.Goat’s Head Soup

Quick. What do loony spies (The Men Who Stare at Goats), neurotic artists (Untitled), and mid-century modernist architecture (Visual Acoustics) have in common?

Whatever George Clooney and his friends are smoking, could they please pass some of it around? We’re confused and we need it. By quick count, The Men Who Stare at Goats is the fourth film — alongside Three Kings, Syriana, and Burn After Reading — in which Clooney stars as a conflicted federal government employee going off the deep end on a personal mission involving national security or military matters. It’s the weakest of the four, a slackly written, marginally humorous service comedy that riffs on Clooney’s anti-authoritarian persona without really getting its hands dirty.

It might have been fun to make. Clooney, as veteran Army intelligence op Lyn Cassady, is joined by Jeff Bridges in the role of New Age soldier Bill Django, and Kevin Spacey’s Larry Hooper, a trickster who can bend silverware with his thoughts — the idea being that the Pentagon wants to develop “warrior monks” with amazing psychic powers to help conquer the Iraqi oil fields, circa 2003. The three “super soldiers” cross paths with a stateside newspaper reporter, Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), not so much embedded with Cassady as stuck with him on a desert road trip that goes nowhere. Flashbacks, acid and otherwise, pad the scenario.

How could anyone make such a weak movie with those four actors? Stand back and watch director Grant Heslov work. To be fair, producer Clooney, Heslov, and screenwriter Peter Straughan share the blame with Jon Ronson, a British writer-producer who used the goat yarn as an episode in his Channel 4 documentary TV show about daffy American weapons schemes, The Crazy Rulers of the World. Undeterred by the CIA’s misadventures with LSD, the US Army evidently paid guys to sit around staring at Middle Eastern goats, trying to knock them down telekinetically. Once they got the hang of it with the goats, they could progress to Saddam Hussein, perhaps. Sounds perfectly reasonable. Much cheaper than a missile shield.

For what it’s worth, Bridges is pretty funny as flower-power drill sergeant Django, a freaked-out Namvet. With his ponytail and a copy of the New Earth Army Manual, Django is a spiritual cousin of the Dude. All the other actors, including Stephen Lang’s pixilated general, go further into their sinister/silly characters than anyone else is likely to want to follow.

Art School Confidential goes for its doctorate in Jonathan Parker’s bitchy, hilarious (Untitled), the story of two pretentious brothers jealously jousting with each other in the best of all possible New York City situations: the dog-eat-dog world of fine-art cred.

Adrian Jacobs (Adam Goldberg, surlier than usual) is a composer of serious — and seriously unlistenable — music created with buckets, pliers, etc. When he gives a concert there are twelve people in the audience, each of them with a headache. He lives to torture a garden tool. Adrian’s day job is playing piano in a restaurant, where he takes out his frustrations by violently attacking the instrument — it’s his way of assaulting the diners. He’s fond of making such statements as: “Harmony was a capitalist plot to sell pianos.”

Younger brother Josh (Eion Bailey), Adrian’s constant thorn, makes a guilty living selling abstract oil paintings to large corporations, but his work doesn’t rate a gallery show and he feels disrespected. “I want to grow as an artist,” moans Josh. When Josh and Adrian fight, they make better music by accident than Adrian does on purpose.

Director Parker, a Bay Area filmmaker (Bartleby) who wrote the screenplay with Catherine di Napoli, furiously piles on the jokes, the more humiliating the better. Josh is dating Madeleine (Marley Shelton), the icy owner of a trendy gallery where artists like Ray Barko (Vinnie Jones) contemptuously hang stuffed possums, monkeys, and surgically altered cows for the delectation of gullible patrons like Porter (Zak Orth, with perfect timing), a computer zillionaire who will buy practically anything. The gallery’s sucker mantra is, “What do you have in the back room?”

Lured by the sound of Madeleine’s vinyl skirt as she walks, Adrian can’t resist making a play for her himself. He comes to regret this. Round and round they go. Of all the self-absorbed characters, Josh is probably the most sympathetic because he sincerely aspires to fine-art credibility, even as he stands with money in hand. Actor Ptolemy Slocum threatens to steal the film as Monroe, a nervous artist (“He sees mystery in the material world”) whose rationale sums up the approach of some film critics as well: “When I hear artists have gotten really bad reviews, it attracts me.” If Monroe doesn’t slay you, Anastasia the clarinetist (Lucy Punch) certainly will. Go ahead and snigger your fool heads off.

Eric Bricker’s dazzling documentary Visual Acoustics has all the real-world artistic weight the trendoids of (Untitled) lack, because its subject, architectural photographer Julius Shulman, was a pivotal figure in US popular culture. He’s the one who taught Americans to love modernism.

Shulman, who died earlier this year at age 98, took his first architectural photograph in 1936, of a house by Richard Neutra. The Brooklyn-born Shulman, who by that time had moved to Los Angeles, was fond of adding props to a Neutra interior in order to “make it look like people actually lived there.” But he also had a genius for scene-setting and discovering the ideal point of view for the California modernism of Neutra, Charles Eames, John Lautner, E. Stewart Williams, and Albert Frey, among others. Shulman’s photos of their commissions, in all their space-age glory, appeared in magazines all over the world and made mid-century modernism — itself an offshoot of the Bauhaus school and Frank Lloyd Wright — one of the century’s most enduring art movements. Shulman’s 1960 nighttime picture of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22 is instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever watched an LA crime movie.

Director Bricker’s tribute to Shulman, co-written by Phil Ethington, Lisa Hughes, and Jessica Hundley, follows the photographer around in his late years, one moment revisiting the work of Abraham Zabludovsky in Brasilia, the next lending his photos to help a new owner restore the Kaufmann house in Palm Springs. Talking heads aplenty pop up: Frank Gehry, publisher Benedikt Taschen, cinematographer Dante Spinotti, and artist Ed Ruscha, admiring the “base of romance” in Shulman’s photos. A trade secret slips out: “I always darken the corners of my photography,” he explains. “I call that visual acoustics.” And he retains his sense of humor. Referring to an aerial photo (not one of his) of downtown LA, he shrugs, “How would you like to live somewhere in that pile of junk?”

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