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Kubrick, in action

December 18, 2005|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is a contributing writer to Book Review and a film critic for Time. His most recent book is "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

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Full Metal Jacket Diary

Matthew Modine

Rugged Land: 300 pp., $29.95

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The Stanley Kubrick Archives

Edited by Alison Castle

Taschen: 544 pp., $200

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Stanley Kubrick

Drama & Shadows

Photographs 1945-1950

Rainer Crone

Phaidon: 256 pp. $69.95

WHEN a friend heard that Matthew Modine had been cast in the lead of Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," he presented the actor with an old Rolleiflex camera. He had heard -- erroneously, as it turned out -- that it had been the director's instrument of choice in his early days as a photographer for Look magazine. (Actually, he preferred a Graflex, and there is at least one picture of the young photographer carrying a Leica.) When Modine showed up on the set with his antique, it engendered puzzlement from Kubrick, who was, as many know, a technofreak, always up on the latest tools of his trade (and frequently improving them). He had no sentimentality about gadgetry.

Indeed, as Modine would soon learn, he had no sentimentality for anything except his family and his menagerie of pets. But Modine got permission to shoot stills on the set, which form the photographic background of "Full Metal Jacket Diary," his excellent and unsparing account of the many months he spent helping Kubrick make his excellent and unsparing movie. The book is among the best accounts of the nutsiness that goes into the making of most movies -- the delays, the tensions, the screw-ups -- and is, as well, probably the best portrait I've read of Kubrick in action.

Or perhaps I should say "inaction." For it was his directorial habit -- attested to by others besides Modine -- to insist that his actors repeat lines or actions take after take, even if they were face down in the mud on a bitterly cold day, without offering the slightest hint of what he wanted. This method -- or non-method -- is why his films went wildly over schedule. Normal completion time for something like "Full Metal Jacket" might have been 90 to 120 days, but Kubrick shot it for 13 months, during which Modine accepted a part in another film, was forced to abandon it because Kubrick was not finished with him, then learned that the other movie had completed principal photography while "Jacket" was still inching along.

This is not to be construed as incompetence on Kubrick's part. The essence of film directing is to make the performers appear utterly naturalistic, uncalculating. One way of doing that is to print the first or second take before actors have settled into their roles. The other way is to get them so befuddled and exhausted that thought and artifice are drained from them, and they're freely, but persuasively, doing anything that might end the agony. This is the way Modine puts it:

"What has put us in this confused state of mind?

"Is it Stanley?

"Is it our choice or his desire?

"Is this part of his plan?

"Is this his intention?"

Kubrick never said. Instead, he insisted that all the delays were the actors' fault. Perversely, in his view, they kept blowing their lines or actions and this forced him to keep shooting.

Did he really believe this? Hard to say. All we know is that almost every Kubrick shoot turned into a contest of unspoken wills (and sotto voce griping) that Modine so vividly captures. Eventually, something like the Stockholm syndrome would take over, with the captive players defending the mysterious brilliance of their captor-director. But there was more to the man than his enigmatic behavior indicates.

There was, for example, his rather peculiar relationship with language. He was capable of making verbally intricate films ("Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "A Clockwork Orange"), but he often used words not to clarify meaning but to miscommunicate and obfuscate, frequently to blackly comic effect. More often, he preferred to minimize dialogue ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Barry Lyndon," "The Shining") as he pursued an ideal many directors share -- telling his stories primarily through images, using actors more as design elements than as active carriers of ideas.

This was never shooting for shooting's sake, as it is with, say, Terrence Malick. I think Kubrick, whom I knew slightly (and liked enormously), was deeply dismayed by the human race, found its capacity for evil both unfathomable to a rationalist (which is what he thought himself to be) and unable to be captured by conventional means. Hence, the gnomic qualities of his best work.

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