Posts Tagged ‘Objectivism’

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.

I quote one of our friendly neighbourhood sociopaths from the gloriously-named SOLOPassion, in full:

NZ Politics: I Have a Cunning Plan – Tax Childbirth
I know! I’m suggesting a tax. Bear with me …
On TV3 Firstline this morning, after picking myself up from the floor when political reporter Patrick Gower dropped it so casually into his ‘reportage’ that the Green’s idea of Government setting up its own Kiwisaver scheme to distort the free market even further was a fabulous one, and he couldn’t understand why Labour and National hadn’t thought of it, it was then reported that pursuant to some overseas agency of or other that one in every four New Zealand children was living in poverty.
I don’t think it is then spurious to draw the logic line to the social welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell statistic that 23% of all babies born over 2010 (for the State educated, that’s almost one in four) were in ‘homes’ reliant on a hard benefit to live by the end of the first year of life.
Mmmm.
That has set me to pondering. Rather than the Save the Children lady’s solution, when she was then interviewed, of spending yet more money on welfare, and creating yet new layers of bureaucracy, and working on the theory that you can’t fix the problems of welfare by more welfare, I think a radical rethink is necessary.
Hence my proposal to fix this problem in just one generation: rather than taking from all taxpayers as we do currently, and subsidising childbirth, which I pose has led to these two related statistics, I think we should be doing the reverse – taxing childbirth.
This would force parents to assess their financial ability to have children, and only start families when they could afford to. This will mean within one generation, we will have virtually wiped out the horrendous 23% statistic, and with it, child poverty, in the one blow. Further, the childbirth tax could be put toward the State functions that those children will be using: education and health.
There will be a hue and cry, obviously: babies for the rich only, Occupiers in maternity wards, all founded on the protest that governments should not decide such important lifestyle choices as who has babies and who doesn’t. The last of which I entirely agree with, whether it be via a subsidy or a tax, for therein lies my cunning plan ;)

This is a perfect example of Poe’s Law, which states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

It’s a perfect example because literally the only thing about it that’s vaguely implausible is that it’s a Randroid proposing a tax.

Swift’s A Modest Proposal was far enough removed from the prevailing norms of his intellectual circle to be distinguishable from them. This isn’t. It’s in the uncanny valley of political discourse.

L

PS: Check the comments, if you think you can stomach them.

Just don’t think about the offspring

datePosted on 08:29, August 9th, 2010 by Lew

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, and so it is that Chris Trotter finds common cause with Peter Cresswell in selectively revising the story of Ngāi Tūhoe to frame them up as our very own Khmer Rouge, and the Tino Rangatiratanga movement as the mortal enemy of civil society as we know it. I do not seek to defend Te Kooti and his followers: it’s not necessary to do so to abhor the brutality of the Crown response. But even that isn’t the point of this post: I’ve covered that ground before. The point is that their reading is anitithetical to the ongoing development of a peaceful and modern Aotearoa.

Both frame up the Crown position as a matter of swordright — Tūhoe ‘picked the wrong side’ in their war and were justly punished for it. Should have been punished more. Both Chris and Peter seem to be of the view that the Crown would have been entirely justified in leaving not one stone upon another, not one man, woman or child alive. And more than a century later, based on their own (conveniently one-eyed) assessment of incidents surrounding Te Kooti’s succour in Te Urewera, they argue that Tūhoe still deserve whatever they get: nothing if they’re bloody lucky. Frankly, I expect this sort of thing from permanent-state-of-jihad Objectivists; not so much from an actual historian claiming the mantle of a peace-loving social democrat.

Because the end justifies the means, you see. The brutal and systematic dispossession and wholesale slaughter of Māori throughout Aotearoa was perhaps unfortunate, but necessary in ‘civilising’ the uncivilised hordes of savages found here by the noble white man of 1840. I asked Chris a while ago whether he thought that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. He responded by saying I was “not mentally wired for this sort of historical argument.” But I guess I have a fuller answer now.

These are people who claim to want to ‘move on’ from our colonial history, for Aotearoa to become ‘one nation’. But doing so on the basis of swordright cannot result in a nation of two people joining together as ‘iwi tahi tatou’, but of one people who set the rules and another who live by them; the former wielding the righteous sword of civilisation, the latter’s efforts to work with the former rather than under them cut down by it, and even their efforts to work within the rules viewed with eternal suspicion and distrust. This is beyond misery — it is ignorant, paranoiac hatred and fear of ghosts long passed which has brought these two bedfellows together. Just don’t think about the offspring they might bear.

Update: Fresh approval from PC.

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

Welcome Standardistas

datePosted on 11:18, June 26th, 2009 by Lew

Lynn has linked through to us while The Standard is down – thanks. I won’t have time today to put much up, so in order that you’re not disappointed by the relative lack of content, here are a few other unusual suspects worth your attention:

  • BAGnewsNotes, because politics sometimes needs to be seen to be believed.
  • The Dr Seuss propaganda cartoon archive.
  • My old mate Gabe runs a radio show on FleetFM called Playing Singles, Drinking Doubles, dedicated to outlaw country, honky tonk, gospel, rock & roll, western swing and the blues.
  • The Objective Standard, whose watchword is Exploit The Earth Or Die. Magnificent in its delusion. Even the ad links on this site are interesting – here’s one to a book called The Values of Harry Potter: Lessons for Muggles. Who knew Harry Potter (by implication: JK Rowling) was a Rand cultist? Or wait, is it that Rand cultists are actually wizards? Clearly, since I can’t figure this out, I’m a muggle.
  • Here’s a wonderful montage of Fox News screengrabs. It’s a big file, but truly the gift which keeps on giving.
  • Save The Media – career journalist Gina Chen blogs on how old media can learn from new media.
  • The Peoples Cube – life behind the irony curtain. So overdone it initially made me wonder whether it was propaganda or ironic counter-propaganda, but nevertheless, an almost-endless trove of remarkably original material. Particularly righteous is the Pascal’s Global Warming Wager.
  • Submit on the Auckland local government reforms. Last stop today; train’s going to keep on rolling until it reaches the end of the line or the engineer dies.
  • Why Obama really won the Democratic primary.

Add your own unusual suspects in comments, if you like.

Cheers,
L

[If anyone has a post they’d like us to put up please email us (kiwipolitico @ kiwipolitico.com) and we’ll get it posted! Anita]