Monday, March 11, 2013

Director Spotlight #12.12: Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 88/A-

Over the course of his career, Stanley Kubrick  became just as well known for the wide gaps between his films as for his genius. The rate of his output went from “every couple of years” in the 50s and 60s to “every four or five years” after Dr. Strangelove to damn near nothing. Kubrick had contacted writer Michael Herr in 1982 with the intention of making a great film about the reality of war, but it took until 1987 for Full Metal Jacket to finally find release. By that point, a number of other Vietnam War films had beat Kubrick to the punch, and the film was slightly overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning (but more seriously flawed) Platoon. The film was acclaimed, to be sure, but some found it slightly disappointing for a Kubrick film, and there’s a frequent criticism that the film can’t top its staggering first third. Full Metal Jacket doesn’t quite rank as one of Kubrick’s masterpieces, but it’s still damned impressive filmmaking.

1967: Private James “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) is one of several new recruits for the United States Marine Corps. Joker and company toil under Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Hartman is a brutal taskmaster, but he turns his men into lean, mean killing machines. One recruit who does not take to Hartman’s policies, however, is Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), a pudgy, dim screw-up cruelly nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by Hartman. Hartman loses patience with Lawrence and eventually takes to punishing the whole platoon rather than punishing Lawrence. The platoon attacks Lawrence in the night with bars of soap to give him stronger motivation. Lawrence shapes up, only to go insane and kill Hartman and himself. Flash forward to 1968, and Joker, now a war correspondent for Stars and Stripes, is sent off to Southern Vietnam, where he reunites with “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard), a friend from boot camp. Joker, Cowboy, and other soldiers experience the harsh realities of war.

I’ve tried breaking Full Metal Jacket into non-submersible units as I have with Kubrick’s other post-2001 features, but to no avail. Part of it comes from Full Metal Jacket being much shorter than Kubrick’s other late films at only two hours. But, more to the point, the film’s structure is more conventional than most Kubrick films, fitting nicely within the standard three-act structure (Long opening at Boot Camp, Joker’s misadventures in Vietnam, Finale with the sniper). That’s not a problem in and of itself, but it is less audacious than what one expects from Kubrick, not to mention less audacious than what we’ve already seen in the true masterpiece of Vietnam War films, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. It’s also more episodic than most Kubrick films. That may sound odd considering that one can break his other films into non-submersible units, but those films feel like certain chunks adding up to a greater, clearer whole where Full Metal Jacket occasionally feels like just a bunch of Vietnam War stuff happening. True, all of those scenes are good by themselves, but they don’t always feel as clearly connected as they should be. It’s not “too little and too late”, as Roger Ebert said in his review, but it is his weakest and least distinctive post-Dr. Strangelove film.

That’s saying more in his favor than not, however, when a film as strong and as shocking as Full Metal Jacket can be among his weakest. The film is less showy than many of Kubrick’s films, but that’s because it’s a film that calls for a stark, often blunt style than The Shining or A Clockwork Orange. The battle sequences in Full Metal Jacket are among the most simple in Kubrick’s filmography, but they’re still highly effective, with Kubrick making great work of the fluid tracking shots and disorienting hand-held work so often associated with his work.

Where Kubrick’s personality really comes out in these scenes is in the dark comedy of the situation, particularly when it’s voiced by Joker, who’s played to some degree as a Kubrick surrogate. Modine has a fresh-faced All-American innocence that keeps him from being a direct Kubrick surrogate, but his use of irony (“I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture…and kill them”) and tongue-in-cheek John Wayne impressions ought to tip the audience off as to where Kubrick’s head is at, not to mention the bit regarding Joker wearing a peace button on his vest and the words “Born to Kill” written on his helmet (“I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man…the Jungian thing, sir”…”Whose side are you on, son?”). There’s certainly a lot of visceral thrill that comes with war, something Kubrick wanted to capture, but there’s also a clear insanity to it, and Joker’s combination of detached humor and tough-minded compassion fits Kubrick’s mindset perfectly.

Kubrick’s sense of irony also comes through in his terrific use of music in Full Metal Jacket. Surely most people’s minds go to Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” as the camera tracks behind a Vietnamese hooker, promising subservience to the soldiers as the song promises to “walk all over you”.  Plenty of others will go straight to the soldiers singing the theme from The Mickey Mouse Club as they march from a battle and past a war torn city. But I’m particularly fond of the way Kubrick follows an intense shootout with the sound of the Trashmen’s goofy song “Surfin’ Bird” and cuts to the soldiers joking around in front of a camera crew, treating it all like they’re playing pretend in a movie.

Still, when most people think of Full Metal Jacket, their minds immediately turn to the unforgettable first third set at boot camp. With the exception of two memorable sequences involving D’Onofrio’s character, these scenes aren’t any more stylized than the rest of the film- Kubrick was wise enough to know that an excess of cinematic expression would be less effective here than it was in his past work (or, indeed, in Apocalypse Now). Kubrick’s real touch comes through the unsparing brutality of the sequences, not to mention with the film’s two best performances. R. Lee Ermey built a career around playing men whose entire existence seems to be to shout verbal abuse at others (a few happy exceptions like Seven, Dead Man Walking, and Leaving Las Vegas aside) off of this role. Ermey had experience as a drill instructor in the past, so all of his nonstop, largely improvised insults feel completely real. D’Onofrio, meanwhile, is almost impossibly pathetic (good-natured but irredeemably dumb) as a man who seems like he was accepted to the Marine Corps as part of a sick joke.

“Sick joke” is a pretty much perfect way to describe it: Hartman insults every soldier regardless of their success (I love his description of Joker as a “goddamn communist heathen” for not believing in the Virgin Mary), but his cruelty to Private “Gomer Pyle” makes everything else he does look like the work of a total sweetheart. Some memorable quotes:

“I’m going to rip your balls of so you cannot contaminate the rest of the world!”

“If God would have wanted you up there he would have miracled your ass up there by now, wouldn’t he?”

“You are a worthless piece of shit, Pyle! Get outta my face”

There’s a certain dark humor to Hartman’s cruelty, but any laughs are guilty ones. The film’s first third is a masterpiece of Kubrick’s central theme of dehumanization, beginning with every member of the platoon getting shaved heads to make them look homogenous and continuing with Hartman’s constant abuse. I’m not going to get into whether or not these horrors are necessary in order to train Marines because I’m not interested in opening up a shitstorm in the comments, but the fact that Hartman’s abuse encourages the other soldiers to take their frustrations out on Pyle, the messiest and most human member of the Corps, points to some uneasy truths about the system.

Joker is the only one with any patience for Pyle- he practically holds the guy’s hand on the way up an obstacle after Hartman orders him to help Pyle. He’s also the only one with enough integrity to stand up to Hartman, even if it’s on a tiny matter like refusing to pretend he believes in the Virgin Mary. Hartman has some respect for Joker after that incident, but he’s also disgusted by Joker’s unconvincing war face and his work as a journalist rather than an infantryman. It’s a very clear separation of Joker from the rest of the men- he’s the only one who calls Pyle by his real name, and he’s the only one who shows concern when Pyle starts to lose it (Cowboy’s reply when Joker says something about it amounts to “whatever”). He’s also the only one reluctant to kill in Vietnam- the only one who sees any real humanity to the people around him, and his sense of humor is his only buffer he has between the horrors of the world.

That’s also what makes his presence in the film’s three most memorable sequences so important. In the first truly stylized sequence in the film, Kubrick switches to a dark blue hue as the marines wrap a blanket around Pyle and beat him with bars of soap. It’s a slow build to an explosion of violence as the soldiers race alongside the bed and Pyle’s muffled screams echo through the bunks. Joker is the only one who hesitates, and the skewed angle Kubrick takes as he shows Joker laying in bed, covering his ears to Leonard’s cries of anguish, speak volumes. Joker might as well be screaming at the same time- it’s the first sign that he’s as stained with sin as anyone else.

That’s positively sunny compared to the film’s most famous scene at the end of the first act. Kubrick’s use of the same blue color as a now inhuman gives one of the all-time great Kubrick glares, loads a magazine, and recites a speech about his weapon in a deranged fashion. That Hartman can’t even suspend his disdain for Pyle as the insane soldier points a loaded weapon towards him speaks volumes as to how much the system cares about the soldiers- only so much as they’re turned into killing machines for us rather than against us. After Pyle shoots Hartman, though, he recognizes something within Joker- a sign of his old friend? Guilt over the soap attack? Plain humanity?- that keeps him from killing him. But it doesn’t ease the horror as he splatters his brains against the white walls of the bathroom, the sound echoing as Joker can only watch in horror.

The film can’t top that scene, but it comes close to matching it in a climactic sniper battle with a sniper. After Joker’s friend Rafterman shoots the sniper, a teenage girl, he’s ecstatic that he’s finally killed someone. Joker is clearly a bit more uneasy, but he’s given a more problematic ethical situation after Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin as the epitome of the dehumanized soldier) angrily demands they leave her to rot, only acquiescing to Joker’s sense of mercy if our hero will shoot her himself. It’s the most humane thing to do, but the stare Joker gives the camera after killing her, the “thousand yard stare” described earlier in the film, is still among the most disquieting moments in the film. Joker is still the most human person left, but he describes himself as being “not afraid” in the final lines of the film, which is precisely what made him so relatable and human in the first place. It’s one of the prickliest and most uncertain moments in Kubrick’s filmography, a perfect ending for a flawed but brilliant film.

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