Full Metal Jacket

September 25, 2011

Those who waste their time at this blog will not be surprised that I think there are film makers, and there are artists who make films, and Stanley Kubrick was one of the artists.  Full Metal Jacket (1987), is his second war film (after Paths of Glory) although war figures in many of his films, of course.

I remember when I first saw it thinking that it was very odd.  It’s actually almost two separate films:  the first part is about training to be a marine; and the second part is about the fighting during the Tet Offensive around the city of Hue, the one that famously had to be destroyed in order to be saved.  Watching the film again, I see better how they fit together.

Matthew Modine plays, Joker, a young recruit who undergoes the brutal, humiliating, and physically exhausting training of all marines.  We don’t know why he, or any of the others, wants to be a marine, and it’s hard sometimes to keep in mind that he’s only a young man, perhaps not even in his twenties.  What does he know about anything?  He seems to have inklings of deeper issues – he explains to a screaming officer that he wears a peace symbol on his body armor and has “Born to kill ” on his helmet because he “was thinking about the duality of man, Sir! the Jungian thing…Sir!”  He definitely seems more drawn to the killing side of man’s nature, however.

Kubrick was fascinated by machines, and the metaphorical process of rendering human beings into mechanical, de-humanized things.  The goal of marine boot camp, with all of its crushing physical labor, endless psychological assaults, and endless, machismo and obscenity, and seemingly pointless drill (invented as a training process during the 18th century, which knew a thing or two about mechanism – think of the battle scene in Barry Lyndon) is to break the man down to nothing and build him back up to a member of the unit.  A man who cannot conceive of himself as separate from the unit, and its mission, and who will obey orders, run towards danger, and fight to the end without flinching.  To make him a part of a fighting-killing machine.  The world outside of the marines ceases to be of importance or worthy of respect:  only the Corps, the unit, and the mission count.  Old norms are dumped: thus, the endless trash-talking about fucking your sister, or your mama, who’s even better

This is what prepares the men for combat in Vietnam, and how this warrior ethic and training play out in the ambiguous, corrupt and murky killing fields of Nam is what the second half shows.  It’s not a pretty picture.  This is no Greatest Generation fantasy that Tom Brokaw might spin into a best seller.  The enemy is not always clear.  Sometimes the enemy may be us.  After all, the first casualty in the film is Pyle, the witless, overweight private (Vincent D’Onofrio), who finally makes the grade, but at the cost of his mind.  Actually, he’s the second casualty:  he shoots his drill sergeant first.

The men have no clear notion of why they are there, and seem perplexed that the Vietnamese don’t appreciate the mayhem they bring. A few soliders, like the screaming officer who says that inside every gook there’s an American trying to get out have very naive, imperial notions.  Others, like the helicopter machine gunner who mows down peasants and water buffalo – Ain’t war hell?  Ha, ha, ha! – have gone over the edge into evil.  Joker observes, but what he thinks is not shown:  he does nothing to prevent it.

The film begins with shots of the new recruits being inducted as maggots by having their heads shaved:  say goodbye to civilian life!  While the drill sergeant is an equal opportunity abuser, disrespecting all races and creeds equally, the white on black, and west on Asian racism is thick, especially once the men are in combat.  In combat, all the men are equal and comrades, but when it comes to priority with whores, the only locals with whom the guys interact, they have to wait in line for whitey.  We leave these gentlemen warriors as the march away from a successful but bloody engagement with a female sniper heartily singing the Mickey Mouse anthem.  Joker’s voiceover tells us of his joy to be alive and short (his balls intact)


Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…

Is this Evil?

May 18, 2008

Somewhere I read a definition of what is an evil person:  An evil person addresses his own problems by inflicting pain and suffering on others.  I think that makes the Burmese ruling junta a perfect example of evil personalities at work.  Thousands are in agony and dying without reason, while the junta, jealously protecting its position, does very little.  Better that the little people should die than that they should suffer any threat to their position.

Deliver Us from Evil

February 19, 2008

The most beautiful syllogisms, I think, are those employed by those old Christian Platonists to explain the existence of evil in the world. From Augustine to Boethius, and on, they argued away the Force of Evil, and so dealt a death blow to a major argument against their notion of God as the Supreme Good. How could evil exist as an independent and vital force in the world if God was omnipotent and good? Didn’t the Manichees, against whom Augustine argued, have a point, that evil was coextensive with, and the equal in potentcy of God? Wasn’t the universe the scene of battle between these two equal and opposing forces? How else to explain the existence of suffering, misery, treachery, and all things sordid and bad in a world created by the Good? Nope, not at all! Evil, we are told, does not exist, because it is simply a supreme lack of goodness; it has no being.

Things are insofar as they are good, or partake of the good. Things are, to the degree to which they partake of their essence. Consider a chair: A good chair does just what a chair should, supports your weight comfortably while you sit. A very good chair might be beautiful to look at too. (Some people would say that a beautiful thing is one that is what its essence is, that is, one that partakes of its essence. Thus, beauty is objective, and certainly not in the eye of the beholder, a notion that Voltaire satirized in his Philosphical Dictionary.) A bad chair is one that fulfills these functions poorly: it is ugly, uncomfortable, rickety, and falls apart soon. So, we might say, the good chair is more of a chair than the bad one, or partakes of chair-ness more than the bad. The good chair meets or fulfills our notion of what a chair is more completely than the bad one, and is, therefore, more of a chair. We all talk this way all the time. A fine fellow is a real man; a jerk is less of a man.

It’s not hard to see where this line of reasoning is going: We in society have a notion of good and bad, and we have notions of the Good, at least for specific categories, such as chairs, steaks, or automobiles. (Nevermind that our notions about these specific goods might be totally at odds with each other – that’s a different problem!) When we consider the moral realm, the realm within which we judge of good and evil, we see that those actions that we call evil are those which are in conflict with our notion of the good. The Good, we might say, consists partly in having compassion for others, so those who lay about them with selfishness and contempt are bad, bad people, not under the force of Evil, but who have fallen away, so to speak, from the Good. (Of course, we assume that Good sets the standard, the path, from which one strays. We could imagine an alternative universe where the Bad is the standard and Satan is the supreme ruler.) God and his Supreme Good remain triumphant in their fullness of Being, containing as they do the ultimate nature of all Good, and evil is simply the non-attainment, to one degree or another, of Good. It’s a continuum, from Evil, the supreme non-being and negativity, to supreme Is-ness, total being and goodness. It’s a great idea, and it appealed to people very deeply for a very long time.

Of course, there is a concrete reason for associating goodness with being, that is, existence. Things exist by virtue of having qualities, things that are described. Insofar as things have qualities, they are. What is there to say about a nullity? What can be described or said? And the better a thing is, the more qualities it is likely to have. Advertisers understand this, perceptive philosophers that they are. They describe everything in terms of its new and many featured functionality to convince us that theirs is the best car, the best radio, the most good computer. Isn’t more better? So, if more is better, if things are by virtue of their qualities, and if good things are those that are most like their essence, then those that are good at being what they are, have more being. Simple.

So fear thee not evil, it has no power. Seek the good and true, secure in the knowledge that evil is ignorance and error. And know that even in error there is truth, for error is merely a less correct apperception of what is than is the truth, that is, it is a falling away from the true and the good, not a statement of something else. Everything is good, but some stuff is less good, i.e. more bad, than others. We are on a great ascending scale: seek to raise yourself towards the Fullness of Being by cleaving to the truth. We walk about this world surrounded by objects that are like red hot embers sizzling in the white snow, their heat fanned to glowing by the breath of Being. Watch your step.

The universe encompasses all that has being and all that is not. It is the sum total of all truth and of all error. Nothing can be uttered that is out of this world. The nature of any thing is its history, the description of what it is and has been, in its progression through time and space; a recitation of its qualities as it moves towards or away from what it is, in essence. Nullity and being are the two faces of the universe, so why worry about whence came the world? It has always been here. Before the Big Bang, there was, perhaps, the Big Nothing, and it too was the World.