Sunday, March 25, 2018

Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)

I suppose your assessment of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket depends largely on how you see the relationship between its two halves: the first set in a South Carolina training camp where a group of newly-recruited Marines are belittled and terrorized by their drill sergeant; the second following a couple of the characters to Vietnam, to be belittled and terrorized by the war itself. The first time I saw the film, the transition seemed jarring, but over time I’ve come to see it as validating the sergeant’s tactics as much as damning them. Of course his relentlessness makes them tougher, but Kubrick pushes the abuse into the realm of twisted poetry and mythmaking, into an exercise in fictionalizing oneself (no one ever gets called by their real name) and then wearing that fiction like a full metal jacket. If Matthew Modine’s character “Joker” copes best, it’s perhaps because of his head start on such a project with his dumb John Wayne impersonations and smart mouth. In Vietnam, working for the Stars and Stripes newspaper and chafing at its mediocre reporting values, he craves greater engagement, then gets a dose of it, and in his final voice over is retreating back to the imagined, to the world of the sergeant’s invented “Mary Jane Rottencrotch,” and thereby finding a measure of peace, even of satisfaction. Given time, he might retreat even further, maybe into a photograph as at the end of The Shining; the interiors in the first half of Full Metal Jacket often feels like it might have been shot in some of the back corridors of the Overlook Hotel, and the second half might just be taking place inside a more cunning and noisy metaphysical maze. Whether it’s an “anti-war” film seems somehow like the wrong question; any attempts even to engage with it – as in Joker’s simultaneous wearing of a peace symbol and a “Born to Kill” slogan on his helmet, explained as some kind of comment on the “duality of man” – seem draining and futile. As such, the film, even if it’s not one of Kubrick’s very best, is an astounding exercise in strangifying.

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