In just under two hours, Canaan Brumley’s debut feature “Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click.” manages to get viewers uncomfortably close to the experience of going through a U.S. Marine Corps boot camp — just watching it is exhausting and disorienting enough. Helmer (a former Navy man himself) is a civilian barber at the Camp Pendleton, Calif., base where the docu was shot, and was granted unusual access to a process seldom friendly toward media scrutiny. This film school project is a strikingly head-on artifact that’s probably too undiluted for broadcast (let alone theatrical) consumption, but should provoke strong reaction in fest and educational settings.
Sans narration or interviews, pic echoes the breakdown of individual will and buildup of team-mindedness that comes with indoctrination. Already hard to differentiate as individuals due to their uniforms and shaven heads, recruits in Platoon 1141 emerge as separate beings only in moments when one of them commits some blunder, prompting sustained humiliation and punishment from their drill sergeant. Such are the rigorous standards that it can take seven men to properly make one bed. Grueling physical challenges culminate in an epic “death march” with full gear in sweltering heat.
The first section of Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” comes to mind, although shorn of all melodrama and nearly all human interest, this nonfiction portrait is an even purer distillation of famously brutal Marine training methods. While chapter intertitles obscurely hint at humor (while referencing the events we’re about to see), Brumley otherwise maintains a strictly neutral, nonjudgmental p.o.v. Nonetheless, the wide-format images — by turns formally crisp and hand-held frenetic — as well as his tight editing vividly convey the confusion engendered by extreme discipline, and the intense emotions felt by the young recruits. Auds can, and no doubt will, read into the pic whatever political agenda they came in with.
John Stutzman’s relaxed score provides a surprising counterpoint to the tense onscreen content. Dialogue is often unintelligible, but that’s due to subjects’ fatigued mumbling or barked rapid-fire orders as much as to any recording difficulties.