Reflections of the Third Eye
14 May 2013
Full Metal Jacket's Gomer Pyle reconsidered
Now Playing: Paul Page "The Reef Is Calling"
Topic: F

This is it. After years of self-deception, I'm finally throwing in the towel. It just doesn't work, or doesn't make sense, no matter how  much I would like it to.

What am I talking about? Well, in short, this:

I have gone on record many times calling Full Metal Jacket one of my favorite movies from one of my favorite directors. Unlike most of Kubrick's works it is very realistic in tone and look, which is one reason I've rated it so highly. I was there when the Usenet Kubrick forum carved out the standard 101 analysis of the movie, chipping in with a thought or two but generally remaining on the sidelines while the expertise flowed back and forth. This high-brow group had earlier improved my understanding of The Shining in several useful ways.

For example: It is not true that Jack Nicholson makes a poor portrayal of a drunk in the bar scene with 'Lloyd', because he is not actually drunk; he is a man going insane who imitates a drunk, as part of the ghostly drama evolving inside and around him. In other words, Jack plays a nutcase pretending to be drunk. I admired the ingeniousness of this viewpoint, but after a while I realized that it was probably true. I had erred in not fully understanding the context of the scene, mistaken multilayered personas for weak acting.

Following this crash course in Kubrickiana, I became rather cautious in voicing any detailed opinions on his movies except on a general note of (usually) appreciation. The fact that these works seemed to get better with each repeat viewing confirmed the soundness of this approach. Applying this on Full Metal Jacket, I concluded that it was one of Kubrick's very best; flawlessly executed as always, but also gaining an edge from its strong anchoring in actual events, i e: US marines in Vietnam.

Now, every once in a while during the half-dozen times I've watched it, a little voice of dissent would clear its throat and question whether Vincent d'Onofrios characterization of Leonard aka 'Gomer Pyle' really needed to be so radically broad, given the realistic tone and look of the rest of the movie. But the lesson I had learned from debating Nicholson's performance in The Shining would bear down on this polite little dissident, and insist that d'Onofrio's performance was right on the money, it was simply a case of me failing to understand how the larger bolts of the narrative machine came together. Besides, with time the whole thing would surely look appropriate and maybe even prophetic. This was, after all, Kubrick.

So I went with this self-editing and professed my love for Full Metal Jacket and how its three parts were brilliantly juxtaposed etc etc & blah-blah. The case of Gomer Pyle was simply above suspicion, but there was always a nagging feeling that I wasn't done with the movie. So when recently Full Metal Jacket came on TV, I figured I'd take another round with it as I had nothing better to do. This improvised screening meant eschewing the ritual of selecting the DVD from the shelf and placing it in the player, which may have contributed to the more critical mindset I brought to this viewing. Or maybe the time had simply come for a new perspective.

Rather than sort of blanking out the scenes where it looked like d'Onofrio's performance was way off the wall, I watched them closely to try and figure out the motivation behind them. Because it's not Vincent d'Onofrio (a very good actor in my opinion) we are watching, but rather Stanley Kubrick's instructions to Vincent d'Onofrio. Any Kubrickian knows that the Master wouldn't commit a single shrug or nosepick to celluloid without thinking it through, and so whatever d'Onofrio had his character do, it was what the omniscient director wanted. And given my general respect/awe for Kubrick, I figured there was some justification or logic in there that I simply didn't understand, just like in The Shining. Right.

Except that this time, the rationalization didn't work. I saw nothing but an actor doing a decent job 90% of the time, then skid off the road during the remaining 10%. After being portrayed as a slightly dimwitted and undisciplined grunt among others not much superior, Leonard unexpectedly goes 'full retard' in a scene where Matthew Modine's 'Joker' shows him how to tie his shoelaces. Not only is the basic scene questionable, but the exaggerated look of childlike adoration on Leonard's face jars badly with the apathetic loser we've seen so far, and with the brutal world of adult men that is the world of Full Metal Jacket's first act. It's an embarrassing, cringeworthy scene, not so much because of the acting but because it doesn't make sense in the context of the movie. What does the movie gain from this? If anything, our sympathy for the underdog is diminished rather than heightened, and, most of all, the harsh naturalism that is one of the strongest assets is suddenly undermined.

Towards the end of the Parris Island sequence, we are told that Leonard aka Gomer Pyle 'can't hack it anymore'. It is an unnecessary piece of dialogue because d'Onofrio portrays Leonard's breakdown by going over the top in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. Instead of being Joker's starry-eyed protagonist he has turned into a psychotic war machine living in symbiosis with his rifle. As the freshly baked marines gather to receive their combat assignments, Leonard gives off a blank psycho gaze while his fellow soldiers cheer and laugh. What he shows is in fact the Kubrick Stare, familiar from earlier movies such as 2001, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In the Kubrick Stare, the protagonist is looking straight into the camera from beneath a prominent forehead and eyebrows, giving off an arresting look of predatory concentration. If this was the peak of d'Onofrio's 'psychotic' interpretation of Leonard it would have been a fitting signal as well as a thought-provoking reference to Kubrick's earlier fims.

But of course, this is not the case, because the grand finale of Act 1 takes place in the Head (so branded with a sign on the door) and finds a Leonard more psychotic than anything psychotic you've ever seen before, except maybe in bad Psychotronic features. The Kubrick Stare has been augmented with a crazy smile to create a truly unsettling appearance which, unfortunately, looks quite incredulous and, once more, clashes badly with the realistic tone of the preceding scenes and indeed the entire work. Not only does he look like something from a comic book, but his voice has become completely altered as well, from mild-mannered sad-sack to a devilish sneer. The inevitable logic of the actual events that transpire in the Head needn't be dwelled upon, and the interesting question here is again: what does this scene, and the whole Parris Island segment, gain from the highly theatrical performance delivered by d'Onofrio during the climactic scenes? As pointed out above, there is nothing random or unplanned in a Kubrick movie: d'Onofrio portrays Leonard this way because Kubrick has encouraged him to do so. But why did the director want this?

25 years have passed since Full Metal Jacket premiered. The idea that time would reveal the meaning of elements that seemed dubious on early viewings may apply to some aspects of the work, but as far as I can tell, d'Onofrio's overacting still looks like overacting in 2013, and these scenes stick out like a handful of clumsy, inexplicable brush strokes on an otherwise beautifully realized painting.

This most recent viewing of Full Metal Jacket also helped clarify a couple of aspects to the middle act that have troubled me somewhat. Again, I was helped by the excellent critical 'walk-throughs' compiled by the Kubrick fans on the internet.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:46 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST

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