Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats

This is a book about American military intelligence, written by a British journalist. It is mainly concerned with how 'new age' or 'hippie' ideas in the 1960s were co-opted by the American military establishment, following the trauma of the Vietnam War.

The book makes a lot of wild accusations, often based solely on the testimony of its interviewees. Not that this need necessarily be a problem, but a lack of commentary from Ronson is, because it leads to a confused tone. Is he a sarcastic Louis Theroux type 'journalist' or is he genuinely sincere?

As such, the best parts of the book are those that are easiest to substantiate. For example, I had no idea that the widely reported blasting of 'Barney the Dinosaur' music at prisoners in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, was fist introduced to the public as the 'funny' story at the back end of the news - a sort of, anyone with young kids knows exactly what torture is! And, they can't be treating the prisoners too badly if this is the kind of thing that they were getting up to. Except we all now know that what they were doing was very bad indeed, as the photographs that got out at the time reveal.

The bits about Jedi Warriors, Psychic Spys, and one unfortunate General's attempt to walk through walls, are all put pay to the idea of one of the Generals at the start of the book who says, "We do not experiment on each other. It is not part of our culture." This was the quote that stuck with me as the details within the book proceeded to undermine him time and time again.

All in all, an odd read. I don't think I really learnt anything about military intelligence or people who have that kind of mindset - I have always suspected them of being rather strange. So a decent book, but it would have been nice if it were a bit more authoritative.

It Felt Like a Kiss

Put together in his trademark montage style, the film ties numerous story strands together in order to evoke the atmosphere of the kind of world that American power was ushering in in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the absence of Curtis’ trademark voice, narrating the action, subtitles and the rest of the soundtrack - the music in particular, pick up the slack.

As a piece of visual art, it is well worth a watch. But unlike the rest of his work, after about 20 minutes, one does begin to wonder - what is the point of all this? What is he actually trying to say? Maybe it is not as simple as all that, and the film is just what it says it is - “a story”. Maybe the film itself is incomplete outside the context of the live performance it was originally intended to cooperate with.

There are a few funny, strange, interesting little cultural titbits and juxtapositions, but the babyish seeming nature of the narrative is troubling - this happened, then this happened, then this - as is the overall tone. Is this a serious examination or a black comedy? The way that everything turns on a pin with the Kennedy assassination, America losing its innocence, this is something that I have seen peddled time and time again, and I just don’t buy it.

Available for a limited time only on Adam Curtis’ BBC blog, here. I recommend you make up you own mind.