Today’s topic: the controversial Kubrick. Whenever you wonder about the great figures of cinema, there is always one name that keeps coming up in many different departments; from directing and writing credits, to sound and visual effects, to cinematography and camera work. The name is always the same: Stanley Kubrick. His contribution to film is immaculate, and as Scorsese himself has said it: ” One of his films… is equivalent to ten of somebody else’s. Watching a Kubrick film is like gazing up at a mountain top. You look up and wonder, “How could anyone have climbed that high?”. He’s the mountain everyone aims for but no one can achieve. Is it the perfect structure and shot composition? Is it his great vision? Is it the movement on screen? Is it the pulsating cinematography and production design? Many have asked themselves these questions, and the answer will remain forever unknown. However, for me there’s always been something else that stood out in Kubrick’s pictures: the courage. It takes a lot of it to direct movies like Lolita, A Clockwork Orange or The Shining. In my opinion, every movie of his was too ahead of its time and most of them still are to this day. He often spoke out against our common beliefs, traditions, laws, and still managed to let this protest be beautiful and impactful. No matter what was on screen it was always somehow fascinating to watch like the violent rape scene in The Clockwork Orange or the obscene cult sequences in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s frames always speak to the viewer and most importantly; they make him feel. That’s why I think Kubrick has made an impact on how we view cinema: he introduced controversy.
While analyzing this particular topic, I decided to pick one of the director’s most controversial and yet, lesser known films; Full Metal Jacket. Sure, it’s probably quoted in many best war movies’ lists, but most people today don’t know what’s so special about it other than the perfectly depicted gore and violence. Kubrick introduced a new way of approaching documentary-like filmmaking by tackling the subject of the Vietnam War when the wound was still fresh. 1987, the Cold War is slowly coming to an end, and people can definitely feel it, not only in the US but all across the world. Change is coming, and hopefully for the better. However, Kubrick doesn’t like the idea of people getting on a high horse. Full Metal Jacket is a painful reminder of what happened when the world started to believe in fairy tales. It’s a warning. That’s why it looks so real, like a documentary, because Kubrick wants us to experience the useless pain and suffering of every soldier that goes fighting a no man’s war. There is no idealization, no glory in this film. There are no medals, no speeches. There is no honor. It comes to the point where a US Marine plays with the corpse of a dead Vietcong operative. He plays with the dead man’s hands, laughing. Laugh at the horror, says Kubrick. Cry later.
It’s all about the way the director presents the material, that’s when the movie acquires a voice. Here, Kubrick chooses to use the television-box-like aspect ratio instead of the typical widescreen because this way he creates an atmosphere that creeps into every home, emphasizing the role of television in transmitting the images of the Vietnam War to the American public. It’s called portraying the truth rather than fiction. We don’t have main characters in this movie. Yes, we have some that stay with us until the very end, but we never focus on any of them. We focus on the whole concept of a military squad. We can’t tell who dies and who doesn’t. When a character is too “visible” for us, Kubrick eliminates him. From boot camp to the destroyed cement jungle of Hue City, we follow these guys until the very end, until the moment when even we, the viewers, can’t tell the difference between what’s right and wrong anymore. With Kubrick not even boot camp is a safe place. Like many documentaries filmed in the 1980s (Anybody’s Son Will Do), Kubrick’s opening scenes are first of all meant to show us the tough environment and the cold welcoming recruits usually get. But Kubrick takes it to a whole other level when he depicts the real damage boot camp can inflict on a recruit’s mental state; that of getting to the point where one of the many jarheads shoots the drill Sergeant and then proceeds to shoot himself right in front of his only friend (or enemy?). That scene was something out of the ordinary when first shown to audiences: aren’t boot caps supposed to make men out of hippie crazed teenagers? No, you’re all blind and deaf, says Kubrick. See evil. Hear evil.
Are there friendly faces among the Marines we follow? Kubrick writes the way he directs: straightforward, harsh but all wrapped up in a blanket of beauty. He says, stop believing in characters that don’t exist. The soldiers who came down with an objective, lost sight of it after a few days. Joker, who was supposed to be the squad’s reporter doesn’t care anymore if he takes the right photograph of a mass grave and the right description or not. It doesn’t mean anything anymore. Violence creates violent people. Marines and other fellow soldiers become animals with no compassion, no empathy, no dreams, no feelings. They shoot for the fun of it. They fight ghosts in a ghost town, that of a post-bombing Hue City. They chase what can’t be chased. And ultimately they play out a battle against one single enemy – an entire squad of Marines against one sniper, hidden in one of the many abandoned buildings. What’s the twist? The sniper is a little girl. Now, the controversy (if not yet visible) is this: in movies like Sands of Iwo Jima or Lawrence of Arabia we witnessed epic battles that always showed two equally strong sides fighting over a piece of land, usually a mountain, a forest, a hill, or even the desert. Here, an entire squad is shooting up a set of ruined buildings just to smoke out one small mouse: in this case, a twelve year old holding a sniper rifle. And when finally, after many unnecessary casualties, the Marines manage to kill the girl, they walk over to her and stand, gazing at the child’s blood. They can’t feel anything. They’re animals gazing at their prey.
Maybe now, that we live in an era filled with extravaganza, obscenities and everything “going viral”, this may not seem like anything exceptionally controversial. But Kubrick was a master at defining each decade with one single film. And I’m sure that if he was still alive, he would sum up our present reality with a major eye-popper.
When Kubrick does it, it hurts. Beautifully.