Sunday, June 30, 2013

Full Metal Jacket (Natant, Stanley Kubrick Productions, Warner Bros., 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which Charles had wanted to see because we’d watched a clip of it somewhere “out” and also because Matthew Modine, one of his celebrity crush objects as a young man, was the star. (I remember him mentioning that when he came upon me watching a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode in which Modine played a serial pedophile rapist and my crush object, Christopher Meloni, was the cop out to catch him.) I’d heard about this film when it came out and had seen bits and pieces of it — for a while those bizarre, almost psychotic images of drill sergeant R. Lee Ermey (a real drill sergeant whom Kubrick originally hired just as a technical advisor, but when he heard Ermey bark at the actors and repeatedly call them “ladies,” “cocksuckers,” “maggots” and even less pleasant things he realized no one could possibly reproduce the institutionalized sadism of military drill leadership as well as this man who had actually done it) were virtually inescapable. Full Metal Jacket came at the tail end of a cycle of big movies attempting to come to grips with the Viet Nam War and the U.S.’s fiasco of an involvement in it — Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and, a few years later, Oliver Stone’s Platoon — and though Stone’s film overshadowed Kubrick’s, won the Academy Award and was given points for authenticity because Stone had actually served in Viet Nam, at this point I think (though I haven’t seen the others in years) that Full Metal Jacket was quite the best of them.

Full Metal Jacket does have a big flaw that a lot of the original reviewers picked up on — its first 45 minutes, detailing the basic-training ordeal a bunch of raw recruits go through at the U.S. Marine training center on Parris Island, South Carolina, is a taut, well-constructed drama of what the recruits go through at the scatologically torturous hands and mouth of drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and the bitter revenge taken out by one of them, Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio) — nicknamed “Gomer Pyle” by Hartman due to his poor physical shape (D’Onofrio reportedly put on 70 pounds to play the role, and in later years actually ballooned to those dimensions) and constant screwing-up (ironic because it was the Gomer Pyle, USMC TV show that helped turn me bitterly anti-military and made me determined never to be part of this ridiculously cruel institution — and of course the man who played Gomer Pyle, Jim Nabors, years later came out as Gay and eventually married his partner) — while the remaining hour and 10 minutes or so, which actually takes place in Viet Nam during the 1968 Tet offensive, seems barely to belong to the same movie even though some of the same actors appear in it as their characters from the opening. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be said for Full Metal Jacket — and, as I pointed out to Charles afterwards, it’s nice that Stanley Kubrick actually made one genuinely great film in the 28 years between A Clockwork Orange and his death: it wasn’t all pretentious, overblown pieces of garbage like Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. The training scenes are gripping, intense drama, the shock ending is logical (when — spoiler alert! — the put-upon “Gomer Pyle” finally shoots Hartman and then kills himself, I couldn’t help but warble a bit of the Glenn Miller/Etta James hit “At Last”!) and the transition to real war emphasizes the randomness and pointlessness of it all by its sheer plotlessness.

The guys, including J. T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine), “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard) and “Eightball” (Dorian Harewood, who got the part of the main Black character after Denzel Washington inexplicably turned it down) from the first part of the film as well as several others, are first seen in Saigon for some R&R (which basically means frustrating negotiations with the local prostitutes and their pimps — and in the first sequence, a young boy, presumably the prostitute’s younger brother, stealing Joker’s expensive camera) before they end up stationed at the Marine base at Danang when the Tet offensive hits. Later they’re involved in fighting at Hue and the unit is decimated by a Viet Cong sniper — who turns out to be a woman (it’s a variation on a scene Samuel Fuller had done earlier in his Korean War film The Steel Helmet and Kathryn Bigelow would rip off in The Hurt Locker). Kubrick and his writers, Michael Herr (who also worked on Apocalypse Now) and Gustav Hasford (who wrote the novel, The Short Timers, which inspired the film — the term refers to the fact that with the draft still in effect, the services could rotate their men in and out of country quickly and didn’t have to keep sending them back for tour after tour the way they do now in the era of the so-called “volunteer army”), seem to be saying that war is plotless; it’s just one damned thing after another, one life-threatening encounter after another punctuated by long (or not-so-long) interludes of boredom, and the real evil of war is as much its pointlessness as its destruction of life. It shouldn’t be that surprising that Full Metal Jacket should be by far the best of Kubrick’s last four films; war was a subject he had gravitated to from the very beginning of his career (his first feature film as a director, the long-lost but recently rediscovered indie Fear and Desire, was a war movie, and Paths of Glory, Spartacus and Dr. Strangelove also count as war films) and he often seemed more at home on the battlefield than in other aspects of human life. There’s even a bit of autobiography in his making Joker a journalist for the service magazine Stars and Stripes; Kubrick himself had been a photographer for Stars and Stripes during World War II.

In some ways Full Metal Jacket seems to have been almost deliberately intended as an “answer movie” to The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon; whereas Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola had had a public argument over the authenticity of their locations (Cimino said that because he shot in Thailand whereas Coppola did his location work in the Philippines, his movie was more honest just because Thailand is closer to Viet Nam on the map), Kubrick did the old-fashioned Hollywood thing and re-created Viet Nam in England — stunningly convincingly, I might add, though the people who look for this sort of thing noted on imdb.com that the palm trees were not only patently fake but made from the same mold since they all had exactly the same leaves, bending exactly the same way. Whereas Cimino ended his movie with his lead character, back home and reunited with his family, singing “God Bless America,” Kubrick sent up this pretension by having his unit, on their way home after being mustered out, walking through a battlefield singing the theme song from the Mickey Mouse Club. Whereas both Cimino and Coppola (and Stone too, though not quite as absurdly) sought to use Viet Nam as a metaphor for (allegedly) deep reflections on the human condition, Kubrick shot with a gritty realism and structured his movie to say that the Viet Nam war just was — it didn’t mean anything in particular, and though there’s a clear anti-war sentiment through the film it’s nowhere near as preachy as Kubrick’s own previous film Paths of Glory. (Indeed, of all the earlier anti-war classics it comes closer to All Quiet on the Western Front than any other movie I can think of in terms of contrasting the meticulousness with which commanders plan their battles with the barely controlled chaos fighting actually turns into on the field, with the servicemembers giving a damn about nothing but staying alive themselves and killing the people who are trying to kill them.) Kubrick also avoided the pretentiousness of the use of the Doors’ music in Apocalypse Now and instead included pop-rock songs far more likely to have been what the grunts in ’Nam actually listened to: “Chapel of Love” by the Dixie Cups, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen.

And whereas Coppola shot Apocalypse Now mostly with the past-is-brown style he (with the first two Godfather films) probably did more than anyone else to establish as Hollywood’s default look for virtually everything, Kubrick shot Full Metal Jacket in rich, vibrant, saturated color that looks more like the TV newscasts of the actual war than anything we’ve seen in a post-war movie (and it’s an indication of how profoundly divided the country was over Viet Nam that only one major film about the war — John Wayne’s The Green Berets — was made during it; and given Wayne’s status as an American icon of machismo and Right-wing politics it’s not surprising that on various occasions during Full Metal Jacket the servicemembers go into obvious John Wayne imitations). Full Metal Jacket is a fascinating movie, profound because it isn’t trying for profundity — it’s a series of events presented in a certain way simply because this is the way things happen in real life, especially in a part of real life as doggedly random as war, and though it utterly stumps me how the incessant abuse the recruits went through at Parris Island was supposed to prepare them for the ordeal of combat (and the boredom of life at war when you’re not actually experiencing combat), the film in general and Ermey’s bizarre performance in particular made it clear just why the military resisted for so long either having women in combat or Queers openly serving. It’s a bit difficult to insult your recruits by calling them “ladies” and “cocksuckers” when you’ve got people in the ranks who are either or both!