Sunday, April 13, 2014

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2009)

Grant Heslov’s The Men who Stare at Goats is one of those movies you rewrite and reedit in your head as you watch it, just getting increasingly irritated as the blunders pile up. Obvious blunder number one: it makes us wait too long to see the men staring at the goats! I mean, how would The Man who Loved Women have gone down if the first ninety minutes played out without any actual women?

Obvious blunder number two: a voice over that just chatters endlessly away, telling us stuff that should have been shown, or yammering about pointless details, endlessly and confusingly referring to new characters and acronyms and complexities. The voice belongs to Ewan McGregor, playing a small-town journalist circa 2002, who takes off to Iraq on spec after his marriage falls apart. He hooks up with George Clooney’s character, a former military man who trained in the 80’s with the “New Earth Army,” a unit focused on developing psychic powers (such as killing enemies simply by looking at them, which is where the staring at goats comes in), and is now on an unspecified secret mission, communicated to him by his former commander in a dream visitation. As they journey deeper into danger, Clooney tells McGregor the whole wacky case history…

Staring at Goats

Leading to obvious blunder number three: an unbearably choppy structure swinging back and forth between past and present, constantly getting in its own way, inhibiting any possible momentum. The opening caption tells us more of this is true than we would believe, but in the absence of any further detail that might merely be the difference between one and two percentage points. Certainly a lot of the material seems flagrantly absurd and untrue, a parody both of New Age ideals and of blinkered military thinking, but this leads to obvious blunder number four: Heslov’s monotone approach to his directing and to his actors. It’s a killer cast – Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey are in there too – but they all behave as if stared at by a particularly intimidating goat.

For all of this, the movie is usually passably interesting, albeit more for what it sets off in your head than for what it directly accomplishes. As I write, Obama is fighting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both subject to profound uncertainty about the optimum strategy, even though it’s far from clear that either can be won in any definable sense, or arguably that they’re even worth trying to win. The popular image of these battles still seems defined by tanks and planes, and sweeping vistas of 30,000 or 80,000 men advancing on a dastardly foe.  In fact though, much of the key activity is embodied by unmanned robotic drones or other technological wizardry; superior I suppose in safeguarding the lives of the assailants, but all the more insidious for the distance it creates from consequences and culpability.

As with every other important issue in our deranged times, there’s never any rational public debate about this evolution, not when the rules of political engagement demand that every second sentence on the topic be a reiteration of support for our troops. The Men who Stare at Goats could have engaged productively with this backdrop: in a time of looming debt and profound uncertainty about military ends and means, not to mention widespread narcissism and distorted individual ambitions, why wouldn’t some technologically-facilitated application of our psychic smugness be exactly the way to fight a war? Maybe instead of staring at goats, the soldiers should join the rest of us in staring at celebrity websites and the other fluffy news of the day; imagine harnessing all that energy and hurling it at our enemies? Assuming we can agree on who those are…

An Education

Lone Scherfig’s An Education is smooth viewing, but its frequent references to French film only underline how it’s merely a movie, lacking much texture or complexity. New it-girl Carey Mulligan plays Jenny, a London schoolgirl in 1961, way smarter than her classmates and focused on getting into Oxford university, until she falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard); despite a shady background (making money mainly by scamming old ladies), he brings a fullness of experience that seems to render her previous ambitions redundant.

Mulligan is a bright and intelligent performer, but falls a bit between two stools: she doesn’t (as some have suggested) blow a hole in the screen like a young Julie Christie, but she’s too consistently collected to allow the nuances that might have accompanied a less conventionally attractive actress. This is more striking because the movie frequently refers to the drabness of her existence, but you don’t really feel it – it seems stuck in a rather narrow register of expression, suppressing both highs and lows. At the end it’s disappointing how little it all amounts to.


Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson, depicts the real-life Charlie Bronson, popularly styled as Britain’s most dangerous prisoner. Born Michael Peterson in 1952, he’s spent some 35 years in jail, predominantly in solitary confinement, changing his name along the way to evoke the late action star. The film is vaguely reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Hunger from last year (which dealt with IRA prison hunger strikers), filled with unflinching prison violence and consciously stepping outside normal narrative conventions. The key difference is that unlike Bobby Sands and the other protagonists of Hunger, Bronson’s behavior isn’t driven by any political or other broad agenda, or even by any easily identifiable inner lack. As played (very excellently) by Tom Hardy, he has a certain facility (teased out in particular by stylized sequences in which Bronson stands on a theater stage and addresses the audience, or else talks directly into the camera), but simply understands violence better than any other form of interaction, and sees in it his sole opportunity for any form of greatness. Time and again, we see him take a hostage or instigate some kind of situation, fully knowing (and at least in part desiring) that it can only lead in one direction.

Bronson doesn’t seem merely masochistic though; his lowest point comes when he’s put among the mentally impaired, where the drugs and dysfunctional environment thwart his self-expression (his solution to that: try to kill another inmate). Out in the world, he’s essentially a bumbler, rather naively wooing a stripper who doesn’t want him and easily getting caught after his various crimes (his attempt at armed robbery of a post office yields him about forty bucks). Watching the movie you feel relief, that our social structures work as effectively for as many of us as they do, and you almost feel a peculiar gratitude that Bronson, in his own weird way, found a workable dynamic in which to live out his years (the various prison guards he beats up are merely disposable extras).

The film is interesting then, but limited: it’s far less aesthetically challenging than Hunger. Like An Education, you barely get a sense of the country beyond, although maybe that’s the whole point, that Bronson doesn’t have much sense of it either. Otherwise the film has virtually nothing in common with An Education!

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