The following is a conversation between Paste film writer Brent Simon and Paste tech writer Nicholas Quah on the Full Metal Jacket Diary iPad app.
If there’s a living filmmaker with whom Stanley Kubrick is analogous, it might be Terrence Malick, who, at 70 years old, is now the same age Kubrick was when he passed away in 1999. Each are widely beloved by critics and other filmmakers, considered high artists of the medium, and both are known for years of research and their meticulous vision. Both are also seen as hermetic, though to believe those who have worked with the directors that has less to do with any social phobia or anxiety than simply a befuddlement with and aversion to interviews, and the desire to live simply and privately. In this regard, Matthew Modine’s “Full Metal Jacket Diary,” an iPad app extension of his large-format, now-out-of-print 2005 book of the same name, offers cineastes a chance to soak up a rare behind-the-scenes tour of a cinematic maestro’s penultimate film.
As Private James “Joker” Davis, Modine serves as the narrator and de facto moral center of “Full Metal Jacket,” Kubrick’s 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s 1979 Vietnam War novel “The Short-Timers.” When he saw him writing on set, Kubrick not only encouraged Modine to continue keeping a diary, but he also called on him at times to share his thoughts on filming with cast and crew, which gives Modine’s writing—otherwise more functional than ornate—a certain reflexive quality. The anecdotes are many (incuding Kubrick’s demand that Modine return to set mere hours after his wife’s birth of their first child), and not always flattering (Modine doesn’t shy away from beef with a co-star). But the presentation allows for a consumer to read through his recollections, or submit to a five-chapter-partitioned audio book, narrated by Modine and replete with sound effects, running almost four hours.
The photos are what drive Full Metal Jacket Diary, in my estimation. There are over 400 high-resolution offerings, and Modine’s level of additional attention to detail with respect to this material helps ground what could otherwise easily be a very tony trip through an unusual neighbor’s vacation slideshow, and establish an easy-to-follow chronology — so much so that it kind of overwhelms some of the actual diary passages. The related articles and other linked content feels like a bit of a shrug as an add-on, but they’re not the main selling point, really. Overall, it’s interesting insofar as the view that Modine offers is akin to glimpsing behind a thick curtain, and taking stock of the Great and Powerful Oz.
And to me, the Full Metal Jacket Diary app offers up an additional layer of intrigue, since it offers up a curated look at a film production that occurred long before this sort of technology even existed. But I’m much more interested in your opinion on the technology. How did you find the interface? Did you think it honored Kubrick’s exactitude?
So, I’m still trying to figure out how to adequately evaluate the app as an experience. On the one hand, I absolutely enjoyed Full Metal Jacket Diary as documentary media. I wasn’t able to read the original print version back when it was still routinely available, and my brain simply isn’t wired to fully appreciate audiobooks as a form, so this app was a wonderful opportunity for me to experience something that could have completely passed me by. That would have been a shame, because Full Metal Jacket is both a tremendous war film and Kubrick joint. Modine is also a very capable writer, which is fantabulous, and to answer your question, I think the text itself very much honored Kubrick’s enigmatic persona.
But on the other hand, I wonder whether Full Metal Jacket Diaries’ adaptation into an app really brought anything new to the table. I mean, Diaries’ first adaptation into an audiobook makes complete sense, and Modine’s vocal performance is something that definitely adds a new layer to the overall experience. After all, with the audiobook, it’s no longer just about what’s been written, now it’s more about how it’s being said on top of everything else. But this incarnation as an “appumentary” doesn’t really add anything theoretically or experientially novel to the overall product in the way that the transition between visual text to audiobook would portend.
Which feels kind of a shame, especially when I think about the fact that we’re smack-dab in the middle of a really interesting time in the relationship between mobile apps and narrative media. There’s the whole “second screen” phenomenon, where the user hooks up with the mobile device to receive supplementary content that ties into and ultimately augments what’s happening on screen. We see this utilized most interestingly in video games, like Simogo’s Year Walk for the iPad where supplementary material in a supporting iPhone app not only gives more context to the central narrative of the game, but also allows the player to reach a more cathartic place in the story. Of course, it’s not fair to judge Modine’s appumentary, which was first released in 2012, against all these more recent innovations. But I would refrain from invoking such judgmental abstinence because…. well, this line of thought wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if I did so.
That is not to say that there’s anything drastically bad with the app. It is fairly well designed, beautiful, easily negotiable, and the overall user experience has a satisfyingly tactile feel. It’s just that the transition was merely competent with few surprises, and there’s an element of the thing that makes me wonder, “What was the point of this adaptation in the first place?”
But then I remember the fact that if it wasn’t for this appumentary, I wouldn’t have been able to connect with Modine’s writings in the first place. Which compels me to consider another kind of value that the iPad app as a medium brings to the table here: it’s a fantastic mode of artistic preservation.
Let me flip this rabbit hole around: assuming you shared my sense that this app was merely a straightforward adaptation with the potential of being something more, what would you like to see in a truly innovative supplementary “appumentary”?
I feel like part of the point—apart from further monetizing the content, no doubt—lies in the ability of the iPad app to extend the canvas and paint in a wider array of colors. In his diary entries, Modine talks about the film’s shoot evoking a genuine mood of war—of a sort of psychotic frustration and more generalized madness bubbling up around him, manifesting in actors and craftspeople alike. He questions Kubrick’s methodology. And this presentation, and especially Modine’s narrated audiobook offering, allows for a stronger inducing of that discombobulation—of dancing along the razor’s edge of creativity. It’s also an interesting way to revisit that performance too; Modine gets to “perform” as himself from over 25 years ago.
In any case, to the techies go the spoils, right? While rights issues would probably trip up anyone wishing to peddle or prosecute an aggressively “alternative” vision of the creative experience on some other well-known blockbuster or landmark film from their youth (meaning I don’t think we’re going to get much more gossipy apps), I can certainly see the app format gaining traction and value as the way to present a package of photos and other creative behind-the-scenes material from young stars—Jennifer Lawrence’s set pictures from her fourth collaboration with David O. Russell, say—and filmmakers with ideas to burn. Robert Rodriguez has done cooking segments and recipes on some of the DVDs and Blu-rays of some of his films, for instance, so who knows—maybe there’s a Machete in Space app in the works.
I’m sure if there is a Hollywood studio involved, apps of this sort would/will trend toward value-added content and levels that are “unlocked” with games or purchases, that kind of stuff. More independent-minded fare, like Modine’s Full Metal Jacket Diary, has a certain cachet, though. I’d be game for anything weird and funky that fits the material, if that makes sense—rabbit holes that, tonally, vibe with the original product and expands its reach. If The Matrix could spin The Animatrix off onto DVD years ago, there’s no reason that one or two of these current superhero franchises couldn’t plant deep but rewarding interactive storytelling roots into an app. It’s just a matter of confirming and tapping that market.
Now that’s an idea.
I think your sense on superhero franchises is completely on-point. As we have seen for a while now, Marvel Studios is going absolutely bonkers with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) across several different media pipelines. ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is currently playing off the events in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to some fascinating extent, and the studio is currently developing a Netflix series that promises to go deeper into the universe. The theory and practice of a unified superhero universe prepared for mass consumption begets a mind-boggling complexity, such that it almost necessitates a cottage industry of supplementary materials designed to help the audience better understand and better connect with what’s going on in the overarching grand narrative. And given the increasing ubiquity of tablets as a secondary mode of engagement, the app format seems like a financially, logistically, and narratively strong next step.
Oh man—my head is just buzzing with other studio possibilities! A franchise like The Fast and The Furious, with its ludicrously imaginative emulation of comic book mythologizing and ret-conning, would benefit greatly from an iPad app standing in as a dynamic resource. Another possibility with significant potential? The upcoming Star Wars movies by J.J. Abrams, especially now that sizable chunks of the Expanded Universe have been blown out of validity as canon. After all, the challenge now for Abrams and the Star Wars brain trust is to verify what’s canon and what’s not, particularly if they’re going to fully retain and service the property’s highly scrutinizing loyal fan-base. They’re going to have to find ways of laying down the environmental narrative blocks as clearly, quickly, and cheaply as possible, and the mobile app format totally works as a potential story funnel on that front.
But I’m drifting further and further away from Modine and his “appumentary.” I think you’re right in your implied taxonomy—as we move into the future, we’re likely going to see this type of Transmedia app employment bifurcate into “add-ons” on the one hand and funkier, independent-minded projects that act as supplements to grander material on the other. And I’m so very excited for it! At the very bottom of this development, I think, is the underlying argument that the emerging connected constellation of new media technologies is allowing for a more shattered sense of propriety on the part of the creator. To put more simply: whether it’s in the expansion of the narrative, or the demystifying of an enigmatic director, I have a feeling that all these advances are pushing us deeper into the territory that accepts the death of the author as a given.
I’m going off the rails here. In any case, thanks for the chat, Brent!
The Full Metal Jacket Diary iPad app can be downloaded in the App Store for $9.99.