Analysis Inaction: The Men Who Stare at Goats

January 12, 2010

My first post was a bit of a general statement on my purpose here (or lack thereof), so this time I will attempt to provide some pointlessness in action. My first object of unscientific observation is a film I saw in theater about a month or so ago—Grant Heslov’s The Men Who Stare at Goats. Having no copy of the film before me, my recollections may be vague and spotty, and there may be some spoilers in the coming analysis, but I certainly recall coming away from the film with a sense of gratification achieved only upon the consumption of something completely superfluous.

As I mentioned before, the question on just about everyone’s mind after watching a film or reading a book or what have you is “Okay, well, what did that mean?” We’re so ingrained with this search for meaning that we often judge things based on what we think they mean, and when we don’t know what something means…well, then we just dismiss it, don’t we? (Sorry, I didn’t mean to get all collective there and lump everyone together into the ubiquitous general “audience”—I’ll try not to do that).

The meaning of The Men Who Stare at Goats is not readily apparent—at least, not to me, anyway. Maybe there are some brighter folks out there who can find a message regarding the state of the U.S. military in the film, or war in general, or the relationship between the counterculture and the dominant culture, or the dangers/pleasures (if there’s a difference between dangers and pleasures) of LSD and other recreational drugs. I, however, can claim no such brightness, unless I’m sat down with a copy of the film and pressured to find some relevance between the film and the above topics. That wouldn’t necessarily be the film talking, though—that would be me being a mouthpiece for an outside issue. I believe that this is a film that is best enjoyed as a story, and sometimes (I think this may be Stephen King I hear somewhere in the background, but don’t ask me in what or when) a story is just a story.

I’m thinking primarily of the ending of the film in my overall evaluation of it. The fates of Lyn Cassidy and Bill Django (played by George Clooney and Jeff Bridges, respectively) are left ambiguous; Larry Hooper, the film’s “villain” played by Kevin Spacey, suffers a black eye but is not ultimately brought to any sort of definitive justice; and Bob Wilton, the film’s storyteller played by Ewan McGregor, gets the story for which he was looking and apparently even more than that. Really, that’s probably what the film was about if it was about anything: Wilton’s story. The psychic spies (or Jedi Knights, as they are so often called) are a nice gimmick, but nowhere in the film is the audience provided with concrete evidence of anyone having any real psychic abilities…until the very end. The film almost goes out of its way to convince you that there are no real Jedi warriors in this particular world, but then, at the last second, it turns that assessment on its head, and makes you wonder whether this is the only real Jedi, or if they were all Jedi, or if Jedi are only existent in galaxies far far away, galaxies to which everyone is privy except for Bob Wilton, the fact of which is never allowed to escape you during the film (oh, the irony).

Really, the ending doesn’t provide much closure to the film. It’s the kind of ending that makes one say “What, that’s it? Why didn’t they explain what really happened and tell me what I’m supposed to think?” Negative capability is what that’s called, and I personally like it when things go unexplained, because usually the explanations suck. Since we’ve already mentioned Jedi, we may as well stick with the topic and bring in everyone’s favorite little midichlorians, a perfect example of something awesome (The Force) getting murdered through over-explanation (“No, Ani, it has nothing to do with ancient mystical powers, it’s actually more akin to a really high sperm count”). Anyway, when films choose not to explain, they flirt with the possibility of accusations of pointlessness, and the films that don’t shy away from a little flirting and even go so far as to show some leg are often the best ones in my book.

In the end, the film tells a good story without beating you over the head with any preachy moralizing or heavy-handed messages. It makes you laugh, and it makes you think. Is it beautiful? Yeah, I’d say it is. Is it a great movie? Probably not, but it’s solid all around. So, then, is it art? I daresay yes. This is a film that doesn’t try to be anything other than a film, and it succeeds at doing just that.

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