Grok My Enthusiasm (21)

By: Gordon Dahlquist
June 1, 2016

One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars.

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The usual take on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is that the first section, set in Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, is brilliant, and what follows, during the Tet Offensive in Da Nang and Hue City, is a rambling anticlimax. I’ll just say it: this verdict is an esthetic replication of the grand error Full Metal Jacket dramatizes so well, the disconnect between our sheltered assumptions and what happens to them when we enter the uncontrolled world.

The film was Kubrick’s first in seven years, after The Shining (at its release, too, seen as a disappointment), and only his third in almost 20 years. The news that Kubrick would be “taking on Vietnam” — even as Strangelove took on the Cold War — raised expectations high. The film that arrived was of course particular and contrary, as if deliberately pitched to dissatisfy (this exact cycle would repeat for his final — and I would argue, unfinished — film Eyes Wide Shut). The country vastly preferred Platoon, with its Good and Bad and Innocent made clear.

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The first part of FMJ, at Parris Island, is indeed brilliant. Most astonishing, perhaps, is how formal, even abstract the filmmaking becomes: the first exchange resembling human dialogue comes, whispered, perhaps 25 minutes into the film — almost everything else, from the start until the final scene of this section (another Kubrick bathroom!), is either the strident declamation of R. Lee Ermey, as Sgt. Hartman, or the by-rote call and response of his various charges. Even when the soldiers are alone, they still — wearily — parrot and posture. The framing is iconic and clear, image after image imprinting directly on one’s nervous system (I think especially of Joker’s “war face” or when he clamps his ears to block out Pyle’s weeping). What’s slippery though is what we’re exactly seeing. Overtly, we witness a brutal process of turning young men into killers, and see the cost to those who can’t fit in. Yet with regard to the rest of the film — with regard to the actual meat of American history — Pyle’s failure is a sidebar. The rest of these men emerge system-perfect, heads sorted and bodies fit, for war.

However, in Vietnam nothing aligns: these men aren’t unprepared, they’re mis-prepared. The second half of Full Metal Jacket is a litany of war movie scenes and ideas, without a single one playing out to anyone’s hope or edification. These marines are both too self-conscious and too sheltered. The insulation of satire — what from the film trailer hinted at Strangelove — is acrid and stiff. The self-mythification, the he-man rituals, are the gestures of scared boys in the dark. The reflexive consumption — cameras, cartons of cigarettes, liquor, prostitutes — is a desperate lifeline to an exceptionalism that no longer applies. The final third of the film, where the squad is shredded by an unseen sniper, ends with a confrontation of different stakes that American films rarely entertain. This is because Full Metal Jacket isn’t a film about Vietnam. It’s a film about what Americans (still) don’t understand.

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GROK MY ENTHUSIASM: Rob Wringham on THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | Gordon Dahlquist on WEEKEND | Joe Alterio on MILLION YEAR PICNIC | Adrienne Crew on LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | Josh Glenn on THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | Alix Lambert on THE SKIES BELONG TO US | Adam McGovern on PENELOPE and CHAVEZ RAVINE | Rob Wringham on THE LYKE WAKE WALK | Mark Kingwell on NORTH STAR SNEAKERS & GWG JEANS | Gordon Dahlquist on FELLINI SATYRICON | Erik Davis on AH! | Devin McKinney on WHISPERING AFRAID | Mimi Lipson on 1973 SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG | Jessamyn West on MOSS | Josh Glenn on THE SCOUT HOW BOOK | Brian Berger on SLACKER | Alix Lambert on ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS | Chelsey Johnson on MONOTREMES | Devin McKinney on THE BUTCHER COVER | Flourish Klink on ONE DIRECTION | Gordon Dahlquist on FULL METAL JACKET | Allegra Huston on CLOTHESLINE | Jenny Davidson on POWERLIFTING | Evan Narcisse on REZ | Deborah Wassertzug on VEGETARIAN MEATBALLS | Chris Spurgeon on WALLACE AND GROMIT | Mandy Keifetz on BENEFICIAL MICROBES | Annie Nocenti on MARKS ON WALLS | Molly Sauter on THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF | William Nericcio on LAND OF THE LOST | Dan Fox on “VOICE OF GOD” RADIO DJS | Brandi Brown on WIKIPEDIA TALK | Claire Lehmann on THE APPARATUS REVEAL | Alice Boone on COSTUME JEWELRY | Colin Dickey on WIDESPREAD PANIC | Anshuman Iddamsetty on THE FULL BODY PROJECT | John Hilgart on MAKING GRATEFUL DEAD ALBUMS | Rob Wringham on STEVEN UNIVERSE | John Overholt on DECKLE EDGES | James Hannaham on HABIT PATTERNS | Jessamyn West on THE PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM | Adam McGovern on THE SPACE GIANTS | Brian Berger on MEDIUM COOL | Chris Spurgeon on THE DUNNING-KRUGER EFFECT | Joe Alterio on TABLETOP WARGAMING | Mimi Lipson on TRASH PICKING | Jason Grote on CZECH CINEMA | Roxane Gay on AUTOMATED CAR WASH | Dan Fox on JULIA DAVIS | Amy Thielen on BINGO | Steph Burt on FEIJOA.

MORE ENTHUSIASM at HILOBROW

KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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