KUBRICK AS REPORTER--DISTANCED DOCU-FICTION
Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” is shot through with a surgical sense of observation. Good documentary film makers have that sense, and it’s no accident that Kubrick learned his craft making short non-fiction works on boxing (“Day of the Fight”), a New Mexican priest (“Flying Padre”) and men of the sea (“The Seafarers”). In an earlier era, he would have made a fine reporter.
But Kubrick is proof of the notion that if reporters are doing their job they’re bound to make their share of enemies.
Like a reporter, Kubrick doesn’t make up his stories; he conducts a painstaking search of novels to find them, then adapts them to his own ends. (Far from what the mythology about the director suggests, it is this search, rather than epic production schedules, that account for a typical Kubrick movie’s long gestation period. The search for the idea for “Full Metal Jacket,” for instance, took three years; actual filming took nine months.)
“Full Metal” co-screenwriter and associate producer Michael Herr, himself a prodigiously powerful journalist (“Dispatches”), related to this writer how, after a spring 1980 screening of “The Shining,” Kubrick asked him to accompany the director on a long walk. He wanted to make a Vietnam war film, Herr said, but “with no attitudes about it.”
What Kubrick was perhaps thinking of was the liberal attitude of “Coming Home,” the macho-mythical attitude of “Apocalypse Now” and the neo-conservative attitude of “The Deer Hunter.” Their sources were clear, conveying a reluctance to face Vietnam head on (this was six years before “Platoon”). But how to film any Vietnam story without an attitude? What did that really mean?
Certainly “Paths of Glory” had projected an unmistakable attitude. In a sense, Kubrick is taking a 30-year full circle from this 1957 film, which, like “Full Metal Jacket,” is about field soldiers trapped in an absurd war. But its central subject was the inescapable injustice of war as practiced by the French military elite against their own troops, court-martialed and shot for failing to complete insane orders. The Germans, invisible behind a distant trench, weren’t the real enemy. “Paths of Glory” depicted the deadly logical chess game of class warfare.
Liberal was the term attached to Kubrick then. Whether his unfilmed script of Col. Robert Moseby’s Civil War rangers would have extended that view is unknown; “Spartacus,” for whom Kubrick was hired by star/executive producer Kirk Douglas, did that job instead. Never mind that Kubrick had no real creative control over the film. Never mind that ex-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo’s script was altered and darkened by the director to deemphasize Spartacus as People’s Liberator and accent the idea of a doomed military campaign. People thought they had Kubrick pegged.
“I’m fascinated by soldiers and criminals. Neither takes life as it is.” That’s Kubrick, and you can hear the sense of doom in his words, voiced years before “Dr. Strangelove.” Even in his subsequent films not specifically about warfare, like “2001" and “Barry Lyndon,” his astronauts and English and Prussian troops march obediently toward certain surprise and death. But the view of pathetic soldiers crawling through no man’s land had expanded: There was no one in particular to point the finger at.
No one in particular to embrace, either. And this is where Kubrick encounters his enemies. “Full Metal Jacket” is the latest, and perhaps most extreme, entry in a line of Kubrick films deliberately drained of sympathetic characters (or, in the case of “A Clockwork Orange,” characters you’d want to identify with). They are filled, instead, with the documentarian’s observational advantages of distance, commentary and overview, and the techniques to make an audience see things his way.
The techniques are what Bertolt Brecht called Verfremdungseffekte-- effects to alienate an audience, not from life, but from the cliches of entertainment. Both Brecht and Kubrick cause discomfort because they ask us to identify with the observer, rather than the observed. Brecht, though, never risked a king’s ransom for his experiments. Making movies costing in the $15-to-$25-million range and at loggerheads with Hollywood conventions, as Kubrick does, is a risk of extraordinary nerve.
The Vietnam novel that finally caught Kubrick’s eye, Gustav Hasford’s “The Short Timers,” pointed at, and embraced, no one. And in a piece of remarkable coincidence (considering that walk with Herr back in 1980), it was, like “Dispatches,” a book--about a reporter by a reporter--that detailed the terrors of the 1968 Tet offensive, Hue and Khe Sanh. (Matthew Modine plays the reporter, Private Joker, a correspondent for the military’s Stars and Stripes newspaper.) Herr had been there, and with previous movie experience on “Apocalypse Now,” he was a natural collaborator for the film maker.
The most indelible Vietnam reports in our memory, though, aren’t in writting, but on film. Think of the photo of the napalmed little girl running naked down a road or John Olson’s Dante-esque Life magazine shots of Hue in rubble. The last made one understand the unintended irony of an American commander’s statement: “We had to destroy the town in order to save it.” This is the kind of weird comic/horror world in which “The Short Timers” dwells.
But it’s observed, dispassionate comic/horror. Only a cool, laconic eye could have recognized that many Marines had both great respect for the fighting skills of the North Vietnamese Army and mocking disrepect for the South Vietnamese troops. In “Full Metal Jacket,” Kubrick constructs a segment in which a documentary film crew films platoon members on their views of the war. Animal Mother (played by Adam Baldwin) says: “I think we’re killing the wrong gooks.”
In one of the book’s oddest scenes, Marine grunts cheer on a lone NVA soldier fighting an entire enemy regiment. Interestingly, that’s not in the movie, although it’s written with the distanced view that Brecht, or Kubrick, would admire. Considering the sources, “Full Metal Jacket” is as notable for what’s not in it as for what is. (People leaving the theaters have been overheard to be mystified at the absence of those Vietnam icons, drugs and napalm.) Hasford had a tank blow up a whole Hue city block to save the platoon during a critical juncture in the story. Kubrick, outdoing Hasford for dramatic ruthlessness, prevents the tank from appearing. Khe Sanh is gone. Whole, very violent episodes are gone.
The reasoning behind what is in the film lies in Kubrick’s past work. Why, some puzzled viewers have wondered, that documentary crew? It’s the movie’s invention, and before the sequence is over, you get the sense that it’s a kind of signpost for the rest of the story, brought to you by an old hand at documentaries. But it’s an offputting signpost, since we know these are actors and that’s not a real film crew. Alienating. Rather than just a film within a film, this is a documentary within a docu-fiction.
A docu-fiction, though, with a jittery TV feel. Since “Paths of Glory,” Kubrick has always shot his battle scenes with a “You-Are-There” quality, and “Full Metal Jacket” reminds that Vietnam was the Living Room War. On network TV, it looked like such a terrific movie. (Cowboy, Arliss Howard, the platoon’s leader, comments to the crew how the Hue battle looks like the kind of battle he had expected before coming to Vietnam. He’s a kid fed on “Kraut-killing” war movies and “Combat” episodes.)
And why does the movie dwell so long--a third of its running time--on basic training and Gunnery Sgt. Hartman’s (Lee Ermey) galvanic, fantastically profane methods of psycho-terror? His job is not only to turn teen-agers into killing machines, but to also separate them from their familial and sexual pasts. It comes together when these boys, on command, jump into their bunks, shout out “The Rifleman’s Creed” and go to sleep caressing their guns. Something is going on here.
Nobody is walking out of “Full Metal” laughing. (A lot of them are walking out arguing, like Siskel and Ebert.) The film darkly suggests a subconscious but powerful psychosis that warps everything in sight: boys become undersized warriors, fathers become nurturers of blood, women become objects. The unnerving feeling the film projects is that Vietnam was a grotesque and futile game in sexual warfare.
“Strangelove’s” images of plane refueling as airborne coitus and its plot points obsessed with sexual impotence and depravity (Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s fear of Communist-inspired water fluoridation, Dr. Strangelove’s fantasy of a post-holocaust world filled with women) cued viewers that it was as much about sex as about nuclear war. Kubrick’s first war film, “Fear and Desire,” hinged on a soldier’s ultimately impotent assault on a young woman. “Paths of Glory” ends with soldiers initially taunting and abusing a German woman, then falling silent as she sings.
Kubrick films sex, but outside the bedroom. He films it in the places where people, especially men, would rather not look at it. Talk about alienating.
In the end, men with guns are a pretty silly lot. In “Full Metal Jacket,” they can bargain with hookers. But when women turn into snipers, the war is rudely yanked out of the living room. Kubrick’s new movie is a report filed from the front, the brutal, unsparing one they could never get on the evening news.
The Nu-Art Theatre continues its retrospective of Kubrick this week with “Paths of Glory” and “Barry Lyndon” on Wednesday and concluding with “Lolita” and “Dr. Strangelove” on Thursday.