This post contains spoilers for Full Metal Jacket and Hidden.
I’ve always loved Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, so when I had to choose a subject for my MA 'effort' a few years back, it was a pretty straightforward choice. My title? The Use of Visual and Narrative Symmetry in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Catchy, eh? (OK, probably not). Rather than reproduce the whole thing here (and believe me, if you read it you would thank me a million times over), I thought I’d go over a few of its points just for the sheer fun of it...
First off, there is an excellent Kubrick resource here – it doesn’t look as if the site has been updated since 2002, but as far as on-line resources go, you can’t beat it. However, the one thing it doesn’t seem to cover in its discussion regarding FMJ is just how completely obsessed with structure this movie is – not just in the screenwriting sense of the word (where 'structure' usually means three acts, i.e., set up, conflict and resolution), but in its visual and narrative constructs as well.
I don't think it matters whether you regard FMJ as possessing two acts or the more traditional three, it is immediately apparent that the film is split into two very distinct halves – the Parris Island boot camp and the second part which takes place in Vietnam itself (which in fact is an abandoned gasworks in North London). Other than the apparent switch in location, the two halves of the film have very distinct visual identities: the Parris Island segment is ‘clean’, symmetrical, ordered. In the Da Nang segment, this symmetry has all but disappeared. The tension of the first act has almost completely dissipated and the film almost appears to drift, as if it is in search of a suitably involved narrative.
Some critics identified this as a major flaw of FMJ, but I think this is the whole point of the film. The Parris Island segment is structured around the figure of Sergeant Hartman, who stalks the boot camp within a variety of almost perfectly symmetrical shots. When Pyle kills Hartman, this pivotal figure is removed from proceedings altogether, and the ambience of the film drastically changes. To my mind, Hartman is the structural ‘core’ of the first part of the film, inasmuch as his words and actions provide meaning and organisation to what the recruits are experiencing. With Hartman dead, meaning and order evaporate, leaving the recruits to fend for themselves – hence the decidedly marked visual differences between the two halves.
There was a Kubrick interview in Newsweek around the time of FMJ’s release in which Kubrick stated that his intention with FMJ was “to explode the narrative structure of film”. Kubrick did this in FMJ by using structure to literally break up the narrative to the extent that the traditional notion of character is subsumed by structure itself. For example, the parade ground sequences demonstrate the rigid structure that the Marine Corps imposes on new recruits. Watch Pyle as Joker assists him in many aspects of Pyle’s basic training – initially, Pyle doesn’t get the hang of things at all. These sequences are shot from right to left, and show Pyle effectively going backwards. When Pyle starts doing better and responding to Joker's attentions, the sequences shift to left to right. In the first half of the film, character is expressed partially via the way that entire sequences are constructed. It’s probably the reason why FMJ has such a weird, unsettling ambience – the more formal elements of filmmaking have been brought to the fore, whilst the more traditional staples of narrative and character development are stripped back, leaving a film that is almost the diametric opposite of Platoon’s trite ‘war is hell’ message.
One of the most useful things I took from FMJ is that by suppressing or entirely doing away with the more commonly articulated elements of narrative, you can create space for interesting questions to be asked – a potentially far more intriguing state of affairs than the current obsession with McKee’s Story. Look at Michael Haneke’s Hidden – where a character’s ‘arc’ often describes a journey from non-awareness to enlightenment, Hidden does the opposite – a supposedly progressive liberal discovers that at the core of his being lurks an unpleasant, reactionary conservative – Georges’ ultimate reaction to where his ‘journey’ takes him is that he is more than comfortable with the way things are, a state of affairs that threatens to endure with the film’s famously cryptic and interminable closing shot.
All of which is very long winded way of saying that there can often be more to structure than meets the eye. The problem with discarding major narrative building blocks is that you’d better have something pretty compelling to put in their place, otherwise your script will look like an exercise in form for form’s sake – something that Last Year in Marienbad comes dangerously close to becoming. Alain Robbe-Grillet talks about his intention with Marienbad to "construct a purely mental space and time – those of dreams, perhaps, or of memory, those of any affective life – without worrying too much about the traditional relations of cause and effect, or about an absolute time sequence in the narrative." It all depends on the sort of script you want to write, and the types of themes that you want to explore.
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