Narrative and comedy in ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’

I wanted to watch The Men Who Stare at Goats for one main reason.  And if you guess because Ewan McGreggor is in it, you’re right.  Kind of.

Mr. McGreggor certainly isn’t ugly, but his main attraction for me was that he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.  And The Men Who Stare at Goats is basically a two hour Star Wars joke.

And I’m okay with that, because I’m the kind of Star Wars fangirl who gets X-wings tattoos, dresses up like Mara Jade at Star Wars cons and covers her office in wall-to-wall posters (my favorites being a Celebration IV exclusive print of Vader killing the Emperor, a Japanese poster of R2-D2 jetpacking over a derivative of Hokusai’s famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” painting and a map of the galaxy that came in one issue of Star Wars Insider many many moons ago).

After the movie (Men Who Stare at Goats, not Star Wars) ended, I had a feeling that it wasn’t really a very good movie, but I thought it was awesome anyway.  The main problem I had with Goats is not that it’s one giant Star Wars joke (that part was awesome), but that the story never quite got off the ground.

I’m going to blame the complex narration and use of extensive flashbacks for that.  Ewan McGreggor narrates the story from the present.  He tells us how his wife left him and he went off to Iraq and met George Clooney’s character.

And then, throughout their journey, we get flashbacks to the 1980s when the army was playing around with making these psychic super warriors.  Sometimes we get flashbacks within flashbacks.  Eventually everything gets wrapped up, but the problem is that we’re following two, and sometimes three story lines, as the flashbacks comprise at least half of the movie.

McGreggor and Clooney do a lot of sitting around, which is when Clooney tells McGreggor his story.  Even though we don’t see them sitting around a lot because of the flashbacks, it’s kind of tiring to have them sitting in the desert alone for so long.  That being said, the flashbacks are done extremely well and are easy to follow.

In one sense too much is going on, and in another sense nothing is going on, and it creates frustration for the viewer.  I do admire director Grant Heslov’s ability to navigate these multiple layers of narration, but I don’t think they quite work here.

Another problem is that this movie is based on a documentary (you can read about it on Wikipedia here), so it’s trying to impose a narrative structure on a story that doesn’t necessarily have any.

Again, the plot does accomplish what it sets out to do in satirizing the ridiculousness of the military and war in Iraq, but it still falls flat, perhaps because it’s trying to do too much.  Or perhaps because it’s a comedy, so you can never be sure what’s included solely for comedic effect, or how much of the movie is based on the “truth.”

In the end, I think it’s worth watching for the acting (which is excellent), the Star Wars jokes and the layered narrative, but considering the title is The Men Who Stare at Goats, there were not enough goats!

A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct metafiction blog, The Narrative in the Blog, in March 2011.

Strange Fascination

I come from solidly working class people. We liked Garth Brooks and NASCAR. We prayed over each meal. We went camping. We hunted. We believed America was the best country in the world, and felt lucky to be born here. Those of us who were old enough to vote, voted mostly Republican.

As I grew up, though, my tastes diverged. In the beginning of my adolescence I discovered rock and roll and sleeping in on Sunday. I discovered black lipstick and The Sandman.

Finding David Bowie, then, was inevitable.

Click through for source.

Click through for source.

It happened like this:

I was working my way through the fantasy section at my local Hollywood Video. Of course, I eventually came to Labyrinth. I’d heard of it, seen merchandise at Hot Topic and Spencer’s, so I picked up the case and took it to the checkout desk, where a scornful teenager removed the red plastic lock and handed the DVD back to me with a sneer.

It was the kind of movie I enjoyed–dark, mysterious, with the air of a myth about it–but it was something more, too. I felt a magnetic pull toward Jareth, despite the crazy hair and obnoxious cod piece. The next day, on my lunch break at the Target where I worked part-time, I picked up the only David Bowie CD the store had: The Best of Bowie.

From there, I was transported. I read biographies and downloaded more music from Limewire, anything I could get my hands on. Everything about Bowie fascinated me. His androgyny, his alter egos, the range and variation of his music, the way he combined spectacle with art to create something transcendent.

All of the angst I’d been carrying around inside of me, all of the worry that I was somehow broken, destined to be miserable for the rest of my life, began to lift, the way a fog does when the sun rises.

Here was someone who had broken all the rules and come out wildly successful. Here was someone who had experimented–with sexuality, with drugs, with music, with art–and had found a new path outside of rigid gender roles and ideas of what music could or should be. Here was someone with many identities that shifted and changed and evolved.

David Bowie taught me how to embrace my difference. My weirdness. And to use it as a guide to create my own art, in my own way. I could like The Sandman and The Dukes of Hazzard at the same time. I could read the classics and discard their lessons, or find new ones in their old pages. I could wear black lipstick and fishnet stockings one day and jeans and a t-shirt the next. I could do all these things, and it was okay. I was okay.

David Bowie showed me what was possible. He gave me courage when there was no road forward, and I had to cut my own path. He helped me flourish at a time when it feels all the world is against you, is fighting to cut you down and flatten you. David Bowie helped me fight back, helped me claim my own space in this tumultuous, chaotic world.

And he has been there, all through my adolescence and my twenties, always showing me something new. Always opening up new possibilities, new delights, new conversations.

This is not an important story because it happened to me. It’s an important story because it happened to me, and thousands–if not millions–of others. David Bowie helped free the wild and creative person in each of us.

I think that as a teenager, I never sought out Bowie’s full discography because I never wanted to come to the end. I held onto that feeling of expectation, of discoveries unmade, of treasure to unbury. And now, even though we have come to an end of sorts, I cling to those expectations and to the knowing that as with any good art, I will never exhaust its possibilities.

Labor Day Weekend: Some things I did instead of writing blog posts

  1. Participate in Force Friday by spending half my paycheck on Star Wars merchandise like a good capitalist fangirl.
    1. Played with my new Sphero BB-8
    2. Started reading Star Wars: Aftermath (initial reaction: wtf why no, and I’m not the only one).
  2. Paint my living room ceiling. (I almost have a house. Just five more rooms to paint, trim to install, light fixtures to install… so, okay, “almost” is a stretch.)
  3. Eat copious amounts of pancakes.
  4. Have a terrible migraine and take lots of naps.
  5. Play the board game Elder Sign with some friends. (It’s a cooperative game, but we lost because we’re bad at cooperative games.)