by Bruce Kawin
If any single hope characterized the American sixties, it was that oppression and hypocrisy would be vanquished, like a vampire in the sunshine, by an appeal to reason and official—i.e., Constitutional—laws and values. A radical could be defined, in those days, as one who found such idealism naive, who saw plainly that those ideals were not respected and that, like the proverbial mule who needed to be whacked with a 2 x 4 before being told what to do (“First, you’ve got to get his attention”), the ruling elite would respond only to violence and terrorism. That elite has always denounced such violence as uncivilized and unfair (rather like my mother, who said hitting was wrong no matter who was right)—and has also, with exasperating consistency, patronized if not ignored any and all attempts at rational discourse and responsible, nonviolent argument.
The last major attempt at carrying the idealistic program forward took place outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. That was the last time any serious faith was placed in the democratic process—not to mention the Democratic Party—to behave according to its word and set things right. Who could forget Mayor Daley calling Senator Ribicoff a “dirty kike” on camera? Who could forget Humphrey’s incredible, fervent acceptance speech, “We must never see again what we have seen tonight!”— which could be taken two opposite ways: we should never see cops bashing kids/we should never see such disruptive demonstrations—and which got a standing ovation. After that, meaning didn’t have quite the base it had had before, say during the Enlightenment. (And the buzzword for what followed is, I’m sorry to say, postmodernism: the cult of multiple coherence.) Liberals dropped out, radicals were murdered (Fred Hampton in bed, and my friend Sam Melville in the yard at Attica), Nixons were elected, and the machinery ground on unopposed. By the eighties, under the government’s new control system, inflation, most Americans refocused on money—not on cutting the military budget, and with it, deficit spending, but on personal financial security, a parachute for me and mine and to hell with everyone else (“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral!” […1] And now we hear, from every side, wailing and gnashing of teeth: our kids don’t respect values; they don’t know what values are; they’re turning into punks! Hey, they don’t even respect us—and if what’s left of the Left turns up in a movie, it’s often as “Professor Berkeley,” the quintessentially irrelevant and out-of-touch teacher in River’s Edge. But of course it isn’t values whose disappearance the Right laments; it’s particular values, like the rights of the unborn and of the Born Again. Talk Tom Paine to these guys and see how far it gets you.
The Watergate break-in, and Nixon’s responsibility for it, was broadcast on an AM newscast I had the good fortune to tune in, the day of the break-in. McGovern knew all about it too, and decided, like a gentleman of honor, not to push it. Years later, when Nixon had hanged himself in public—it had to get that blatant—you could hear from every hamlet and rag in the country the baffled outrage, the betrayal and confusion: How could this happen? How could we not have known? But it was all there to know, on that afternoon newscast (Cronkite himself, if I remember correctly)—and the rest of it was plain, to anyone who paid attention, when that same story did not appear on the evening TV news, nor in the next day’s papers. What drives me to distraction is the breast-beating of those who took so damn long to acknowledge the obvious. The same thing happened with Vietnam, whose follies were pointed out loudly and precisely throughout the sixties, and which now has been accepted as an unfortunate, baffling national tragedy. Tragedy my foot; baffling my ass. Do you think that the discussions will be any different after an atomic war? Do you think anyone will remember that we knew—in 1963, when Bertrand Russell was in jail and Stanley Kubrick was shooting Dr. Strangelove; in 1968, when world politics exploded and Kubrick gave us 2001; and in 1987, when North’s Contra-diction won over the TV public and Kubrick fired a Full Metal Jacket at us—that war is not healthy for children and other living things? And if they remember that we knew, do you think they will forgive us for our complacency, our materialism, our refusal to follow through on our convictions?
You want to know why people drop out? Because hypocrisy and stupidity reign. In the July 14, 1987 Denver Post—a Knight Ridder News Service item, so I’m sure it isn’t just weird local information like that Watergate AM newscast—it’s reported that a Salvadoran death squad is active in Los Angeles, and full details are given of the abduction, torture, and rape of a woman who was on the way to a political meeting. Now catch this:
U.S. Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of the subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday he thought there was enough evidence of death squad involvement to warrant an FBI investigation. The FBI has declined to get involved in the case, citing lack of jurisdiction.
It should not have to be pointed out—but apparently does—that if a communist outfit had kidnapped, beaten, burned, cut, and sexually assaulted a young woman on the way to a DAR meeting, the FBI would have found jurisdiction. To notice something like this and want to make a big deal out of it is sixties; to realize that the government does no more than pay lip service to “American values” and is truly in the business of supporting death squads abroad and not interfering with them at home, and therefore to sit back and just watch the Kooky Franco and Ollie show in a mood of evil black humor—that’s eighties. It is the demonic look of the maddened recruit in Full Metal Jacket, the look that says “OK, if the party is to be on your terms, then Let’s Party!” It’s what the father in The Shining said to the [hotel]. It’s what Dr. Strangelove said to Kennedy and Johnson. It’s what Barry Lyndon said to the “new age.” If there is an escape from the space station in 2001, with its air-conditioned, lying politicos, its AT&T billing card, its Howard Johnson’s, and especially that perfectly drawn attache-case cold-fish bastard who is the first since the Dawn of Man to touch a monolith—if there is an escape from the ways men use learning to kill, then it is away, to a higher order.
There were two films that laid out the basics of the nuclear age. The very best was Peter Watkins’s The War Game; it was understated, well researched, and morally intense. It was also banned. The other was Dr. Strangelove, which one B. Crowther recommended be withdrawn from international distribution because it made us look like destructive fools. (No doubt he just couldn’t take the line, “Our source was the New York Times.”) Well before that, Kubrick had made a powerful, sentimental, right-minded antiwar movie, Paths of Glory; it didn’t work. What did work was Losey’s King and Country; that offered an ironic, bitter, virtually hopeless look at military “thinking,” like a Paths of Glory by the later Kubrick, and it came out in the same 1964 as Dr. Strangelove, whose special brilliance was its acceptance of ordinary, venal, stupid, human being—a status quo of dangerous idiots, mirrored like Narcissus in a pool of atomic sludge. It was a film that knew there was no hope and no reason to assume that, confronted with truth and reason, people in power would relinquish or at least redirect their power. About ten years from now, I expect that to be a fairly common point of view; what I am sure of is that Kubrick saw plainly, in 1968 and 2001, that engagement with the stupid bad guys was hopeless and that “turn on, tune in, drop out” was the next political wave. If idealists were offended by A Clockwork Orange, if they could not see how dark things really were, tough. But by then Kubrick had outthought the majority of the audience; he was way ahead. Most people had no idea what Barry Lyndon was about or why it was so desperately funny and sad, but as that vain pre-yuppie went down, as his nonfic-tional cohorts are sinking now, so the family followed—in The Shining. What every Kubrick film since Spartacus has done is to improve the cinematic mechanism for the transmission of extreme irony, and the most ironic of them have been Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket.
The attacks on Full Metal Jacket, notably those by Pauline Kael in the New Yorker and David Denby in New York, are worth dissecting. Both of them accuse Kubrick of coldness, of putting technique over emotion, and of expatriatism. They also attack the film’s structure, calling it a mess. They seem to be reviewing the picture they expected to see, and not to have forgiven Mr. Wizard for becoming Mr. Iceman. The rhetorical manipulations of Kael’s review are typical of her best and worst work:
What is emotional in the book is made abstract. The movie has no center, because Kubrick has turned his hero into a replica of himself; his Joker is always at a distance—he doesn’t express his feelings. So the movie comes across as not meaning anything. But it has a tone that’s peculiar to Kubrick. His cold-sober approach— the absence of anything intuitive or instinctive or caught on the wing—can make you think there’s deep, heavy anti-war stuff here. The gist of the movie, though, seems to be not that war makes men into killers but that the Marine Corps does. (In 2001, we were told that it was enough to be a man to be a killer.) Here’s a director who has been insulated from American life for more than two decades, and he proceeds to define the American crisis of the century. He does it by lingering for a near-pornographic eternity over a young Vietnamese woman who is in pain and pleads “Shoot me! Shoot me!” This is James M. Cain in Vietnam.
Now I will freely grant that Kubrick is, quite happily, not Spielberg—while insisting that emotion is not the only way to communicate an idea in the cinema—nor Capra, nor Fuller, nor Milestone. The breast-beating of Paths of Glory, which leaves me cold, in any case proved long ago to be inadequate to the job at hand, which is to change public attitudes toward oppressive institutions commandeered by the selfish and the stupid. “Feelings,” that mush-word, has been irrelevant to Kubrick since Lolita; this is nothing new. And it has nothing to do with politics, no real effectiveness. What was devastatingly effective in Dr. Strangelove was its plainly saying, “Sure, go ahead and blow up the world!” It was, of course, all about sex, and it said plainly that the new human sexuality is impotence. In 2001, the clearest joke was that Hal had more sexual presence than his operators; it was an extension of the head-credit sequence in Dr. Strangelove, where the planes tried a little tenderness. For Kael, Hal is a real character; for me, Hal is a joke, and much of what’s good in the film is that there are no humanistic presences, no deep folks, while the closing image of the Überkind is a rich unknown (blown utterly into the stupid, the emotive, the “feeling,” in the godawful 2010, a movie as negatively symptomatic of our “culture” as any I can think of). But Kael’s missed the point, the reason coldness works, the reason that irony cannot always be kind, or that a Jonathan Swift may find it difficult to live a happy life or sit down to a hearty meal with others, or respect people at all; she continues:
It’s very likely that Kubrick has become so wrapped up in his “craft”—which is often called his “genius”—that he doesn’t recognize he’s cut off not only from America and the effects the war had on it but from any sort of connection to people. (The only memorable character in his films of the past twenty years is Hal the computer.) What happened to the Kubrick who used to slip in sly, subtle jokes and little editing tricks? This may be his worst movie.
This is more than a series of cheap shots, and more than a plea for a cinema of nice emotions, the kind that don’t change your life; it’s also an imprecise appeal to some common understanding of the effects the war had on Americans, which anyone who was here at the time could see. What I’ve tried to show, so far, is what the effect of the war was on me and those around me, something I consider true and clear and ubiquitously forgotten, buried under the hindsight rhetoric of those who finally decided, after years of denying it, that the war was a bad idea from the start, misrepresented by the government and canonized by the media. (The media also canonized the postwar sense that somehow the war was an incomprehensible national tragedy, for which conscientious objectors and the veterans who actually fought in Vietnam—rather than Kennedy, Johnson, the Trilateral Commission, and the Pentagon—were somehow responsible.) If you opposed the war at the time, you were unpatriotic and a coward; but if you took 20 years to wake up and smell the coffee, then you had some kind of right to your anguish. I think that all that was perfectly obvious to Kubrick, and that he made Dr. Strangelove instead of Fail-Safe on purpose; I think, in fact, that he was politically brilliant to attack in that manner rather than to bemoan and warn. There was simply no reason to fall in with the bad guys and tell them an On the Beach story they could easily ignore (with lines such as “Of course nobody wants a nuclear war; that’s why we have nuclear weapons”). The movie of “feelings” is nothing but well-meant; it is a humanistic appeal to shared values, and it ignores—in any nuclear context, at least—the real power relations in this country and the fact that values and priorities are not at all shared between those who are apparently willing to be the last generation and those who would rather see their children grow up. The story of how “people” were affected by the war is, OK, a good story, but that’s all. But here I’m anticipating Denby, who says:
Instead of dramatizing what Vietnam did to people, he tries to impress us with how poetically wasted everyone was, which is an adolescent’s idea of cool… Kubrick doesn’t make the sniper a character either. Only the mocking, antagonistic joke on American futility interests him. Full Metal Jacket is a large-scale, exciting, and audacious movie, but it has an impotent and malicious spirit. Whose complacency is Kubrick attacking with his nasty ironies? The two kinds of idealists who fought in Vietnam—the ones who thought they were saving the South Vietnamese and the military enthusiasts who believed in the invincibility of the American forces—have long been disillusioned. Apart from them, many people remain saddened by the moral confusions of Vietnam, but Kubrick would seem to be indifferent to such people. His annihilating wit denies any obligation to make sense of what it tells us. The movie is a case of intellectual laziness passing itself off as bitter truth: Stanley Kubrick has created a chaos out of his own demoralized and alienated state and called it Vietnam.
Denby’s review, which is sincerely and carefully meditated—and quite wrong—is at pains to rule out of consideration anything like a sixties perspective (“Years after the war, Kubrick cultivates the awestruck mood of a stoned hippie exclaiming ‘Hea-vy!’”); what he’s leaving out, along with the idealists who did not fight in Vietnam, is the value of the uncontaminated perspective of the adolescent, the one who has not yet bought into the system and can see many of its aspects plainly from the outside.
What Denby appears truly to be objecting to is simple cold hard irony, Kubrick’s refusal to wring his hands over the war or to give us another Dr. Strangelove now that America might finally be ready for it; rather than pay lip service to what we say we believe, Kubrick is making us pay for that lip service, rubbing our noses in it. Those who were in America at the time and who did oppose the war, like those who were aware of Watergate and astounded at how flagrant an evil must be before Americans get off their butts and react to it (accompanied by that damned national-tragedy rhetoric, the infuriating, self-righteous “How could this happen?” dreck), were ignored then and have been rewritten in the history books as “stoned hippies.” The rhetoric of the official version was the enemy then, and it is the enemy now, for it has managed to absorb and deny horror, to sweep the dust under the ever-more-lumpy rug, to say that we, as Americans, are always right and have always defended the true, the good, the democratic, and the private. But we haven’t, and we still don’t, and even if there is a replay of Vietnam down Mexico way and further south, no one will do anything to stop it; and after it is over, when someone points out that in 1987 we knew all that, yet somehow “incomprehensibly” let it happen, that person will be accused of, say, not being a team player, while the ones who “remain saddened by the moral confusions” will look like the good guys. “Saddened” and “confusions” are vague words for a muddle. But I do not share in that muddle, and I am obviously not free of emotion, and I have been here all along, and I think that Kubrick has, once again, hit the nail on its groaning little head.
Full Metal Jacket is not cold. It is not bitter. It is not distanced from its subject. It does not suffer from too many retakes, nor from an excess of directorial control. It is moving. It is angry and fast. It is, at times, hilarious (“M-I-C, see you real soon, / K-E-Y, why, because we like you, / M-O-U-S-E / Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse / Forever will we hold your banner high high high high!”). While the war-tempered soldiers urge us to come along and sing their song and join the jamboree, I can just hear Kubrick bouncing up in the screening room yelling “Donald Duck! Donald Duck!”
And OK, sometimes it’s bad. It has a lousy voice-over, probably courtesy of Michael Herr but who can tell; it is all utterly unnecessary, obvious, self-righteous, dumb— nothing remotely like the first-person narration of A Clockwork Orange, not even as witty as the unnecessary V-O in Apocalypse Now, and in fact about as vapid and bald as the lecture at the end of Platoon.
But what is not bad about this film is its structure. In the interest of improving the level of discourse on this important movie, let me close by offering a reading of its structure; perhaps that will give viewers and critics a handle on what is, admittedly, difficult about the film. For Full Metal Jacket is the first picture since The Green Berets to make people angry about the war and the way it’s presented—no mean accomplishment, and a clear indication that Kubrick is not taking cold pot-shots at an America he fails to understand and empathize with, but is precisely hitting all the right nerves.
Kubrick has never been casual about his titles. The paths of glory lead but to the grave. Alex, like his culture, is a clockwork orange. Atomic engagement is a strange love. And a full metal jacket is a complete array of ammunition worn into combat, the arsenal as suit; in the context of Gomer Pyle’s mad scene, its synecdoche is the magazine loaded with live, steel-jacketed rounds (the shell’s own “metal jacket” keeps it intact until it hits the target). In the first act, the magazine is loaded: the recruits are trained, turned into killers (and anyone who finds the soap-beating scene, Joker’s role in it, and Gomer Pyle’s reaction lacking in emotion and pain and horror is, I’m sorry, just missing something). For a bullet to be fired, there must be a strong casing for the powder to explode against, so that good old Newtonian thermodynamics will propel the shell forward. This movie is a magazine loaded with live ammunition, and the first act is the tight one, the tough one, the well-organized one, driving and driven, ruthless and absolutely coherent. It is the shell casing. Back to Denby for a minute:
Structurally, the movie is bizarre, a failed experiment that makes one aware of how conventional other movies are—and of why those conventions are necessary. It begins with a stunning 45-minute prologue…
This is a three-act picture, like the majority today (the three acts in Platoon were each 40 minutes). The second act, rather like the “Time Passes” section in To the Lighthouse, is diffuse, a series of vignettes and blackouts. Here the bullet is flying through the air, and one doesn’t know where it will, as the new executives say, “impact.” This lasts about half an hour. In the third act, which lasts about 35 minutes, there is a clearly organized and highly effective battle sequence, and it is in this act that the shell reaches its target; it is tighter than act two, but necessarily less tight than act one. For one thing, compare a bullet before and after it’s been fired. For another, “good structure” or a “well-wrought urn” can’t mean or be the same after the Vietnam experience as before; it’s a war that changed our ideas (and the characters’) about why and how things are done as well as our expectations of meaning; what is launched in a compulsive and driven world flies through the unstructured air until it hits as the postmodern.
The magazine is loaded with the recruits. The first one hits where the Marine Corps doesn’t intend it to: in the chest of Sir Yes Sir, the drill sergeant; Gomer Pyle is, then, a misdirected bullet. Every other recruit is followed, through the film, to the point where he either is killed or kills somebody else; each is a shell, and we trace each to its target. Joker, “Born to Kill,” is the main bullet, and the movie follows him until he hits that praying, female sniper. The movie becomes a tunnel down which echo the words, “Shoot me! Shoot me!”—and Joker, the round, strikes home. Sir Yes Sir would have been proud. “Hard core,” says one of the soldiers at that moment, and it certainly is.
l. This line from The Threepenny Opera roughly translates, “First comes the grub, then comes morality.”
American Book Review 9, no. 5 (November–December 1987): pp. 3–5.