I got a kick out of The Men Who Stare at Goats, the new film that spoofs and distorts the US Army’s real-life 1970s experiments with the paranormal. The movie follows Hollywood’s earlier goofball tradition of having civilian goldbrickers make yuks at the expense of the military, viz., “The Wackiest Ship in the Army,” “Operation Petticoat,” and other hoary artefacts, none of which could ever be called good.
Reviewers have griped that much doesn’t quite sit right with Goats, and I can vouch that viewers at my screening went away complaining, a few seeming a bit irritated and tetchy. Since Jeff Bridges has a meaty role in the movie as a hippie army officer, critics have made comparisons with his previous appearance as a pot-head in “The Big Lebowski.” That’s just wrong. His cartoonish Lebowski character, the Dudester, is unrelated to this Goats assignment, where he plays a fictionalized version of Lt. Col. James B. Channon, U.S. Army (ret.), an American original, about whom much more needs to be said.
Channon was, and remains, no cartoon. Even overlooking that fundamental mis-representation, Goats, as a movie, still gets trampled by Lebowski, cloven-hooves down.
The film can’t contain its sniggering response to the historical fact that America’s armed forces leaders were once officially intrigued by the potential of the human spirit. In mining this incongruity and extracting the cheapest kind of slapstick, Goats quickly slips out of its pen, and lopes off in no particular direction. The presence of three-and-a-half good actors — Bridges, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, and Ewan McGregor — keeps the project airy and watchable. However, the incidents on which the movie was based deserved a less-dismissive treatment.
Channon, commissioned by the Army to imagine and report on New Age approaches to the military, created a self-described concept paper, known as the First Earth Battalion Manual, which addressed this windy question: “Understanding that we must work through people, how can our Army establish and maintain control of changing, interdependent systems to maximize force readiness?” His thoughts, along with some rather good illustrations created by the Colonel himself, are on the web, here.
Channon comes across in his notes as the kind of out-of-the-box windbag you’d want to keep around your organization, as a challenge to the orthodox elements, knowing that one day he’d piss you off for good. It was his good fortune to be advancing his progressive/wingy ideas in the 1970s, when there was a receptive audience for creative approaches: new ways of seeing, in the phrase of Carlos Castaneda.
Castaneda almost certainly influenced Channon. The anthropologist and author sold eight million books, and created a large following from his early ’70s epic, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. He made it seem nearly plausible that anyone so interested might hang out with all-knowing elderly Mexican shamans who could teach you cool stunts, like projecting yourself through space, or inhabiting the body of a wolf, or, on a more accessible level, gobbling fistfuls of peyote buttons. That certainly seemed like a more interesting proposition than what we were doing at the time, which was cutting high school classes in the Toronto suburbs and making off for the Towne & Countrye Mall.
When Castaneda landed on the cover of Time magazine, it may have been the Army’s reveille call to do due diligence on this turn-into-a-wolf tactic. Sure enough that the usual bag-of-tricks wasn’t winning the day in Viet Nam, so it would have been irresponsible to leave any avenue unexamined. Jim Channon grabbed the peyote buttons and, to his credit, ran with them.
The Colonel’s currently a large part of a Hawaii based think tank, Arcturus Research, and gets paid big bucks by corporations for his “imagineering” services. Ever the stoic new age soldier, he appears to be bothered not in the slightest by being depicted on the silver screen as an acid-head laughing stock, conducting death-stare experiments aimed at a herd of de-bleated goats. It makes a kind of sense that the entertainment industry would know exactly what to do with a figure such as Jim Channon, which is to dismiss him as a fruit-bat, and add a laugh-track to his message of human potential. The cineplexes thrive by a business model of convincing people to live vicariously, while consuming giant portions of junk food. The movie studios will adapt to the times, making even Mickey Mouse an angrier, more cynical figure, if that’s what it takes to maintain their brand equity in a cruel and unpleasant age. Messages of self-actualization are strictly for Bollywood cinema-goers.
Left as big media’s last proponent for the notion of being all that you can be – a line deployed by the Goats movie to invoke knowing snickers – is Oprah Winfrey, whose promotion of the human potential movement seems just a wee bit insincere and unconvincing. (In pitching her upcoming webinar to publicize her latest crappy, middle-brow book discovery, she exclaims, “I can’t wait to tell all y’all about it!” Tell all y’all? Stow it, sister.)
Oprah and her doctor buddies, Phil and Oz, will encourage you to put down the crack pipe, and take off those last 50 or 60 pounds, and end that abusive relationship with the kid’s nanny, but you’ll never catch them offering astral projection lessons or encouraging alternate consciousness experimentation on the television machine. Bad for ratings when your audience is away somewhere in a spirit trance.
Armies might entertain some fresh ideas every other generation or so, but when it’s time to get cracking, the old response will do just fine: send your kid overseas as cannon fodder. So, yes, I enjoyed the Goats movie as a kind of harmless goof, but when the popcorn’s finished, you wonder what exactly is so hilarious about soldiers imagining war might one day become something else, or smart people envisioning that our poor, unhappy race could eventually become something better than what it is.