Friday, February 28, 2014

A Film I Love: Full Metal Jacket

I have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to television programmes or films. I'll sit through an hour-long episode politely, but I've never binge-watched an entire TV series on DVD. When I watch movies by myself on my laptop or on Apple TV, I hit the pause button every half-hour unless I really, really, really like what I'm watching.

There are only a few movies I am capable of sitting through every single time I re-watch them, no matter how fidgety or distracted I am. And chief among them is my all-time favourite movie, Full Metal Jacket (1987).

I first saw it at the tender age of five, thanks to my father's lax parenting. I remember hiding behind the sofa when (26-year-old spoiler alert) Private Gomer Pyle (Vincent D'Onofrio) blew his brains out in the lavatory. But I was also fascinated by the incredible rantings of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) and the (again, ancient spoiler alert) completely unexpected ending. As I grew older I understood more of the film and its impulses. It always seemed to be floating around, lying somewhere on the living room shelf/in a computer hard drive/school library video collection, and I could never resist watching it just one more time.

What I love about Full Metal Jacket is firstly, the quotability of the dialogue. The movie was inspired by Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers, which director Stanley Kubrick loved for its 'poetic... carved-out, stark quality' (thanks, Wikipedia). So Full Metal Jacket is a movie that moves around the rhythms of the dialogue, like a jazz score complete with genius improvisations - witness Hartman's famously ad-libbed threats and insults in his introductory scene, a solo virtuoso performance that blows everything else out of the water. Joker is the movie's bassline, a laconic presence thrumming with moral tension, while Private Pyle and his tragedy constitute the operatic climax reached in the first act of the movie.

Secondly, the depth is just amazing - it is a Kubrick production, after all, his attempt to show what war was like. Now, I've never been to war, or even to National Service (I have done my tiny, top-security bit to protect the nation, does that count?) but even I know that what Kubrick presents is not so much realism as a hyper-reality, a telling of the truth that bears only a half-resemblance to daily existence. Yet it's still the truth, and you know it. Yes, there are explosions, and people dying, and prostitution and misery, but someone like Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin) wouldn't really have a quote from the Bhagavad Gita inscribed on his helmet ("I am become death") because a real-life Animal Mother would have the reading level of an eight year old with severe ADHD. But all the same, he has become death. So it's true.

Lastly, the duality present in Full Metal Jacket is probably a topic that every film studies major has pulled together a half-baked essay on, but I'll contribute my thoughts all the same. As Joker wrestles with the "duality of man" (sample: "I wanted to meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture... and kill them") he is surrounded by dual characters and themes ("inside every gook there is an American trying to get out"). The dehumanisation of the Marines in boot camp (beating Private Pyle under the cover of night) shines darkly against their grief and desperation at losing their friends to the mystery sniper. Private Pyle himself, a pale and wobbly contrast to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman's tough and leathery exterior, gains in physical strength and skill at the same time that Hartman softens up, complimenting his shooting and emphasising that "you are definitely born again hard!" (A lovely bit of irony - Pyle's rebirth is Hartman's death.)

My favourite duality involves the Saigon hooker ("Me love you long time! Me so hoooorny!"), about whom Joker makes a somewhat prescient remark: "Half these gook whores are serving officers in the Viet Cong, the other half have got TB. Be sure you only fuck the ones that cough." The prostitute's counterpart is the virginal teenage sniper, who takes on the role of the deadly aggressor until she is dispatched by Joker. While the prostitute sells her body to the Americans, the young female sniper uses her physicality to deal out death to them. Kubrick also piled on the irony by having Gunnery Sergeant Hartman brag about "what one motivated Marine and his rifle can do!" in the first movie's first half, then showing the devastating consequences of his boast in the second half - except it's done to the Marines, not by them.

I've always been fascinated by the American perspective on the Vietnam War, a weeping wound that they can't stop picking at. The war was the hammer that shattered America's charmed self-image, exposing the hollowness of the American Dream and American superiority. The heart of Full Metal Jacket is the inherent darkness and doubt of the American psyche, barely hidden by the hoo-rah surface exposition of these chatty-as-hell Marines. ("You talk the talk... but do you walk the walk?") To confirm this, all you need is the final scene:

A parting note: You know you've watched a movie too many times when you don't have to use IMDB to look up the quotes - and you still end up wasting time on YouTube re-watching all the scenes. The only other film I can do this for? Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995). But that's another essay, for another time.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How Will I Know/Hallelujah

Two songs for this year's Valentine's Day, because why not? (OK, so I couldn't think of a third to make a list.)

The first is Whitney Houston's How Will I Know, which is a sweet pop confection, transformed into something of rare and permanent value thanks to her unearthly vocals.

I was reminded of the video after seeing one of my students, a 13-year-old with a penchant for oversized DIY bows on her head - the 80s' are certainly back from the dead. It's such a perfect song for teenagers experiencing their first romances, although the teens of today might be a little confused by the line about being too shy to call someone up on the phone. ("Why can't she just text him, 'cher?") I love the anticipatory, buoyant energy and optimism - it's all so innocent, a time before Bobby Brown, crack pipes and reality TV.

If How Will I Know marks the beginning of one's romantic life, then Hallelujah comes at the end. (It's been on my list of funeral songs since I was a gothic 16.) The Christian imagery is deeply personal, and the lyrics transcend bitterness to become simple truth. I don't believe in God, but I believe Leonard Cohen when he tells me that "love is not a victory march, it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah".

There must be about a hundred thousand covers of Hallelujah floating around the Internet, and everyone's got a favourite. (Nobody really likes the original - Cohen was a poet, not a singer, no disrespect.) Forget the American Idol or X Factor contestants, the pop princesses warbling out a B-side to pad out their albums - the top three versions of Hallelujah are, in my opinion, Jeff Buckley's, KD Lang's and Steven Page's. While Page actually did sing it at a state politician's funeral, and Lang sang it in front of Cohen himself, I still prefer Buckley's version from his album Grace to all others.

In the hands of a lesser performer, the song can sound deadly monotonous, and a little too knowing. But Buckley's take on it is fluid, almost liquid in its complete surrender to Hallelujah's beauty and religious overtones. Listen to it in a dark room. Take note of his guitar playing. Maybe this is what communion with the Holy Spirit feels like.

Certainly, Buckley's untimely death lends pathos to his recording of Hallelujah. If you listen to the studio version - also available on YouTube - it begins with Buckley's seemingly unconscious breath, a sudden drawing in of air that feels so unbearably intimate. He drowned 16 years ago, but here he is tonight, his sighing in your ears and his voice reaching deep into your gut. Hallelujah is about more than love. It's life itself, and - death.

Happy Valentine's Day.