Full Metal Jacket
A Violent Maiuetics
Full Metal Jacket is an anomalous mix of the realistic and the artificial, as though director Stanley Kubrick wished to demand of his own life the minimum amount of hassle and the maximum amount of inconvenience for those around him. We could turn this consequently into an argument about a dictatorial director's insistent need for control, and we won't completely ignore the production history of the film in an attempt to understand an aspect of its intentions, but our main arena of interest here is seeing the film as part of a power trilogy that also includes A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In John Baxter's biography there is a photograph of the director that resembles a little the look of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, and Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick's head is looking down slightly while his eyes look up in a gaze almost identical to the characters in three of his last five films, and we might wish to explore what draws the films together in that aspect. Accompanying the image of Kubrick in Vincent LoBrutto's biography is a remark by his cinematographer on the film, Doug Millsome: "Stanley has a stare...which is very penetrating and frightens the hell out of you sometimes - I gather he's able to inject that into his actors as well." But what is this look? Why did Kubrick return to it with different actors in these three films; and is it the sort of look that demands freedom for oneself and captivity for others? There are numerous stories about Kubrick inconveniencing his actors and his crew for his own perfectionist ends, but rather than seeing this is as a reason for great admiration within a troublesome ethos, we can think of it as a consequence of drive, differentiating the will from the drive by suggesting that the former suggests a conscious human agency; the latter a more latent force that somehow manages to conjoin a life instinct with a death drive. It is perhaps when these two forces are working strongly in conjunction that existence exists, that the person is alive within death rather than merely alive within life. Kubrick suggests the Freudian here when saying "I suppose it comes down to a rather awesome awareness of mortality. Our ability, unlike the other animals, to conceptualize our own end creates tremendous psychic strains within us; whether we like to admit it or not, in each man's chest a tiny ferret of fear at this ultimate knowledge gnaws away at his ego and his sense of purpose." (Playboy)
This is echoed in Freud with interesting variations when the psychoanalyst says "to anyone that would listen to us we were of course prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes nature a death and must expect to pay the debt - in short, that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, however, we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise." Freud adds that it "is indeed impossible to imagine our own death, and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that at bottom no one believes in his own death, or, to put the same thing in another way, that in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of our immortality." Freud was writing this essay, 'Our Attitude Towards Death' during WWI and if any subject has preoccupied Kubrick it would be that of war. Of the thirteen films he directed five, Robert Philip Kolker believes in The Extraordinary Image, were war films: Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket. Kolker might be stretching a point, but let us stretch it further to allow it to retain its plausibility and suggest that almost all Kubrick's films are preoccupied with violence and death. What makes Kubrick more interesting than most in relation to these concerns, however, is that he doesn't see them within the context that many American filmmakers do: which is the rule of the gun and its subsequent eschewal towards civilization. Many great American directors have resolved this problem through two genres: the western and the gangster film - from John Ford to Martin Scorsese, from Sam Peckinpah to Francis Ford Coppola. The violence is either necessary at a period in history or aberrant in a person's psyche or milieu. These are some of the US's finest filmmakers, perhaps no less so than Kubrick, but none have quite so forcefully pursued the metaphysical problem of violence and death that can be encapsulated in the match cut of the bone that turns into a spaceship in 2001: the notion that violence is civilization. It is as though Kubrick understands better than most a Nietzschean question viewed through the prism of the violent; the eternal return that asks do we want this time without number, do we want it again and again? "I come again, with this Sun, with this Earth, with this Eagle, with this Serpent, not to a new Life, or a better Life, or an akin Life: I come again eternally to this identical and same Life, in the Greatest and also in the Smallest, that I will teach again then Eternal Return of all things..." (Thus Spake Zarathustra)
In Kubrick's films this greatest burden is often a will to power that cannot ignore violence, or better still a drive to power, so that while the western puts the violence into the past, and the gangster film sees the gun as a problem in the present, Kubrick's work muses over whether our very being is violent. A Clockwork Orange isn't just a cautionary tale wondering whether we need to accept that to be a fully rounded human being we have to acknowledge an aspect of the violent that manifests itself in certain individuals, and to bury that instinct is to destroy the teenage Alex, it is also suggesting that violence is our being's first principle: its reason to be. In The Shining, Jack Torrance writes over and over again "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" as he tries to work on his novel. But the writer's block he suffers is the failure of sublimation: the expression of glee manifests itself in hammering a ball off the wall. The camera pulls out from the typewriter and shows Jack in the distance throwing the ball in the huge foyer of the hotel. Like the writer in A Clockwork Orange who is in the middle of working away as Alex and his Droogs set upon him, Jack is a man for whom writing can never be a means of quiet creativity; violence is always shown to be part of it. In Full Metal Jacket a character talks about his duties as a writer for the press corps in Vietnam but says if he has to pick up a gun rather than the typewriter he will happily do so. As Freud says, "so powerful a prohibition [as killing] can only be directed against an equally powerful impulse. What no human would desire stands in no need of prohibition; it is excluded automatically. The very emphasis laid on 'though shalt not kill' makes it certain that we had the lust for killing in their blood, as we ourselves have today." ('Our Attitude Towards Death') If Kubrick is often seen as a cold filmmaker (a comment Kolker counters but cannot but acknowledge), it rests on this question. It is the gaze of a clinician of violence, someone who can see that aggression doesn't need to be knocked into us, it has to be discovered from the core of us.
This helps make sense of the first section of Full Metal Jacket when the chubby Private Pyle (D'Onofrio) turns psychotic and turns his gun against the drill sergeant and then against himself. The 'weak' don't become creative; they become ill, turning the violence that they cannot find in themselves to defend their ego in the world against themselves. Violence wins, but the person loses. Halfway through this first section the drill sergeant (Lee Ermey) talks about two killers Charles Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald. What they had in common was they were ace snipers and were trained by the marines. The camera slowly zooms in on Pyle in a shot commonly used in Barry Lyndon and The Shining but rarely adopted in Full Metal Jacket. It is the look we began with, one shared by Alex, Jack and Pyle with Kubrick himself, and within the diegesis can seem a bit clumsy - that Kubrick wants to foreshadow the madness and murderous instinct that will later be revealed. But it is also Kubrick offering a simple shot of foreshadowing, using his very own form for his very own metaphysical proposition. In this scene Pyle has paradoxically found his purpose: he might never regain any sense of personal unity as his psyche has clearly cracked, but he can achieve a very American form of credence: the man who can regain an aspect of power through putting others and himself at the end of a gun.
With another filmmaker this might merely indicate a problem with society, Kubrick generally suggests that this is a problem of man: the problem of his being in the world as a human being. Though Freud is right to note that the human being will do what he can to ignore the death that awaits him, man cannot ignore the consciousness of that fact as other animals would appear to. They do not as far as we know have consciousness of death that generates murderousness, merely survival. Yet the human with full awareness of its own demise has generated also innumerable killings that cannot pass merely for the need to preserve their own being. When we talk about being human it is usually within the context of possessing a special quality that means that we needn't act like animals, but Kubrick might be inclined to respond that to act like a human being fundamentally is to act far worse than an animal: to kill for reasons of self-preservation rather than merely survival. We differentiate survival from self-preservation to emphasize the self in the preservation. We aren't inclined to regard animals as selves; humans, on the other hand, are perceived as both a body and a mind, while an animal is more singular an organism. An article on BBC Earth concerning the question of animal suicide says "to say such behaviour does not constitute suicide requires a definition of what does. Suicide is commonly defined as "the action of killing oneself intentionally".We know that some animals kill themselves. The question is whether they intend to. The mother spider, for example, may behave this way to primarily provide food, not die. The mother bear may have acted unnaturally due to stress, not with the intent of killing her and her cub." This is not the place to question that assumption, but it would be a reasonable claim that the human's capacity to have both a perception of self and a body it wants to preserve creates a complex approach to violence that so often turns against others or against oneself.
In The Extraordinary Image, where Kolker writes on Kubrick, Welles and Hitchcock, Kolker says that "the question of our director's humanity has concerned me throughout this book", he is talking of humanity as a good thing, a positive value. We are suggesting that it is a rather more ambivalent thing, and few directors more than Kubrick work with that ambiguity. One reason we have a problem with the word humanity is it is a self-flattering term for a complex situation, if we accept that man is both identity and biology: a mechanism not only of survival but of ambition. It is this split self that Kubrick often focuses upon, and why his films can frequently seem ironic or satirical is that they are not easily identificatory. Kolker sees irony and quotes literary theorist Northrop Frye: "if inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode." Jean-Loup Bourget believes A Clockwork Orange is "a mirror held up to the audience in which they willingly recognize themselves without necessarily believing that they are being caricatured, or even ridiculed by Kubrick." (Positif) Both options are possible partly because Kubrick seems to approach the human being as an ambivalent thing to behold. The human is constantly capable of astonishing advances in the technology Kubrick often points up and is himself happy to deploy when he needs it, evident in the full utilization of special effects in 2001, advanced lens technology in Barry Lyndon and the steadicam in The Shining (all well explored by Vincent lo Brutto in Stanley Kubrick). But man is also incapable of escaping from a baser self that is more than just his animal nature, taking into account Freud's remark that man "was no doubt a very passionate creature and more cruel and more malignant than other animals. He liked to kill, and killed as a matter of course. The instinct which is said to restrain other animals from killing and devouring their own species need not be attributed to him." ('Our Attitude Towards Death;)
We have of course throughout used the term man rather than woman or person, following on from Freud's chosen designation, and it is true that many acts of violence are done by the male of the species, yet Full Metal Jacket rests on the irony that the sniper at the end of the film who fires at Joker (Matthew Modine) and others is a woman, little more than a girl. She is the master sniper that Pyle might have become had he not sprayed his problematic grey matter against the bathroom wall at the end of training. Here we see Kubrick's irony presenting itself as at least twofold. On the one hand we assume it will be a man who has been holding the rifle; secondly we might wonder if Pyle had remained alive would he have been able to pick her off. Of course, there are numerous other ironies too: that Joker has a helmet that promotes killing and a peace badge on his jacket. But irony is an easy mode unless there is a difficulty underpinning it, and in Kubrick's work it is the difficulty that is usually much more apparent than the irony to which it gives birth. It would be ironic if Kubrick were suggesting that we must be fools to send people to fight wars in foreign lands that have little to do with any hint of invasion on our own soil. It might be a further irony in few being unaware that Kubrick was making a Vietnam war film in the south of England, his home for many years after moving there in 1961. Yet though his locations don't bring to mind South East Asia as other 'nam movies do, this doesn't mean Kubrick wants us to be aware of the falsity of the locations either; more that he is preoccupied with the nature of the problem, with the violence that is uniquely human, which contains within it an awareness of mortality that can, on the one hand, allow us to kill strangers and on the other produce symphonies. We can make love not war, and can also make war not peace, but equally make art that allows us to find a median place between making war, love and peace. Yet this passes first through the ironical and satirical modes of knowing what humanity is, rather than making the assumption of what it ought to be. It might seem easy irony that Alex in A Clockwork Orange can love both beating others and Beethoven, but this only appears so if we assume that Beatings and Beethoven are contrary rather than fundamentally conjoined. An animal does not randomly attack others for fun, nor does it produce classical music. The human does both, and both equally well. Once we accept that fact we can decide what we want to do about it: do we want to curtail the former and lose the latter? Someone less inclined to look at the fundament of the human being that Freud offers, may believe we can easily have one without the other - because the human is a good being with an element of the bad. But a filmmaker such as Kubrick illustrates that we are not innately much of anything, and if we are, our ancestry suggests the vicious.
What we might find in Kubrick's power trilogy is an interest in violence that happens to be at the centre of being rather than love. This might help explain why unlike many filmmakers interested in Vietnam he made no clear anti-war statements according to John Baxter in Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. "His political view on Vietnam...remained unformed." If violence is so fundamental to our existence, war would merely be an extension of it. We don't have to agree with Kubrick's vision - we only have to comprehend something of its power. He understands that it is all very well offering platitudes about peace, but they are only as good as the human who is capable of living up to them. The Kubrickian human wouldn't easily succeed. Whether it is Alex in A Clockwork Orange or Jack in The Shining, these are characters who abuse their power in the form of abusing others. Alex relishes raping the wife and beating up the novelist, while Jack tears strips off his wife as he tears pages out of the typewriter. Violence seems to come naturally to them, which is also where Full Metal Jacket comes in. Rather than seeing it as a Vietnam war film, better to see it as an account of what we could maieutic violence: an aggression that is not simply situational but also ontological. If Socrates could claim that we have innate knowledge in us that needs to be extracted through what was called maieutics, an intellectual midwifery, then by the same reckoning Kubrick indicates a violent maieutics which suggests basic training isn't an aggressive force that is inculcated into the young marines, but a basic drive extracted from them. This would indicate that Joker and the others aren't dehumanized in common parlance; the violence that the drill sergeant, a demotic Socrates, extracts from them is very much part of their humanity.
This could be the best way to look at this Vietnam film that was filmed in Battersea power station, that focuses on a first half where the character whose trajectory we most closely follow (Sergeant Pyle) kills the drill sergeant and then himself, and where the second half meanders around the streets without a clear mission apparent to either the viewer or the troops.
To understand an aspect of this strange structure let us think of how the figure of Pyle meets his opposite in the film's second section: Adam Baldwin's gun-toting, trigger-happy, sewer-tongued, war-mongering squaddie. He is a character that demands hyphenated adjectives as he represents the typical example of the solider who has found his natural habitat. But he has no place at all in the first half of the film, and he is the sort of character we might have seen Pyle becoming if he had overcome his own mental imbalance, beefed up instead of continuing to pig-out, and waited to train his grunt gun at the enemy. But this is where we can understand Kubrick's thematic dramatisation. To understand the violence at the heart of man, better to refuse identification with any figure within the diegesis, instead diluting it across the narrative. What matters isn't characterisation of individuals but the characterisation of man: man as a violent species. There has always been an element of the zoological in Kubrick's work as he finds angles on events that undermine the subjects under scrutiny. This might be the horizontal framing when a NASA scientist gives a speech in 2001 or the overhead shots of the maze in The Shining, or the long lens shots used when the troops try and move in on the sniper in Full Metal Jacket.
One way of playing up the zoological is to undermine character. We speak of animals as having characteristics rather than character and Kubrick here more than in any other film wonders what human characteristics might be. One may muse over what the characteristics of man are in A Clockwork Orange, but at the same time Alex is the character who we follow in a well-arced three-act structure that shows him as a young man causing trouble in the first section, whose personality is taken from him in the second and returned to him in the third. He has characteristics but they are still semi-concealed by the nature of his character: he is an individual and perhaps now even perceived as something of a cultural icon. He represents brilliantly an amalgamating ethos that incorporates numerous types before and after him, from Brando's The Wild One, Dean's Rebel without a Cause, the Mods of the early sixties and the punks of the late seventies. He is a representative cultural figure; not finally a full zoological example of the species. By diluting character and breaking down the narrative in Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick doesn't amalgamate but dilutes. There is not the central character representing various manifestations, but various characters representing one manifestation: the violent deed.
One of the ironies of the film is that it is not only man, but women too who suggest perhaps not the violent impulse but certainly that the world of violence will occasionally be forced to absorb them, as we find out the sniper is, as we've noted, a woman, a detail kept from us until her near demise.
If violence is at the heart of man this needn't only be a problem of masculinity, even if many studies show that most acts of violence are committed by men. We might take issue with some claims made by Satoshi Kanazawa, a hard-line evolutionary psychologist, but when he says "in every single human society without an exception, men commit an overwhelming majority of all crimes and acts of violence. Why is this? Why are men so much more criminal and violent than women?" (Psychology Today) few would disagree. Kanazawa is a psychologist who believes that for all our modern behavioural codes, "our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time - stuck in the Stone Age." (Open Society) Perhaps - for our purpose all that matters is that Kubrick wouldn't be unsympathetic to notions that invoke the dawn of man of course, but within a set of suppositional metaphysical possibilities rather than within a scientific absolutism. As Kubrick said speaking of 2001 in Rolling Stone, "on the deepest psychological level, the film's plot symbolized the search for God, and finally postulates what is little less than a scientific definition of God. The film revolves around this metaphysical conception, and the realistic hardware and the documentary feelings about everything were necessary in order to undermine your built-in resistance to the poetical concept." When we look at Kubrick's work we see a director interested in the questions we might assume are those of an evolutionary psychologist, but Kubrick is finally an aesthetician and a metaphysician. He wants to investigate the possibilities in being, not its probabilities, and cinema is his means of doing so. Now some might insist that an aesthetician needn't concern him or herself with metaphysical propositions: the film comes out of an engagement with the narrative coordinates.
Yet the difference between Platoon (released shortly before Kubrick's film) and Full Metal Jacket rests partly on Oliver Stone's insistence on telling a story, and Kubrick's need to contain it within a broader proposition. By having the sniper a woman this tweaks the ready convention that war is at the heart of man and reconstitutes it as at the heart of humanity, which thus gives a twist to our usual use of humanity. In Contrast to Stone and the famous scene in Platoon where the troops go into a village and massacre the locals, Kubrick refuses to accept simply that the Americans went into Vietnam, killing women and children and must remain nationally guilty as a consequence, which is close to Stone's position, evident in his Oscar acceptance speech. By suggesting the immense act of cruelty in the sniper, Kubrick is not so much re-envisaging the Vietnam War but instead re-envisaging the idea of human aggression. Kubrick's film is far from the best film about Vietnam (The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now more brilliantly capture the feel of the war), but that is partly because Kubrick has little interest in Vietnam as a war and more interest in Vietnam as a premise for aggressive instincts and seeing how far and how deep such instincts go. In Stone Oscar-winning speech Stone talked about the atrocities of Vietnam and how the US must never get involved in such a conflict again, but Kubrick would presumably see such talk as just political superficialities that underestimate the human's need to fight. The human being, aware of its own mortality, can also impose itself on the mortality of others and war gives one that opportunity. Instead of believing that most young men go to war because they are the fittest and healthiest alive; maybe it is a more the other way round. The fittest and healthiest alive have the need to fight, and the most effective way to allow for the release of tension is to fight wars. This is both an enormous over-simplification while at the same time a potentially profound truth. If we believe Full Metal Jacket is not a superficial film despite its almost complete lack of interest in the socio-political circumstances of the Vietnam war, it rests partly on Kubrick's Freudianism: his interest like Freud in wondering about the roots of our aggression rather than the political ramifications of a situation.
Kubrick's take needn't mean that violence is inevitable; it is partly why we use the term maieutics in the first instance. Plato was talking about how we have knowledge through the forms that can be passed down through careful thinking, thinking that will give birth to the already known, with Socrates the masterful teacher. It is not as if violence is the only thing we know about ourselves. We also have Freud's notion of sublimation, with our instincts capable of taking another form without necessary debilitation. This is sex rather than violence, but the source remains similar, and throughout Full Metal Jacket the sexual and the aggressive are closely linked, especially through the endless sexually aggressive tirades offered by the drill sergeant, with lines like "I bet you could suck a golfball through a garden hose" and "you are married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood". Here the link between sex and violence is manifest. Freud says sublimation "places extraordinarily large amounts of force at the disposal of civilized activity, and it does this in virtue of its especially marked characteristic of being able to display its aim without materially diminishing its intensity." ('Civilized Sexual Morality'). In this sense a violent maieutics is a desublimation, a determined need to take the violence of young men and exacerbate rather than sublimate it, an idea that makes us think again of the Kubrick photo and his power trilogy, In The Shining, Jack fails to sublimate indeed, his writer's block leads to putting heads on chopping blocks as he pursues his wife and child with an axe. In A Clockwork Orange, the sublimating possibilities in classical music is used as a specific behavioural tool: to pain Alex whenever he listens to it and to kill his violent urges. In these film Kubrick shows desublimation as the return of the repressed: he wants us to see not what civilization is capable of as a teleological success story, but what precedes sublimated forms.
Kubrick is the most famous control freak in cinema history, who was practising in an art form known for its contingent elements and at the same for its realist demands. Steven Berkoff in LoBrutto's Stanley Kubrick recalls the use of candles in Barry Lyndon. "I remember being fascinated that no top or fill light was used.We had all these candles lit and of course, with candles for continuity unless you got going, the candles would go down. Stanley did so many takes and setups, he'd have to keep replacing the flaming candles, so the candle costs would be enormous." Berkoff adds: "they were always checking to see how many candles they had...it became a bit of an added strain because the candles had to be kept in continuity. A candle lasts a long time but after a couple of hours it looks different, so that was a big problem." Cinema would seem to be the ideal art form for two very different perspectives: someone looking for life to flow into a film as we find with Renoir, Rossellini and Altman who liked the accidental; and those who wanted to control that life, who wanted the vision to be their own but not to deny the reality out of which they worked: Kubrick, Antonioni and Tarkovsky. We might suppose a control freak would prefer to write or paint but nobody would be accused of such a term for rearranging words on a page or spending an hour or two deciding what colour from the palette will make it on the canvas. A controlling personality does not merely make decisions, they make decisions for others too: cinema is the art form where a director is constantly making decisions for others and Kubrick's need to get it right could push actors beyond healthy endurance. Whether it was the 70 yr old Scatman Crothers doing forty takes when struck with an axe by Nicholson, until "Jack stepped in, asking the director, who seemed oblivious to Crothers exhaustion" (Jack's Life) or the director's need to kill the shadows in scenes in 2001, using more and more lights so that the environment was like a furnace. "You're going to have a fire with those lamps", the cinematographer doing some additional work on the shoot, Gil Taylor, proposed in John Baxter's book on Kubrick. "What are you going to do? Have the fire brigade standing by?" There is a demonic obsessiveness in such details, the Freudian neurotic who has nevertheless sublimated the basic instincts of sex and violence and turned it into artistic control. As David Thomson would says of Eyes Wide Shut. "A director is an interloper in any marriage, if he is male and his actress is married. I do not mean he has intercourse with the woman. That is a blunt transaction compared with his demands" (Nicole Kidman) as Thomson muses over Kubrick's need to weld together Kidman and her character: "I have to talk to you about the way your desires - your desires, Nicole - may merge with and give body to your character. Alas this has to be done away from your husband." Who happened to be Tom Cruise, and her co-star and husband in the film.
We are bordering on gossip here, but this is by way of proving our point: that the notion of the control freak is a little like that of production history. We do not concern ourselves with a writer pushing words around the page, but we do when it comes to a filmmaker pushing people to test their boundaries and their limits. Kubrick was one such filmmaker, it would seem, a director who could demand his actors have their heads shaved but wouldn't feel obliged to demand verisimilitude of locale. It is about power and the ability perhaps to sublimate an aggressive or sexual instinct into aesthetic form. When we look back on Kubrick's work, the films are never really about their ostensible subject or generic heritage. We wouldn't be getting very far to say A Clockwork Orange is sci-fi, Barry Lyndon a period movie and The Shining a horror. Equally, to say Full Metal Jacket is a war film would be to miss the point. It is a film about allowing a violent instinct to manifest itself as nakedly, as pointlessly as possible, but doing so within a paradox. And what is this paradox? That the Vietnam war served no greater purpose than the continuation of aggression within the apparent need to conclude it. Aggression will not end in a war where one side defeats the other, but in sublimation where the aggression finds another form. It is as if Kubrick knew this precisely, knew that as a director who would control every aspect of production and make numerous demands on his cast and crew, that he was trying to live up to the Freudian claim we quoted above: "of applying extraordinary amounts of force to display its aim." Kubrick's body of work is an exemplification of that remark, and Full Metal Jacket better seen as an exploration of primitive instinct than contemporary warfare. It is what happens when an aesthetic will meets an obsessive drive. Kubrick's fascination with violence is an acknowledgment of the drive that goes beyond the will and creates an artwork. Lesser works suggest the will and can too easily be understood through technique. Kubrick's technique is merely a means to an end as he suggests in the remarks on metaphysics in Rolling Stone. It is the end that is also our death, and also, of course, our fear of it.
© Tony McKibbin