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Mankind on the Late, Late Show

by Penelope Gilliatt

Reprinted from The Observer [London], Sunday, September 6, 1987, p.20

On my way out of Pinewood's screening room at 9pm to see Kubrick ('He'll definitely be somewhere') a message came that he was in the Chairman's flat on this very lot waiting. With his editor, I looked for the Chairman's flat. We went up and down Pinewood's grand stairs and marble halls, through dim passages of dressing rooms,tried the locked door of the restaurant that I remembered from the dud heyday of J. Arthur Rank. The same mock-Tudor furniture still, the same mock-Tudor woodworm, the same mock-stately topiary in the garden. But no Chairman's flat.

We found a way out again, drove in the direction of a mock-Tudor electric lantern, under which a lot of empty parked cars looked likely to be owned by a Chairman's guests. But no sign of Kubrick's white Porsche. Eventually we found humankind: a faraway figure at the security entrance. Telephones crackled. We could have been in the jungle. The Chairman's flat was unlisted, said the security guard. Then a clear message: Mr. Kubrick was not in the Chairman's flat after all, but at Shepperton in a dubbing room and free at eleven forty-five.

A quarter to midnight. I remembered his wife Christiane describing to me once his night-owl habits. Shooting over, he lives night-for-day. When other people are waking up, he is staring into the fridge for something for dinner. It takes awhile because he is editing in his head.

At Shepperton we were again in borrowed territory, which seemed apt enough considering the movie's Vietnam. This time it was an anonymous someone's 'drawing-room'. Sofa, coffee-table, a telephone, lamps. The tent-pegs of daily life -- events and conversations at usual times of day, places recognisably owned -- had vanished in this unmarked interlude. It was the no-world of Full Metal Jacket.

The film's Vietnam is a world of no compass-points: a young black American Marine turns a map round and round in vain and finally says 'I think we should change direction.' Yes, but where to? The war is a war of no declaration, no conclusion, no truthfully-named enemy. Its muddled bloodshed yields no gains. It is fought by nulled killer-Marines whose brutish training has been a total-immersion course in the lunatic. A trumped-up score of killings counts as a win in this nightmare dreamt for television, and haplessness is made to seem purposeful by dint of propaganda. We are in the airless zone of commercials.

"Vietnam was probably the first war that was run -- certainly during the Kennedy era -- as an advertising agency might run it," said Kubrick, after inspecting my tape-recorder ("Stanley would be perfectly happy with eight tape recorders and one pair of pants," his wife Christiane once said to me). "It was managed with cost-effective estimates and phony statistics and kill-ratios and self-deceiving predictions about how victory was the light at the end of the tunnel," death-grin pieces of the counterfeit language that Kubrick sees as a symptom of our growing and perilous willingness to entertain the sham. It is not just that our military jargon endows the manic with apparent level- headedness, it is that pseudo-scientific euphemisms congratulate cleverness when we urgently need intelligence.

"The Americans in Vietnam were encouraged to lie", he said. "If a couple of shots were fired on patrol it was good to say that you'd killed two gooks and if you said two somebody would make it eight." The points are made in a scene of an editorial briefing. Kubrick has studied those combat magazines with no relish of their bogus tone of home-spun authenticity. One of them, he says, even ran the TV guide. "The good-looking young lieutenant says 'We do two kinds of stories. Ones about soldiers giving perhaps half their pay to buy gooks toothbrushes and deodorants, that's the winning of hearts and minds; and ones about combat actions that result in a kill -- winning the war'".

Kubrick first hired Lee Ermey as his technical advisor. Ermey had been a Parris Island Marine drill instructor. "We had some of the greatest off-the-wall insults we'd ever heard. We had a transcript of 240 pages of his abuse". He was natural casting for the film's own sadistic drill instructor, the poetically scurrilous Hartman.

Hartman's horrendous discipline is drilled to its purpose. "If you're going to train elite fighting men, what you're talking about is killing. And obviously killing is something there can be equivocation about". Plighting your troth to a rifle is merely the start. As Hartman yells, 'Your rifle is only a tool. It's a hard heart that kills.'

I asked Kubrick whether he had ever thought of acting himself. Photographer for Look; in film, a writer, a lighting cameraman, a particularly innovative -- and musical -- sound man, a director, a producer, but not an actor. "Acting is an amazing, part crazy, part magical gift," he said. "An actor's power rests in his ability to create emotion in himself, and thus in the audience. The ability to cry at the crack of a clapper board is a very strange and rare talent. Of course, drill instructors can do it naturally because they're performers. And liars can do it because lying's generally important to the liar".

The screenplay is Kubrick's, Michael Herr's (author of Dispatches, an exceptional report about Vietnam that speak to a generation when it says 'I think that Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods'), and Gustav Hasford's, himself a Marine combat correspondent. Kubrick's attestor to the exactness of the vile training was Lee Ermey: "Of course, people say about the scene where fat Private Pyle had to walk with his pants round his ankles sucking his thumb, 'It doesn't happen like that today...' They always say that". The sardonic Stanley.

Paths of Glory stands close to Full Metal Jacket. The kinship is there even in the lighting, often innocently pale in both films in both films at their moments of darkest sophistry. Kubrick is far from a naturalist film-maker. When be stylises a technical choice, it is to point an idea. White for scenes of keenest atrocity: think of the white marble floors and the powdery white sunlight in Paths of Glory. The whitened scenes in Full Metal Jacket make magnificent use of the way colour film-stock can produce monotones. A white of awesome hygiene in a training-camp latrine where murder and suicide occur among endless forced mopping. White lime on graves neatly lined with Vietnamese corpses. White dust on the Faces of soldiers beyond fatigue.

It is no accident that, at the end of both Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket the killer-training of men is suddenly undone by the sight of a woman. In Full Metal Jacket, a sniper at the finish turns out to be a young Vietnamese girl already machine-gunned to near-death. 'Shoot me,' she says several times, and the only one who can manage it is the soldier who can never quite be plundered of mufti, Private Joker. The take on Matthew Modine's face lasts for "about a minute and forty seconds," Kubrick thinks. We seem to be watching the passage of a lifetime's sensibility. "Humanity rearing its ugly head," says Kubrick, in the style that he gives to expression of high feeling. How awry, the commonplace notion that this man is chilly. Kubrick's work and presence are full of grace notes.

Kubrick worries that our aggression and xenophobia may be beyond recall. "Probably way back they did serve a survival purpose. One way to improve the survival of the hunting band is to hate and suspect outsiders. Nationalism is, I suppose, the equivalent of what held the hunting band together. But with atomic weapons the evolutionary programming that served Cro-Magnon man now threatens our existence...International Law still offers little in resolving conflict between nation states but fighting, certainly between nuclear powers, offers only the possibility of extinction."

He sees much greater risk to world peace in the Arab-Israeli situation, the Iran-Iraq situation, than in anything going on between America and Russia. "South Africa's got a problem, but it's not affecting world peace". As he says this he looks to me distinctly Chinese: a sage, immeasurably old Mandarin playing Kubrick's favourite chess against a computer in the particle of time remaining while the rest of us, with luck, think.

I asked what had happened to his planned film about Napoleon. Years ago I had seen the trays of index-cards beside his edge of the Kubricks' bed. He said, "I'm not sure that in three hours you could do justice...." and wheeled his mind back to his current film again.

With the stilled ending in mind, I asked him whether he thought women could ever be turned by such a process into such excellent killers of killers. No, mostly because the training plays on vulnerabilities of young manhood. "Historically, armies have tended to be made up of adolescents. In Vietnam, the average age of the soldiers was 19. The shock of the brutal eight weeks of Marine Corp boot camp recruit-training is much like the ordeal of initiation rites young men must endure in primitive tribal societies. Added to which the drill instructor becomes a kind of nightmarish father-figure. There's also the strong appeal of a kind of down-market immortality. The DI says 'Marines die. That's what we're here for. But the Marine Corps lives forever, and that means you live forever'. That sort of identification with the Marines: the British have it with the regiment, don't they?" Though long based in England, Kubrick remains American, looking at his country with "distance giving a better perspective"; characteristically, he talks to anyone English enquiringly.

We had often spoken about the exile's capacity to carry time and place in his head. Kubrick is steeped in American TV and pop culture and movies, as well as in the books and music of Europe past and present. Memories of his film of Thackeray's Barry Lyndon: its score, its compassionate and saddened perceptions of the flaws of the mortal enterprise, in which it is very like Full Metal Jacket.

In the second half of the film, one swift exchange seems key. Private Joker, a writer in civilian life, wears the nuclear disarmament symbol on his jacket and 'Born to Kill' on his helmet. 'How is this war going to get won if you wear a peace symbol?' asks a one-cell rationalist testily. 'I think I was trying to say something about duality, sir.' Kubrick, too. He said, thinking out loud about the self-righteousness with which almost all the evil in the uorld is done, "We're never going to get down to doing anything about the things are really bad in the world until there is recognition within us of the darker side of our natures, the shadow side."

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