Saturday, 12 March 2011

This is Vietnam, the Movie!

First to Go, Last to Know.

After 20 bloody years of US military intervention in Vietnam, the war ended and the country was united. The understanding of the war is that it was undertaken to prevent the spread of Communism from North Vietnam. However it was South Vietnam that was the major target of US aggression in the early years of the war. The Diem regime, which was installed and supported by the Eisenhower administration, was overthrown at the behest of the US in 1963. Even still it is the only war which the US did not come out of officially the victor. But it was a success in that the currents of independence in the region were crushed and Vietnam was prevented from emerging as a positive model of independence. To help soothe the wounds of this loss Hollywood has pumped out flicks like The Deer Hunter and Platoon which depict the American experience of the war. Oliver Stone tells us the first casualty of war is innocence, not the Vietnamese who died first, whilst Michael Cimino tells us that the Vietnamese liked to force American POWs to play Russian roulette - a lie of proportions fit for the Third Reich. These films take the side of the aggressor, not the victim.

Full Metal Jacket is in part a deviation from this trend. It is not a tissue of lies rarefied by the American national anthem, a tear sodden tale of lost innocence or a roid-pumped theme park for the white man to go "wild" in. Essentially the range goes from the jingoist celebration of violence to the shibboleths of liberal cinema, which see the need for thousands of deaths for the sake of a character arc. But it is still a film which takes the view point of the aggressor and, in doing so, inevitably sides with the oppressor. Where the Vietnamese perspective should be, there is only the American experience. The central focus of Full Metal Jacket is the process of training and indoctrination through which civilians are turned into killing machines - complete with nom de guerres like Cowboy and Joker - which is a way for the soldiers to be humanised for the audience. By contrast the Vietnamese are presented as faceless drones all too deserving of a death at the hands of American troops. The only real appearances made by the Other are of Vietnamese women, again only as prostitutes and killers.

The work of Stanley Kubrick is far too complex and so polysemic that to write it off so soon would be to ignore his ingenuity, greater discussion is required. Rob Ager argues that the scenes set in Vietnam are a satirical take on pro-war propaganda. Joker is writing for Stars and Stripes and in one scene the Chief Editor bluntly instructs the team on how to distort the coverage of the war. Behind him a banner reads: first to go, last to know. Joker and Rafterman enter the field to cover a platoon in battle, but they are part of a propaganda outlet and therefore we get a biased take on the story. Take the first battle of the film. It is an unbridled display of firepower and machismo, which quickly subdues the invisible enemy, which necessitates a piece of 1960s surf-rock soon after. The surf-rock continues to play as we see Joker's camera team filming the platoon in battle, the soldiers are lying down as if using concrete rubble for cover from enemy gunfire. But the camera men are not shot and are undeterred to carry on filming, there was no danger from enemy fire and the platoon was putting on a show for the press. A soldier even shouts "This is Vietnam, the movie!"

The "verfremdungseffekt", a distancing effect, which keeps the audience aware that the story is not of reality but an artefact of it. It keeps the audience in a state of heightened awareness, that prevents a emotional attachment with the story and keeps the theatrical set up from "naturalising" what appears as so unnatural. The dialogue of the soldiers is risible, particularly evident in a set of mock-interviews, contrasted with the serious and tragic nature of warfare. Before all of this we have observed the indoctrination process and not to mention the cynical instructions to rewrite a story and give it a "happy ending, say one kill". The satirical battles of previous scenes are cut away to make room for real combat as the squad descends into cowardice when faced with a sniper - who picks them off, one by one. After Cowboy's death the remaining members of the Lusthog Squad seek revenge on the sniper. Joker is caught off guard as his weapon jams and the sniper turns around - it's a woman! But she is swiftly gunned down before she can do him any harm and Joker puts her out of her misery.

The Shadow of White Men.

In the scene in which Joker and Rafterman cover a recently unearthed mass-grave, an atrocity committed by the Vietcong, a Colonel states "We are here to help the Vietnamese because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out." The depiction of the Other in the film is not just a simple case of "faceless drones" but of shadows which represent what the American troops have repressed as part of their training. This is down to the Jungian influence on co-writer Michael Herr, which made way for the concept of the Shadow - consistent of repressed weaknesses and instincts . The enemy is almost always to distant to see in battle, and when the enemy can be seen they are depicted as faceless silhouettes. It could be that the silhouettes of Vietcong killed in the film represent the weaknesses and instincts that the American soldiers have repressed as part of military training. Back at the mass-grave, the bodies of the deceased have been covered in lime and have been laid out in a similar symmetry to the recruits sleeping in their beds in previous scenes.

The objective violence of war is absent and filled by the subjective violence suffered by American soldiers. The suffering of the Vietnamese remains in the background and only occasionally comes to the forefront of Joker's story. The unearthed mass-grave is a crime committed by the Vietnamese against other Vietnamese, but similar crimes are absent in the film or only arise in allegorical forms. As is the case with the shooting at the end in which it is still Joker's perspective which matters and, like the prostitutes, she was asking for it and her death will be his burden to bare. We should build on the interpretation of the Vietnamese as a kind of Shadow for the Lusthog Squad and conclude that the women in the film are the realisation of man's guilt. This radical anti-feminist theme goes back to Adam and Eve, woman is conjured up out of man's desire and so if man "cleanses" himself woman will cease to exist. This is man's lowest mythology. In killing the Shadow the Lusthog Squad "purge" themselves of such desires and thus absolve themselves of guilt. 

There are plenty of Vietnamese who die at a distance in the film, but Vietnamese women are given greater screen time (out of the victims). Out of these women two of them are prostitutes and the third is a soldier who wastes three marines before being killed herself. Three soldiers killed for each appearance of women, one of whom is also killed, the cost of their sins is implicit and we might even interpret the sniper's killings as a form of violence which differs from the objective-subjective distinction. Similar to the Biblical locusts which comes seemingly out of nowhere, a means without an end, the divine punishment for man's sins - divine violence. The Benjaminian divine violence should be understood not as the vengeance of the People's Will, but as a sovereign decision to act made on the assumption of absolute solitude. The decision to risk one's life and strike blindly against the oppressor, enacting the point of non-distinction between vengeance and justice. It is Judgement Day for all the rape and carnage so flippantly indulged in by the Squad. Tragically the swarm of locusts is cut short as the sniper is wasted.

We could view the sniper as a vanishing mediator for Joker, a necessary even in his arc and we might generously note that in the context of a satire on pro-war propaganda the kill is necessary. The kill is the "happy ending" demanded by the Chief Editor, it is the inhumanity of Joker's institutional role - that of a war correspondent - revealed by Kubrick for the viewer to judge. So the death of the woman was a necessity in the narrative. In the ending we watch as Joker and the Lusthogs march onwards and childishly sing, oblivious to the depravity of their actions. Joker's mind turns to fantasies of a home-coming fuck with a "Mary Jane Rottencrotch". It does not seem as though this conclusion required the killing and that might be a testament to the meaningless and absurd nature of war. But it still feels too generous to Kubrick, the indifference of Joker at the film's conclusion is hardly noteworthy. Though Kubrick was interested in the indoctrination of young men which turns them into killers, it cannot be glossed over, this is not the side of the victim.

Ablution of the Oppressor.

When Joker encounters the first of the two prostitutes he remarks that half of Vietnamese prostitutes are members of the Vietcong. This comment is not meant seriously but hides a certain truth which is expanded on later. In the scene in which another prostitute is encountered, this time by the Lusthogs and we might infer that the death of the sniper is actually an allegory of the gang-rape of this prostitute by the soldiers. In war sexual deviancy and gang-rape are not uncommon, for instance in the Second World War Russian soldiers committed mass-rapes in Eastern Europe. The Vietnam war was no different and so we can make the assumption that the prostitute was subject to gang-rape by the Lusthog Squad. The sniper is taken by surprise, but Joker's weapon jams  and he can't fire and has to take out a smaller handgun while taking cover from her retaliatory gunshots. It is then that the sniper is cut down in a blaze of gunfire by Rafterman. When viewed as an allegory this scene changes and becomes particularly despicable.

We can see as Joker is about to pull the trigger, the peace symbol on his jacket is concealed behind his collar as he turns slightly. The shot fired is on the surface a crime which he has participated in, at the same time it symbolises his part in the sexual humiliation of the Other and the merciless destruction of Vietnam. In defence of Joker we might point out that he is a reluctant participant in this crime, there is nothing inherently monstrous about him nor malicious about his intentions. It is just a by-product of the indoctrination process and so on, which of course may well be true. There is still the troubling mystification of the victim, a killer yearning to be killed as a prostitute yearns to be fucked. Joker is devoid of a basic level of decency in the end, there is no grand reflection on his part in all of this. The juxtaposition of the sniper sequence and the scenes involving prostitutes may be an intentional hint on Kubrick's part, it is impossible to tell, that the sexual degradation of the Vietnamese in this way is equal to killing them. Again, this feels too generous but it is a possibility.

We could also read the sniper's death at Joker's hands as an allegory for the role he played in Pyle's descent into madness and eventual murder-suicide during the training scenes. It might even be a direct allegory of the scene in which Joker takes part in the beating of Pyle with soap bars. Out of the guilt for his conformity in beating a fellow cadet emerges the Other - a Shadow of this guilt that must be "cleansed" - which functions as a vanishing mediator. Once it has challenged Joker and he rises to that challenge, it can cease to exist. The challenge is the divine violence of luring the Lusthogs one-by-one to a drawn out death. But just as he failed to disarm Pyle, and "stomp" his guts out, Joker also fails to waste the sniper when it finally comes down to it. There is a sense in which Hartman took Joker's place in the murder-suicide which Joker was unable to prevent. We might go further to say that the sniper took Joker's place in being killed and that is the greatest humiliation for Joker. Note that the focus is still on the suffering of oppressor, even as he commits murder or fails to do so.

From this only a fractured normality can be restored, things will never be truly the same, in the aftermath. A reversion to youthful memories of Disney cartoons and immature sexual fantasies, coupled with the indifference to the magnitude of war crimes, is ultimately where the American troops are left. The indifference is all that is left over after the guilt has been "cleansed" and the Vietnamese, in all forms, no longer need to exist. A lot like the flushing of a toilet, shit is problematic only when there is a blockage and once this blockage is gone we can continue as normal. This is the horror of war cinema. The Other is just the filth conjured up by the American desire to fight Communism, promote democracy and freedom etc. The consequent guilt can only be "purged" with a full bucket of fake blood, strident imperial arrogance and persistent self-pity. The crimes can be recognised only to reassure us that we were the true victims all along. The Other can then be flushed away, it is no longer needed once it has served it's purpose in the narrative.

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