The moviegoer: Author, actor, and humorist John Hodgman. Perhaps best known as the “PC” in the “Get A Mac” Apple ads and the “resident expert” on The Daily Show, Hodgman recently completed a three-part almanac of “complete world knowledge” (The Areas Of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That Is All). He’s also the host of the Maximum Fun podcast Judge John Hodgman. His apocalypse-themed stage show, John Hodgman: Ragnarok, was released as a Netflix Original on June 20.
The movie: Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick’s provocative 1987 Vietnam drama follows Private J.T. Davis (re-dubbed Private Joker), played by Matthew Modine, as he goes through boot camp with the Marines and resurfaces in Vietnam as a war correspondent for Stars And Stripes. The film has two distinct parts: the first set on Parris Island, South Carolina, where Private Joker and other recruits, including Vincent D’Onofrio’s troubled Private Leonard Lawrence (a.k.a. “Private Pyle”), suffer the abuses of R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman; the second in Vietnam, near Hué, during the Tet Offensive.
The Dissolve: Was this your first time watching the movie?
John Hodgman: No. I saw Full Metal Jacket when it came out, like all film-nerdy teenagers did in the ’80s. But I had recently been in L.A. and I knew the Kubrick Exhibit was closing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was a big exhibit that was basically all over Instagram for six months because it displayed a lot of original props and costumes, as well as some really interesting correspondence and other documents relating to Kubrick’s life’s work. So for the past six months, everyone in Los Angeles has been posting the same photograph of the dresses of the creepy twins from The Shining. [Pause.] Including me. Well, I didn’t end up Instagraming it, but I was very tempted to.
So I went to that exhibit on my birthday, by coincidence, because I happened to be in town, and I was like, “I’ve got to see this thing before I go, because I will not be back before it closes.” It was really, really fascinating, and very moving for me to walk through amidst all the Kubrickiana, because I am a fan, of course. But it is hard to be an ardent fan of work that seems so clinical at times. It was easier to be an appreciator than to be ardently in love with the work of Kubrick, to some degree. And he had such a reputation for being so prickly and weird and controlling, but what you saw when you would read his correspondence is that, first of all, oh yeah, people used to type things.
There was also the technical aspect, because they did have his entire collection of lenses, which was fascinating to the person I was walking through the exhibit with, who works in movies and was really interested in it. “Yeah, here’s the thing: Not many directors own all of their equipment this way.” But he had an array of tools, of lenses, that he used to get very specific kinds of shots, sometimes lenses he had taken from other uses, that were not used for film cameras, but were used for low-light photography, that he adapted to film use so he could get images in Barry Lyndon that were lit entirely and actually by candlelight.
But also, you’ve got this whole array of now-anachronistic ephemera that used to surround moviemaking. Telegrams congratulating Stanley Kubrick on a good job, or informing him of a boycott of Lolita. Lots of letters from religious people and self-proclaimed patriotic people complaining to him about Lolita and Dr. Strangelove—letters he obviously kept and treasured in his own way. But also letters back that he wrote to people. What you gleaned was that he was not entirely a cold, calculating monster, but was a normal person, and indeed his retreats to England and his refusal to fly and his claims that he was afraid to fly seem to have been a myth that he started around himself so people wouldn’t bother him. And by people, I mean people at studios, basically.
Here were all of the movies, the great Kubrick movies that he made and then also some of the other ones. [Laughs.] Which, look, I never saw Eyes Wide Shut, and I should. Between you and me, there’s certain people who when they appear in movies, I just can’t go to see those movies. I’ll leave it to the world to interpret who I could possibly be talking about. [Laughs.]
So I strolled through the small passageway they dedicated to A.I., appropriately. Because there’s not much to show. Nor did I want to give that movie any more consideration than I already did sitting through it. Now, arguments can definitely be made that A.I. is a beautiful, amazing movie, and part of me doesn’t doubt that that’s true. Phil Morrison, director of Junebug and the Apple ads, who became a friend of mine for that reason, loves that movie. But I found it very hard to take. Not because it was bad, it was very affecting, and it was just something I did not enjoy sitting through emotionally. But there you go.
And then there was Full Metal Jacket, which, it was almost this moment of, “Oh, right. There was this movie.” I don’t know why I had almost forgotten Full Metal Jacket existed. I was 16 at the time, and even then, I knew enough about Kubrick to really appreciate his work. I’d seen all the major works at that point, and even at 16, I was attuned to the fact that a lot of people thought it was a lesser work. What was interesting was that Kubrick’s daughter [Vivian] shot tons of behind-the-scenes footage for a documentary that I’m not sure ever was released, but they clearly had some of the footage there, because they were running it on a loop. And they were running on a loop the behind-the-scenes moment where Vincent D’Onofrio, spoiler alert, shoots R. Lee Ermey in the chest, and then Matthew Modine confronts him and says, “Put the gun down, Leonard.” And it was really interesting to see Kubrick work, because I had not seen a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. What I had seen was the famous footage of him basically terrorizing Shelley Duvall in The Shining.
It was profoundly normalizing to me to see him just giving Matthew Modine run-of-the-mill direction. I became interested again in Full Metal Jacket, having not given it much thought. I liked it when I saw it. I didn’t understand why people had a problem with it, so I said, “I’ve got to see this movie again.” That afternoon, I left the museum and flew from Los Angeles to Toronto to film five back-to-back episodes of Canadian Match Game as a quote-unquote celebrity panelist. I was flying Air Canada, and would not you know it, of the many On-Demand movies Air Canada offers its customers, one is Dr. Strangelove and the other is Full Metal Jacket. So I weirdly had this Stanley Kubrick double feature flying to Toronto, watching these movies on a 5-inch screen, the way they were meant to be seen.
But even though they were on a 5-inch screen, they were still profoundly mesmerizing. I think there is no other word I would ever use to describe a Stanley Kubrick film but mesmerizing. They are hypnotic. Hypnotically beautiful, and considered, and paced in such a dream-logic style that you are experiencing something cinematically that I don’t think anyone else really quite captures. One of the things I learned about Kubrick in that exhibit was his conviction that cinema is not about story, per se, but about creating an almost orchestral mood. He compared it to music. That it provoked emotion on a number of different conscious and unconscious levels, and that story is only one of the instruments you are playing with in order to create a mood. That is true of his movies. They cloak you in a mood.
It struck me just how much of Full Metal Jacket I knew. Knew cold. Like the back of my hand. Having only seen it twice or maybe three times in my life and certainly not for 15 or 20 years. I’m old. And how many of the lines I knew, how many of the shots I remembered, how I knew what was going to happen next, how I could not not know what was going to happen next, because every bit of it felt so inevitable. I was also struck by just how deeply this movie had ingrained itself into “bro” culture. All of these lines that frat dudes say to each other, “What is your major malfunction?” or your willingness to fuck a guy in the ass and not have the common courtesy to give him a reach-around—all this stuff that came out of R. Lee Ermey’s mouth that had suffused culture. I realized this movie is profoundly influential, culturally, in an almost invisible way. All of that macho basic-training stuff really got to a generation of “dudes.” I think it affected the language centers of their brain forever.
So as the movie went on, I was also struck by just how great it was. What was everyone’s problem? [Laughs.] It was a great movie. There is, as far as I’m concerned, not one wrong note. I was talking about it with a couple of people after this experience of watching it on the airplane, and the same thing kept coming up: “Yeah, I didn’t like that one,” or, “That one wasn’t so hot,” and it was the same received-wisdom criticism which was, [haughty voice] “Yeah, well, the first half was great and the second half was not great.” And people were profoundly disturbed that the movie was kind of cut in two, between basic training and action, and then the second big criticism was, [haughty voice] “It was a Vietnam movie, but where was the jungle?” What a profoundly ignorant criticism to make. Like, “This does not conform…” There was a city of Hué. You know what I mean? There are cities in Vietnam. But for some reason, I remember hearing the criticism at the time that the movie did not conform to what had already been calcified as the popular imagination of what a Vietnam movie should be, which disqualified it for a lot of people. This idea that it was a flawed movie, that the first half was good and the second half was bad because it wasn’t in a jungle, is calcified in popular imagination, but it’s not true. There’s not a scene in it that isn’t totally essential and paid off. There isn’t a scene that isn’t set up by something in the first half. Matthew Modine’s transformation into someone who can kill after he’s avoided it for so long is set up from the very first scene, the very first moment R. Lee Ermey is yelling at him. It’s an incredible achievement, I think.
The Dissolve: The two halves contrast, but also echo each other. There’s that really chilling scene in the first half when Modine’s character, who had taken D’Onofrio’s character under his wing, starts whaling on him. That potential comes through again at the very end with the sniper, where he’s showing his kill face. The two halves are a complete vision.
Hodgman: Yeah. And do you understand what I mean with Full Metal Jacket infecting bro culture? Because all that camaraderie and toughness… Platoon didn’t put that into our popular culture. Full Metal Jacket did. There was something so intense about watching that basic-training scene, and I think it spoke to a generation of dudes who would never, ever, ever, ever go into the military, but found that kind of punishment-and-reward system, and the camaraderie it builds, viscerally attractive. And I think one of the reasons people rejected the second half of the movie is that it’s not fun the way basic training is fun, because there are human stakes. It is fun to listen to that guy yell curse words at dudes. It’s such an iconic performance that I had forgotten R. Lee Ermey wasn’t even supposed to be in the movie. He was the technical advisor. And the actor they had hired wasn’t cutting it. The control of [Ermey’s] body and his voice… That guy obviously had trained for one acting role his entire life. He had more mastery over his body and voice and inflection than most actors ever dream of getting. It was honed to that single purpose, and that’s what made it so powerful.
The Dissolve: He had the actual life experience. Supposedly much of his dialogue was improvised, which was very unusual for a Kubrick production. Have you seen Room 237?
Hodgman: I have. I watched it also just recently, because I saw the exhibit and I love The Shining so much, in part because it is intrinsically a great movie, and in part because Stephen King wanted to remake it. I love Stephen King. He’s an inspiration to me. And one of the things that’s an inspiration to me is that when everyone in the world says, “The Stand is a great book. We love it. Thank you,” Stephen King says, “Yeah, but I had to cut out 400 pages. I’m going to put them back in.” He is an auteur as much as Kubrick is, and an eccentric one. For someone to look at [Kubrick’s] The Shining and say, “This is not good. I have to remake it as a TV movie with Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay,” there’s something so beautifully blind-spotted about that. And also self-directed and sure. “Stephen King, you do it. If anyone has the right to, it’s you.”
But The Shining speaks to what makes Kubrick such an interesting and, for a lot of people, troublesome filmmaker, because he does not give you what you want. At all. He does not give you a Vietnam movie set in the jungle, and he does not give you a horror movie that is just like Stephen King’s The Shining. He doesn’t even give you scares for a long time, [just] ominous foreboding. And it takes people a while to figure out, “Oh, maybe I don’t know what I want. Maybe this is better.”
The Dissolve: That accounts for the problem he had later in his career. His last four movies weren’t terribly well-received critically, and they were later embraced for that reason. That first reaction is always the wrong reaction to Barry Lyndon, to The Shining, to Full Metal Jacket, and to Eyes Wide Shut.
Hodgman: I don’t know that any of his movies [were well-received]. Lolita was controversial. Spartacus was his first big gig, but that was Kirk Douglas’ movie, really. Lolita was really where he started to break out as Stanley Kubrick.
The Dissolve: What about The Killing and Paths Of Glory, though?
Hodgman: You’re absolutely right. In any case, I feel like the auteur period, personally, kicks off with Lolita into Dr. Strangelove, and then into 2001 and everything else. But his movies, when were they ever well-received initially? People completely hated Dr. Strangelove. It was controversial—for its darkness, for its portrayal of the American military as a bunch of idiots. Which, by the way, there is tons to love in that movie, but… [screenwriter] Terry Southern is brilliant, but the kind of Mad Magazine spoofery of a number of those characters did not hold up for me when I re-watched it on Air Canada, I’ve gotta say.
The Dissolve: Jack D. Ripper? That sort of thing didn’t play?
Hodgman: Yeah. [Laughs.] Merkin Muffley. [Laughs.] That felt a little dated to me. The movie didn’t. The movie is absolutely captivating to look at and it speaks to what makes his movies so interesting. What is being said onscreen and the story that is playing out and the characters who are interacting—that’s a 10th of what you’re supposed to be taking in in a Kubrick movie. A lot of what you’re taking in in a Kubrick movie, you’re taking in on an unconscious, dreamlike level. So it is sort of like you wake up from a dream and you go, “Eh, that was a pretty good dream,” but you don’t realize how profoundly it affected or changed you for a while later. I think even Stephen King has kind of come around on The Shining. But you were asking about Room 237, which obviously is its own kind of fever dream.
The Dissolve: Thinking about R. Lee Ermey’s dialogue being partly improvised in Full Metal Jacket brought me back to the assumption shared by the people theorizing about The Shining in Room 237—that no detail, however small and seemingly inconsequential, is out of place in a Stanley Kubrick movie. But weirdly, watching Room 237 made me believe completely the opposite, that even somebody who has that much control over his movies does not control everything. There’s meaning in his films that is not necessarily programmed.
Hodgman: And here’s the thing: Did Stanley Kubrick have a true vision for how he wanted everything to look and feel in his movie? Yeah. He tried to control a lot, and that created a myth that somehow he could control everything. The motion of the sun in exterior shots was something Stanley Kubrick set up to reveal he actually shot the fake moon landing, or something. No. As controlling as he might be, one of the things about that exhibit is that it was humanizing. People who think Stanley Kubrick arranged Calumet baking powder at a certain angle behind Scatman Crothers’ head as a secret nod to genocide—those are people that have never been on a movie set in their lives. Because the reality is that it’s all improvisation, to some degree. Every best-laid plan is subject to the whims of the space, even if you have built a hotel inside Pinewood Studios.
Even if you are meticulously constructing a hotel set within a studio, you are still subject to what people had for lunch that day. Who’s in a good mood. Who’s in a bad mood. It’s a massive crew of people putting this together, not the least of which are the actors, and even if you don’t let them improvise, they’re still acting. If Stanley Kubrick was as controlling as people imagine he was, when I saw him directing Matthew Modine, he would have been giving Matthew Modine direct line-reads, and then the movie would be terrible. Ultimately, I found Room 237 to be a fun movie, and honestly, kind of a work of beauty in the editing and the way they juxtaposed the voices and the clips from the movie, and the way they told stories using a collage of actual footage from The Shining. I thought that was really interesting and great. But ultimately, I agreed with a lot of people that there was not a single conspiracy theory that after a while felt plausible at all. And that’s what makes the conspiracy theory interesting, when, “Oh, maybe you’re on to something.” And then I think all those people were on to nothing. But maybe I’m just a shill for the U.S. government for the fake moon landing. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: To get back to Full Metal Jacket, we talked a little bit about the way Vietnam looks, and the people who complained about it. “Where’s the jungle?” To what extent would you consider Full Metal Jacket a movie about Vietnam, and to what extent is it more about other things, about war or masculinity or anything else?
Hodgman: Well, that’s the thing. Platoon is about Vietnam. It is about Oliver Stone’s thoughts and feelings and memories and anger about Vietnam, but it’s about Vietnam. That experience. And that’s why not a lot of people think about or talk about or watch Platoon. Full Metal Jacket has the setting of Vietnam, but Stanley Kubrick’s movies resist aboutness. Right? Because you can bro out to it with your frat buddies and totally dig Adam Baldwin being a monster who becomes this weird, sobbing, gentle giant going after his friend and leading them all into danger. Or you can look at it and appreciate that it is about how men express love for each other, and how at a certain level, things in that culture can only be expressed through horrible violence. And it’s obviously about war, but not necessarily the Vietnam war. And it’s about trauma and how you endure trauma. But it ultimately comes down to Matthew Modine being called out for wearing a peace symbol and having “Born To Kill” on his helmet. There’s this wonderful moment of “no more subtext” when the colonel or whatever says, “Why are you doing that?” and he says, “I think I’m trying to make a statement about the duality of man, sir.”
What’s interesting to me—and I think what is so off-putting for so many people—about that movie is the unknowability of Joker. You don’t know who he is. The moment you first see all those characters is the moment their heads are being shaved and they’re being stripped of whatever their old identities were and made to look completely interchangeable, because that is part of the indoctrination into the military. So the hints about what Joker’s past might have been are unknown, other than when we later learn he wrote for his high-school newspaper.
Then he’s flashed immediately with this identity of “Private Joker,” and he’s kind of the court jester. He’s the guy who’s able to watch and speak the truth through joking. But other than that, you don’t know who this guy is. And by the second half, he’s kind of an asshole, and you’re not really sure if that’s because he’s naturally an asshole, or he’s been turned into one. He is the duality, because his initial kindness toward Leonard turns into hitting him with a bar of soap.
The thing that is so striking about that movie that I had never thought of before is Matthew Modine’s voice. It’s so weird. It’s so robotic. And the pacing of the way he delivers his lines is so unusual, not natural-sounding. How did that happen? That’s something I would really like to know. Was that a choice he made? Did he make that choice by default, because that’s how he talks? Did Kubrick steer him in that direction? The totally flat affect of his voice through most of that movie and the kind of guileless deadpan he gives on all the action that surrounds him is, I think, one of the things that makes the movie so unsettling, one of the things that makes his final engagement with the world around him in that mercy killing, if you want to call it that, or that execution, if you want to call it that, so powerful at the end. It’s that kind of ambiguity that makes Full Metal Jacket a better movie than Platoon, and a better movie than any of the other Vietnam movies that came out at that time. Because it’s a work of art, not a polemic.
Go back and listen to Matthew Modine again. It’s a really confusing performance in a lot of ways. And upsetting. To what degree it was deliberate, and to what degree it just happened… It may be as critical to the artistic voice of that movie as R. Lee Ermey’s much more bombastic improvisation.
The Dissolve: Is this something you picked up on immediately as soon as he raises his voice in basic training, or is it something you feel develops as the film goes along?
Hodgman: I think it started to hit me when he was narrating, because he has that first-person narration. And in the movie, he is a writer, so I think that’s where I first clued in on it, because he doesn’t talk a whole heck of a lot in basic training. Of course, in basic training, everyone is supposed to sound exactly the same, and robotic. Certainly by the time he’s in country, as it were, it starts to really be, “Oh, this guy has a weird way of talking.”
The Dissolve: The “Born To Kill”/peace-symbol thing seems like an ironic joke that ends up revealing who he is and what he finds out about himself. Because those things occupy the same shot, the helmet and the button, when you get to that mercy killing at the end, that’s a very bitter-feeling irony.
Hodgman: And in that gesture of killing the sniper, it is both “Born To Kill” and “peace” embodied in that gesture, which is a gesture of rage and of anger equally tempered by confusion. And when she gives him permission to kill her, it becomes an act of mercy, and he’s able to pull the trigger. I’m not saying he should be lauded for the decision, but the movie’s about war putting children into positions where they have to make horrible, horrible decisions.
So I don’t know. I liked the movie Full Metal Jacket. I think that’s my topic sentence.