Posts Tagged ‘Atlas Shrugged’

The disappointment of Atlas Shrugged Part I

datePosted on 18:51, November 25th, 2011 by Lew

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged isn’t a work with universal appeal, but it interests me as a work of propaganda. It is a powerful text, and one that has had an enduring influence on Western politics. While my disdain for Objectivism and the sanity of most of its adherents is pretty well documented, I do, at least to an extent, get the appeal.

There are some things that were inevitably going to be bad about the recent movie adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a trilogy: the utopian pseudo-philosophy at its core; unlovable heroes and pantomime villains; the absurdity of a mysterious stranger going about making zillionaires offers they can’t refuse to leave it all behind, and so on. This is all the usual stuff of Atlas Shrugged criticism and while fair enough, it’s not really pertinent to criticism of the movie, because the movie couldn’t have been made authentically without it. (The question of whether it should have been made authentically at all is another one; I think it should.) So this review isn’t a critique of the novel, or Rand’s philosophy; it’s a critique of the film.

There’s a scene early on in the story where Paul Larkin, a business-courtier of sorts, counsels Hank Rearden about the importance of public opinion. The movie plays it pretty straight and is much shorter than the novel text, so the dialogue is transcribed here:

Larkin: You’re not very popular, Hank.
Rearden: I haven’t had any complaints from my customers.
Larkin: That’s not what I mean. You know what you should do? You ought to get yourself a good press agent, to sell you to the public.
Rearden: It’s my metal I’m selling, not me.
Larkin: But you don’t want the public against you. Public opinion can mean a lot.
Rearden: As far as I can tell it doesn’t mean a damned thing one way or another.
Larkin: The press is against you.
Rearden: They have time to waste. I don’t.

This theme — to hell with what the peasants think, only quality matters — it central to Rand’s work, and the filmmakers here have taken it entirely to heart. They have made a film that is almost incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with Rand’s text, presumably on the premise that anyone who matters will know the story already, or will be able to divine the work’s innate and self-evident quality for themselves.* The result is a simplistic, primary retelling of Atlas Shrugged: a film without cinematic appeal or narrative cohesion, and that doesn’t effectively convey Rand’s milieu, her ideas, or her ideology, and consequentially fails to live up to her vision.

The first 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 red pen to the hallowed text. This fear has been fully borne out. What works on the page — and what worked on the page in the 1950s — does not always work on-screen. The iron law of the moving picture is show me, don’t tell me, and it is not unfaithful to cut an author’s prose to suit the needs of a new medium. Yet it seems every cut, every edit (and of course there are many; it’s a long book) has been made reluctantly.

Seriously: as Hank and Dagny retire to their rooms after celebrating the John Galt Line’s maiden run, we don’t need Hank to confide in a stage-whisper to Dagny that he wants to kiss her, or for her to say “what’s stopping you?”. Earlier, after about 40 minutes of wondering when the hell the movie is going to start, we got a brief conversation about dessert, banana or chocolate? In other cases Rand’s phraseology intrudes: the introduction of John Galt — the first meaningful piece of dialogue in the film — comes almost verbatim from the novel: he introduces himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself, and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”. Come again? Rand’s hackneyed ideological tropes (“Anti Dog Eat Dog Act” &c) are retained without the benefit of the novel’s context, in which they make sense. The screenplay manages to fail both the tasks of good exposition: convey a vivid sense of milieu, and do so efficiently and with congruence. While you could argue it sets the scene, it’s still not entirely clear what that scene is, or why so many words were needed to set it.

Casting and direction is poor, as is to be expected from a first-time director possessed of sufficient (and archetypically-Randian) hubris to cast himself as John Galt. There is an utter dearth of chemistry between the characters; the actors do a mostly serviceable job, but they are given precious little to work with. Rand’s heroes are notable for their severity, but also for their passion, and while the emotional top-note of severity is overplayed, the undertone of passion for the most part just fails to cut through. There are, in this film based on a very emotionally-intense novel, about four moments of genuine emotional intensity. The first is about half-way through, when Ellis Wyatt shouts at Dagny in her office. It is a jarring moment, and not in a good way — the first moment in the film where anyone on-scene is speaking above a low conversational tone, and is totally off-register. It comes out of nowhere — in the novel, again, it was cushioned by exposition — and confuses the relationships between the characters. This is a particular problem in a film where it is already unclear who are supposed to be the “good guys” and who the “bad” (again, a lack of effective exposition).

At other times, despite remaining slavishly faithful to Rand’s dialogue, the film alters the register of a scene so utterly that it is unrecognisable. The sex scene between Hank and Dagny is one of the central events of the first part of the novel: two kindred spirits, having previously thought themselves alone in the world, consummating their relationship with violent intensity. Her “highest achievement”, Dagny calls it, in the novel; in the film we are treated to a slow-motion desaturated montage of soft fades, arched backs and half-open mouths. Its only redeeming feature is its brevity. I mentioned that there were about four moments of genuinely intense emotion in the film: this was not one of them. Going to such lengths to retain Rand’s words while neglecting to retain the tone and sense of her narrative is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as far as authenticity goes.

Deeper than the failure of narrative, though, is the film’s failure to deliver its ideological payload. The expression of Rand’s ideology is garbled, the narrative itself is poorly explicated. Nor is it carried by structure, or image or performance, or anything, really. Signature scenes that conveyed this material vividly and at tiresome length in the novel are all but absent — such as the encounter with Hugh Akston, which becomes a trivial footnote in a weird road-trip montage — while other aspects, such as Rearden’s sell-down and the implementation of various acts and regulations, are bogged down in irrelevant technical detail. We learn a lot about the structure of the steel and railroad industries in Rand’s America, but very little about why these things matter to the story.

So although the filmmakers have remained quite true to the text this is not a film that is true to Rand’s vision. It’s barely a film — it’s more like an illustrated audiobook, badly abridged. Rand was a screenwriter whose work was produced on Broadway; someone who understood drama, who wanted Clint Eastwood and Farrah Fawcett to play the leads in the movie of Atlas Shrugged. She worked to have it produced twice, as a film, and then as an eight-hour miniseries; both failed. At the time of her death she was (re)writing the screenplay herself. She had great ambitions for the movie. As an ideologue and a propagandist she knew and understood deeply the power of words and images, of ideas and argumentation, to move people, and for all their faults her novels — or this one, at least — did that.

Film’s use as a propaganda medium was by no means alien to her. Early Soviet Russia had the best-developed ideological film tradition of its time, and Rand was also said to have caught what Lev Kuleshov referred to as “Americanitis”, infatuation with America, from watching the Hollywood films that so eloquently portrayed the bourgeois individualism of American life. The films of the Soviet tradition in which she grew up, no less than those of the classical Hollywood system in which Rand later worked, were profoundly cinematic works, used quite purposively to convey ideological material in every cut, every frame, every note. It was not a tradition of simplistic, literal narrative adaptations, but works of political art in their own right.

Like the exponents of Soviet montage, Rand tirelessly inferred ideological symbolism into arbitrary works of art. She was not afraid to challenge readers, to shock or outrage them. For all it may be nominally faithful to the text, this film fails to use the aesthetic tools of the medium to convey its message. It fails to challenge, or shock, or outrage. It fails to do anything, really. This movie of a novel about the primacy of action over inaction, preoccupied with the most immense mechanical and ideological forces, literally about the engines that drive humanity, is shamefully static.

The film’s dearth of cinematic character means that not only has it failed to make money (an Objectivist KPI), but it also fails to fulfil the purpose of an ideological text: to engage, to inspire, to move people. Other than those for whom the text is sacred, who overlook the faults of the adaptation out of fawning affection for the source material, nobody is watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I; there were no queues, there is no buzz. At a time of deep and divisive public debate about the nature of the relationships between business and government, between the state and the individual, at a time when Rand’s latter-day apostles are so fond of declaring that her work has never been more relevant, and that her ideas are enjoying a renaissance, there isn’t even any outrage about this film. In this regard it is no better than the preachy Bible films, full of hollow, lazy sentimentality, that get replayed to captive audiences of bored children every Easter and Christmas. The Gospel According to St Matthew this ain’t.

For all I disagree with her philosophy, Rand’s novel deserved better. As noted, her work is packed with references to the expression of ideology and exaltation in the everyday — in the structure of a building, a person’s voice or bearing; or most notoriously, in their approach to sex. This film is no such expression of any innate excellence. Echoing the conversation between Hank Rearden and Paul Larkin, a motif of Atlas Shrugged is frequent reference to the composer Richard Halley, one of the “strikers”, whose work is described as so profound that it is misunderstood and mocked by the ordinary workaday folks, the leeches and moochers and second-handers, and by the time they come around to appreciating it Halley has decided they are not worthy.** Objectivists certainly consider Halley’s work as being analogous to Rand’s, and I get the sense that the principals of Atlas Shrugged: Part I fancy themselves as having created such a work — one that can only be properly appreciated by those of a nobler character. That they, as Galtian Übermenschen, would succeed where everyone else had failed by sheer force of will, and in spite of the doubts and limitations placed upon them by the second-handers. Their conceit could hardly be greater.

Perhaps those of us who are not Objectivists should be grateful; Atlas Shrugged made to Eisenstein, DeMille, Capra or Pasolini’s standards would be a mighty work of propaganda indeed.

L

* Fitting irony: this review also assumes readers are familiar with the story.
** This is a serious business within Objectivism: the arguments as to whether Halley’s fictional music is best represented by Rachmaninov or Mussorgsky are quite something.

Stay classy, Atlases

datePosted on 08:11, January 13th, 2011 by Lew

VEXNEWS‘ headline, while verbose, really does nail it: GREEDY GERRY: Heartless Harvey fiddles at lavish Gold Coast party while Queensland drowns.

That’s Gerry Harvey, of Harvey Norman; and John Singleton, who (with Harvey) owns a thoroughbred brokerage aptly named ‘Magic Millions’. This photo and others were taken at its launch while much of the rest of the state of Queensland was underwater. From the article, with my emphasis:

When asked by a reasonably friendly Gold Coast Bulletin scribe about whether continuing the event in light of the hardship endured by the rest of Queensland, Harvey’s partner John Singleton’s response showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity even by the vulgar standards of the average Sydney spiv: “You feel a bit guilty having a good time when you see what is happening in other parts of Queensland and northern NSW, but on the other hand the Aussie way is life goes on.” Charming.

Context, however, is everything. There’s a good reference to the fall of Rome in there, but here’s the real bit of background which brings it home:

Gerry Harvey is closely associated with the brand of his many outlets where so many Australians buy the goods that furnish their homes. Many (fortunate enough to be insured) Queenslanders will come to file into these outlets in the days and months ahead when they want to replace all the things they lost. He stands to make (yet another) fortune. You’d think the man would show a little more decency during this sobering time for our country.

Well, you would — but in fact, it’s worse than that. Many of those worst affected by flooding actually aren’t insured for it — because insurers expressly exclude flood damage from their policies. Most cover storms (falling water in the local area) but not flooding (rising water, or that which originated elsewhere). The Queensland Department of Primary Industry has a summary:

A major obstacle that delays insurance claims is the different definitions for flood and inundation in insurance policies. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) defines ‘flood’ as:
“In general terms, flood damage refers to the inundation of a property by water which overflows from a natural watercourse, while storm and tempest damage refers to the inundation of a property by water as the result of a storm.”
Therefore, some inundation risks are covered by the term ‘flood’.
According to ASIC’s Consumer Understanding of Flood Insurance Report, both types of damage are usually linked to a storm, and a property may be inundated by both water from the storm and water overflowing from a natural watercourse. However, most insurance policies don’t cover damage to a property if caused by:
* inundation of water flowing from a natural watercourse
* inundation of water from both the storm and overflow of a natural watercourse (unless most of the damage is caused by stormwater)
* other phenomena, such as earth movement, even though this may itself have been caused by water from a storm.
The Insurance Council of Australia advises consumers to review the terms and conditions of their cover in their Policy Disclosure Statement.
If in doubt, contact your insurer.

It makes sense, as an insurer, to decline to offer cover for anything which might actually cost money; and there abides a regulatory environment which permits insurers to do just this. The topic, and related problems resulting from poor government policy, are covered in some detail in a column by La Trobe University disaster researcher Rachel Carter in today’s Australian. Consequently, despite the present floods being declared the most severe disaster in Queensland’s history and with some discussion today that it may be the worst in the history of the Commonwealth, insurers were, a few days ago, saying that the losses to their industry would be modest.

(Sidebar: if you’ve not connected the dots, this is the same insurance industry to which the Key government intends to deliver ACC early in their second term. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

And so it is as it ever was: even in an affluent, modern first-world democracy with strong disaster-response agencies, which likes to regard itself as an egalitarian nation where the “little guy” gets a fair suck of the sav — when push comes to shove the big guys make out like bandits, and the little guy goes under.

In both cases, literally.

L

Life mimicking art: outrageous vainglory

datePosted on 13:56, June 18th, 2010 by Lew
This is John Galt.

“This is John Galt.”

If there lingers any doubt the film production of Atlas Shrugged is going to be an epic adolescent ego-stroking festival, it must surely be dispelled by the news that the director (Paul Johansson, of teen-angst-dram series One Tree Hill) is also the hero: John Galt. The resonant hubris of this is so stark that the fact he’s never directed a feature film before barely deserves a mention.

There’s one point of interest for New Zealand viewers, though: Grant Bowler, probably better known as Wolf from Outrageous Fortune, is down for Hank Rearden.

There is no such thing as a temporary (career) suicide.

“There is no such thing 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 brush to risk being tarred with.

(H/T to Peter Cresswell and his always-excellent ramble.)

L

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

BK Drinkwater replied several days ago to my post on the core philosophical difference between Labour and National. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy (with work and with caring for family members at either end of their lives) to give very much attention to this sort of thing, and this state will continue for the foreseeable future. His is a good post, and although it’s couched as a critique of mine, I mostly agree with it. It’s not so much arguing a different point than mine as looking at the issue more deeply. I especially like his restatement of the matter in formal terms:

The big question, and this is the one that will probably decide which camp of economic thought you pitch your tent in, is this: to what extent do the ill social products of income inequality compound as according to income inequality, and does this effect rival the benefits of economic growth to the point where you’re willing to see less of the latter?

A therefore B (therefore A)
I was in the initial post perhaps a bit vague about which parts of my argument were the hypothesis and which were the evidence to prove it (in truth, they’re both, which is itself problematic). This meant BK accepted the utilitarian dichotomy I raised (greatest good versus least harm), but didn’t follow it completely through. Once followed through, I think it illuminates the reasoning behind both sides’ policy preferences and ideological truisms. I pegged the core philosophical difference to a crude split of those who see the world as being bounteous with opportunity and potential, and those who see it as being fraught with danger and risk. For example:

Classical liberals in National are concerned almost solely with negative rights: the right not to have your stuff stolen, the right not to be raped, etc etc. Labour recognizes also positive rights: the right to a high standard of education and healthcare, the right to share equitably in the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

(Ignoring for a moment that the example isn’t accurate because both National and Labour believe in the things ascribed above to Labour). The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights. The two positions positions don’t explain the worldview as much as they are derived from the worldview. Other dichotomies map to this with a fair degree of accuracy: the abundance versus scarcity split of how full the glass is represents just one, you can probably think up others.

Above, I used `the world’ deliberately, because I think a good case study for this sort of thing are the linked matters of climate change and peak oil. Ambitionists, by and large, see neither of these as a great problem, because at core they hold an unshakable confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome anything and will find ways to mitigate against both, given enough time and good reason to do so. This is the throughoing theme of Atlas Shrugged. Mitigationists, on the other hand, believe that there are forces greater than humanity and that these problems cannot be overcome – at least not by the ambitionist approach. This is the throughgoing theme of another great dystopic novel, The War of the Worlds, where humanity is saved through no fault of our own but through careful preservation of a lower bound.

These dichotomies are heavily propagandised, and are a significant matter of political identity. I reject much of the Marxist cui bono? approach to explaining political allegiance, and rather think that (warning, rash generalisations follow) the wealthy support National because National reflects their experience that the world is a sweet place where everyone has opportunities, they just have to take them; while the less-wealthy support Labour because Labour reflects their experience that it’s tough to scrape by without a decent base-line of public support. This leads me to my next point: what do people really believe?

Apology
Answer: what their ideological identity tells them to. The dirty little secret of my initial post is that I appealed to utilitarianism because it’s a useful framework, but I don’t actually buy it, and I don’t think very many other people do either. The unstated assumption was that people think rationally about matters like this, in terms of actual utility. I think people should, but I don’t think they do. When it comes to propagandised political identity markers such as these dichotomies, people assess policies or political positions in deontological terms, not in utilitarian terms – they identify themselves with an end and then rationalise the necessary means, inventing or adopting or appropriating arguments which allow them to sleep at night. The question is what does this policy advocate vis-a-vis what I believe to be right rather than what utility will this policy bring vis-a-vis the alternatives. So all this talk about opportunity and risk and discount rates and such is useful in theory, and useful in practice inasmuch as it might form the basis for ideologically resonant arguments which might lead to greater support for better policy outcomes, but I don’t think the question I raised was strictly one of utility – it’s one of identity. Sorry about that.

More on the money proxy
I want to expand on why I have problems with the money proxy, which I touched on in the last post. It’s pretty simple, and explains the reason why I’m not strictly an ambitionist: money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which I (and most people) believe human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money. This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

I suppose that’s my A.

L