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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."
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