by Robert Castle and Stephen Donatelli
The correspondent thinks back to himself as a boy, “looking at photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or a lot of dead people,” and he tells of how a certain “obscuration” settled over his really seeing through to what those images meant. “Even when the picture was sharp and clearly defined,” he writes, “something wasn’t clear at all.” Years later, on assignment in Vietnam, he discovers that the witnessed thing is just as remote from meaning as the magazine pictures used to be, that “a soccer stadium where hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies had been collected” does not present itself properly to emotion, sense, or word; he feels more moved by “a dog and a duck…who died together in a small terrorist explosion in Saigon.”
The testimony, by now so familiar, is from the war memoir Dispatches by Michael Herr, whose name figures prominently alongside Gustav Hasford’s in the screenwriting credits for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Herr and Hasford brought an unerring ear for GI speech to this film, but in a more complex way they brought an understanding of how any conventional speech tends to break up under traumatic events, and why it mutates into the language of the “grunts”. Their philosophical presence in Full Metal Jacket may well be more important than their indispensable contribution to the dialogue. Like Kubrick, Herr in particular has wondered why our experience of something like war should turn so trivial when our pictures of it are so “sharp and clearly defined.” It seems that representation doesn’t measure up under such circumstances. It can’t, and yet Kubrick and his team acknowledge that because of this perhaps it is better that it shouldn’t.
In the very conception and shaping of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick sets out vigorously to pursue the point that any medium employed for the articulation of insupportable levels of absurdity mustn’t be too confident, because too much virtuosity applied to a senseless circumstance leads to comedy, or impiety. With intractable material to work over, the predicament for a virtuoso like Kubrick is more intricate than it would be for a lesser light, since we come to him expecting mastery regardless of the subject. We expect him to make his chosen matter whole, “artistic,” and we’re disappointed when he creates an awkward, disjunctive product. But the artist in Kubrick knows when artistry itself is a hindrance, knows precisely when, as Beckett says, he’s likely to become “crippled by competence.”
In Full Metal Jacket Kubrick dares the viewer to withstand certain varieties of cinematic discomfort, because he knows that if we are even to begin to wonder what war does to human beings, then we had better start by being subjected to a species of the same outrage at the movihouse. Kubrick holds up a fragmented image of war, and, resembling wars in this respect, the image disorients us in a manner congruent with its topical concern. Kubrick approaches his audience with too much candor and maturity to pretend that a representation of the soldiers’ experience is possible. It isn’t. His lingering emphasis on the “thousand-yard stare”-the daze that defies utterance-reveals the larger filmic mission of assuming and inducing a state of mute fixity. We come to the film as moviegoers, and the director is going to make his appeal about war at the level of moviegoing experience, far away from the mirror worlds of make-believe wars and real wars, equidistant from each other and from us. He reminds us that our role is to be watching a moving picture. He’s going to make the “theater” of these particular hostilities the movie theater itself, and he sets out to see if it is possible to affect the spectator according to the same emotional principles by which men and women are affected in real wars. His search is for the cinematic analogue.
This war waged in the aisles looks very odd in many ways. We hardly have a vocabulary for dealing with it, at least to judge by the aura of critical disdain surrounding Full Metal Jacket. (Terrence Rafferty has written of the film as “The Big Dead One,” and Pauline Kael complains that “you can’t get an emotional reading of it,” that Kubrick is “cut off…from any sort of connection to people.”) Routinely suspected of the same sort of moribund lowness that Andre Malraux encountered at the wax museum, Full Metal Jacket nonetheless manages to free itself from such indictments by way of a vision that penetrates the stern exterior of its images. The trappings of such previous patriotisms as The Longest Day and Guns of Navarone are certainly gone, along with the genre’s converse appeal to outrage and moralizing, as in Platoon, Gallipoli, Apocalypse Now. What remains is a strange and halting artifact that doesn’t seem to care about humanity, or about “message”-propagandistic, antiwar, or otherwise. As long as we keep watching with eyes trained for other venues, Kubrick’s “dead” film is sure to remain a cipher.
To acknowledge that a wholly new sort of war is being conducted here – as opposed to Kubrick’s having made a stylish but abstract blunder “about” war – we’d like some reassurance that the subversion of typical war-film norms is intentional. We need to ask how Kubrick has come to make a film of this kind, how its effects bespeak his frustration with the cinematic vehicle, and how that frustration stands as a metaphor for the way in which people react to wars.
During a showing of Full Metal Jacket, a friend remarked that Kubrick’s aerial shots of the “jungle” looked more like Appalachia than Vietnam – undisguisedly so. The observation can be generalized, since the war zone we encounter in this film is truly a construct, the kind of thing that Raphael Bassan, speaking of Full Metal Jacket, has called a “symbolic space.” Long sequences in the barracks and in war-shattered urban areas tend to neutralize our sense of real location, of what the places “used to be” or are “supposed to be.” The clinical sets seem like magnifications of the film’s opening images, wherein fresh recruits are shorn bald, “defoliated” of any recognizable distinctiveness. Stripping his people and places of their customary markings, Kubrick seems to be telling us patiently, insistently: Leave your hairstyle and your war-style at the door, and then let’s see what kind of man, woman, or film you end up being.
Divested of its conventional raiment, Full Metal Jacket stands square and makes no pretense that war is communicable. That is the first civility to go. The film’s rude construction is likewise something less than viewer-friendly – we’d prefer to call it viewer-mean. Various kindnesses are withdrawn. The abrupt move from Parris Island to Vietnam is a disaster, cinematically for us and psychologically for the soldiers, since the terms of Kubrick’s agreement have prohibited him from contriving a transition any gentler than the one his men must experience. To have offered such assistance would have compromised the inner discipline of this unprecedented moviegoer boot camp. Those who are perplexed by the schizophrenic layout of Full Metal Jacket need only reflect on the actual lifestyle of Sergeant Hartman’s “maggots”; these men are trained to be split off from themselves and to become mechanical. The director’s task is neither more nor less ambitious than to imitate the task of his drill instructor: annul all civilian courtesies. Observing a quaint custom quite in keeping with the overall “metallic” feel of Full Metal Jacket, the men must now sleep with rifles. The mechanical is eroticized, idealized at camp. Humans and their machines switch roles vertiginously. When Hartman asks Joker, the budding journalist, “Do you think you’re a writer?” the answer comes from the recruit’s reflexes: “No, I’m a killer, sir!” Through his fearsome robot-sergeant (Lee Ermey), Kubrick concedes nothing to the sentimental expectation that this man shall eventually be revealed as a teddy bear, that the way of life he teaches and stands for is just pretend. Ermey’s role and the intent behind it are so unyielding as to utterly embarrass Jack Webb’s all-too-human D.I., whose charming girlfriend problems and token twitches of self-doubt seem, after a viewing of Full Metal Jacket, little more than an Ike-age premonition of Robert Bly. Recent robo-whatevers (cops, terminators, you name it) are nothing next to Hartman. And yet it took a long time to invent this monster, this apotheosis. So pervasively objectionable was it that we should for an instant go without the company of some sort of familiar anthropomorph, that Kubrick’s own early hardware, the computer HAL (whom Kael predictably praises as Kubrick’s last real person), had to have a built-in sense of humor and a talent for singing. The regular subtraction of sympathy is an ongoing process in Kubrick’s films.
Signs of this austere agenda were apparent as early as Paths of Glory, in which Kubrick deliberately raised hopes for the three men sentenced to the firing squad. That object lesson in disillusionment would later lead to a dressing-down of 18th century rationality in Barry Lyndon, where orderly ranks of infantry march into withering gunfire. Leaders lose touch with their men in these films, the face of the enemy remains hidden, and the reassuring contact with the human is systematically expunged. In the situation room of Dr.Strangelove, Kubrick assembled a team of cold warriors as “estranged” from the scene of hostility as traditional audiences have been from the sites of real wars. The moment had long been due for the invasion of viewer territory carried out in Full Metal Jacket.
In abrogating prior spectacle/spectator treaties, Full Metal Jacket has adopted a peculiar yet apposite split shape. The partitioning is a very grand nonsense-gesture full of meaning in the same way that nonsense films like Crocodile Dundee – similarly bipartite but hoping thereby to say something, anything – are empty. Kubrick’s literal coup in Full Metal Jacket is a masterstroke, one of those calligraphic slashes that disclose a lifetime of patient study. To awaken the viewer from a career of filmic trance, you can hardly do better than to interrupt the conventions of the engagement, sever the text, expose illusion. The chutzpah of Kubrick’s cut would probably be enough to confirm suspicions of his viewer-mean campaign, but the incursion takes places on a number of fronts, among the most effective the musical and the linguistic/semiological.
A tuneful performance, Full Metal Jacket uses songs to heighten the force of what we see, but not by seeking compatibility or harmony between the two mediums. For one thing, the songs are all wrong, either because they are out of place in Vietnam, or because, even if they are “Vietnam appropriate” by virtue of theme or date, they are handled in such a way as to clash with the mood and meaning of the images they parallel. Any director aware of the rules for Vietnam period-music would not have chosen the songs Kubrick did. The customary accompaniment for this genre – Hendrix, Coltrane, Stones, Animals – is absent. We can be farily sure that these elisions are intended, for Michael Herr had devoted considerable attention to the songs of the Vietnam period in Dispatches. Herr makes clear how musical lyrics became memorable for their epigrammatic appropriateness. Thus, Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston” speaks fleetingly of fear and death, and because the lyrics mesh with the soldiers’ interiority, the remembered phrase attains the status of a token. Filling this musical void in Full Metal Jacket we have maudlin tracks like “Chapel of Love” (played during a visit to a brothel), “Hello, Vietnam,” or the atonal drear of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” In a respectful early review, Janet Maslin was quick to notice the effects of this anemic pop-music soundtrack, a background not only remote from the soldiers’ experience but hostile to it as well. The men depicted in Full Metal Jacket would not have been listening to such fare, particularly at the moments when Kubrick deploys it, and yet the listener/viewer is the one who is left to negotiate the audio-visual dissonance.
Such musical intrusions represent an ongoing dialectic in Kubrick between the sentimental and the infernal/mechanical. There’s HAL, of course, crooning “Daisy” as his power supply ebbs away, or the spectacle, in Dr. Strangelove, of an airborne B-52 refueling to the placid strains of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Kubrick’s use of music has tended to be evaluative, as his use of television was in The Shining. The snowy light that pervades that film, enveloping its characters in madness, seems only a fine and logical extension of the deleterious haze that shoots or “shines” forth from the unplumbable nullity of the TV tube. With its steady emission of news and weather reports, Roadrunner cartoons, and such pathetic juvenilia as Summer of ’42, the “little screen” casts the domestic scenario into a heightened state of moral panic. For Kubrick, television and trash rock are two avenues for exploring contemporary sub-human experience. His paradoxical use of them spreads a vel of intelligence over matters otherwise meaningless.
The placement of foolish songs against a backdrop of horrible images and disconcerting themes makes for an uncommonly ill affect. After a sniping incident has left the men exhausted and nerve-strung, The Trashmen’s hit single “Surfin Bird” wrecks the mood. We would have liked to savor the visual moment – we would have known how to do that – but the idiot lyric, with its badly timed arrival, profanes the drama and revulses the viewer. At such a moment we must begin to realize that Kubrick’s sights are fixed hard upon our own habits of viewerly propriety and decency. “Surfin’ Bird” sins against the moment (also because its lyric puns badly with the appearance of medevac helicopters), but this incongruence of affect only advances Kubrick’s ulterior purpose: to create a cinematic simulacrum for human astonishment in wars.
Abigail Mead’s stately score for Full Metal Jacket seems equally foreign to the soldiers’ immediate musical tastes, but with its haunting, repetitious, and martial tempos we might imagine such music appealing to the men on some deeper level. The *programmable* instruments – the Fairlight Series III, and the CMI Series I – seem drawn from the same storehouse of gizmos that Kubrick has always liked to use in his films. The score probably surpasses, in its appropriateness to its occasion, Philip Glass’s music for Koyaanisqatsi. In both films, the obscure calculus of electronic music helps to articulate themes of dehumanization, only with Kubrick the subject has moved from environmental to just plain mental catastrophe. The mechanical edge of the music intimates a psychological condition compatible with what the men are going through.
If Kubrick exploits varieties of awkward fit between music and occasion, he’s also fascinated with the way in which nonmusical language may fracture when subjected to certain kinds of stress. Once again The Trashmen’s lyric um-um-um-um-um- mau-mau um-um mau mau-mau mocks signification quite as well as it disrespects the visual moment. Knowing that the use of nonsense is one way to desecrate the syntax of sense, Kubrick will work both sound and image to his purpose. His character Joker (Matthew Modine), now a reporter for “Stars and Stripes”, is made to endure the misalignment of language and experience. Gazing into a mass civilian grave, Joker looks and feels sick, his earlier assuredness gone in a glimpse of the actual dead. It’s not so much what he sees as it is the non-fit between what he sees and the poverty of his professional and personal expressive means. He is unprepared. Consciousness and language don’t rise to the occasion of horror, and Kubrick questions how adeptly any language ever can, or should. His open attack on the insufficiency of our expressive options attains its highest eloquence, perhaps, in the speech of a soldier named Animal Mother. “If I’m gonna get my balls blown off for a word,” says he, incredulous that the war is being fought for ‘freedom,’ “that word’s gotta be poontang.” All the “talk” that had been brought to the war is suddenly found to be useless.
Full Metal Jacket remains consistent in its sabotage of conventional war modalities, from the official military newspeak to the roving interviewer, whose passive camera eye and routine questions sap the men of their normal rage and fear. In his general critique of military-movie issue, Kubrick calls one of his recruits Gomer Pyle and has another speak in the voice of John Wayne, the icons (such as they are) now exposed as caricatures. By film’s end, the stereotypes are displaced by disfigurements – the petrified boys and their protective “animal mothers”; the unkillable characterizations of nigger, chink, and pussy; the hundred mutations of speech and dignity that flourish in the fetor of war. The stereotype of the traditional spectator should be counted among these losses, since the film reneges on its promise to provide “war entertainment,” leaving us gawking at what was supposed to be there.
Full Metal Jacket offers many clues about the nature of its subversive inner logic. The trouble is, we cannot always read these clues directly but must contend with our own dyslexia as we contemplate them. The helmet that bears both peace sign and BORN TO KILL cannot be read as a complete sentence. The message self-cancels even as it communicates an irreducible fable about the identity of its wearer and about the conundrum of war itself. Ridding himself of all cliches, Kubrick relishes the illegibility of what’s left over, what’s there, and this deft move – from pretend to real – sets the path for both soldier and spectator.
In a culminating scene from Full Metal Jacket, Private Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) is discovered armed and raving in the latrine. When Sergeant Hartman enters, Joker cautions him that Pyle’s rifle is loaded, not with the usual practice rounds, but with live ammunition. Pyle has just made his move, you see, from playing soldier to being one. He kills the sergeant, then turns the gun on himself, his brains spraying brightly across the lavatory wall. This unforgettable tableau recalls the scrawl REDRUM from Kubrick’s thriller The Shining. The anagram served as an omen then, and in Kubrick’s evolving iconography Pyle’s vivid signature updates the warning for the instruction of all viewers. Those patient enough to decode the scrambled sign will find that it is no longer safe, nor tenable, to be looking at pictures of war.
Film Comment, September/October 1998, pp. 24-28