LA Film Festival Review - Ears Open, Eyeballs Click

A crowded bus pulls slowly onto the grounds. A low steady murmur continues from the somber looking young men who fill the seats and floors of the bus. As it rolls to a stop, the sounds of drill instructor barking orders drift in and a tense silence fills the bus. The charged atmosphere onboard bristles as the shouting grows louder, creeping closer until a red-faced drill instruction bursts in, back ramrod straight, bellowing instructions and demanding volume in return before setting the recruits scrambling from the bus.

'The last word out of your mouths will be 'Sir' and it will be loud!' he hollers. 'Now get off my bus!'

Welcome to the Marines.

Recruits line up to have their hands checked, one of the many inspections during life at boot camp.

And thus begins 'Ears Open, Eyeballs Click,' an exhausting journey through 12 weeks of boot camp in just under two hours. With no introduction other than a brief run down of the necessary slang, and a few chapter titles a la Godard's 'My Life to Live,' filmmaker Canaan Brumley throws us to the wolves with this insider's documentary look into the intensive world of Marine boot camp.

A work in the cinema verite tradition, Brumley's film dispenses with the hallmarks of modern documentary and spoon-fed conventions we've gotten so used to with reality T.V. There are no flashy graphics, no individual interviews expounding upon the recruits' feelings, no background scheming and no narration or explanation, leaving just the raw experience of boot camp. Imagine the first portion of 'Full Metal Jacket' sans melodrama or character development.     

Crafting a film without any distinct characters is no easy task. It's hard to keep audiences engaged without a central character to cheer or jeer, but the Marines are a natural fit for this method. Boot camp itself is the central character, and one of its primary aims is to break down the recruits, stripping them of their individuality in order to rebuild them into a single unit Platoon 1141. First person words like 'I' or 'my' prompt immediate rebukes 'this recruit!' and the only form of individual attention is being berated and verbally abused for the slightest of mistakes.   

Brumley has secured incredible access to Camp Pendleton, providing an inside glimpse of a process rarely seen by civilians, and he doesn't waste a moment on cliches or redundancy. Instead of spending time on ceremonies and rituals or the other aspects we've seen a dozen times in various films and shows, he goes for pure experience, a holistic conception of the recruits' journey through training.

A drill sergeant berates a recruit for his mistake during a night training exercise.

Though he's careful to avoid politicizing the documentary, leaving it to audiences to form their own opinions, there are moments that have unavoidable echoes in current events. When two drill instructors tear into a recruit for going to easy on an opponent during a hand-to-hand combat exercise, screaming that he has to hate his opponent, because if he doesn't kill, he's not going to make it home to his family, the words ring with an eerie truth. The realization that this isn't just a movie, that we're at war and this young man could very well be sent to his death in Iraq is brought into stark relief.

The visceral, undiluted approach to the reality of boot camp is what makes 'Ears Open, Eyeballs Click' such a fascinating and troubling documentary. Because Brumley gives us such a unique firsthand perspective, the film pushes us beyond our comfort levels, making it nearly impossible maintain the usual distance between subject and audience. This immediacy is one of the reasons the documentary is so effective, but it also limits our tolerance; when we're this close to the action, there's only so much hollering and abuse we can take. Even despite the Brumley's best efforts to trim the film down, the nearly two hour running time is simply too long to spend in the shoes of a Marine recruit.

115 MIN.

DIRECTOR / WRITER Canaan Brumley

PRODUCER Canaan Brumley

FEATURING Michael Nichols, Marcos Martinez, Jalen Maranan, Alex Liebfried, Adam Sandercock

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