically regarded as basic dehumanization, I'm going to be more specific: As Pyle blows his brains out while sitting on a toilet, it seems the poor guy was suffering from constipation. He sat there broken-hearted/he came to shit but only farted. And so suicide was in fact the sanest response.
On my first, maybe first two viewings of Full Metal Jacket, I sympathized with the popular view that the Parris Island segment was brilliant while the rest of the film was mere padding--rote and exhausting. I still liked it a lot; a third of brilliance was enough for me. But it wasn't one of Kubrick's best films and didn't rank with the best Vietnam pictures. I still feel that way, but my opinion towards the picture has improved significantly. Like Barry Lyndon, another Kubrick I had a hard time with, you really need to see it twice, as it truly is an "anti-movie." I wondered after my initial viewing if the bile people had against the film was because the Parris Island segment kicked so much ass. It has arguably two of the greatest performances ever to grace the screen: Vincent D'Onofrio's Private Pyle and Lee Ermey's Sgt. Hartman. Their very casting has become legend. D'Onofrio gained a record 70 pounds for his role, and somehow managed to play sinuous Thor in the same year's Adventures in Babysitting (the very first movie I remember seeing in the theatre, by the by). Meanwhile, real-life drill sargeant Ermey was hired on as a technical consultant; he produced a video where Kubrick's assistant pelted him with oranges and tennis balls as Ermey went on a tirade, during which he never repeated himself or stopped talking. He didn't even flinch. Aside from Peter Sellers, Ermey was the only actor Kubrick ever encouraged to improvise dialogue while the cameras were rolling. When asked about his infamous love of multiple takes, Kubrick said he only did multiple takes because his actors were never prepared. Ermey sometimes took as few as two takes because he always knew his lines and could nail the scene from the get-go. Kubrick made him sound like he was one of the greatest actors he ever worked with.
The kind of acting that Ermey and D'Onofrio do is the kind of acting Kubrick was the most fond of, the kind of acting he got Jack Nicholson and George C. Scott to do. Over-the-top doesn't begin to describe it--it's baroque. Nicholson described Kubrick's criticism of his early takes as, "That's realistic, but it's not interesting." That's the kind of acting Kubrick likes and that Kubrick fans like. On the whole, the Parris Island sequence is classic Kubrick. The charms are hardly character-based; it's intriguing as a work of pure cinema. There's an abstract quality to it. Post Parris Island, the movie goes smarmy as all fuck. There are a few scattered moments of true cinematic brilliance. The last few shots of the soldiers wandering a war wasteland at dusk are truly haunting. Some of the music selections are equally chilling: The Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love," The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black"--even Vivian Kubrick's score (credited to the pseudonym of Abigail Mead) is excellent. But then there are moments where Kubrick doesn't appear to be trying very hard at all: "Wooly Bully," anybody?
And all the characters do is wisecrack--and they aren't very good wisecracks, either: they sound like wisecracks written by a recluse who never ventures out into society. The characters talk about how the gooks would never attack during the Tet holiday (chuckle chuckle), and how they hear that Walter Cronkite is about to announce that the war is officially unwinnable. My generation knows next to nothing about Vietnam; high-school history class and introductory college history classes stop at World War II. You have to take another class to find out what happened after World War II--the United States has too much history! I always peeked ahead in the textbook, though; Full Metal Jacket feels like it was written by somebody who peeked ahead in textbook. This is somewhat surprising for a Kubrick film, as his reputation suggests that he researches his every project thoroughly and would have read every book on Vietnam he could get his hands on in order to create a rich, deep reality. The hero of the piece, Private Joker (Matthew Modine), does a lame John Wayne impersonation throughout the movie. I could not believe at any point during the film that these soldiers would talk the way they do. The dialogue is written and uncomfortable in the mouths of the actors. It's painfully inorganic.
In its Vietnam section, Full Metal Jacket does indeed threaten to legitimize all those classic Kubrick criticisms, chiefly that he knows more about things than he does about people. There's an angle that we're missing, however. The Rosetta stone to solving Full Metal Jacket, to "getting it," was for me provided by critic Mark L. Leeper: "Full Metal Jacket is not the Vietnam War the grunts saw. That was Platoon. It isn't the war the Cambodians saw. That was The Killing Fields. The Vietnam War the middle-aged right wing saw was The Green Berets. If I ever figure out from whose viewpoint was seen in The Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now, I'll let you know. Full Metal Jacket is the Vietnam War that the college kids who didn't go (and a few who did) saw." Yes, yes, and yes. YES! This explains and justifies everything that happens in the shadow of Parris Island and why it doesn't seem to "work."
The film isn't able to turn its soldiers into hypermasculine icons, into mythological superheroes, the way that Platoon and Apocalypse Now did. Like Kubrick, Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola are egghead intellectuals. Both Apocalypse Now and Platoon were shot in the jungle, and the filmmakers instilled introspective, haunted, masculine leads as our guides: Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now and Sheen's son Charlie in Platoon. Unlike Kubrick and Coppola, Stone fought in 'Nam, but he did it for a spoiled white boy reason: he wanted to commit suicide. Stone added a grungy "reality" (for lack of a better word) to Apocalypse Now--a film he admired greatly--but kept Coppola's vision of Vietnam as Hell. Apocalypse Now and Platoon have a romantically pessimistic view of the Vietnam conflict. It's like an old worn-down Vietnam Vet on the street lamenting how he'll never again feel the sensation of a chunk of burning metal being pried out of his body with a Bowie knife. I absolutely adore Platoon and Apocalypse Now, they're MOVIES for GUYS who LIKE MOVIES. Know what I'm saying? The romanticism, the cinematic visceral horror of Platoon and Apocalypse Now, is subverted in Full Metal Jacket. Oh, Kubrick CAN make a movie like that; he proved it with The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. He just hasn't with Full Metal Jacket.
Two famous scenes are imported from Apocalypse Now. The "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence is recreated, only without the opera music and explosions. We're left with a lone wacko shooting at Vietnamese from a helicopter. The lone wacko spouts off some of that stilted dialogue. When asked how he can shoot women and children, he responds with the cliché: "Easy, you just don't lead them too much. Ain't war hell?" Well, in Full Metal Jacket, it certainly is not. The "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence got us high on mayhem--it was sad and horrific, yet simultaneously exhilarating and hilarious. This same scene in Full Metal Jacket is made dry and lifeless; it seems like moralistic violence. (Lifeless moralistic violence in a Stanley Kubrick film?) The movie also re-enacts the filmmaking scene of Apocalypse Now. In Apocalypse Now, a platoon of troops marches into the fury while a filmmaker, none other than Francis Ford Coppola himself, directs them to keep walking and not look in the camera. We see Francis Ford Coppola MAKING Apocalypse Now while he is INSIDE Apocalypse Now. Coppola doesn't want space-time to implode on itself like it does at the end of Ingmar Bergman's Persona; the moment is fleeting and insignificant. It exists simply to add another surreal touch to the insanity, telling us that we are in Hieronymus Bosch's "Hell" and the devil has a grandiose and sick sense of humour. In Full Metal Jacket, it feels pre-ordained and deliberate, like it had been scheduled. That old complaint about Kubrick: inorganic and lifeless. The soldiers talk directly to the documentary crew (and thus to us), spouting cutesy-pie dialogue. The hero, Private Joker, steals a joke from Woody Allen (I've since learned), saying how he wanted to go to Vietnam to see the world, meet interesting people, and kill them. This sequence seemingly confirms our suspicions that the film is a bitter cynical work about being late in the Vietnam War movie game. It's a copy of a copy, about boys and not men.
The characters quote and imitate John Wayne, but he is never properly evoked. The film isn't about John Wayne, it's about boys who idealize John Wayne and think they're going to be him. Anthony Michael Hall was actually Kubrick's original choice for Joker, but he couldn't tolerate Kubrick's filmmaking style and quit. Kubrick's vision for his narrator and protagonist was clearly in direct opposition to the Charlie and Martin Sheens. He puts Modine in glasses! Joker's buddy is the similarly nerdish Cowboy played by Arliss Howard. These are not manly men. We do get a few biceps with Dorian Harewood's Private Eightball (who pulls out his allegedly "just big enough" penis for a Vietnamese hooker) and especially with Adam Baldwin's Animal Mother, but I found them to have a shy insecurity and adolescent morality. Yes, Apocalypse Now and Platoon also showed us that many of the troops in Vietnam were boys, yet they also had real, hard soldiers who appeared to have been in the shit for years. All we see in Full Metal Jacket is boys. The men in the movie are drill sergeants, newspaper editors, voices on the other end of a radio. One sounds like a football coach ("How about getting with the program? Why don't you jump on the team and come on in for the big win?"). These are the positions for privates to move up to, provided they do well on the battlefield.
Although Kubrick is often accused of misogyny, Full Metal Jacket could arguably be the first feminazi war movie. The soldiers in the film strive to become men, but we don't see any men in the picture, and so masculinity is a sick, idealized myth. The film's conclusion, where Joker encounters a wounded Vietnamese sniper and executes her, was always terribly unsatisfying to me. I think I get it now: It's supposed to be unsatisfying. Joker is seeing it as breaking his cherry; he thinks he's becoming hardened, becoming a warrior. He's not. In the next scene, he sings the Mickey Mouse Club song with his fellow Marines. There is no growth here. They are still little smartasses. That said, the scene has a real, solid significance, and not an ironic one. Joker is entering a decaying building, he is in his subconscious, and he encounters this woman. Before she dies she mumbles something. When asked what she is saying, Joker replies that she is praying. Now is she not only a woman, she's an Asian woman, too, symbolic of "earth mother" spirituality. In executing her, Joker is executing this part of himself. The result is not a tauter, masculine being, but an empty shell. Kubrick is the proverbial sweater-wearing lesbian saying, "You men need to tuck away your penises and surrogate penises, because you will never get anywhere with them. Masculinity is a myth and a dead end."
Joker says during the Parris Island segment that the Marines do not want machines. They want killers. The conceit sounds Nietzschean. Like 2001, Full Metal Jacket states that HAL is not the ideal; the ideal is the Star Child. However, it's a vision that is never fully realized by these Marines. They aren't the Star Children, you see--they are the 2001 civilization before the transformation to the Star Child. Change is violent. In 2001, mankind was cutting the apron strings to its material machine-like mother in order to evolve into a greater being. A being greater than mind and body, a being of pure spirit. In The Shining, mankind was fed up with his comfortable static existence and, failing to evolve into a greater spiritual being, devolved to the ape through murder. This is regrettable, if certainly preferable to the static existence. The violence in Full Metal Jacket accomplishes little. Those who kill in the film only move sideways. To be a Man (a masculine man) is to be an angel is to be an ape. To be of the 2001 civilization is to be marginal.
Private Pyle is a curious case in that he doesn't fit in with the rest of the Marines and doesn't really fit in with the film's universe as a whole. He resembles Jack Torrance to a degree. We do get the glowering eyebrows, et cetera. But Torrance's digression into insanity is seen as an almost ethical decision; he's regaining his usurped masculinity and moving out of the hell of marriage and children. We are meant to see Pyle as more of a HAL (for lack of a better example), or a military product gone haywire. I don't feel comfortable calling him a machine, as I think it illustrates that he has become a true killer--a real Marine and the very ideal that Joker wishes to achieve. He malfunctions, I believe, because deep down, the Marines don't want killers. A true killer kills for himself, not for God or America. The prototypical American (Nietzschean) hero is an individualist, one who follows his own rules; he is not the product or willing participant of the war machine. As good boys from good families who more or less fit comfortably into the system, Private Joker and the other Marines could never become the killer that Pyle is. Joker's narration in the last shot, saying that he is "in a world of shit" (quoting some of Pyle's last words), shows a misguided belief that he has become that killer. He hasn't, of course; he remains a four-eyed weakling smartass.
As social criticism, Full Metal Jacket is certainly more than intriguing. What saves the film from the criticism that it is utterly gratuitous after Platoon and Apocalypse Now is the knowledge that it is about an utterly gratuitous war. Kubrick suggests that "war is dead" post-World War II. That we could never possibly have a decent meaningful war in the state of economic comfort, and with the technological advancements in warfare, that we enjoy today. Vietnam is the ultimate farce in Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick may be the first to successfully reduce it to the level of little boys playing cowboys and Indians. What function does war have, anyway? I don't believe it can adequately be described as one of defense. The amount of defense we have severely outweighs the threat that is posed against us. I suppose we could argue that it serves no purpose anymore, and concepts like immediate foreign threat, altruism, and patriotism are instilled in the minds of Americans for no other reason than to help perpetuate the military industry. I think that that belief does begin to uncover the depths of what Kubrick is showing us with Full Metal Jacket: that since we don't have a war of our own to fight, we need to find one. But it sounds goofy; I'm not entirely convinced that our values and psyche are at the whim of a power elite. Rather, I think that war exists out of our fear of stasis. I don't think Americans are afraid of change at all, I think they look for it. War therefore exists for the same reason religion does: because we don't want to believe that we are finished yet (whereas the truth, Kubrick is saying, is that we are).
The Shining feels more prophetic than Full Metal Jacket; it's basically a picture about Abu Ghraib, September 11, Gulf War Part Deux, Dubya, and so on. War has regained its pulp quality in recent years, its ruthlessness. Not only does The Shining feel particularly topical, but so do Apocalypse Now and Platoon. In contrast, Full Metal Jacket is positively Reagan-esque. It was produced during the rein of a 64-year-old former actor who saw the elimination of Communism as his retirement project. It sees Vietnam in those terms, as literally a small chapter in a truly Cold War. Never has war seemed so positively meaningless and banal.
That Full Metal Jacket is brilliant isn't up for debate, but Kubrick is giving us harsh truths as opposed to ideals. The film is an ideological synthesis between the atheism of the horror and comedy genres. Kubrick is effectively lamenting the meaninglessness of the human dance while winkingly pretending to peddle it. There is a thick veneer of irony to the film, but it's worth wading through. It's challenging and thought-provoking. For my money, Full Metal Jacket is Kubrick's iciest, sourest, and most cerebral picture. It could thus be argued, I guess, that it's his most "Kubrick-esque." The question of whether it's one of the greatest war movies, or one of Kubrick's best--hard to say. It occurs to me that any film about Vietnam, or any war film viewed in light of Gulf War Part Deux, must at least recognize the sadomasochistic appeal of violence (as Kubrick's other films did and as other Vietnam films did) to be genuinely successful. Francois Truffaut famously said that a successful antiwar film is impossible because all war films, by nature, make war look like fun. Well, recognizing that making war is fun, and that it is exhilarating and frightening and intoxicating, and you can't imagine what it's like to be shot or use morphine or to take revenge on the battlefield, is recognizing something essential to the human experience. War is an atmosphere of moral, emotional, and visceral extremes--fun doesn't begin to describe it. To deny so is a lie.
And yet, while I'm not sure I can say this about the Vietnam conflict, a good part of me sees the Bin Laden/Hussein mess as one of utter banality. These aren't the next Hitlers, but simple thugs--and we're not much better. At times the whole thing (indeed) is like that scene in 2001 where one tribe of apes beats the other with a bone. Comparing it to World War II seems like we're grasping at straws; there just isn't anything like that happening. Even September 11 was a blip in space-time. Though 9/11 was intended to be a symbolic castration, to dress down American arrogance, I'm inclined to agree with Bush's otherwise especially banal September 11, 2001 speech when he said: "Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve." His one-year anniversary address accorded the event more significance, of course, but this passage implies that the event is, however tragic, ultimately insignificant. America will heal. If terrorist attacks cannot touch the foundation of America, be it to reform or harm it, then they cannot have any lasting impact. America isn't creating any real mythology with this.
Going back to Full Metal Jacket, something certainly needs to be said about the drained, hollow feeling of it all. The whole thing doesn't make me sad or angry, just depressed, and I do believe that I would have felt different had I experienced any of this firsthand. So there you go: War as seen from the college kids who stayed home. Originally published: November 15, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Warner perennial Full Metal Jacket comes home yet again in a DigiBook repackaging of the 2007 Blu-ray--not to be confused with the 2006 Blu-ray, which was quickly discontinued due to inferior picture quality. The '07 BD was also reissued as part of last year's essential "Stanley Kubrick: Limited Edition Collection", but without the DVD that appends this new release.
Containing only the 61-minute "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes", said bonus disc is not worth a double-dip, although there are moments to savour. Director Jon Ronson, for instance, tracks down the author of a piece of hate mail Kubrick received in the early-'70s, as well as the director of a video letter that was at the time considered a threat on Kubrick's life. Kubrick was a consummate hoarder, of course, and the title refers to his stash of custom-made containers in which Ronson finds all manner of paraphernalia, including behind-the-scenes footage from Full Metal Jacket shot by Vivian Kubrick in the style of her documentary on The Shining. Ronson doesn't excerpt from this material liberally enough for my taste, and his search for a "Rosebud," though fitting, mostly grates, but "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes" ultimately satisfies as a digest version of Taschen's must-have coffee-table book, The Stanley Kubrick Archives.
Full Metal Jacket proper looks pretty marvy. The 1.78:1, 1080p transfer boasts filmlike definition and detailed shadows, and the famous Kubrick grain feels all of a piece. Although flesh tones err on the side of pink and edge-enhancement occasionally creeps into the soft-ish image, I've never been able to better appreciate this movie's texture. (Didn't see it theatrically.) And for what it's worth, tempests in teapots aside, Full Metal Jacket is more compositionally dynamic in this aspect ratio. Though noticeably cleaner and crisper than the Dolby Digital option, the uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack mainly retains the film's mono flavour, making the aggressive stereo imaging and occasional belch of the subwoofer less an enhancement than a distraction. Still, the most egregious thing about it is that there's no "original mono" alternative.
Extras on the Blu-ray platter begin with a patchwork commentary track featuring four key individuals: actors Adam Baldwin (who shows up late), Vincent D'Onofrio (who stays well beyond his character's demise), and Lee Ermey, plus critic-turned-screenwriter Jay Cocks (who had no involvement in the production but was friends with Kubrick). D'Onofrio's contribution is especially illuminating of Kubrick's process: It would appear there was a Mike Leigh method to his madness, as he solicited improvs from D'Onofrio and co-star Matthew Modine that he would then transcribe and redistribute as script pages. For his part, the admittedly ill-prepared Cocks hammers one insightful point--that "realism was a dead end for Stanley"--into the ground, though he does make the tremendous observation that Pyle's suicide tableau looks like a Weegee photograph.
The attendant retrospective featurette, Gary Leva's "Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil" (31 mins., SD), is basically the yakker in condensed form, with the continued absence of Modine becoming harder to dismiss. Maybe he said it all in his book. (Co-screenwriter Michael Herr, the ubiquitous Jan Harlan, former studio head John Calley, Kubrick biographers David Hughes and John Baxter, actors Kevyn Major Howard and Dorian Harewood, SteadiCam operator John Ward, and assistant art director Nigel Phelps pick up the slack.) The usual topics--Kubrick's perfectionism and all that that implies--are broached but never really transcended; arguably, the highlight is the number of production stills it shows us of Kubrick in action: He wasn't nearly as camera-shy as fellow reclusive genius Terrence Malick. Full Metal Jacket's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. A loose-leaf insert hawks Modine's photo diary of the production, now available as an iPad app; is this what the cover art means by listing "Photos from Matthew Modine's Personal Collection" under "special features"?