Kubrick’s shaman/artist takes on “the leaders”
Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey) baptizes his maggots with names to denote innate characteristics and to mark the recruits’ transposition from regular society to a brotherhood that lasts forever. Private Joker’s (Matthew Modine) sardonically aloof soldier joins the Marines and, when he is shipped out to Viet Nam, wants “to meet interesting and stimulating people from another culture…and kill them.” Gomer Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), the good-natured screwup, cannot help grinning until he meets the drill sergeant. Cowboy (Arliss Howard) is from Texas, while a black member of the platoon at Parris Island is called Private Snowball.
When Joker hooks up with Cowboy’s unit in Hue during the Tet Offensive, he meets Eightball (“the nigger behind the trigger”), Crazy Earl, Hand Job, T.H.E. Rock, Lieutenant Touchdown (he played football at Notre Dame), and Animal Mother. The latter immediately confronts Joker: “You’re a combat correspondent, did you ever see any combat?” Joker is the quintessential anti-authoritarian who cannot take anything seriously. He wears a peace button but on his helmet he has written “Born to Kill.” Animal (Adam Baldwin) is the real killer whose helmet reads “Man Become Death.” He has guts but no ideals.
A couple years after having seen the film, I happened on the term “Animal Mother” in Joseph Campbell’s Primitive Mythology, which quotes a Siberian informant: “Every shaman must have an animal-mother or origin mother. It is usually pictured in the form of an elk, less often as a bear. The animal lives independently, separated from the shaman. Perhaps it can best be imagined as the fiery force of the shaman that flies over the earth.” According to another source, “it is the embodiment of the prophetic gift of the shaman; it is the shaman’s visionary power, which is able to penetrate the past and future.” (266) The Cambridge Encyclopedia defines a shaman as:
A person to whom special powers are attributed for communicating with the spirits and influence them dissociating his soul from his body. The spirits help him do his chores which include discovering the cause of sickness, hunger and any disgrace, and prescribing an appropriate cure. They are found among the Siberians and other Asiatic people; his activity also evolves among many other religions and with other names.
Other attributes or descriptions of the shaman include being an “archetypal technician of the sacred,” “a guide, a healer, a source of social connection, a maintainer of the group’s myths,” and someone who can enter altered states of consciousness and feel himself “travel.”
The last person to whom we would expect the soldier Animal Mother to refer is the director, Stanley Kubrick. Animal Mother is the platoon’s most ferocious warrior. The helmet moniker alludes to Openheimer’s remarks from the Bhaghavad Gita at the time of the atom bomb, which suggests Animal represents the unlimited if not frightful power. He also displays signs of deep bigotry, as when he says to Eightball: “Hey Jungle Bunny, thank God for the sickle cell.” In combat, however, he risks his life to save Eightball and, ultimately, will lead the platoon after Cowboy is shot by a sniper.
Yet, after seeing a documentary on Kubrick, the overwhelming impression given by his coworkers, critics, and family is that he could be both caring and terribly brutal. Further, Sergeant Hartman exhibits characteristics of the taskmaster director, especially after he knocks down Joker and points directly into the camera: “You will not laugh, you will not cry, you will learn by the numbers.” This boot camp scene not only trains the soldier recruits for combat but whips the audience into condition for watching the film. Incidentally, Hartman matches Animal Mother’s bigotry (prejudice that only lifts when the Marines are in the shit) when he declares: “I DO NOT look down on niggers, wops, kikes, and greasers. You are all equally worthless.” The civilian audience may not readily understand the Sergeant’s severity, which aims to make the soldiers function better as a group.
Kubrick performs a delicate operation in the film by having Hartman and Animal Mother serve limited if essential roles in society – actually within an element in society – but not in Kubrick’s own thoughts. We can categorize Hartman as “inhuman” because his mission is to create killers, but he helps bring the recruits into manhood and give them skills to function independently within the group. Joseph Campbell writes that the shaman has “bird and animal familiars who assist him in his task.” Hartman’s name, in part, refers to a red deer.
The artist as shaman is nothing revolutionary. One symposium exploring this very connection explains: “Like Shamans, artists have the ability to explore alternative realms. Artists can retrieve healing energy, knowledge, larger truths and ancestral wisdom, to give form to the forces which shape our world.” Oliver Stone overtly combined the artist and shaman roles in modern society in his depiction of Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991). The film would have us believe Morrison’s stoned and drunken states represent a state of higher consciousness. More, in depicting a Doors concert, Stone directly aligns Morrison and a shamanic Indian figure as if to infer that Morrison bringing the concertgoers to a heightened ecstatic state was the promise of late 1960s pop culture.
The parallel between Morrison’s antics as a rock star/shaman and Stone’s as director/shaman emerges more strongly in JFK (1992). Stone defended his version(s) of the assassination as the creation of a countermyth to all of the theories up to that time. While I feel JFK‘s strength is its emotional truth — specifically, its dramatization of the trauma Kennedy’s death caused the United States — Stone’s and his film’s role as “healer” or “guide” never materializes, perhaps because Stone takes too seriously the history he is presenting. That is, Stone tries too hard to make a statement and for months became involved in a debate over conspiracy theories and cover-ups. Ultimately, he became the living parody of all conspiracy theories. JFK also became Stone’s definitive explanation for the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. It was the workings of the military-industrial complex. Not coincidentally, the film starts with this very speech of Eisenhower’s, as if it were a thesis statement.
Many critics expected some form of “statement” about the Vietnam War from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which disappointed for many reasons, one being the impossibility to satisfy anyone should Kubrick have made such a statement. Many judged the film as just another aspect of Kubrick’s cinematic totality — themes, images, characterizations, and motifs — and thereby nullified the film’s expected statement. Missing from this was the possibility that Kubrick’s general critique of society, especially American society, was apropos for dealing with the general failure in Vietnam.
There is a mid-1970s Jules Pfeiffer cartoon in which five respective presidents, starting with Eisenhower, suggest they are not responsible for that failure. Kennedy says “I was only sending advisors”; later Johnson, “I was only following Jack”; finally, Ford, “What was the question?” In the final panel stands Henry Kissinger pointing his finger at the reader: “It was you who lost the war. Because you didn’t trust your leaders.”
Full Metal Jacket, like most Kubrick films, conveys great skepticism regarding anyone in authority: most of the leaders of squads and platoons in Vietnam, as well as Hartman back at Parris Island, are killed. Kennedy’s assassination is mentioned during a scene on Parris Island. And in the last scene, the troops march to the Mickey Mouse song: “Who’s the leader of the club…” suggesting the leadership of Johnson, McNamara, Kissinger, Westmoreland, LeMay, etc. was “mickey mouse.”1 To question the basis of authority — the authority that tells us specifically it knows what it is doing, that is, has a Plan — more often falls to the artist who can dramatize the very need to question.
Kubrick’s approach to the shaman remains indirect and subsidiary to the totality of his art. In one respect, we might liken the film to a trance. Campbell writes that the trancelike state “when properly fostered, yields an adult not only of superior intelligence and refinement but also of greater physical stamina and vitality of spirit than is normal to the members of his group.” (255) Under fire, in “the shit,” marines acquire the “thousand-yard stare,” an ability to see beyond. Such seems the purpose of Kubrick’s art, to train the viewers of his films to see beyond the images on the screen and acquire a superior critical consciousness to help strengthen society.
- For an intriguing closeup of this leadership, see Errol Morris’ The Fog of War (2003). We see one of the leaders spell out as precisely as he can why we were and stayed in Vietnam. [↩]