Sunday, October 14, 2012

Full Metal Jacket

With Paths of Glory (1957) Stanley Kubrick directed what's probably the greatest anti-war film of all time.  Three decades later, Kubrick returned to his favorite area with Full Metal Jacket, but this time with different intentions.

Full Metal Jacket is a war movie, but not an anti-war one.  There are indications that American involvement in Vietnam was a giant folly, but Kubrick does not moralize and instead provides an objective view of what war is.

The essence of the story concerns all wars, and not just Vietnam.

It's about the capacity within one human being for both good and evil, something psychiatrist Carl Jung labelled "the shadow": the subconscious aspects of one's personality.

Kubrick said he does not view the characters in the movie in terms of good or evil, but rather in terms of good and evil.

The message is conveyed most explicitly in Vietnam when a superior officer confronts Joker about his wearing both a peace button and a helmet reading "Born to Kill." 

Joker can't explain exactly why he's expressing these inconsistent ideas, but says it might have something to do with "the Jungian thing . . . the duality of man."

Full Metal Jacket begins with United States Marines recruits getting their heads shaved -- a loss of individuality, the first step of a dehumanization process intended to turn these men into killers.

(Dehumanization and its effects are recurring themes in Kubrick's movies.)

The first third of Full Metal Jacket is dedicated to boot camp at Parris Island.  R. Lee Ermey plays Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (which can sound like "hard man") in an incredible performance.

Much of Hartman's dialogue was improvised by Ermey, and several one-liners will make your jaw drop as you howl with laughter.

Ermey speaks with a cadence and color that turns his remarks into poetry.

In furtherance of the military's goal of dehumanizing the recruits, Hartman orders them to give their (phallic) rifles a female name.    

Their rifles are as close to women as they'll get.

Hartman tells them their "days of finger-bangin' ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her pretty pink panties are over!"

He forces the recruits to recite a creed to their weapons, and has them repeat a military cadence concerning their rifles and guns, only the guns are not literal but a symbol for their genitalia.

Hartman contemptuously refers to the recruits as ladies, and hurls homophobic slurs at them.

By the end, Hartman's misogyny will be revealed as ironic: the sniper taking out trained soldier after soldier turns out to be a Vietnamese female civilian, something Hartman would never have been able to process.

The stand-out recruit is Gomer Pyle, played by Vincent D'Onofrio.

Pyle stands out because he can't do anything correctly, and D'Onofrio brings a real pathos to the role. 

Every time Pyle screws up, Hartman humiliates him, at one point having Pyle march with his pants down, sucking his thumb.

Hartman appoints Joker as mentor to Pyle, and Pyle makes progress, until Hartman catches him with a jelly doughnut in his foot locker.

From that point on, when Pyle screws up, Hartman punishes the recruits collectively, because they haven't given Pyle the proper "incentive" not to screw up.

The recruits throw a blanket party, beating Pyle with soap wrapped in towels.

Each recruit hits Pyle once.  Joker initially hesitates, but then beats Pyle several times, worse than any of the others.

That's the duality of man as seen through Joker, and though he's not quite there yet, he's on the path to becoming a killer.

Pyle turns out to have an affinity for marksmanship but he unravels after being beaten by the other recruits.

The night of boot camp graduation, Pyle has a breakdown in the bathroom, and starts loading his rifle with ammunition.  In a chilling and unforgettable scene, Pyle kills Hartman and then himself.

Joker witnesses the murder-suicide, and realizes he's in "a world of shit."

As I've said a few times, the military's goal is to turn the recruits into killers.

Pyle has become exactly what Hartman wanted him to become, and that's not an exaggeration.

Right before the murder-suicide, Hartman speaks to the recruits about Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald; Hartman heaps praise on them and takes pride because the Marines trained them to become riflemen.

Hartman says that Whitman and Oswald showed what "one motivated Marine can do," and with a close-up on Pyle, he claims that before they leave Parris Island they'll all be able to do the same.

Not only could Pyle do the same, he did do the same.  Pyle fulfilled the promise of boot camp by shooting Hartman and becoming a killer.

It's not that much of a stretch to envision some other sergeant praising Pyle in the same way Hartman praised the mass murderer, Whitman, and alleged JFK assassin, Oswald.

Immediately after Pyle kills Hartman and himself, Kubrick leaves Parris Island and enters Vietnam. 

It's a jarring cut and many viewers don't like the Vietnam portion of the film, but it's an important part of the story.

With the exception of Pyle, Vietnam is where the others will fulfill the promise of becoming killers.

Joker is the main character once we enter Vietnam, and the movie becomes his story.

There's also a Marine called Animal Mother played by Adam Baldwin, who bears a resemblance to Vincent D'Onofrio.

Is the message that had Pyle lived, he would have been Animal Mother?  That the soldiers are no longer individuals, but types?

Animal Mother is among the crazy brave, and perhaps Pyle would have been as well had he gone to Vietnam.

The film culminates with a sniper shooting several marines dead, with the remaining ones finally confronting her in the fiery building (clearly a representation of hell) she's been firing from.

Chaos ensues and the seemingly harmless Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) shoots the sniper, critically wounding her, as Joker's nerves make him fumble and drop his weapon.

The Marines are surprised to find that the sniper is a woman.

She pleads with the men to end her suffering, but they're inclined to let her rot.

Joker objects, and Animal Mother says if Joker wants her killed, Joker is going to have to do it.

Joker's face betrays conflict, but he shoots and kills the sniper.

The question is whether Joker acted out of mercy or wrath.  Kubrick wisely chooses not to answer, and my interpretation is that Joker acted out of both mercy and wrath.

The final scene sees the Marines marching and singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme.

There are many ways to view this.  It could be a yearning for the innocence of childhood after all they've been through; or perhaps the "club" they're referring to is the US Marine Corps; or the club could even be seen as the United States, Mickey Mouse being quintessentially American.

It's the second reference to Mickey Mouse in the movie, the first coming when Hartman asks Pyle "What's this Mickey Mouse shit?" right before Pyle shoots him.

The title Full Metal Jacket refers not only to a bullet, but also to masturbation ("jack it").

Hartman's obscenity-laced tirades support that reading, as do the details about "Handjob," who is
discharged from service due to chronically jerking off.

Kubrick loved making references to his prior movies, and there are a few minutes near the end when in the background a black building burns, looking suspiciously like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The monolith in 2001 was the source of all human evolution, and here it burns.

When human beings kill each other, it's a giant leap backwards, it's devolution.

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