Sunday, November 29, 2009

Full Metal Jacket

I have the distinction of not having a clue about what most people consider to be the cornerstones of the edifice of Good Stuff. Shortage very succinctly lamented when I was raving on about Scarborough Fair a few weeks ago, "What a late discoverer of delights you are!". However, if we are to see the putative half-full part of the glass, this ignorance seems to allow me to discover good stuff at a time when I am more able to appreciate it. I was wallowing in this self-same ignorance when I was browsing youtube for videos of Winston Wolf (from Pulp Fiction; Lord have mercy, I do know about that) for probably the 20th time now, and I saw this video:

Full Metal Jacket - Motivational Speech

By God, and great homecoming fuck fantasies with erect nipple wet-dreams of Mary Jane Rottencrotch! What a scene! I threw all warnings of piracy control policies to the wind and went ahead and watched the movie.

Full Metal Jacket is actually two movies in one, much like Wall-E is. The first part describes military training at camp and the second one is about actual warfare. I couldn't appreciate the second one too much, and I probably need to re-watch it a few times to understand nuances better. But the first one - ah, that's what this post is about.

One thing that stood out, in my view, was that the first part was actually just a series of rather disjoint clips, with no smooth transition. The viewer is expected to fill in the gaps and make the story, and if this technique is done well, the movie gives a better experience than any possible transition scenes. Sort of like this old joke about bikinis [1] :

Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

The viewer's imagination fills it up most satisfactorily. This has a double-advantage, in that the director can also focus on getting each chunk perfectly right, and not worry about how it fits in with the rest of the movie. One of the most important ingredients of this technique however, is that the scenes must be distinct enough for the viewer to detect a clear difference, but not so distinct that the jump is too big to fill. If the scenes are too close, the imagination-filling part doesn't kick in too well and you get a jagged experience. There's definitely some kind of uncanny valley here. Tarantino is one of the people who have got the pre-valley peak bang on. I can't think of one right now, but there are tons of examples of a director trying too hard with transition scenes to keep the narration self-contained, and thereby ruining the feel.

Back to the movie. Without doubt, Sergeant Hartman is the absolute star. I can't stop raving about the guy. Take ANY scene he is in. There's an almost magical power to his screen presence and the power, the raw power that he exudes on screen is palpable. I have had a few teachers who wielded a similar kind of power. I detested them and dislike them even now, but if you were to sneak up behind me and do an imitation of one of them and ask me jiggle my balls with my left pinky, I will unquestioningly jiggle my balls before thinking. This kind of power over people is different from the abstract notion of power that is popular today. Having armies march in front of you doesn't quite cut it - it's more a one-to-one thing. Here's another favorite scene of mine where this power is demonstrated:

Pulp Fiction - Breakfast scene. Just observe the way Jules asks Brett to sit down at 4:06. The way his hand keeps moving, slowly, till 4:09. That's what I'm talking about.

The terror is tetrated later on, when Jules fears Marsellus Wallace so much. If Jules himself is so scary, and he is scared of Marsellus Wallace, how powerful must Marsellus Wallace be! Surely far more powerful than anything that can depicted on a movie screen!

This kind of transitive super-empowering is also done to perfection in The Usual Suspects. This description of Keyser Soze by Verbal Kint chills anyone's blood better than hours of gore:

Verbal's description begins at 1:50. Start there, turn off your monitor and just listen.

The other character in The Usual Suspects that I found as chilling as Keyser Soze was Mr. Kobayashi. In this link, please see the part between 1:04:50 and 1:10:07 - Megavideo link. (Ms. Finneran is Keaton's girlfriend)

Don't be lazy to navigate there. This is not a commonly remembered scene, and is one of the only good scenes from the movie not to be found on Youtube or anywhere on Google Video. The Megavideo link may go down anytime, so do use SideReel and find it if it's gone. In case everything fails, as the very last resort, here is the transcript of the most chilling part:

Get your rest, Gentlemen. The boat will be ready for you on Friday. If I see you or any of your friends before then, Miss. Finneran will find herself the victim of a most gruesome violation before she dies. As will your father, Mr. Hockney. and your Uncle Randall in Arizona, Mr. Kint. I might only castrate Mr. McManus's nephew, David. Do I make myself clear?

This transcript is nothing, I repeat, nothing, without Mr. Kobayashi's mild, educated - no, learned, calm accent. The austere serenity with which this threat is delivered - that seals the deal.

Another recent demonstration of such cold power is that by the fantastic Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. His every moment in the movie is brilliant - the first Jew-rat scene, the Cinderella scene - I can't count! He amazing cold power will keep you riveted whenever he's on.

Inglourious Basterds, the Jew-Rat analogy

His accent that is ever present but makes a distinct appearance at places - like 'never occur' in the clip above, and the derisive, sneering way he mentions 'dignity' - has this effect of marking him as an outsider, not one of us.  And he's an outsider with power, loads of it. Earlier in this scene, when he switches over to English, I went 'fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck' till the last bullet was fired. The dialog between him and Ms. Hammersmack which leads to the Cinderella sequence was another one of those gut-chilling moments of fear and tension.

(There are many other scenes in the movie I want to talk about, including ones not involving him. The Bear Jew scene where the German does not flinch, does not blink and looks straight into his killer's eyes; the finger counting scene; many more. I also want to rant about how much I hated the ending, and how much I hated Brad Pitt's character for winning everything with no effort on- or off-screen whatsoever. I also want to present my theory of optimally-constrained movie moments, but all that for another sunny day. Today is all about cold power.)

It is important to note that in ALL of these examples, none of the parties wielding supreme power have ever any weapon at all. If they have indeed held one, it is at best as powerful as what everyone in the scene is holding. No, it's subtler, more personal than that. Further, none of these people are really at the top of any scheme they are in. Hartman is just a measly drill instructor, not a General with supreme command. Jules is just a contract killer, like a thousand others, who quivers before Marsellus Wallace, and who wets his pants when he contemplates the prospect of a nurse coming home to see a dead body. Kobayashi is a simple lawyer, just an order-carrier for an unseen Kaiser Soze. Even Hans Landa is just a lowly Colonel. It is almost as if their low position clears any illusions of power vested by a hierarchy, and thus allows them to focus on personal power, over individuals. If Landa had been a General, he might have just got a platoon of soldiers to do a job. The power vested in him would have been textbook-like, and his exertion of that power is also textbook-like. If the General of an army gets people to listen to him with rapt attention and hang on to every word, there's nothing special about that. They're listening to him because he's the General. But when a lowly Colonel philosophizes over how rats are different from squirrels, and yet everyone listens to him at the edge of their seats, there you see the kind of power that we are celebrating.

As an aside, I'm quickly becoming a great fan of the techniques of British colonial administration. They were used against us, yes, but that fact should not come in the way of measuring their effectiveness, nor cloud our memory of them being used to root out some of our society's very worst diseases like Sati. Part of this appreciation is because of the brilliant way Dilip taught us Indian history. For example, let me quote Charles James Napier (of the 'Peccavi' fame) from Wikipedia:

The best way to quiet a country is a good thrashing, followed by great kindness afterwards. Even the wildest chaps are thus tamed

This technique is recommended everywhere from wild animal domestication to keeping two-year olds under control. The entire system of ragging (or hazing) is based on just this. It operates at a kind of pre-intellectual level, and by god is it effective! Any intellectual response is necessarily weak, mild, balanced and quasi-static compared to the power of an instinctive response. Imagine how it would have been for someone to discover that millions of men could be controlled like dogs, just by harnessing this power over a few people!

As an aside to the aside, incidentally, wiki claims that Napier's brutality was because he believed 'So perverse is mankind that every nationality prefers to misgoverned by its own people than to be well ruled by another'. Compare this with Gandhi's plea of a hundred years later (paraphrased):  "Please leave our country. For better or worse, we prefer to govern ourselves. We will graciously welcome you as our guests, but not as our rulers"

Alright, I've pushed you two far down, let's pop back to the movie level. Sergeant Hartman's raw power, yes. The casting for his part is an engaging story in itself. Here it is from the wiki article about the movie:

Former U.S. Marine Drill Instructor R. Lee Ermey was originally hired as a technical adviser and asked Kubrick if he could audition for the role of Hartman. However Kubrick, having seen his portrayal as Drill Instructor Sgt Loyce in The Boys in Company C, told him that he wasn't vicious enough to play the character. In response, Ermey made a videotape of himself improvising insulting dialogue towards a group of Royal Marines while being pelted by people off-camera with oranges and tennis balls. Ermey, in spite of the distractions, rattled off an unbroken string of insults for 15 minutes, and he did not flinch, duck, or repeat himself while the projectiles rained on him. Upon viewing it, Kubrick gave him the role, realizing that Ermey "was a genius for this part". Ermey's experience as a real-life DI during the Vietnam era proved invaluable, and the realism was such that in one instance, Ermey barked an order off-camera to Kubrick to stand up when he was spoken to, and Kubrick instinctively obeyed, standing at attention before realizing what had happened. Kubrick estimated that Ermey came up with 150 pages of insults, many of them improvised on the spot — a rarity for a Kubrick film. According to Kubrick's estimate, the former drill instructor wrote 50% of his own dialogue, especially the insults. Ermey usually needed only two to three takes per scene, another rarity for a Kubrick film.

The 150 pages of improvised insults - each syllable is gold! "Your days of finger-banging ol' Mary Jane Rottencrotch through her purtty pink panties are over!", "Do you feel dizzy? Do you feel faint? Jesus Saint Christ! I think you've got a hard-on!", "Bullshit. It looks to me like the best part of you ran down the crack of your momma's ass and ended up as a brown stain on the mattress! I think you been cheated!", "Are you a peter puffer? I'll bet you're the kinda guy that would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I'll be watching you". I could go on and on list all of his dialog!

The brilliant part is these are constructed recursively from equally brilliant components. Consider the last quote. 'Peter Puffer' is a guy who sucks ('puffs') cock ('Peter'). What a name, and what consistent imagery in the rest of the quote! It is a kind of incandescent brilliance that is quite apart from the more intellectual kind of brilliance. I must read up further on it, but there's a kind of fundamental difference between the more literary and educated kind of intelligence and this unaffected intelligence. Urban Dictionary is full of the latter kind!

The marching songs are also quite the earworms. I just can't stop myself from humming 'Ho Chi Minh is a son of a bitch! Got the blueballs, crabs and the seven-year-itch!". And M.I.C; K.E.Y; M.O.U.S.E!  That's another thing extremely rare today. When was the last time you ever sang in a large group and felt the song? Can you even imagine a time you'll do it in the future? I can't!

The first part ends rather quickly, in about 45 minutes or so. It ends perfectly, in my opinion. There's a kind of delicious justice in Sergeant Hartman getting killed. I wanted him killed, I wanted him fucked after what he did to Lawrence. There was an unspoken, unthought, instinctive craving that was satisfied perfectly there.

It's a similar justice that happens when the mighty Marcellus Wallace, the most powerful goon in LA, he who has people thrown out of windows for giving foot massages to his wife and has suave henchmen debating the ontology of the act, he who has the power to demand "If Butch goes to Indochina, I want a nigger waiting in a bowl of rice ready to pop a cap in his ass.", he who has the audacity to fix a boxing match while philosophizing, "You see, this profession is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar, it does. If you mean it gets better with age, it don't. "- when THE Marsellus Wallace, who even my spellchecker fears and suggests 'Merciless Wallace', gets raped in the ass by a security guard, and with a billiards ball tied to his mouth to boot. There's a primal justice served in that scene. It is so well served, that you instantly feel sorry for the big old guy. Your heart melts, and now the villain's actually Zed the security guard. Talk about inversions! So you feel that primal sense of justice and satisfaction AGAIN when Butch picks up the Katana, and when Marsellus shoots Zed in the crotch. Primal justice has very short memory, and never have I seen that property exploited so amazingly to such perfection, EVER.

Right, this was to be about Full Metal Jacket, pardon me. The whole part did have a few imperfections. For example, the most pernicious one: in the last scene before Lawrence shoots Hartman, Hartman's lines chiding him are weak to say the least. "Major Malfunction"? The only explanation I have for such abysmally weak lines compared to the rest of movie was that Hartman had just woken up. But that doesn't quite cut it.

The scene where Hartman is impressed by Lawrence's shooting skills - that was unnecessary. It seemed to be an attempt to lend some kind of fairness to Hartman's character, but it didn't work for me. They might as well have removed it, made Lawrence still love his rifle because he had no friends, and made Hartman a 100% bad guy for him. That would have made the climax even stronger.

And the blanket party, where the entire platoon ambushes Lawrence. The motivation leading to that was very weak. That's the failure of the very tact that makes the movie sharp at other places, the tact of leaving of transition scenes. I never felt that the platoon as a whole was pained with Lawrence, it was just an inference. A scene or two  with grumbling recruits would have served that well.

But these are minor details.  Power - yeah :-)


[1] Yes, I know I need to go out more often when I think that was a joke about bikinis and not statistics.



AJ said...

Awesome! :D

I think Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds takes this to an entirely new level! His calm demeanour, but huge exuding power is brilliant!

Mohan K.V said...

Haha, glad you liked it sir :-)

Yes, Hans Landa. His every moment in the movie was brilliant - the first Jew-rat scene, the Cinderella scene - I can't count! He has this amazing cold demeanor that will keep you riveted whenever he's on. There many other scenes, even those not involving him. The Bear Jew scene where the German does not flinch, does not blink and looks straight into his eyes; the finger counting scene; many more.

But I viscerally hated the ending, and Brad Pitt's character in general. He 'won' everything he set his hands on, and Landa finally was humiliated. That primal justice which Tarantino is usually so generous with was lacking terribly.

I didn't mention it because it would seem like one too many an example, and I couldn't do my opinion of the film much justice by just a para or two - but I think I'll go add a few lines anyway, thanks :)

Anirudh said...

Full marks to Tarantino I say, for having the balls to make a film with an ending like that, flying in the face of history. My personal high in the movie was the sudden ratcheting up of tension in the bar and the way the german guy sees through the disguise of the englishman.

With regards to you not watching so many great movies, I say better late than never. The guy who plays Hartman was a drill instructor in real life. And anyway it's a Kubrick movie, all of them are great. Do try The Shining and Paths of Glory by this guy...awesome stuff. I am assuming that you would have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey

And lastly,if you want to see great movies about the Vietnam war you can't go wrong with Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon

N said...

You took most of the words in your post out of my mouth (ie., all of it except the English colonization part), but awesome, awesome!

I couldn't resist watching Inglourious Basterds again after our long mails about it and QT :)

whimsical neurons said...

WOah, your article shows it was done with tremendous effort to gather your resources well..I like the way you have savoured your favorite gut wrenching scenes kano..I share your opinion on the power fearing piece on pulp fiction but when it comes to actual tension because of the character in the story line, watched crimson tide? i am sure you have, that should have got a mention here i feel..Another opinion of moi is that no movie will ever..and i mean ever give the thrill that chills your bones as the books do of Alistair Maclean in HMS Ulysses and Puppet on a chain

N said...

BTW, I've seen that first scene of FMJ thousands of times in the past six months. Yet I couldn't reproduce the lines (which I can in the case of the Samuel Jackson and Jew-Hunter scenes), such is Hartman's colourfulness of dialogue- delivery!

One more thing to note: In the beginning of the scene, he keeps walking (marching?) at a steady pace for 01 minute and 15 seconds. All the while he keeps talking and demanding responses from his men. He (the actor) has to end his (improvized) dialogue AND stop walking exactly when he comes in front of Private Snowball!
So, either the scene was very well-rehearsed or Lee Ermey is too good an actor!

PS said...

Re: Marching songs and singing in a large group.

Sports are our tamed, boiled down versions of battles. It's what kept the Roman citizens at peace when Imperial Rome was too big for there to be significant wars in Italy, and it's what keeps most of us at peace today.

Go to a football game here and you'll find the same ritualistic shouting, name-calling and coordinated insults. What we had between hostels back in Madras amounts to pretty much the same thing as well.

PS said...

Oh, and see this:

Mahesh Mahadevan said...

Buoyed by what you wrote about Inglorious Basterds, I watched it (in god-bless-it 720p HD stream) today. I completely agree with your visceral hatred of the ending, and respect for the character of Landa. The ending of the movie was very filmi with the music for the projection room scene and such.
With absolutely no intention of denigration, "primal justice" reminds me of the way movie theaters were burned down if a Rajni/Captain(!) movie ends tragically.

robin said...

thanks for sharing.