Life mimicking art: Hollywood Shrugged

datePosted on 09:18, June 2nd, 2010 by Lew

[Update: It occurred to me that I missed an opportunity for wordplay in the title of this post, so I’ve belatedly changed it. Groan away.]

Via Not PC, the news that Atlas Shrugged is finally being made into a movie. Or three movies, as is appropriate.

After decades of studio procrastination, the principals of the project have decided to simply go it alone and produce it as an independent project. They have plenty of money, but no name actors, a debutante director and an inexperienced production team, and are working to a shooting deadline which doesn’t permit any detailed production planning. The names are John Aglialoro, Brian O’Toole, David Ellison, Dan Pritzker, Stephen Polk. (Who? Yeah.)

This is foolhardy in the extreme. As the making of one of the greatest American films of all time illustrates, filmmaking is hard, especially when you’re working with complex, well-known (and well-loved) source material. Even when you have the resources of a studio system behind you, and the ability to pick up the phone, drop a name, and have things be done, making a single feature is the sort of undertaking which destroys people. Making a trilogy? Wow.

Atlas Shrugged is a story of superhuman struggle against mediocrity; succeeding despite the interference and opposition of the whole world, a David-and-Goliath stick-it-to-the-Man fable for our time. Its protagonists achieve the impossible by sheer force of will. The story rests on deus ex machina devices — a “free energy” machine which powers the revolution; a cloaking system which hides it; a means of extracting bounteous yields from exhausted oilfields; self-destructing high-tech equipment; individuals of perfect and apparently limitless genius who just up and invent these things as and when they’re needed, etc — and the backers of this project seem to be relying in real life on the same sort of narrative logic to get them through. They appear to think that, if one just wants something hard enough and is sufficiently single-minded in pursuit of that goal, it will be so. As commenter Double0seven says on the release announcement story:

This is truly hilarious. A study in hubris or as the kids these days call it – EPIC FAIL. So we’ve got no stars, a director who is actually an unknown actor, a producer by virtue of wealth and two weeks of prep for a June 11th start date? And then, underlying material that is ridiculously hard to crack. Don’t get me wrong, like many of you I fell in love with Rand’s objectivism in my angry young 20s, but look at the material and consider the economic climate, even if they get this movie made and released, think about movie going demographics – there are not enough teabaggers to support an opening. Perhaps like in the book, this film will open on one screen in a hidden valley in the rockies, where industrialists will pay their admittance in gold. Good luck John Galt.

Perhaps unusually among non-Objectivists (and non-converts to objectivism), I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged and I think it’s a pretty important piece of our political-philosophical culture. I want good movies made of it. I’m bemused but not surprised that the vaunted market of the Hollywood studio system has entrusted such an ambitious and important project to moneyed dilettantes who think themselves Atlases. And (as the comment thread I excerpted above goes on to discuss), there’s no use in citing the filmic Galileo Gambit of Orson Welles, George Lucas, and other Hollywood wunderkinder — for every one of them there are a thousand who were crushed by the machine they set in motion but could not control.

There’s the faintest glimmer of hope that this project will be a genuine bolter, but with this degree of expertise, time and talent involved, the most likely outcome is a blend of the worthy but unpolished products of the 48-hour Furious Filmmaking Festival, an embarrassing Ed Wood-esque schlock-fest, and the earnestly didactic bombast of the films TV channels screen on Easter morning and at Christmas, partly because they feel like they should, and partly because it’s a ratings desert anyway. Objectivists, bless them, seem to lack any sort of humour about the objects of their affection, so while the rest of the world might not mind this latter result (for one film, at least), I fear the self-declared mavens of philosophical and aesthetic rectitude will make fools of themselves defending the cinematically indefensible. It would be a shame to see these people prove that they’re really just Twi-hards with lofty ideals and better argumentation.

But hey, it’s their risk to take, and their choice to make fools of themselves if they want. Galt knows (as they say), they don’t need the approval of us moochers. So let them boldly stand in the path of the machine, and more power to them. But my sense is that a few exultant idealists are about to discover that unflagging self-belief and unlimited money just isn’t the deus ex machina in real life that it is in fiction.

L

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36 Responses to “Life mimicking art: Hollywood Shrugged”

  1. Eddie C on June 2nd, 2010 at 09:44

    Aside from the technical challenges, how do you make an engaging movie out of a book with so many enormous philosophical monologues? Just cut them? Then you kind of destroy the point of the book. Although destroying the point of the book seems to be standard film adaptation practice, I suppose…

  2. Lew on June 2nd, 2010 at 10:01

    Yeah, you cut them. Not out, just for length. The purpose of a film adaptation is to capture the sense and the tone and the feel of a literary work without preserving every word. It’s perfectly doable — this example of a 1000-word Galt speech, and the 100-word money speech do a pretty good job. Whether theose involved have the skills to do this is a different matter; and if (as it seems) they’re Randroids first and film people second, they may be reluctant to take a much-needed scalpel to to the hallowed text.

    L

  3. Hugh on June 2nd, 2010 at 10:13

    I dunno, I thought movies with no-name actors and no major studios behind them were just called independent movies. And we all know how great independent movies can be!

  4. Chris Trotter on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:20

    You ENJOYED “Atlas Shrugged”, Lew.

    That’s not something you should ever admit to – not if you want people to read your writing “objectively” (if you’ll pardon the pun).

    From now on I will find it next to impossible to read any of your postings without being reminded that you’re the guy who wrote positively about the writings of one of the most dangerous individuals of the last 100 years.

    “Atlas Shrugged” is nothing more than fascism in a Brookes Brothers’ suit, and Ayn Rand nothing less than the midwife of today’s increasingly selfish and amoral society.

    No one would dispute her importance as a writer and as a peculiar sort of philosopher – but to say that you “enjoyed” her writing ….?

    Not a smart move.

  5. Lew on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:26

    Oh, Chris, I do love a polemic, and I know you do too. I also enjoy Triumph des Willens for what it is, and I’ve watched it many times while abhorring what it glorifies. Enjoying something, or appreciating its qualities or its expression does not constitute endorsement. And be honest, you didn’t need another bit of “evidence” to consider me ideologically unsound and write me off as a fifth-columnist.

    In any case, I think you grant Rand altogether too much importance. But that’s a different argument for another day.

    L

  6. Ag on June 2nd, 2010 at 12:49

    Aside from the technical challenges, how do you make an engaging movie out of a book with so many enormous philosophical monologues? Just cut them? Then you kind of destroy the point of the book. Although destroying the point of the book seems to be standard film adaptation practice, I suppose…

    Don’t call them philosophical monologues. Real philosophers laugh at Rand and her cult. For starters she needed to take a class on modern logic.

    This is a recent and amusing takedown.

    http://www.thenation.com/print/article/garbage-and-gravitas

    Of particular note is the case made that Rand is really a fascist, which I think is the most insightful comment recently made about her. The plagiarism is funny too.

    Rand is like Nietzsche minus all subtlety and wit.

  7. MollyByGolly on June 2nd, 2010 at 14:27

    They made a movie out of The Fountainhead, with Gary Cooper. Haven’t seen it.

    As for editing down the enormous monologues – well, the book’s editor should have done that before allowing the thing to go to print.

    I enjoyed Altas Shrugged when I was 15. Hated it when I was older. It is so poorly written.

  8. insider on June 2nd, 2010 at 15:41

    I hope it’s as good as Battlefield Earth

  9. Hugh on June 2nd, 2010 at 18:51

    So Ag you’d say Nietzsche was a fascist as well? If a subtle, witty one?

  10. jcuknz on June 2nd, 2010 at 21:42

    What’s Atlas Shrugged? what did I miss in my youth? Actually I do have an Ayn Rand waiting to read, though the person who gave it to me suggested I shouldn’t and wouldn’t like it if I tried … he was moving overseas and wanted to dump the book :-)

  11. Ag on June 2nd, 2010 at 23:05

    So Ag you’d say Nietzsche was a fascist as well? If a subtle, witty one?

    No. I haven’t read him for years, but as I remember, he doesn’t really care about politics that much. He seems to be primarily interested in restoring a pre-Socratic sense of moral virtue more than anything else (although that is a contested interpretation). The connection with Rand is that, on the face of it, both dislike altruism. Nietzsche doesn’t really dislike all altruism though. He hates the kind that originates in servility and resentment, but loves that which comes from the Aristotelian virtues of generosity and magnanimity. There’s a pathetic mean-spiritedness about Rand’s stuff that is absent from Nietzsche. The latter would, for example, find it obscene to whine about money the way that Randians do.

    He certainly missed no opportunity to sneer at Prussian militarism and capitalists (whom he refers to as “Shopkeepers” IIRC), so treating him as a political fascist or pro-capitalist is likely wrong. He cares more about culture than politics.

    Nietzsche is notoriously hard to pin down because he seems to think (or at least did at one point) that human reason can’t really grasp the whole of human existence and the complexity of the human character from a single point of view. Hence, he tends to think about a single problem from many different perspectives which are in principle unlimited. This idea of philosophising as an endless process rather than the reportage of established metaphysical truths is one of the things that gets him labelled an existentialist.

    However, I’m not a Nietzsche expert, so my words ought to be taken as those of a non-specialist. He’s certainly a fascinating read, and some of his writing about music is superb.

    Rand, on the other hand, is a charlatan. Her arguments resemble something out of Play School. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of decent stuff written in defence of capitalism on moral grounds, but Rand’s is not among it. IMHO you have to be really really dumb to be taken in by her. Why couldn’t the radical right have taken Nozick as their philosopher? He was actually pretty good.

  12. Phil Sage on June 2nd, 2010 at 23:55

    Ag – You are Kiwipolitico’s own Ellsworth Toohey

  13. Ag on June 3rd, 2010 at 11:05

    Ag – You are Kiwipolitico’s own Ellsworth Toohey

    It’s customary to provide arguments in support of your claims, something that Rand fails at, and apparently you do as well.

    Or are you chicken?

  14. Chris Trotter on June 3rd, 2010 at 11:53

    Too-shay! (As the French would – phonetically – say) Lew.

    I do, however, need to rescue Leni Riefenstahl from the dubious company into which you have flung her.

    “The Triumph of the Will” has almost nothing to do with the reality of Nazism. Reifenstahl’s genius simply took the muck that was the NSDAP and moulded it into an extraordinary work of art.

    The proof of that statement lies in the fact that while, today, Nazism is universally despised by rational human-beings, Riefenstahl’s notorious film is still widely studied and admired by students of film and propaganda.

    Rand, by contrast, insists that muck IS art.

    It follows, therefore, that any film which faithfully reflects her writing is bound to be pure crap.

    If you doubt me – just watch “The Fountainhead”.

  15. Lew on June 3rd, 2010 at 12:25

    Chris, I agree about Riefenstahl. Her work, and that of Capra and Eisenstein, sparked my interest in political communication.

    But I disagree about Rand. Her ponderous, obsessive and frantic writing suits her narrative and is an integral part of it. While most people would probably not consider it pleasurable to read (indeed many speak of reading Rand in spite of, rather than because of, her style), it does produce a degree of ideological arousal — a sort of outraged hypervigilance — which is necessary for the story to work. This applies to The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the only two of Rand’s fictional works I’ve read, and also to a large extent to her non-fiction if you substitute ‘argument’ for ‘story’. There is congruence between the muck, as you term it, and its expression.

    A film which is faithful to this tone might not be something you like, but that’s not to say it can’t have a perverse sort of beauty. But it will take genuine skill and discernment to make it so. My doubts about the film stem less from the quality of the source material (it is what it is), and more from the fact that True Believers are rarely those best-suited to adapt the objects of their adoration; they lack critical distance. I’m not confident they’ll be able to avoid making a simplistic live-action plot-outline woodenly narrated by an injudiciously abridged version of the original text.

    L

  16. Chris Trotter on June 3rd, 2010 at 16:08

    If your theory is correct, Lew, you will be able to reel off numerous examples of turgid, faux-philosophical novels being transformed into brilliant movies.

    I’m struggling to think of any.

    Can you help me out?

  17. Graeme Edgeler on June 3rd, 2010 at 17:01

    I’m not sure that it’s turgid and faux-philosophical, but Disney’s 1943 film “Victory Through Air Power” is a fantastic film from a somewhat dry book on military strategy.

  18. Hugh on June 3rd, 2010 at 18:01

    Chris, any of the LOTR films would probably fit that description, right off of the top of my head.

  19. Lew on June 3rd, 2010 at 18:12

    Hah, Chris, there are dozens! I alluded to some of the worse sort in the post; they play them on TV at Christmas and Easter. Some of the better sort include The Gospel According to St Matthew, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Life of Brian.

    I normally don’t engage in this sort of nitpickery on the basis that any examples provided can usually be dismissed on some technicality (“not turgid enough”; “not a good enough film”, etc.), but as well as those nominated by Graeme and Hugh I think there are also arguments to be made along these lines for The Matrix, Jurassic Park and (this will be sacrilege to some) 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    L

  20. Pablo on June 3rd, 2010 at 19:09

    I presume Chris is referring to English language films. If you expand the scope of languages to include French, Spanish, German Greek, Mandarin, Portuguese or Russian, there is a veritable treasure trove of hackneyed philosophical ruminations put onto celluloid.

    Fellini, Costa-Gravas or Pedro Almovodar anyone?

  21. Lew on June 3rd, 2010 at 19:42

    Pablo, yeah. Tarkovsky, Ray, Kurosawa, Zhimou. Crikey!

    L

  22. Hugh on June 3rd, 2010 at 19:46

    What hackneyed crap did Kurosawa ever adapt? AFAIK his main influences were Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. If you’re calling either of those guys crap, well, time to step outside…

  23. Lew on June 3rd, 2010 at 20:02

    Heh. The question was not that the source material be “hackneyed”, but that it be “turgid and faux-philosophical”. I still don’t think you could argue either Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare fit that bill — the two Shakespeares he made, Lear and Macbeth, certainly don’t. I haven’t read The Idiot but Kurosawa’s film isn’t much chop in any case. But Rashomon was based on a couple of somewhat turgid short-stories dealing with pseudo-philosophical themes like the nature of perception and experience, social standing and contradictions of morality.

    The point isn’t that it was bad — these characteristics don’t necessarily make a work bad. The point is that good or bad films can be made from bad or good source material.

    L

  24. Hugh on June 3rd, 2010 at 20:12

    I always thought Rashomon was an original. How ’bout that.

  25. Ag on June 3rd, 2010 at 22:05

    Chris, any of the LOTR films would probably fit that description, right off of the top of my head.

    Why would you think the LOTR is faux philosophical? If anything, I always think of it as quaintly anti-philosophical.

    Can you explain what you mean?

  26. Hugh on June 4th, 2010 at 02:03

    Well, just off the top of my head, LOTR is nationalist, anti-modernist and manichean. Those are all philosophies.

  27. Chris Trotter on June 5th, 2010 at 14:18

    Keep ’em coming, fellas, not convinced yet!*

    * LOTR a turgid, faux-philosophical novel? Who Knew?

  28. Ag on June 5th, 2010 at 15:21

    Well, just off the top of my head, LOTR is nationalist, anti-modernist and manichean. Those are all philosophies.

    None of these are philosophies. Nationalism is a political idea. Modernism is a cultural idea, and Manicheanism is a religion.

    LOTR is anti-philosophical, since it implicitly denies that meaningful truths can be discovered by logic or argument. Tolkien thought that they were embedded in languages and could only be elucidated by myth. We could use philosophical reason to describe what LOTR claims, but that’s about the limit of it.

  29. Lew on June 5th, 2010 at 17:45

    Chris, if the bible movies didn’t convince you, I guess nothing will. But then, the bible movies were never going to convince you, and so I return to my initial observation that any example provided would be dismissed on a technicality.

    Ag, but do they count as faux-philosophies? Because, as you say, Objectivism isn’t a philosophy either.

    L

  30. Ag on June 5th, 2010 at 21:45

    Ag, but do they count as faux-philosophies? Because, as you say, Objectivism isn’t a philosophy either.

    Objectivisim presents itself as philosophy, using the instruments of philosophy in an attempt to prove a number of ethical, metaphysical and political conclusions. I would not say a faux philosophy, but an example of philosophy done very badly. I think some of Rand’s followers felt this way, since many of them were more philosophically gifted than her.

    Nozick is an example of a gifted philosopher who has similar political views to the Objectivists. He just knows how to argue.

    Tolkien is nothing like this. He doesn’t believe in reason, but in myth as an expression of a culture via its language. I don’t think many critics really understand Lord of the Rings, because Tolkien’s kind of meticulous intellectualism has fallen out of style in literary studies (most people don’t even know that he was a don). Tolkien isn’t even an ethnocentrist, as LOTR makes clear.

  31. Phil Sage on June 8th, 2010 at 02:51

    It’s customary to provide arguments in support of your claims, something that Rand fails at, and apparently you do as well.

    You are obviously intelligent and well read and yet spend your time expounding at great length and with great authority about matters that are completely peripheral to the substance of the issue at hand and/or wildly at odds with reality.

    Both market democracy and Rand are dismissed without actually rebutting the core points in two recent entanglements.

    Rand, on the other hand, is a charlatan. Her arguments resemble something out of Play School. ..IMHO you have to be really really dumb to be taken in by her.

    The amusing takedown you refer to positively makes its points based on accusing Rand of being fascist. Whilst Neitsczhe is quoted approvingly as being anti-capitalist and non fascist, which is akin to saying the sky is green and grass blue. One was taken up by Hitler who approved the control by the corporate elite who had the will to power and the other spent her life arguing against compulsion.

    He certainly missed no opportunity to sneer at Prussian militarism and capitalists (whom he refers to as “Shopkeepers” IIRC), so treating him as a political fascist or pro-capitalist is likely wrong.

    Capitalists are shopkeepers. And with that haughty sneer, dismissed.

    Walmart and Dell are two fantastically competitive “shopkeepers” and yet capitalists who have done far more to bring value to poor consumers than any amount of socialist philosophy. Their constant attention to their processes allows them to compete on price to the benefit of the consumer. Yet they are reviled.

    You obviously share with Jordan Carter and a number of other well educated New Zealand based commentators a distaste for “trade” and capitalism. Socialism is the obvious alternative.

    Educated, intelligent and well read, but utterly misguided Ellsworth.

  32. Ag on June 8th, 2010 at 12:22

    Capitalists are shopkeepers. And with that haughty sneer, dismissed.

    Yes, Nietzsche didn’t think much of capitalists. How weird that I should by noting this intend agreement with him.

    Still no arguments from you. If you want to convince me, you will need reasons, which you seem incapable of supplying. You ran away in the other thread, and you’ll no doubt run away again.

    Chicken.

  33. Ruth on June 9th, 2010 at 15:25

    The problem with Rand – and I have a lot of admiration for her – is that she makes clip-on-tie middle management dimwits think that they are all suppressed Beethovens, Buffetts, and Einsteins who would flourish but for the awful state that suppresses them.

    You see this mind-set all over the blogosphere, unfortunately…

  34. Lew on June 9th, 2010 at 15:38

    Ruth, yeah — and failed entrepreneurs, corrupt property developers, incompetent dairy farmers, etc. Far from her ideal, Rand’s writings — and AS in particular — tend to be used by a certain type of fool to excuse themselves from their own failure.

    L

  35. […] as a temporary (career) suicide.” Grant Bowler has some chops, and he suits the character. My previous misgivings notwithstanding, I reckon that’ll be reason enough to watch it. But, my goodness, what a […]

  36. […] and most immediately evident failure is that the film is talky to a fault. Before it was released I expressed concerns that a production team of Objectivist True Believers would lack the necessary courage to take the […]

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