I saw The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) last night, then read the above article this morning. Coincidence? No such thing, my man, but then why do I have the urge to read Catcher in the Rye and go into a black-op black-out with a mission to excise all traces of Ewan McGregor's annoying narrator from the film? Seriously, was TRAINSPOTTING a total fluke? Either way, I'm glad the above article shows that meditation/druggie/hippie mind tactics in the military is not necessarily just the whimsical semi-truth of a trembling yellow (as in cowardly) journalist afraid of a little LSD-spiked water. Ewan's character in the film is the kind of guy I wrote about a few years ago [Kill All Jonesers 11/10/08] in regards to needy biographers and journalists who try to absorb by proxy the glory of their subjects after said subjects are dead or disappeared, even though said subjects have or would have scoffed at them while they were alive. In my day we had a name for them: wallies.A leading scientific journal in Pakistan, The Journal of Management & Social Science,* recently published a paper titled "A New Role for the Military: Preventing Enemies from Arising-Reviving an Ancient Approach to Peace," indicating that the military application of the Transcendental Meditation technique has merit. The paper discusses how militaries worldwide could use the Transcendental Meditation® and TM-Sidhi® program, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, as a non-religious and scientifically verified way to prevent war and terrorism. When used in a military context, these meditation practices are known as Invincible Defense Technology (IDT). (Medical News Today, 3/23/10)
Sad that his wife leaves him at the film's start (and who could blame her?), our smug self-pitying freelance journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) heads off to Iraq to prove himself a man and teach her a lesson like a sulky boy holding his breath 'til his face turns blue to get out of eating his broccoli. Not on any assignment or associated with any publication, and terribly out of place, he locks himself to the ankle of mysterious maybe-spy Lyn (George Clooney) and spends the rest of the movie being a cranky nag as Lyn tries to complete a strange shadowy mission. Bob is a real drag to ride with, whining about every little thing, refusing to believe or go along with anything Lyn says and then presuming--after the adventures are done--that he's now some kind of super op himself. Realizing at least some of what Lyn said might be true after all, Bob finally switches from neurotic to sanctimonious, determined to make sure the story is told even it shakes the government to its foundations. And um, what? Bob ranks right up there with Leo Di Caprio's little shithead in THE BEACH and MacGregor's 'poet' in MOULIN ROUGE as one of the most entitled little pishers we were ever expected to root for at the movies.
I know, I know, you wanted to love this film. So did I. Well, if you think that Ewan McGregor stating he knows nothing about Star Wars or what a "Jedi" is makes for in-joke hilarity, then yes, you'll love it. (If you don't know that McGregor played a Jedi in the last three Star Wars films that makes you extra cool in my book) In fact, that tired in-joke goes by about five times; the director wants to make sure everyone gets it, right down to grandma in the last row.
For another painful example of this movie's level of wit, when Clooney confesses he feels bad about the time he killed a goat with his mind, McGregor blurts out: "The silence of the goats!?" as if he just decided on his entry for a New Yorker cartoon caption contest. And this guy is supposed to be a journalist? Who does he write for, Highlights? Ranger Rick? Dynamite? (left)
The goats themselves are awesome, but here again the movie shows no grasp on reality. The goats are kept in a big, dark, empty shed on the military base, labeled "top secret." Now, if you know anything about animals, anything at all, you know a few dozen goats aren't going to just stand around in a dark shed for years at a time in a stifling hot desert, waiting to be discovered by a snoopy journalist. Though they've been 'de-bleated' (yikes) so don't make noise, you would still smell them a mile away, and hear them trying to kick their way out, and then they'd all die of heatstroke or the fumes of their own piled up feces, or starve to death, within days. Goats need care, yo. Meanwhile goats wander in shepherded all over the desert. Why not just buy one from a passing herdsman as needed? It's details like this which make MEN WHO STARE similar to one of those "earthy" romantic comedies about 'ordinary' people that were clearly made by rich Hollywood kids who've never flown coach or taken a bus or seen a homeless man.
Thank god for Jeff Bridges, then, as the film lights up whenever he's there onscreen, abiding. Maybe he's never had a 'real' job either, but he's the dude, and that makes all the difference. In a military pep talk he says that his recruits will learn to "see and hear everything" and to "stop talking in cliches" and live in the moment. Did you hear that last part about cliches, McGregor? You remembered it enough for a flashback but via one of the most tired cliches of all - the 60s protest rock-scored montage. Better stop, children, what's that sound? It's 60s rock cliche, barefoot servants too!
So, if you come to this film hoping, as I did, for a psychedelic ride into the mind of the military, man will you be disappointed, as the film seems to side more with the annoying journalist, making the end result a bit like APOCALYPSE NOW if Cathy (from the comic strip) played the Captain Willard role ("Day four - the river has too many bugs, and how come the army doesn't serve cake? Wauggh!")
Most journalists are way too cool to whine every step of the way as they tag along for a story; they keep quiet or ask questions but don't sneer at the answers if they get them. But the times have a-changed and young men these days are, apparently, well, if not all mice, perhaps unaware of their non-mice options due to a dearth of assertive father figures. Compare the bleating of McGregor's hideous wally, for example, with James Stewart in REAR WINDOW, trying to explain life in a combat zone to Grace Kelly. And Kelly's ten times the man McGregor is... and cuter too.
A plus about the film is the way it cleverly oscillates between believing in the stories of these psychedelic warriors and realizing most of it is perhaps bullshit. Any good shaman knows that all rituals are 50% smoke and mirrors, not to hide the fact it's all "just" bullshit--it's not just, Clarice--but to create the realization that it's all bullshit, which is to say, there is no no exit from the bullshit, and no is, and no no, and therefore all is yes, which mean all is love, so love is nothing and nothing is everything. All of this helps rope off a cordon of disbelief that allows visualization to occur. i.e. the way a child can use a dude with a sheet over his head going "Boo" as a screen on which to project real ghosts from his or her imagination, as opposed to the smartass brat who says "that's just a man with a sheet on his head." Who is more the fool, the one who thinks he's a sucker to imagine the ghost, and so has no fun, or the one who can see what may not be there, can project his ideal ghost on the sheet, and get willingly scared accordingly? What's the point of doubting and dismissal as a lifestyle choice? And where does our projection of fantasy end and 'reality' begin? Who gets to decide where that border lies? The flimflam aspect of psychic power creates a split which allows real supernatural events to exist--and if they exist for the subject then they exist in the universe, that's what quantum mechanics proves, o dour devotee clinging terrified to the sterilized feet of dogmatic science! Rise now and embrace the pseudo-shaman... within you and without you are the same you!
So yeah, see this movie, but just once, for Clooney and Bridges, tricksters who "get" the cosmic truths behind the quackery and who each bump the film up a star. But McGregor's 'Bob' is what we back in the semi-psychedelic 1980s used to call a "Wally," the sort of schmuck who clings onto your crew as you run with dilated pupils naked to the cosmic sea like immortal lemmings, laughing and skipping. He shows up late, with water wings and a snorkel, and his mom, and goes "hey guys, wait up! Where are you going? Shouldn't we wait for Dan (another wally) to come back from class? Hey, wait up!" and then once there he refuses to join in the oceanic dissolving of egoic consciousness, and yet thinks he should still be able to hang all night and drag everybody down. And eventually we all hide with the lights out and don't answer the door when he comes around. Then, one day, someone slips him a dose without his knowing it and, as J. Hoberman writes, "he loses a smidge of his smirk." (Village Voice, 11.3/09) and then thinks he's Gandhi times ten, the humblest in the universe! King of humble! He becomes a mad prophet and then winds up insane, violent, arrested and soon becomes exhibit A in the dangers of drug use.
Sigh, let's get some ice cream.