01 February 2012

The Role of the Outcast: Frankenstein and Full Metal Jacket

Although separated by 56 years and different genres and directors, both James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) address the issue of how creating an outcast – and taking away their identity––will cause the outcast to lash out at society. In Frankenstein this idea is showcased in the main plotline: Dr. Frankenstein gathers various body parts to create and bring to life a Creature only to have the Creature turn against him and society. Full Metal Jacket approaches the issue in the main plotline of the first portion of the film: Sgt. Hartman (or the Marine Corps) takes good-natured Pvt. Pyle and turns him into an anonymous being and then an uncaring killing machine, only to have Pyle turn on Hartman. While the films differ in how their outcasts are created––Frankenstein emphasizes a physical creation while Full Metal Jacket explores the psychological––both come to the same conclusion: taking away personality or sense of identity is wrong and the consequences of doing so are dire. Yet the films also suggest that outcasts can be subdued, either by society (as in Frankenstein) or by their own hand (as in Full Metal Jacket).


The opening sequence of Frankenstein begins with a single long pan across the faces of mourners at a funeral––a bell tolls and a prayer can be heard. The shot is dark and full of shadows, indicative of our knowledge of the man being buried. But who he is doesn’t matter; as Frankenstein says, “He’s just resting, waiting for a new life to come.” He was someone before, but now Frankenstein is going to turn him into something new. As Frankenstein and Fritz take the body to the castle, they come across a man at a gallows. Frankenstein has Fritz cut the man down, determined to use some part of him. Again, the idea that it doesn’t matter who the person is so long as they’re a person is brought forth––these men don’t matter to Frankenstein, but the parts of their sum do.

Full Metal Jacket begins with a montage of the recruits/draftees (I think we can safely assume that most, if not all, of these men are draftees as the song “Goodbye My Darling, Hello Vietnam” gives a clear indication of the time period) getting their hair buzzed. For each shot the camera is locked down and shows the same thing over and over again: a man getting his hair cut––a metaphor of becoming anonymous and being just like everybody else. We get a brief glimpse of the hairstyles before the clippers do their job so we know that these men were someones before. In essence, the recruits’ hair in Full Metal Jacket and the family of mourners in Frankenstein represent the identity and past of the men. Also worth noting is the final shot of the opening sequence in Full Metal Jacket is of the all the hair from the draftees piled on the floor––the blending of the different parts of these men is an interesting connection to Frankenstein.

Both films also suggest that the outcast must be made aware of their ostracism from society. Frankenstein shows this in the scene after the Creature has come to life when Fritz whips and torments the Creature with fire in the cellar. At one point, we take the Creature’s point of view as Fritz shoves the flames in our face and we are forced to connect with the Creature and understand what it’s like to be rejected by others. Having Fritz attack the Creature is an interesting concept since Fritz is deformed and, as such, is an outcast of sorts as well. Perhaps Fritz beats the Creature out of his own frustration of being excluded from society… Nevertheless, Fritz tortures the Creature because it is different and doesn’t conform to normality.

This scene is mirrored in the “blanket party” scene in Full Metal Jacket. Private Pyle has proven to be an incompetent Marine and his mistakes have not only led to him being punished but also his fellow recruits. So the recruits decide to teach Pyle a lesson––and much like Fritz tormenting the Creature, the Marines attack Pyle as a way of attacking their shortcomings as soldiers. The scene is lit in a highly stylized blue hue that creates an eerie aura throughout––almost as if “it’s all a dream,” as Cowboy tells the whimpering Pyle. The droning electric-sounding score enhances the ethereal sensation. To further Pyle’s isolation and exclusion, he’s seen as the only cadet whose bed is in utter disarray and with two pillows.

On a silent cue, the recruits come out of the woodwork (I always think of them as cockroaches when watching this scene) to destroy or at least demoralize Pyle; this is similar to the mob at the end of Frankenstein––society bands together to try and set things “right.” Once the beating begins, there is a single cut and the subsequent shot––a high angle on Pyle’s bunk highlighting his weakness––lasts an agonizing 40 seconds. The bars of soap hit their marks with dull thuds as they bounce off Pyle’s body. Unlike the Creature in Frankenstein, though, Pyle doesn’t retaliate against his tormentors, either because he’s obviously outnumbered or because the abuse throws him into a deeply disturbing introversion. In both films, the audience empathizes with the victims of the attacks. We understand that the outcast is still a human being––in fact, Pyle is punished because he retains his humanity and doesn’t become an automaton like the others––and can’t be held entirely responsible for their actions, either because of innocence (Pyle) or naiveté (the Creature).

The final sequence in Frankenstein which deals with the issue of the outcast begins with the villagers––torches in hand––searching for the Creature after it has drowned young Maria. The shots in the beginning of this sequence are all about showing the mob and how they’ve banded together to destroy the Creature. Later, in the windmill, after Dr. Frankenstein has been separated from the mob and kidnapped by the Creature, there are two shots that question the idea of who the monster in the film is. Dr. Frankenstein stares at the Creature through a spinning wheel that distorts the faces of both characters and although the Creature is the outcast, perhaps it is not the real nuisance to society. But because it has no place in civilization––that is, its role in society is unidentifiable––it can only be viewed as a “monster” or outcast. By being on the outskirts of society with no way of knowing what it is, the Creature rebels against that which excludes it. The Creature confronts Dr. Frankenstein, its creator, and punishes him for not giving it a role or identity to function properly in the world.

The final scene of the first portion of Full Metal Jacket takes the idea of confronting the creator and goes a step further. The scene begins with Pvt. Joker––torch in hand––discovering Pvt. Pyle in the head. As Pyle loads a rifle, Joker, addressing Pyle by his given name, Leonard––perhaps trying to uselessly make Pyle feel included––explains the consequences if they get caught by Sgt. Hartman. But the outcasted Pyle knows his place: “I am…in a world…of shit.” Pyle then goes through a rifle-handling drill, indicating that he is no longer Leonard, but just a mindless machine going through the motions he has been trained to do. His words and movements are sharp and fluid, without any trace of personality. It’s like watching a training video. Once Hartman comes in and tries to persuade Pyle to hand over his weapon, the scenario is very much like Frankenstein. The creator must confront and appeal to the “creature” he has created, only to realize that it is too late to try and accept him/it back into society. The scene also harkens to Frankenstein by making us question who the real monster of the film is: Hartman berates Pyle in a situation in which he should be less confrontational.

Unlike Frankenstein, though, Full Metal Jacket allows the outcast to successfully destroy its creator. But since Pyle is more aware of his place in the scheme of things––not only has he been forcibly ostracized by Hartman, his fellow cadets have shown him he’s unwanted––he knows he can never be accepted. He is too far gone from who he was––his menacing “Kubrick stare” expresses his lack of personality and connection to the world––and can no longer function as an integral part of society. Thus, much like Frankenstein’s creature, he must pay for his uselessness. At least Pyle goes on his own terms, although he does so in the latrine, symbolizing how he is the waste of society and must be flushed away.

Both Frankenstein and Full Metal Jacket want us to look at what being an outcast means. It’s not just exclusion from society, but also about taking away what function that individual has within society. The Creature was created because Dr. Frankenstein wanted to create life. What purpose was the Creature to have in the world after its creation? The same can be seen with Pyle, though there is a twist––he was turned into an uncaring, emotionless killing machine. And since machines only do what there programmed to do, Pyle could no longer serve any useful purpose in society. The films tell us that outcasts are not excluded because they choose to be, but because society doesn’t care about them enough or anymore to let them just be who they are. They must conform or they must be destroyed.

But the films also force us to look into ourselves and figure out where we stand––after all, both pictures make the outcast sympathetic. Are we the monster? Or are we an angry mob? Or are we Pvt. Joker, just watching from the wayside, not really sure if we should be the bridge that gives the outcast a possibility to be accepted?

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