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Sep 24, 2012
08:17 AMTalk about Arts
Mondays with Schobie: "Full Metal Jacket," 25 Years Later
A look at the films, books, music, and more you should be experiencing this month.
Watching Paul Thomas Anderson’s complex, brilliant new film The Master, it occurred to me that this must have been what it felt like to see a new Stanley Kubrick film in the sixties or seventies. The effect was both thrilling and bewildering, and coming so soon after seeing the wildly original Shining documentary Room 237 at the Toronto International Film Festival, I couldn’t help but think, “What must it have been like to see Dr. Strangelove/2001/A Clockwork Orange/Barry Lyndon on the big screen with a mystified audience …”
I was nineteen when Kubrick’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, was released, and the experience is one I’ll never forget. I was spellbound from start to finish, but the crowd—a packed house on opening night, July 16, 1999—was restless. I vividly recall hearing a woman say, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” For me … It was one of the best. Still is.
Of all Kubrick’s films, the one that I believe equates most usefully with The Master is Full Metal Jacket, recently released in a gorgeous twenty-fifth anniversary Blu-ray deluxe edition. Anderson’s film does not move from a to b to c in the manner of, well, ninety-nine percent of new films; its form is odd, even misshapen—like Full Metal Jacket’s. The film is divided in two, but not in the manner of a story like Kill Bill’s, with obvious connecting points. Jacket’s two halves make sense to the viewer, but there is no obvious transition or introduction.
“Full Metal Jacket,” wrote Vincent Canby in the New York Times upon the film’s release, “is divided into two parts, which at first seem so different in tone, look and method that they could have been made by two different directors working with two different cameramen from two different screenplays. Only the actors are the same. Part of the way in which the movie works, and involves the audience, is in its demand that the audience make the sudden leap to the seemingly (but far from) conventional battle scenes in Vietnam, which conclude the film, from its flashily brilliant first half, set in the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.”
Watching the Blu-ray—the film has never, ever looked this good, and I have owned at least three of its other DVD releases—I was stunned at how well the halves do seem to fit. Now, that is. Jacket is a film that, then and now, demanded reflection. As several members of the cast point out in the well-made featurette Full Metal Jacket: Between Good and Evil, it is clear that Kubrick was attempting to demonstrate how man can be trained to kill (consider the film’s poster art, with “BORN TO KILL” scrawled upon a helmet), and then showing us exactly what that means. Some, of course, were trained too well (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Pvt. “Pyle”). But consider that our protagonist, our conduit, Pvt. “Joker” (Matthew Modine), eventually kills, too.
Like the other Marines, Joker has become a nickname (“Animal Mother,” “Cowboy”), a killing machine who, at film’s end, is struggling to hold on to his humanity: “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short,” he says. “I’m in a world of s---, yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” This grim finale, coupled with the singing of the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme, brings the film to a bleak, unsettling conclusion. Platoon’s ending may have left audiences moved, and Apocalypse Now’s may have left them exhilarated, but Full Metal Jacket leaves them guilty. How bold, and how very Kubrick.
It’s fitting that this Blu-ray set is so stunningly put together in design and concept. The aforementioned Good and Evil doc features fascinating memories from all of the actors, but it is R. Lee Ermey, the unforgettably punishing drill sergeant who dominates the film’s first half, whose words are most memorable; his tale of being in an SUV with Kubrick and watching as the director, busy pointing out locations, drove off the road, is hilarious, and also telling.
I was especially excited to see that disc two of the set includes Jon Ronson’s amazing documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes, a look at the treasure trove of information left in boxes on the Kubrick estate after the filmmaker’s death. Reading about the film back in 2008, I contacted Ronson and asked if we in the States would ever get a chance to see the film, and he humorously posited that “someone is bound to put it on YouTube.” What a treat to see it here. Kudos to Warner Home Video for including it. (Here is an article by Ronson for the Guardian about how his exploration of the boxes came together.)
Warners also released A Clockwork Orange in similar fashion, with a book and many features, in 2011, and I’m hoping to see similar releases for The Shining and Barry Lyndon in the next few years. But it is Full Metal Jacket that perhaps holds up the best. As director Ernest Dickerson says in the Good and Evil doc, “Kubrick was really making a statement about urban warfare … it’s almost like Kubrick was talking about Vietnam, but he was also talking about future war.”
A few other quick hits for the month:
• If you have not heard Cat Power’s Sun, it is a surprisingly poppy follow-up to her, well, great 2006 album The Greatest (in between came a covers album). Vocally and musically, it’s an ambitious stunner. The way she (Chan Marshall) spews the word “bitchin’” in the jaunty “Ruin” makes it one of my all-time favorite CP songs, and “Peace and Love” is a triumphant closer. I’ve not heard much lately that has really grabbed me, but Sun has, and from first listen has not let go.
• One great novel to recommend: Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins) is a swirling, moving read that involved Richard Burton, a Robert Evans-esque movie producer, a blonde ingénue, an young Italian running a decaying seaside hotel, and other assorted characters. The way Walter brings every character and event together in the novel’s final chapters will leave you breathless. This is one of 2012’s best.
• And some nonfiction: Ty Burr is a very good writer for the Boston Globe whose work was always a highlight in Entertainment Weekly. His new look at stardom, Gods Like Us (Random House), looks at everyone from Tom Mix and Lillian Gish to Eddie Murphy and Tom Hanks, and does so in illuminating, intelligent fashion. Consider this, on the public backlash against Meg Ryan following her relationship with Russell Crowe:
“Because Meg Ryan did not behave according to the public laws of Meg Ryan (hopeful fusspot who always ends up making the right choice), her behavior was deemed inexplicable and she was punished with tabloid headlines accusing her of being an unfit mother. … As ever, stardom could be a prison.”
• Last but not least, my favorite film of the summer was The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan’s big bold, monster of a blockbuster. I was always a sucker for books (and toys, and magazines, and soundtracks, and breakfast cereals) tied in with summer movies, and two recently released books, The Dark Knight Manual and BATMOBILE: The Complete History (Insight Editions) are, quite simply, a blast. BATMOBILE looks at every element of Batman’s wheels, from the comics to the Tim Burton era and right up until Nolan’s take. It’s fun, but The Dark Knight Manual is the more involving read. From Batcave blueprints to Arkham Asylum case files, this is geek heaven. And for those who have been wondering all summer how much Bane weighs, you’ll finally get your answer. (240 lbs.)
Until next time, remember: “There are many others like it, but this one is mine.”