Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

This film is not being appreciated properly. I do not have a great deal to say about it, but I'd like to clear up some lazy observations circling around it in the critical cesspool that is Rottentomatoes, because they might prevent people who would enjoy this film from seeing it.

A) The Men Who Stare At Goats is not a romp, poking fun at US intelligence by looking at its lunatic fringe. Jon Ronson's book might do that - I dunno, I've only read Them, but that book certainly exists primarily to poke fun at its targets (which it does wonderfully well, I might add, and is a significant and brave thing to do, since these are some very extreme people he's dealing with). The film actually has a theme it appears to care about, which is being given short-shrift in most writings I've seen on it - a sad, significant theme: what's happened to America? What do the 1960's mean, in light of subsequent developments? Can anything be salvaged from that time? How? If these questions mean anything to you - and they do to me - its a film that will probably win your sympathies, regardless of how it is being received.

B) Despite what nearly every critic is saying, Heslov in no way appears to be attempting to make a Coen-esque film - not even Burn After Reading. There is not a trace of the Coen's smug misanthropy, nor their often purposeless "lets have cinematic fun" tone, which allows them to frequently make movies that they don't seem to mean. (...Because many of their films have no theme or purpose that they appear to have considered deeply; at their least, the Coens are all about throwing together goofy images and following their perverse muse wherever it may lead. If O Brother Where Art Thou or Barton Fink, for instance, can actually be said to be "about" anything, it's not through any great intentional crafting on the part of the Coens - they're meanings we have to impose on them at the end, often with the Coens trying hard to foil us in the attempt. The dead bird that falls from the sky at the end of Barton Fink, in fact, seems to be a little grace note letting us know that the Coens' have contempt for anyone who tries to take the film seriously. Nowhere is this sort of contempt for meaning-making apparent in The Men Who Stare At Goats).
C) The performances are being read wrongly, in part because of the lead actors' past roles. The film actually might be setting a bit of a hurdle for itself, here. Case in point is casting Ewen "Obi-wan" MacGregor as someone investigating a group whose members call themselves Jedis. There is a chuckle to be had here, to be sure - but the film is trying, overall, to pose serious questions about what happened to American idealism; how it got co-opted (or hijacked?) by corporate greed, cynicism, and bitterness (symbolized for the most part by Kevin Spacey's character). Making a cute casting decision like this throws a crumb to comedy-seekers, but if anything, is a distraction from the main point of the film and should not be made much of. Likewise, George Clooney is not meant to be "zany," like he was in varied Coen films... and most significantly, Jeff Bridges is NOT channeling Lebowski. See above, on the Coens vs. Heslov - Lebowski is just a joke, a gag character, a Coenesque indulgence, but Bill Django is, in the flashbacks, a sincere (if naive) idealist who (in the "present time" of the story) is profoundly disappointed and dismayed by what has happened to the dreams and ideals he had triumphed. His character is a significant and very sad commentary on America today; it's almost a shame people are getting distracted by his long hair and hippiesh manner, but this seems more down to critical/viewer laziness than any fault on Heslov's part. I don't believe the word "dude" appears once in the film, thank God.
D) ...and if various elements in the film don't work so well - the rather absurd backstory provided MacGregor's character, say, or the less-than-satisfying, perhaps even ironically goofy "feelgood" climax (involving a barnful of goats and various orange-jumpered Iraqis who have been tortured to the Barney theme) - this is because, to some extent, they are not so very important, and the filmmakers know it. It doesn't matter in the slightest that we be involved in MacGregor's backstory, and it would actually be counterproductive if the climax were so satisfying it resolved all the troubling stuff that had gone before it - because the issues this film deals with are in no way resolved in reality; Guantanamo Bay is still functional, remember. To say that these passages compromise the film is to fail to recognize that they are very-near throwaways, inessential distractions from the business at hand. Unlike the contempt-for-meaning gags we see in the Coens' films, what we see here is a film that is so intent on framing its central questions that it doesn't want to waste time on trivia, and so fills in inessential spaces with light comedy, not believable enough, it hopes, to distract us from "the important stuff," merely enough to keep the narrative moving along. Intelligent viewers should perceive this and forgive the film its occasional silliness.

The Men Who Stare At Goats is a significant film, worthy of respect, and of smarter criticism than is being directed at it. It's probably one of the few films at the multiplex at the moment that is about anything at all - that isn't just more reactionary Hollywood mind-control-cum-pandering. People for whom the above review resonates should not feel worried about seeing it; it's very likely better than they think, and certainly nowhere near as bad as they fear.

2 comments:

ammacinn said...

On further exploration, it appears that Jim Channon, one of the subjects of Ronson's book, has a website, and that you can read the actual First Earth Battalion website online:

http://firstearthbattalion.org/?q=node/26

ammacinn said...

On further exploration, it appears that Jim Channon, one of the subjects of Ronson's book, has a website, and that you can read the actual First Earth Battalion website online:

http://firstearthbattalion.org/?q=node/26