Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Paths of Glory

Another week and since Kubrick's 1957 gem was released today on DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion (a remarkable improvement upon the feature-less MGM DVD), I figured now would be a good a time as any for this.Paths of Glory (1957)

Every great filmmaker has a certain point in their career. One where they emerge from "promising" to "great". A vague distinction at times it separates the one hit wonders from the legends. For Stanley Kubrick after the independent features Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss he made his first certifiable classic with The Killing. However this post-noir caper with a then remarkable shifting time line was merely the prophecy. It was the film that showed that Kubrick was capable of making great pictures, but not necessarily that Kubrick was a great filmmaker. Paths of Glory, his follow up and second feature co-produced with James Harris would be the one that elevated Kubrick to a higher status. Star Kirk Douglas made a surprise turn as a French Colonel and served double duty as producer. Their relationship was good enough to have Douglas recommend Kubrick for Spartacus after original director Anthony Mann didn't work out. Much has been made of the fall out the two had while making that film and the inevitable ego clash between producer-star and director. Paths of Glory seems the happier idyllic partnership made without tremendously high expectations but a film that has stood up better than nearly all of its better received and hyped contemporaries.

Douglas plays Colonel Dax in one of his exemplary firebrand performances. You know from years of watching Douglas that there is a explosive fire underneath his dignified exterior that is waiting to come out. For the most part Douglas and Kubrick keep his character restrained, but you can sense Dax is boiling over at times, especially considering the hypocritical bureaucracy he has to swallow. In combat though Dax the warrior takes over. Relentlessly blowing his whistle and no matter how doomed his mission might be no one is going to question his particular heroism. They make a clear point of not putting Dax in the same position as the men who refuse to advance and the case of the company that refuses to even get out of the trench. We know the attack is a horrible idea but Dax the soldier is determined to carry out his orders and accepts his ill fate when his fortitude is questioned.

George MacCready plays General Mireau with a degree of sympathy to start but his character quickly becomes the villain. He takes a similar position as Dax when his orders are given to him from General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou who seems born for this part). His men have been cut to shreds and this General likes to pride himself on being in touch with his men and understanding their conflict. He fancies himself a soldier rather than a politician, even if we the viewers aren't quite buying it. When his ability to lead his men is questioned he feels threatened and accepts the ill fated mission of taking the German Ant Hill knowing that his best estimates will have him lose about 65% of his men. When first given his orders he doesn't think he has enough men to hold the hill let alone take it but in a constant show of bravado he does what any emasculated soldier would do, over compensate by biting off far more than he could chew, of course with the particular promise of a promotion or more "glory". Our opinion of this sympathetic General changes very quickly during his trench visit. He routinely asks a few soldiers whether they're ready "To kill some more Germans?" to which most of them unenthusiastically say "Yes sir". When he comes across a soldier who is shell shocked and doesn't respond with the instant answer he's looking for he strikes the man, says there's no such thing as shell shock, and orders the soldier transferred from his regiment. It seems like a scene straight out of Patton but unlike Patton who had already won our sympathy this move seems cold and unfeeling and makes us start to think that despite how "hands on" this Regiment Commander might be we start to see he has lost touch sitting in his opulent chateau commanding his troops from a desk.

It is interesting that our first shot of Dax is bent over washing himself in his quarters. It has him in both a symbolic position of figuratively "washing his hands of it" and also slightly exposed shirtless. Quickly when Mireau enters his quarters with an even more unsympathetic Major (Richard Anderson) who refers to the soldiers as "lower organisms" with a herd mentality the power seems to be in Mireau's hands. Once the unfeeling, ass kissing Major is excused it puts some degree of sympathy back with Mireau, who even after berating the shell shocked soldier seems more human compared to his companion. His "selling" of the mission to Dax is very much the same routine that he was handed. Dax raises the appropriate objections, here's dreadful estimates of casualties which include 5% by their own fire, and eventually is coerced into accepting the mission when Mireau threatens to remove him from command temporarily to "rest". The machismo of war is clearly the enemy here and this entire film can be seen as "the folly of testosterone". Nearly everyone bites off more than they can chew in the act of saving face or for the glory of France. When it is suggested that someone else can do the impossible it makes everyone determined to "man up" to accept the foolish suicidal mission.

It may now be a good time to talk about some of Kubrick's aesthetic choices. Although made in 1957 the film was still shot in 1.66 ratio, despite having wide screen cinema available for four years. Contrasted with the big budget Bridge on the River Kwai (released within months of this film) it's stark black and white photography makes it look almost like a B-picture from the outside. However Kubrick's seemingly behind the times visual choices seem to fit the picture so much better in retrospect. For starters black and white film and cameras allowed for a much greater and sharper depth of field. Kubrick was all in favor of showing every square inch of the frame. His camera is free to roam (something that was considerably more difficult with big bulky Technicolor equipped cameras. The violence of the film could be undercut with black and white stock allowing the picture to get away with more violence and blood by not being in bright red vivid Technicolor. With this choice it easily puts Kubrick's film in a category with classic WWI war pictures like All Quiet on the Western Front, Pabst's Westfront 1918, or Gance's J'Accuse. The fact that the entire war was essentially based on misguided national pride and ill advised machismo makes the story here all the more palpable. The entire conflict could be considered "unjustified" which makes the particular mission fit so perfectly with that grizzly conflict.

Kubrick has drawn a number of comparisons with his style to Max Ophuls whose ever roaming camera and depth staging certainly seem to be lingering influences over this picture. One scene in particular involving Broulard at a party in the chateau/command seems directly taken from any number of Ophuls' films. Ophuls loved balls and his tracking camera was perfectly suited to an opulent waltz, and I wonder how much of an homage this particular sequence was. Thematically it helps to show how out of touch Broulard is. He is entertaining guests while three random soldiers are condemned to be shot by a firing squad for cowardice. His General doesn't miss a meal, doesn't bat an eyelash, and never seems to drop his aristocratic facade that makes him so deplorable behind his devilish grin and his apparent but deceptive sympathy he offers at various points of the film. When confronted with the news that Mireau ordered his own men to be fired upon during the battle, he simply responds that he has to return to his guests. His detachment is legendary and infuriating and you realize that no matter how "just" these men will be executed as a "morale booster" for the remaining soldiers. It's sickening and you wonder how much he believes his own words. This war is ugly business and perhaps the only method of coping with it is to have a supreme detachment to humanity the way Broulard does. After all in war the price of human life is negligible.

The film doesn't offer any satisfying answers. The crisis is not averted, the war goes on, and we're left to believe that the eternal tug-of-war between the two fronts will continue much as it had the previous two years. History tells us who eventually won the war, but in Kubrick's world there really is no winner. Dax figuratively spits in Broulard's face when he is offered command of the regiment. It isn't the promotion that he resists, but the accusation that he somehow engineered the removal of Mireau all along as an act of ambition rather than justice. Broulard miscalculates and assumes Dax is of the same breed he and Mireau are not realizing that Dax unlike virtually every other officer in the film has some sense of honor and justice, not coincidentally he was a damn good defense lawyer as a civilian. There is some sense of justice in the film at times though. Mireau is left to answer for his actions, the officer who selected his enemy to be tried for treason is given the unpleasant task of being in charge of the firing squad. In a final touch of humanism Kubrick ends with a slightly sentimental scene featuring a tavern of French soldiers humming along to a German song*. The idiocy and folly of war have rarely been so accurately displayed in cinema, yet another reason why Kubrick would go from promising young director to the greatest of all time.

*As a side note that woman singing was Christiane Harlan (niece of the infamous German director Veit Harlan), who later wound up becoming Mrs. Kubrick.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - The Killing

Well if you thought I was going in some sort of order, think again. What better way to mess up the chronology of my Kubrick reviews than with Kubrick's least chronological film which is . . .

The Killing (1956)

Stanley Kubrick had been making films for several years prior to The Killing, but for many this is considered his first real film. The first one with some studio backing, the first perfectly realized work, and the first film of his to fit in his filmography as a Kubrickian work of art. Still amongst his future films, this was the most modest and low-key among his pictures. The one that took the shortest to film, find, realize, and eventually to catch on. The film wasn't a tremendous success, but it did help set up his next picture deal with MGM for Paths of Glory. Over the years though, The Killing has been elevated as one of the best caper films ever made and the first sign that Stanley Kubrick was an auteur for the ages.

The style of the film fits into the somewhat then outdated noir. The nature of the story lends itself to other film noirs, most notably John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (also starring Sterling Hayden). The use of a narrator was long a convention of noir, but here it is used more like the pseudo-documentary voice over personified in Henry Hathaway's films. The narrator in this story is not a character, but a resilient commentator on the facts of it all. The voice over comes across as a police inspector reading a report to a commissioner. Everything is to the minute, and it is removed of any frills. Unlike Hathaway's films, and other pictures using this type of omniscient narrator, this isn't just used to set up the story. Up until the last 10 minutes of the film the all present "voice of god" is being used, and to great effect. This isn't a film that tinkers with a style then abandons it as things progress. This film is realized from beginning to end, and in more ways than one it was a radical departure from most films of the genre and time.

The revolutionary narrative structure wasn't completely Kubrick's idea. He and producer Jim Harris were particularly impressed with Lionel White's comparatively unknown Clean Break, and its handling of time was the major appeal to the duo for making the film. The book sets up the structure, and it was simply Kubrick's task to transfer it to the screen. Like usual he handled screenwriting chores, but a great majority of the dialogue was written by Jim Thompson. Thompson as well as Kubrick avoid using too many noir clich├ęs, the dialogue seems natural and normal, far from the stylized double talk associated with other pictures in the genre. The film has a gritty appeal to it, that makes it much more potent than the typical noir film. For starters the exteriors of this film mix a lot of stock footage, used extensively in the racing scenes. For the indoor sets, Kubrick makes all his spaces small. Rather than position a camera dead center, Kubrick uses his camera to wander all over the rooms, exploring all their angles and letting us know what type of cramped atmosphere his characters live in. Since this film was a studio production, it had to adhere to union rules, which meant for the first time Kubrick wasn't able to shoot his own film. The well respected Lucien Ballard shot the film, but got into extensive disagreements with Kubrick when he refused to shoot the planned tracking shots with a 25 mm lens. Kubrick not only shot his previous films, but before that had a career as a photographer, so he knew what could be done with a camera, and eventually he won out. The result are some jarring images, that give the film its own original look. The wide angle lens keeps everything in focus, and the carefully wandering camera establishes the predominant visual style that would inhabit nearly all of Kubrick's future films.

Adding to the realism is a preference for natural light. Much of the apartment scenes are dark and shot with only one source of light. In one memorable encounter between George (Elisha Cook) and his wife Sherry (Marie Windsor) they have a fight with only a lamp lighting their faces from directly under them. The photographic effect is similar to the one of the illuminating mystery contents of the suitcase in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Natural light was used to great extent in future Kubrick films as well, most notoriously Barry Lyndon (1975). Here, along with the stock footage, narrator, and camera work, it helps add to an observatory feel to the film. Even the music helps to add some sense of realism. Scenes shot in apartments have a jazz score that sounds as if its coming from a radio, whereas the scenes outside and at the racetrack have more of a professional movie score tone to them. The contrast in music is a vital component to the feel of the picture.

The structure of the film is nothing new to modern audiences who have generally grown accustomed to seeing scenes from different characters points of view, but watching The Killing you get a different sense of things. Not a lot does repeat, and the story does have a fairly linear progression. It is primarily through sound that the elliptical nature hits us. We hear about the horse being shot over a radio, after we have witnessed Nikki (Tim Carey) shoot it. One line of dialogue is repeated when Kola (Maurice Oboukhoff) is about to start his distracting fight. We witness the fight in detail before we see where Johnny (Sterling Hayden) disappears to. When we hear the line repeat from Johnny's point of view we almost anticipate a second round. Kola's fight is one of the most entertaining scenes in the movie, and involves him having his shirt ripped off and a large display of wrestling moves. Oboukhoff was a non-professional actor that Kubrick met while playing chess. He is absolutely perfect for this role though and it winds up being one of the films many inspired pieces of casting. In fact everyone in the film is perfect in their roles, and perhaps the only downside is that some characters, particularly Fay (Coleen Gray) aren't on screen enough.

Overshadowing Jonny and Fay, are George and Sherry. Kubrick is much better at showing a couple at odds than one in love, and its no surprise that he focuses his attention on these two very mismatched partners. Marie Windsor was a go-to girl for B-movies and film noir roles, and she is perfect here. From the moment we meet her we're convinced she's unfaithful, uncaring, and that she'll be the downfall of at least George. Their relationship is in shambles and its summed up when he asks for dinner.

"There's steak, asparagus, potatoes" - Sherry
"Well I don't smell anything" - George
"That's because you haven't gone far enough. They're down at the grocery store" - Sherry

With a woman like that, who doesn't work, won't cook, and doesn't look like she's ready or willing to have kids, you can't help but wonder why in hell's name they're together. George even asks her why she married him, and there is no answer. She found a dope, but he wasn't even wealthy. The love is all on George's side, and Elisha Cook is so damn good at being pathetic that we're instantly on his side although we can't help wanting to smack some damn sense into the poor bastard. His revenge against his double-crossing wife though remains possibly the films most rewarding moment.

Although certain censorship rules prevented anyone being shot and dying in the same shot, Kubrick's film is decidedly more graphic than most. For starters there's actually blood, and quite a bit of it. We don't see everyone get shot, but in a great subjective POV shot of George we see the pile of bodies as he leaves the apartment. When we see George his face is covered in blood and we sense he only has enough strength left over to get home and get even. In a wonderful bit of irony, Sherry says "It's not fair" as she drops to the ground. Even in death she can't realize what a lecherous tramp she is.

I don't want to talk about the ending for those who haven't seen it, but damn it if it isn't one of the funniest moments in Kubrick history. Everyone involved is dead, Nikki was shot by the black security guard, everyone else dies during the double-cross, and Kola was already paid. We're lead to believe Johnny has a clean slate, but again Hollywood ethics make us think he can't quite get away with it. When we hear the speech being made about checking the bag and not being able to take it on the plane, Kubrick is simply buying time. We know something is brewing. We're also shown a rather annoying old woman with a wimpy little poodle and at first we think this is just a grotesque Kubrick back character. Yet knowing Kubrick nothing is "just there", so we start doing the math. When Johnny agrees to have the suitcase taken away, we know that this set up will pay off. Then outside the dog runs away, the baggage driver swerves, and of all the suitcases, Johnny's (which he double checked the locks when he packed it) is the only one that falls and opens. In the blink of an eye all the money seems to evaporate. Looking at Hayden's face afterwards we see a comical look of absolute devastation. When the guards come to apprehend him we know he doesn't care, he lost and we can't help chuckle that after all that planning and meticulous detail, this is how it all goes to hell. I could probably watch that last scene over and over again and never get tired of it, but then again I say that about nearly all of Kubrick's films. A first rate work from a director who would spend the next several decades building a reputation as the greatest filmmaker of all time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - The Shining

Not too long ago someone came over and suggested we watch a movie. While browsing the seemingly endless pile of foreign films that most normal people have never heard of this friend said "I like scary movies". I mentioned that The Shining was by far the best, and when this friend admitted to never having seen it, the case was settled. The Shining was for years an annual stop in the Halloween season. The film is cold, it is winter on film, and more than just some spook show the picture is genuinely and literally "chilly". It is a blatant genre picture and one that doesn't try in the least to re-write the book on horror. Instead it plays into the genre conventions and cliches, but does it so beautifully. Kubrick is beating them at their own game, on their terms. A big budget studio picture, still made with his complete privacy and control, it takes everything that had culminated in independent horror since Night of the Living Dead and made a polished and perfected masterpiece of the genre.
Some things however had to be done. The story is a somewhat lengthy one, at least in terms of horror films. People who put in a "scary movie" expect to be shocked and jumping within moments otherwise they'll lose interest. The same can be said for Westerns, and therefore the staple of the first scene shoot out became standard. Here however Kubrick doesn't go for the throat at the beginning. Instead he attempts to captivate us with some of the most awe inspiring scenic photography yet captured on film. The camera literally flies through the air in these scenes scaling mountains, penetrating fog, and endlessly winding roads. John Alcott is the man responsible for the photography, and I will go down to say that never in film has a photographer gotten so much out of a steadicam. Kubrick was known for his perfectly balanced compositions and exquisite tracking shots (after all he was a photographer himself), but Alctott takes the bar just one step higher here, using the still new Arriflex camera.
Setting up suspense is usually crucial in horror films. Frequently this done with music, and Kubrick returned to Wendy Carlos whose synthesized Beethoven made the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange so memorable. He borrows from plenty of other composers, but it is this early music that is most distinct, and helps to propel the film. Kubrick takes care early on to balance his frame in threes. During the interview, Jack is seated to the left and two distinctions are made. First of all, he is a little "Left of center" and would make great sense as to why he's not on the manager's right. The second distinction comes from makeup. A perfectionist like Kubrick would have noticed this and fixed it immediately, but there is a piece of hair sticking up in the back of Nicholson's head throughout the scene, and is visible through each perspective of the camera. His slightly askew hair is subliminally planting in our minds the fact that he is not completely put together. These two devices are used without even drawing attention to them, but it prepares us for what's to come.
Another comment that might seem ironic is made on the trip up to the hotel with the family. While riding Wendy (Shelly Duvall) asks if this is where the Donner party got snowed in. Jack then tells the story of the Donner's and what they had to do to survive (ate each other for those unaware), classic foreshadowing. Danny then says "I know all about cannibals, I saw it on the TV". Jack's tone is condescending and something to note "Its alright, he saw it on the television", taking care to annunciate each syllable. TV pops up a few times in the film, and every time it is Wendy or Danny watching it. She watches the news, he watches cartoons, they watch a western, and Dick also watches the news, which I'll get to later. The point however is that Jack never once is seen watching a TV or even occupying the same room as a television. There are a few reasons for this. First of all he's a literary person. He adopts the attitude that television is responsible for the death of literacy, at least in his tone to Danny learning from TV rather than a book about cannibalism. Second, Jack is not from this time. The film goes to elaborate on why he's "always been the caretaker". The last shot of the film shows him at the 4th of July Party in 1921, and in case someone needs a history book, this is several decades before the TV was even invented. So of course he's not going to be near a TV, and the details lead us to believe he almost never has. Also extremely important to mention is the aspect ratio of the film. Like Full Metal Jacket after it, The Shining was intentionally shot in an aspect ratio already formatted to fit TV. So it seems ironic then that once Jack has freely given into madness he arrives with the line "Here's Johnny", a line which did not appear in King's book.
Now the connection between Dick and Wendy both watching the news might seem at first a practical choice. There is a storm raging, and naturally they need to know. In addition we the audience have to understand the severity of the weather as it plays a huge roll in the plot. Kubrick however sets up the nature of the beast earlier during the interview when Jack is told why the hotel is closed at all during the skiing season. So the connection here is that Wendy and Dick share a bond. Obviously Danny and Dick are connected through their shining, but the connection with Wendy has to be implied rather than made explicit. This is when Kubrick returns to the source material. No mention is made of it in the film, but in the novel when Dick is explaining to Danny the gift, he mentions that all mothers have it, at least a little of it. So this is in my opinion the reason why Wendy and Dick are both watching the news, because after all, Kubrick needed not be so obvious with the weather, especially from Dick's perspective.
Now to keep us slightly entertained and awake Kubrick gives us a few flashes of what's to come. A couple of premonitions that unfortunately have been so absorbed into popular culture that they may be forever lost on new audiences. This sets up the pattern of numbers once more. Now instead of three, the emphasis is on two. The blood pours through the elevator where two elevators are framed, and flashes of Grady's two daughters filter in throughout. However the 3 is always present. The Torrance family has been in Boulder for 3 months, there are three members of the family, Grady kills 3 people in his family, Danny rides a tricycle, and for added effect Jack quotes The Three Little Pigs as he's about to chop down the bathroom door. That scenes' triple motif is repeated as Jack uses three cliches "Wendy I'm home", "Here's Johnny", and the aforementioned 3 Little Pigs. Jack enters the Gold Room three times, once during the tour, once when he effectively sells his soul for a drink, and the final when the room is populated by the ghosts of the hotel.
Just as the number three is associated with Jack, two seems to have Wendy's name all over it. She repels Jack's attacks twice, once with a bat and the other with a knife. During the first encounter on the stairs she strikes Jack twice. She attempts to radio twice, and is the object of Jack's scorning twice at the hands of his writing. She belittles him saying that "It's just getting into the habit of writing again", and then later when Jack openly tells her to stay out of the room, in which he again says things in triplicate "Whether you hear me typing, or not typing, or whatever the fuck you hear me doing that means I'm working". So of course Wendy is left with just Danny. In the end you can say two's company, three's a crowd. Jack is dead to them, and when Dick attempted to usurp his place, he was dealt with in the "harshest way possible". Danny also has his own little double motifs, having the two part visions, and of course two personalities his and Tony's. Danny also is seen in the maze twice, once with Wendy and the second time running from Jack, where he winds up outwitting him.
It is after the first attack that the film marks a very clear change. The ghosts of the hotel have appeared already, Danny's seen them, and encountered them. Jack has the run in with the lady from the bathtub in 237, he meets Lloyd, and Delbert Grady (again three for Jack). However he is the only one who bears a direct encounter with these spirits. Danny claims to be attacked by the woman in 237, and we assume he has, but we haven't seen it. We see her through Jack's eyes, and this sets up the contrast. Kubrick is remaining ambiguous at this point in time to judge whether or not Jack is going crazy, or these spirits are real. The deciding factor is after Wendy locks him in the storage pantry. He gets out because Grady unbolts the door, which he heard and saw Wendy lock. There is no way out from inside the room, so it is at this point that Kubrick is declaring that these spirits are indeed real. I find it confusing and even dumb that the reference to the hotel being built on ancient Indian burial grounds is in the story. This was an element from King's novel, and serves as a retardedly obvious reference to future disaster later, although not as obvious as Poltergeist. The confusion lies in the particular spirits, none of which bearing any resemblance to Native Americans, literally all the ghosts are white. It is ironic that in the British cut of the film all the previous references to Grady were removed, yet the line about the burial ground stayed in, a point far less crucial to the story.
It is also after this transformation that Wendy starts to have her own revelations. It is odd that Kubrick did not keep the books ending which involved the hotel destroying itself. As the spooks begin to run wild and one mutilated unexplained victim says "Great party isn't it?" you feel that everything is culminating. The lobby is populated with spiderwebs and skeletons, Wendy even sees the elevator of blood, and hears the music coming from the Gold Room. This is all building up to a final takeover by the hotel, but in Kubrick's version, the Overlook is simply content with evicting its tenants rather than returning to the soil. Wisely however Kubrick avoids the epilogue involving Danny and Wendy removed from the Overlook. We see them get away, and the film has a much more potent ending with that photograph of the 4th of July Ball. I had a slight resentment for the book when it didn't end with the destruction of the hotel, but continued on for a few more seemingly unnecessary pages. Kubrick's film all told probably has about 4 or 5 different versions circulated at one point, the current and supposedly definitive being the 142 minute US cut. The original cut was apparently 146, and included a scene at the end of Danny and Wendy being congratulated by the hotel manager on having survived the ordeal. As it stands, The Shining is the supreme accomplishment that the horror genre has offered.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Stanley Kubrick - Full Metal Jacket

Over the next few days and weeks I'll be posting some of my more extensive reviews on Stanley Kubrick's films. Rather than saturate the blog with all of them, I'll go little by little. Since the 80s are the next decade for my film list, this outta wet your appetite a bit.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

From the sounds of Johnnie Wright’s “Hello Vietnam” a page seems to be changing for Stanley Kubrick. Gone are the sinister synth sounds of Wendy Carlos or well known classical compositions, in it’s place is a timely pop song, albeit an ironic one. We instantly know two things, these men getting their heads shaved are going in for basic training, and the song on the soundtrack is letting us know where these recruits will be going upon graduation, if they graduate at all. We’re not aware at the time but these people getting their heads shaved will make up the main characters for the next 60 minutes or so, and in one case the entire film. Thanks to the music and the displaced looks on everyone’s face (Vincent D’Onofrio is priceless in this opening scene) we start off with a bit of a bang, but oh what follows next.

After hearing a pop song and a near montage of heads shaved, it scarcely seems like a Kubrick film. The next scene however helps to change that. We meet Gunnery Sgt. Hartman played by real life marine and former drill instructor Lee Ermey. He introduces the men to the hell they will face for the next several weeks (boot camp was shortened from 12 weeks to 8 during the war). As that great wide angle image and steadicam roams around the barracks while the Senior Drill Instructor provides enough quotable dialogue and highlights to last the entire film. Drawing from his own experience Ermey apparently ad-libbed most of that dialogue, which makes the reactions of the recruits all the more believable. It’s hard for us not to laugh at what he’s saying, but after choking out Leonard Lawrence (D’Onofrio) who he renames “Pyle” we see for the first time this is no comedy.

The fact that Ermey has made a career of playing military men and even supplying the voice of Sarge in the Toy Story films says something of the impression he made here. Truth be told though this wasn’t his first film, and not even his first time playing a drill instructor. He first appeared as Staff Sgt. Loyce in The Boys in Company “C” back in 1978. He was retired from the service for medical reasons in 1972 with the rank of E-6 (Staff Sgt.), although in May of 2002 the USMC gave him an honorary post service promotion to E-7 which is the rank he has in Full Metal Jacket. I suppose it’s yet another testimony to this film. He was originally hired as the film’s technical advisor, but asked Kubrick to audition for the role of the Senior Drill Instructor. After being turned down, he made a tape of himself insulting marines while being pelted with fruit and he went on for 15 minutes without repeating himself or flinching, afterwards Kubrick knew he had his Hartman.

Truth be told though there is no film in the world that marines love more than Full Metal Jacket. Mark my words there probably isn’t a marine out there who hasn’t seen this film within one month of completing basic training, in fact it’s unofficially considered part of basic training. With the exception of the beatings (which had long since been outlawed), this is still as accurate a depiction of life in boot camp as there has been on film. Nearly every former marine can relate to Gunny Hartman, and nearly every DI has probably taken some inspiration from him. I would say however that it is a common practice to stop the film after the first half concludes.

The nicknames handed out during this opening sequence “Cowboy, Snowball, Joker, Pyle” are all archetypes. These are types of recruits and nearly every platoon has someone to fill these roles. Matthew Modine takes to the Joker role quite well, one of the only people in this film whose penchant for speaking the truth gets him into all levels of hot water. The story has it Anthony Michael Hall was Kubrick’s first choice but negotiations fell through. Pyle is the punching bag of the platoon, the one guy that always makes life harder for everyone else. Someone who just can’t seem to get anything right. He’s overweight and has no common sense whatsoever, to the point where we even wonder whether or not he might not be mentally retarded. There are always a few people who snap or “can’t hack it” and he clearly is one of them. In today’s Marine Corps he would have been shipped to PCP (Physical Conditioning Platoon) probably immediately where he would have stayed until he could at least do two pull ups, but this is Vietnam and they needed bodies. There is a brief ray of hope for Pyle because he excels in arguably the most important thing for a marine, the rifle range. Marines have always set higher standards for their shooting ability and before these marines get to fire Hartman tells them about Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald and praises these men for their marksmanship they learned in the USMC.

Slowly but surely Kubrick begins to build to something with Pyle. Rather than show him as a constant boob and our comic relief we see his actions directly affect his platoon. Everyone else starts to get punished for his screw-ups. It is only after he makes the idiotic mistake of leaving his foot locker unlocked does the Senior Drill Instructor find the jelly donut he took from the mess hall. This is when the film really starts to change from a bit of comedy to a much more serious picture. He had hinted earlier during the choking scene, but here we see Pyle in tears watching his platoon paying for his screw up. I don’t care who you are, but its hard not to feel something here. Shortly after that we see it happen again (for a different unexplained mistake) and then at night Pyle is the victim of a blanket party, something that believe me is a last resort for fellow recruits. There is a clear break in his psyche. Although after this we see him excel at the rifle range, there’s clearly something that snapped in him, most likely after Joker (his one remaining friend) takes the last swing at him and even takes a few more for good measure.

Pyle is talking to his rifle and although in the eyes of Hartman he might be finally be “squared away”, there clearly is something amiss. It is the policy of the Marine Corps to turn men into killers, but this dehumanization doesn’t always have a positive effect. This level of conditioning might help the more normally adjusted recruits, but for Pyle his alienation is starting to crack. On the last night on Paris Island he is up after hours. Joker finds him in the head while on fire watch. Pyle is sitting with his rifle as he’s loading a magazine. He officially “snaps” killing Hartman who mistakenly tries his tough DI approach to talk him down, and then blowing his own brains out. This is something of a self contained movie coming to an end and you may wonder if Kubrick can top it in the second half, and the answer is no.

I’ll refrain from being a dork and pointing out the problems with Pyle killing himself, however the point is clear, and what are films without a little suspension of disbelief. Feel free to email me if you want to hear factual reasons why this couldn’t happen, or at least couldn’t happen the way it did in the film. The second half of the film opens similar to the first, because we hear a pop song, this time Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” as a Vietnamese hooker walks up to Joker and his buddy Rafter Man (Kevyn Major Howard). There is a humorous exchange as they barter prices before agreeing on $10 for “Everytin’ you want”. If this sounds familiar it’s because it’s sampled in 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny”.

These two work for Stars and Stripes, Joker the journalist and Rafter Man the combat photographer. In an ongoing joke every time they introduce themselves nearly every soldier and officer perks up, making sure they get their names straight, and everyone saying “They’ll make you famous”. When Joker and Rafter Man are sent to Phu Bai, Joker gets wind that Cowboy’s unit is close by. They meet up and after a reunion they tag along with his outfit. After the squad leader is killed, Cowboy takes command. During a patrol they get lost amongst rubble where they run into a sniper whose cutting them down from a distance. The rest of the film is concerned with capturing the sniper and it isn’t until Joker is face to face with her that he finally learns about killing. Training has made him into a machine that kills, but war is always killing from a distance, the way the sniper kills Cowboy, as well as wounding and killing several other members of the patrol. Even when Rafter Man shoots the sniper, it is from a distance.

With Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) in charge he would rather leave the dying sniper lying in her own blood after what she did to their patrol, and it‘s not hard to see it his way here. There is no humanity on his part, there isn’t even a recognition of the Vietnamese as real people. His character is revealed earlier as being a little off his rocker (perhaps a hardened version of what Pyle could have become), and after going first with a Vietnamese hooker he (jokingly we hope) tells the black soldier he took her from “All niggers must hang”. It can’t seem too surprising then that he would want this “gook” to sit there and suffer after she’s begging for death. Even as it is a mercy killing Joker can barely bring himself to finish the job. It’s one thing to shoot at someone whose shooting at you, but to shoot someone point blank is something else entirely and we are confronted with the long thought lost “human element” of killing. Joker finishes the job where the squad congratulates him with the phrase “Hard core man, fucking hard core.” It’s clear from the look on Joker’s face that things won’t be the same. He does however say one bit of wisdom:

“The dead only know one thing, it is better to be alive.”

The script was written by Kubrick along with Michael Herr and Gustav Hasford whose novel The Short-Timers is what the film was based on. Kubrick for very practical reasons changed the title to Full Metal Jacket after supposedly seeing the phrase in a gun catalog. The men scarcely met up, instead doing most of their work over the phone, and after one face to face meeting with Hasford he was no longer used on the project. The film doesn’t look like any other Vietnam film for two main reasons. One is Stanley Kubrick made it which inevitably will give it a different look. This was his first time working with Douglas Milsome as cinematographer who did an admirable job, but nowhere near as exceptional as John Alcott who had shot Kubrick’s previous four features but suffered a heart attack in July of 1986. The other reason the film might not look like any other Vietnam film is because it wasn’t shot in Vietnam. In fact it wasn’t even shot at a place that looked like Vietnam, it was shot in England and I think this was a bad choice for Kubrick. We never really feel we’re “in the shit” so to speak because we’re in merry old England. Although after the last several decades of self imposed exile, you can’t be too surprised Kubrick had no intention of leaving his adopted homeland even for authenticities’ sake.

Overall though the film is still a success. It’s not an anti-war film in any traditional sense, more a psychological examination of the theory of killing vs. the practice. Half the film divided into essentially the theory when everyone is being trained to kill. The second half takes us there but even in this segment we feel isolated from killing until very late in the second half. When the VC attack Joker’s base they are in bunkers with machine guns shooting at the enemy, and it’s at night. There is no face to face encounter, they are again killing at a distance, and killing the “enemy” not a person, there is no face to these VC. When we see Cowboy shot in slow motion the death starts to hit us. He used slow motion earlier when Hartman was shot, and this tactic makes these deaths stick in our mind, just as the sniper turns in slow motion to confront Joker right before she is shot down. Only then does death really get a face, and not surprisingly that face is a woman.