Friday, November 13, 2009

Second thoughts on The Men Who Stare At Goats...

I thoroughly enjoyed the film The Men Who Stare At Goats, but after reading Jon Ronson's book, on which it is based, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

The book ends up being a much more disturbing affair. While the first half of the book, at least, echoes Ronson's previous (very funny) Them: Adventures With Extremists in maintaining a light, quizzical, often mocking tone, The Men Who Stare At Goats eventually takes us to much darker and more disturbing places, Ronson's humour withering away as he discusses Abu Ghraib, or recounts the experiences of an innocent Brit who ended up in Guantanamo Bay, who appears to have been targeted with subliminal messages buried in music - something Ronson makes quite believable, suggesting that US interest in mind control didn't die out with the Cold War. Climactically and most relevantly, he introduces us to Eric Olson, the son of Frank Olson, the military scientist who died as a result of his involvement with MK ULTRA, the most famed of the CIA experiments into mind control. Though conventional versions of the story - including that recounted in The Search For The Manchurian Candidate - suggest that Olson freaked out under some acid he was surreptitiously dosed with and, a few days later, killed himself by jumping out a window, Eric Olson believes his father was, in fact, murdered, to keep him from leaking what he knew about Project ARTICHOKE, an even more disturbing secret venture by the CIA into mind control. A reasonable amount of evidence seems to support this theory, and Ronson's smirk is nowhere to be found as he recounts it. The book begins, as does the movie, cutely and implausibly, with a general attempting (and failing) to walk through a wall, but rather than the silly feelgood ending of the film, it leaves me feeling like I've been hanging out with a certain drummer/editor/writer I know, worrying that underneath the surfaces of the world we take for granted, at the deepest levels of state (and economic) power, there are some very perverse and evil things afoot, things that people are nowhere near as concerned about as they should be.
So what do I make of the movie now that I've read the book? It's pretty trivial, by comparison, taking a story that should be unsettling in the extreme and making a light entertainment of it - one that I thoroughly enjoyed, but... I'm not sure that's actually an appropriate reaction to this material. I suppose it's rather a good thing that a movie being widely distributed even acknowledges the existence of MK ULTRA, but that doesn't necessarily make it radical filmmaking. One of the more interesting passages of the book - and perhaps the fulcrum point at which it stops being amusing - is Ronson noting that almost every media representation of the famed use of the Barney theme as an instrument of torture presented it as a cute oddity, instructing us even as they informed us that such things were in no way worthy of serious concern. Does the film fall victim to the same tendency, making a cute oddity out of a story that is ultimately much more troubling?
I'm not sure. Guess I'll have to see it again.

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