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Questioning Reality in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket
Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket could be called a very realistic film.  But this realism is not achieved by showing events as they happened.  The film creates a very disturbing and "real" picture of the Vietnam War not through historical accuracy or sensitive treatment of characters, but by presenting a compilation of  situations that spanned an entire war as if they were the experiences of one set of recruits.  Visually and narratively, the film goes to extremes to dramatize Kubrick's idea of the Vietnam experience - a necessarily subjective and "unreal" representation.  The film delves into surrealism, sometimes by showing  something that is straightforwardly bogus, and sometimes by showing so many realistic events in a row that they can't be "real". 
    The filming and editing take the place of plot and character, creating a stark, but effective Vietnam War narrative.  Full Metal Jacket calls attention to realism as a convention; that it is a representation rather than a reality.  Open acknowledgement of its "fakeness" is the key to its believability.  By admitting that Full Metal Jacket is not real through filmic devices, by creating obviously surreal images, Kubrick allows for different interpretations of his film and points out that Vietnam was a different story for everyone.  The film approaches reality by questioning and reconstructing it for expository purposes.  It is a self-conscious movie.  The film is never so serious that it becomes a sermon on the horrors of war, but it still gives the viewer plenty of reasons to think that war is horrible.
    Full Metal Jacket stands apart from other war films because it presents the viewer with the bits they never get to see, while at the same time ignoring many things that other films have already overdramatized.  The film is almost entirely comprised of what might be out takes of other war films.  "Normal" war films generally have a diverse cast of characters--from the tough New Yorker to the wide-eyed boy from Iowa.  The impact of the war is measured in terms of how these characters change to accommodate their surroundings.  In Full Metal jacket there is no heart-wrenching personal saga. There are no full-blown characters.  The Marines are just that, Marines--not people.  In a more conventional film, the Marines might be people in the beginning and anonymous killers by the end.  In Full Metal Jacket the Marines are anonymous "turds" in the beginning and anonymous killers in the end.  And the viewer gets to see the transformation from anonymous turd to killer because the film starts in boot camp rather than in the field.  The film begins at the beginning, rather than the middle - the first suggestion that the viewer is getting the "real story".
    Instead of mere close-ups of tense faces and fatigued bodies accompanied by grunts and wheezing, Kubrick uses repetition of physical activities to indicate the endurance needed to make it through boot camp.  The boot camp segment of the film relentlessly cuts from one activity to another, allowing little time for reflection.  This cutting from one kinetic scene to the next vividly illustrates the harshness of boot camp and avoids the need to reveal the information in more obvious terms.  Very little is said about boot camp--it is almost all visual.  The scenes are often questionably plausible, but they are believable because of the emotional impact they carry (and the necessary suspension of disbelief the viewer brings to the film).
    The scenes in the barracks and on the training fields are comprised almost entirely of closed shots.  The shots are so carefully closed at times that without context or sound, they might seem humorous.  The men are rarely seen outside of rows, columns, and circles.  This is a typical convention for conveying a sense of isolation and subjugation, but Kubrick uses the convention more specifically.  Kubrick uses the rows and columns to stress order and obedience, subsets of isolation and subjugation, but he also uses the convention to stress the unity of the platoon.  There are very few pwesonalizing close ups, where and individual's tiol is illustrated.  When he does use the closed shots to illustrate isolation and fear, it is directed at Private Pyle. 
    Private Pyle, a dimwitted recruit who used to be called Lawrence, is usually the spectacle of these closed boot camp shots.  Often the frame will be closed on one side by a row of men, and on the other by Pyle in an embarrassing position he is forced to assume.  In the center of the frame is generally the object of the day's instruction, but the fact that Pyle is separated visually from his platoon is unavoidable.  In one scene he has left his footlocker unlocked during an inspection, and the drill instructor finds a jelly doughnut inside.  Up to this point in the film, private Pyle's weight and intelligence have been mocked and exploited to scare the other recruits, and this scene takes the scenario over the top. 
    Whereas Pyle is usually marginalized by the mise en scene-- set off to one side--here he is made the center of attention.  The mise en scene consists of support columns, rows of bunks, and Marines in perfect formation leading from the foreground to the background of the frame.  Private Pyle, who has been called out for his negligence and overeating, is standing in the center of the frame surrounded by his belongings which are scattered on the floor.  The only disorder in the whole shot is Pyle.  He already stands out because of his stupidity and obesity, but here he is placed under a harsh light in the top center of the frame and above his platoon who are on their chests doing pushups--penance for not giving Pyle "the proper motivation".  Narratively, this is not unusual, the idea of someone having an example made of them in boot camp is not new.  Visually, however, the scene looks like a crucifixion-with Pyle as the martyr with a fluorescent barracks light halo.  Pyle is set apart from his platoon in an absurd and suggestive manner, indicating that individuality is undesirable in the Marine Corps.  Instead of internal monologues, or "letters home", the film uses images that signify his isolation. Were Private Pyle not the only "human" character in the film, the shot might look pretentious--like it was trying too hard to make a statement.  But the viewer's sympathy for him keeps the visual message grounded in reality.


    The recruits graduate from Paris Island and most of them go to Vietnam.  Waiting until half way through the film to get to the war, Kubrick makes the point that the actual combat is only part of the story of the men who were drafted for this "Police Action."
    Vietnam is just as surreal as Paris Island.  And it is just as powerfully realistic in its emotional message.  The opening Vietnam segments show prostitutes and thieves--a society in ruins.  But there is no audio commentary, just images.  The stark baseness to which Vietnamese society has been pummeled is illustrated by an unbelievable string of everyday events.  Like the boot camp sequences where one physical activity is cut directly into another to make the experience seem relentless, the Vietnam sequences are also strings of real events that seem unreal because they can't possibly all happen to one person all in a row.  There is little cross-cutting--the film generally follows a person or a group through a routine and includes events that surely happened to different people at different times in different places as if they were the story of the group or person it is following.
    As the Vietnam sequences progress, they become more formalistic.  At one point, the reality that the film is portraying is completely subverted by the editing and filming techniques.  The platoon the camera is following has entered Hue city and has cleared out the first line of enemy defenses.  Then the film goes into a sequence that is cut to continuity -- A sudden thematic montage with a rock and roll song on the soundtrack.  Vietnam was a war, not a rock video, but this sequence of shots feels every bit as "real" as the longer takes where the viewer is privy to every action and dialogue. 
    The sequence starts out as a continuity segment, and the cuts are used for brevity in an expository narrative, but it gets looser as it goes on.  Whereas it starts out very descriptive, by showing evacuation helicopters and men setting up a front line, smoke and fire billowing and crackling from recently-evacuated domiciles, dirty human beings living in the mud and filth,  it ends up questioning its own authenticity. 
    After showing the helicopters fly off into the distance, the film cuts to a film crew in a lyrical dance to a rock soundtrack. They are doing a manual tracking shot of the Marines, while the lens the viewer sees them through is doing a more professional tracking shot of the whole scene--including shots where the other film crew is obscured by diagetically "real" objects:  Marines carrying litters, tanks shooting at the enemy, etc.  As the camera passes the platoon, each member makes a quip in turn, as if they were scripted.  This device could be used to heighten the authenticity of the movie in that it would give a sense of omniscience, but Kubrick forces the significance of a movie within a movie into the foreground.  The fact that the Marines seem scripted points out the fact that they are, but for a different camera than the one they seem to be addressing. 
    Which view is the "real" one?  I think that the question, rather than the answer, is the point.  And to make it more difficult to answer the question, Kubric complicates matters.  After the tracking shot within a tracking shot, the film cuts to a POV shot from two corpses with the platoon standing over them giving their eulogies.  It is unlikely that the dead Marines are seeing this, and rather than giving the film a supernatural twist, the scene enhances the reality of death by making it impossible to ignore.  The viewer sees through the eyes of two dead men.
    Then the film cuts back to the combat film crew setting up for a take.  In fact, one of them says "Hue city interviews, take one".  Then there is a cut to the men of the platoon answering questions that were asked off screen. 
    Full Metal Jacket suddenly becomes a cinema verite documentary, and it is difficult to say which camera's lens is giving the viewer this information.  The camera-within-a-camera collapses into one image.  The point of view of the whole film is obscured by the fact that the film has become something new--an image of what the finished newsreel of the Marines would look like back home.  But the film is still ostensibly taking place in Vietnam.  The verite technique of this documentary sequence is used to enhance realism, but its juxtaposition within the film as a whole is surreal.  The images are not ones that the Marines would see, nor do they have anything to do with the combat action at hand.  Kubrick is showing the viewer something that looks very real, uses "realistic" conventions, asks how "real" those images would look to a "real" audience during the actual war, but he delivers it in a very surreal manner.  The film steps across temporal and spatial borders for this sequence, suggesting the confusion of the war to its participants and spectators alike.
    Full Metal jacket presents a vision of the U.S. war in Vietnam that is stunningly realistic while at the same time suggestively surrealistic.  By encompassing many stories, by making them one rather than cutting from one to another, Kubrick at once admits that his is a fictional tale while at the same time suggesting that it is real.  The reality of Full Metal Jacket is its surreality.  The U.S. war in Vietnam is a surreal story--metaphorical, metaphysical, temporally and spatially suspect--baffling and horrifying.  Kubrick has captured this mystery by creating a holistic tale, believable because it is a highly stylized, formalistic film. 

 Copyright  Zane Phipps.  All Rights Reserved.


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