Archive for July 1987

Full Metal Jacket

July 2, 1987

Somewhere near the middle of Full Metal Jacket, the sardonic protagonist Private Joker (Matthew Modine) is asked by a disdainful colonel why he wears a peace symbol on his flak jacket and has “Born to Kill” written on his helmet. Joker’s answer? “I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man.” This detail is not unimportant: Full Metal Jacket and almost everyone in it are split right down the middle. The movie is formally split: Its first half unfolds at Parris Island, where clueless “maggots” are hammered on the anvil of military training until they are forged into human weapons; its second half is set before and after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, where many of the bits of business in the first half pay off. Stanley Kubrick didn’t just make a war movie; he made a philosophical inquiry into the birth of killers — which is presented here as man coming to grips with the Jungian Shadow.

If that makes Full Metal Jacket sound stodgy and dull, it certainly isn’t. Kubrick was an entertainer as well as an artist, and the film’s first section comes as close to pure comedy as his double whammy of Lolita and Dr. Strangelove in the ’60s. Indeed, much of the movie reads as a bizarre conflation of those earlier classics: sex and violence, violence as sex. “This is my rifle, this is my gun,” the recruits’ drill sergeant Hartman (Lee Ermey) bellows, grabbing his crotch on the word gun; “This is for fighting, this is for fun,” the maggots call back. The recruits are trained to embrace the permanent hard-on of a rifle: As long as you are a Marine with a gun, you will never be flaccid. The homoerotic tone of the training sequences is also unmistakable. Lined up with shaved heads, the recruits look like stiff dicks, with Hartman always shoving his loudly open mouth into their faces. The entire experience seems driven by a violent terror of homosexuality and femininity, in this spotless white place where young men sleep in close quarters, shower together, shit together.

Lee Ermey has given subtler performances since (he was nicely quiet in Dead Man Walking and Seven), but his relentlessly antagonistic turn as Sgt. Hartman gave him instant cult status he dines out on to this day (hosting the military show Mail Call, presiding over talking-doll replicas of himself). Hartman is a clown, but a clown who bites. His initial browbeating of the pathetic Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), who can’t keep from smirking at the drill instructor’s elaborate invective, is hideously funny because we wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face either. Then Hartman cuts Pyle’s laughter off (along with his oxygen), and ours, too. Under Hartman’s pitiless tutelage, Pyle gradually becomes a competent recruit but also subhuman. The implication is that this is the obvious trade-off, though others in the same batch of recruits — Joker and his buddy Cowboy (Arliss Howard) — manage some intellectual detachment from the process and retain some humanity. Pyle doesn’t; he becomes what the Marine Corps wants — a perfect sociopath “married to his piece.”

After the first section — a prologue promoted to Side A of an album — the movie becomes anecdotal, with analogues of the boot-camp characters popping up everywhere. Nobody in Vietnam is as dominant as Hartman, but we’re given a rather lackadaisical authority figure, a lieutenant who edits Stars and Stripes and sends reporter Joker off to cover Tet with cheesedick photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Major Howard) in tow. Kubrick plays with military language here — a new directive encourages reporters to replace “search and destroy” with “sweep and clear” (“Very catchy,” snarks Joker). Pauline Kael’s review complained that the Marines’ “language is inert,” but the dialogue here is another instance of Kubrick’s fascination with “phatic speech” — verbiage with no content. A lot of the dialogue is just callow boasting, especially when Joker meets Pyle’s Vietnam twin, Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), and pretty much distrusts him on sight. (The brutal Animal Mother, who resembles a harder Pyle, is what Pyle might have become if he had survived the Island.)

Full Metal Jacket gathers tension in a cruelly mathematical sequence foreshadowed by Hartman’s earlier praise of infamous Marine-trained snipers — Whitman, Oswald — who showed what one motivated Marine and his rifle could do. The platoon has made a wrong turn; acting doesn’t get any finer than Arliss Howard and Dorian Harewood (as the ironic Eightball) looking at a map and realizing how far off they are. One by one, men scamper over the treacherous rubble of Hue and get picked off ignominiously. Kubrick summons up whispers of the uncanny here, as if the god of war himself is reaching down and unplugging these robots of combat. There is a face-off mirroring the final one between Joker and Pyle, only this time Joker does not “hesitate in the moment of truth.”

Coming as it did after Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and after seven years of silence from Kubrick himself, Full Metal Jacket couldn’t help but disappoint critics, none of whom really seemed to get it. Some turned to Gustav Hasford’s more emotionally transparent source novel, castigating Kubrick for yet another icy view of humanity. Kubrick, it was said, painted portraits of inhumanity by denying his characters their humanity. But there is humanity here, though not the sort we generally like to face. It is humanity as flawed system — the faulty meat run through the grinder of war. Hartman reigns over his enclosed kingdom of recruits, but he’s not getting them ready for war. He’s getting them ready for death.

The Lost Boys

July 2, 1987

People called me on the phone all the fucking time. I couldn’t even rent a fucking tape without six fucking phone calls interrupting me. “Hey — when’s the next time you’re getting some?” “Motherfucker, I’m trying to watch ‘The Lost Boys,’ you know. When I get some, I’ll let you know.”
— Tim Roth, “Reservoir Dogs”

So there we were, browsing the shelves for a horror flick. And there it was: The Lost Boys. Normally we would’ve kept browsing. But Corey Haim had just died. So there we were, watching The Lost Boys.

It hasn’t aged well. At all. Aside from a cool cover of “People Are Strange” by Echo and the Bunnymen, the soundtrack is precisely the wrong kind of ’80s cheese — lots of synth and drum machine, no soul. And that pretty well describes the movie, too. If you were young enough to be part of the movie’s target audience in ’87, you might’ve thought it was totally rad. I somehow missed it back then, and only caught snippets on cable over the years. So this was my first time with The Lost Boys. As a time-capsule piece and a gallery of ridiculous hair, it’s fitfully amusing. As a horror film it blows up on the launch pad. I’m more of a Fright Night fan myself.

The late, lamented Corey co-stars with his fellow Corey (Feldman), in the first of several collaborations. I know I should’ve been feeling a pang of sadness watching him as a teenager battling with demons, but I didn’t really make the connection. The movie doesn’t, either; it loses sight of its own potentially intriguing subtext. A bunch of motorcycle-riding vampires are terrorizing Santa Clara, seducing Corey’s older brother (Jason Patric) into their fold. The film’s memorable tagline went “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It’s fun to be a vampire.” The movie never quite delivers on that last promise. Kiefer Sutherland, as the vamp we take to be the leader, exudes a certain bored decadence, but in this movie being a vampire isn’t much different from being an average j.d., other than the bloodsucking bit.

We don’t feel that it must be fun to be a vampire; no, that would make the film interesting. Instead, vampires are the usual outside threat to the dull nuclear family, though mom Dianne Wiest is divorced and moving herself and her sons in with her hash-addled old dad (Barnard Hughes). The Lost Boys lacks any subversive kick; Blackboard Jungle was more dangerous. There’s maybe a shaky bit of symbolism in the vamps’ turning Patric by encouraging him to drink from a bottle of blood (just say no! friends don’t let friends drink and bite!), but for the most part the youth angle is simply there to put teenage asses in seats. It’s not commenting on anything. So for The Lost Boys to work at all, it has to work as straight horror, but Joel Schumacher’s direction makes everything weightless, easily digested and shat out. Sutherland is allowed a few eerie moments — as with his Ace in Stand by Me, he’s of the school that quieter is scarier — but the rest of the vamps, including future Bill & Ted star Alex (billed as Alexander) Winter, are laughable mullet mannequins.

The early scenes on the neon-seared boardwalk in Santa Clara, where vampires come out at night and go unremarked, set a promising mood. But before long the movie gets away from that carny atmosphere, and we get a lot of fog or tedious daylight scenes. It doesn’t help that the key factor in Patric’s seduction is vamp tramp Jami Gertz, perhaps the worst actress in history. (They couldn’t have cast anyone else? Absolutely anyone? Cyndi Lauper was too busy?) It all ends with a loudly gauche climax that involves, among other things, blood gushing out of a toilet. By that point, the movie has long forsaken any chance it had to forge a coldly striking ’80s style. Most of The Lost Boys looks incredibly pedestrian, despite the presence of master cinematographer Michael Chapman.

So there we were, watching an ’80s teen-vampire flick with very little gore, no nudity (hardly any sex, other than a preposterous MTV-style fling between Patric and Gertz with no heat whatsoever), no drugs (unless you count blood addiction), and, God knows, no scares. Why were we watching? Corey Haim had just died. A semi-valid excuse that will expire soon, until the other Corey buys it.


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