Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

We saw this movie over the weekend. Can’t say it was a great movie. It was okay and had its moments. We saw it after one reviewer characterized it as “absurdist” and described the Jeff Bridges character as “the Dude in fatigues.” As we are big fans of the Big Lebowski, this clinched it.

Jeff Simon of the Buffalo News seems to get at the nub of the movie in his review:

“A few generations now have been trained by movies and literature to think of war in the modern era as absurd. We're living in a Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert era. The reason, for instance, that I stopped watching TV's "24" after its second season is that absolutely everyone on the show began to seem mad as hatters but no one seemed to suspect it.

That makes "The Men Who Stare at Goats" a minor but solid success, in that our story is told onscreen — wildly — by a journalist who went to war when his wife started taking up with his one-armed editor. He's played by Ewan McGregor, whose constant mix of earnestness, befuddlement, desperation and self-pity will be instantly recognizable to other members of his species…

The Western idea that war isn't just hell but absurd, too, began with Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Schweik" in 1923, took solid hold in the '60s with "Dr. Strangelove" and "Catch-22," and has been something of a staple ever since Bush/Cheney made absurdism downright mainstream, if not mandatory.”

We like that last line…

But the premise of the movie involves a unit the army creates to harness the paranormal potential of its soldiers. We won’t get into all the details here. But suffice to say, we’re talking psychic powers here. The movie is based on a book by Jon Ronson. The movie begins with the intriguing line that “more of this is true than you would believe.”

As another reviewer put it: “regardless of how much is or is not true - this amusing jaunt of a movie comes off as an effective distant cousin of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22″ as it presents us with the manic absurdity of war through the absurd lengths to which armies will go to fight it…”

If the movie has an absurd conclusion, we suppose that is it. It makes us, mankind, look rather ridiculous. This is often a good thing, because in seeing humankind’s activities in this light, maybe we look at ourselves a little differently and take our efforts less seriously. Maybe we look at the world in a simpler way, through the tangle of screens – tradition, social norms, religion, politics and the like – that we put up between reality and us.

The absurd helps break down those screens because the absurd, through its recognition of death as the ultimate end and through its belief in the meaninglessness of existence, helps us see the futility of much of what men do. It helps to call a spade a spade, or a goat a goat.

We’ve been dipping into Camus’ Lyrical Essays of late. There are some great lines on this front at the end of the essay “Between Yes and No.” Camus writes:

“Yes, everything is simple. It is men who complicate things. Don’t let them tell us any stories. Don’t let them say about the man condemned to death: “He is going to pay his debt to society,” but: “They’re going to chop his head off.” It may seem like nothing. But is does make a difference. There are some people who prefer to look at their destiny straight in the eye.”

So it is with the absurd. And while Men Who Stare at Goats is not a great movie, it nudges us, in a light-hearted way, to reconsider what we think we know about war - in particular, the effort in Iraq and like efforts abroad - and wonder if it’s all worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment