Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Truth be told, I could write a column of Framed every week for at least a year highlighting something from a Stanley Kubrick film. Kubrick's technical mastery is legendary -- his films are meticulously made with every shot, every camera placement, and every angle considered in the way only a filmmaker with a background in tournament chess could conceive. His reputation as a perfectionist is well-documented, with countless tales circulating about how he required dozens (and in some instances over a hundred ... ) takes to get exactly what he wanted.
Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket may not be the first film that springs to mind when thinking about striking imagery in a film -- not because it's lacking in artistic merit, but because some of Kubrick's other films (most notably, 2001) are such visual marvels. Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick's last commentary on the nature of war, is relatively drab looking affair -- filled with muted colors, harsh lighting, and a certain graininess that seems almost unflattering. There's a method to Kubrick's madness though -- and each of these things, along with the incredibly formal framing of many of the shots in the film, serves a specific purpose in creating the mood and subconscious tone of Full Metal Jacket.
The title was based on Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers, and follows a group of soldiers from their indoctrination into the Marines on Parris Island to their tour of duty through war-torn Vietnam. Matthew Modine's character, given the name Private Joker by Drill Instructor Hartman on the island, is our focal character. We follow Joker from the tragedy at boot camp through his time with Stars and Stripes as a war journalist in Vietnam. Much has been written about what Kubrick's main thematic concern was in this film, so I'll not spend a lot of time talking about it. There are great pieces devoted to that very topic written with far more depth than I could present here. So I'll only be talking about some of these things as they relate to the technical and artistic aspects of the frame I've chosen to discuss this week.
The image in question occurs during the first half of the film, when the recruits are at basic training. Private Pyle, played by Vincent D'Onofrio, is the group's perpetual screw-up. R. Lee Ermey's character, the belligerent Drill Instructor Hartman, has discovered that Pyle's footlocker isn't properly secured. Ranting about that, he discovers that the portly private has hidden a jelly donut in the storage unit, which sends Ermey into a total meltdown. He tells the men of the platoon that he has failed to help Private Pyle because they've failed to help him help Private Pyle. As punishment, the Marines will do push-ups while Private Pyle stands at attention in the center of the room eating the donut.
Kubrick had regularly worked with cinematographer John Alcott from the time he made 2001, but his colleague chose not to be involved with this particular project. Kubrick then hired Alcott's assistant, Douglas Milsome, who'd previously done second-unit work for Kubrick on The Shining and served as focus-puller on Barry Lyndon. Milsome wasn't billed as a cinematographer on Full Metal Jacket (he was instead given the title of "lighting cameraman"), but he did spend a great deal of time with the director discussing the film's visual look. He also reveals a bit about the filmmaker's penchant for high numbers of retakes in an American Cinematographer article from 1987:
"The many takes are not just repetitions of the same thing, they are often building upon a theme or idea that can mature and develop into something quite extraordinary. The whole structure of the scene can actually change during the operation of filming it ... The large number of takes are used mainly to get something out of the actors that they're not willing to provide right away ... There were occasions on Full Metal Jacket where we went a few more than 25 or 30 takes, but we usually didn't average more than 10 to 15 takes."
In that same article (which is unfortunately not online to my knowledge, but if you can find it I'll bake you cookies), Milsome talks a bit about what Kubrick wanted when it came to the film's look. He stated that Kubrick was aiming for a desaturated, documentary-style appearance in Full Metal Jacket, which is why they push-processed the film to achieve its somewhat grainy look, odd blacks, and reduced contrast.
The still above highlights many of the visual motifs that recur in Full Metal Jacket -- and in countless other Kubrick films as well. While many critics have observed that Full Metal Jacket feels like two distinctly separate films merged into one, the aesthetics of the movie's images are consistent in both parts. For example, the framing of the shot is very formalized -- so perfunctory in its presentation that it feels almost devoid of style. Kubrick returns to this time and time again throughout this particular film, but predominantly in the basic training segment. It's a very deliberate decision on the director's part in that it highlights how formal and regimented the process of basic training is. Young men arrive at Parris Island from different backgrounds and situations, but they must all be molded into one cohesive unit of Marines. Discipline and ritual are the keys to making this happen. There's nothing glamorous about war or the process of making men into killing machines. This image shows us that simply through the framing.
We see more of this regimented order and symmetry in composition of the frame. The architecture is ordered and precise and the drab greens once again highlight that function is more important than aesthetics. The bunks are utilitarian as well. Milsome and Kubrick take it even further with the dual lines of Marines doing the push-ups, each one right next to his footlocker -- and each footlocker perfectly aligned with the others. Yet again, we get the sense that everything here is designed to subconsciously convince the viewer (or the fledgling soldier) that order and uniformity are vital to being good soldiers. Even the men themselves, all with the same shaved heads and white undergarments, make the point that there's no place here for the individual.
The harsh lighting also supports these ideas. The glare of the fluorescent overhead bulbs casts out all the shadows in the room. Shadows breed secrets and are good for hiding things, and in the Corps there's no room for either of those things. The group supersedes the individual. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the image to me is the collection of personal items spread at Private Pyle's feet from his footlocker. It stands in stark contrast to everything around him. It's chaos in the ordered universe Kubrick and Milsome have created -- a not-so-subtle visual reminder that Private Pyle still hasn't learned these lessons about the brotherhood of Hartman's beloved Corps.
Full Metal Jacket gets its fair share of flack for being rather "bland" in the visuals department. The first half of the film takes place at boot camp, which is a largely unimpressive environment, and the second half takes place in Vietnam -- but not the 'Nam of so many other films. Rather than focus on dense jungles filled with foliage, Kubrick's Vietnam is more a rubble-strewn cityscape, almost reminiscent of something from World War II. It's filled with gray, brown, and rocks, but there's still a beauty to it -- not in the striking nature of the imagery -- but more so in what Kubrick chooses to tell us through these choices. A lesser director (and cinematographer ... ) would have argued in favor of making the film flashy -- of filling it with vibrant jungle greens and blood reds -- but that's the antithesis of what Kubrick's aiming for in Full Metal Jacket. To do that would be to miss the point completely -- war is not glamorous or beautiful. It's an ugly event that does horrible things to people. The mere act of preparing to be part of a conflict is essentially dehumanizing. We must lose ourselves to become part of a greater whole. Kubrick shows us all of this through the shots and images he's captured in this film, and it's why he's one of the greatest filmmakers to ever work in the industry.