Well … that was underwhelming. But I’m hardly one to judge a film based on a trailer. It does remind me of Avatar, especially the dourly over-serious tone and the weapons grade self-righteousness. The inevitable release of Atlas Shrugged, Part I, after decades in development hell, reveals an old truism about Hollywood. It is show business. And business is all about capitalizing on trends.
Let’s take a step back from this and examine the phenomenon more closely. With the release of the trailer, there will be the motley crew of jellyfish-like leftists waving their hands in the air, gnashing their teeth, and yammering on about such-and-such apocalypse. The pro-business Right will gloat, drink their martinis, and wallow in the glow of their success. Finally, finally, finally, after decades of oppression from the Communist Velvet Mafia that secretly controls Hollywood, they released a film based on the book by Ayn Rand – Peace Be Upon Her – that shows the virtue of making money and being selfish. (The previous sentences had a light dash of sarcasm. Although given the hyperventilating, anti-intellectual, psychotic-off-his-meds tone of the national political discourse, how can ya tell?)
The focus of this essay will be the phenomenon of the heavy-handed political satire film. And Ayn Rand can be particularly heavy-handed when it comes to getting her point across. I’m surprised copies of Atlas Shrugged don’t come with a trowel.
After reading nearly 1000 pages of Atlas Shrugged, one can only hope that the screenwriter has trimmed a little bit from this bloated text. And perhaps added a joke or two. Just because one is making a political point doesn’t mean one has to be dour and serious. The American film going public has a short attention span.
Upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I came to the realization that it resembled Avatar. The only difference is the politics and that is superficial at best. Rand’s book is about a miracle metal, Cameron’s film is about Unobtainium. The tone is what is most bothersome about Avatar. The CGI and creature design created an amazing array of visuals and a gorgeous alien world, the narrative sucked! The alien became less alien when the Navi became the Blue Indian Stand-ins riding atop Blue Horse Stand-ins. The facetious put-down calling the movie Dances with Wolves IN SPACE was true. The narrative copied Dances with Wolves down to its condescending, retrograde, and racist White Man Set Them Free theme. The additional stereotyping of the two major human sub-groups into flat caricatures made it even worse. Every military-type figure was a dumb jarhead and every scientist-type figure was a pansy-ass bookish nerd.
Avatar remains an example of how not to do heavy-handed political satire.
By all accounts, the film They Live shouldn’t work. Written and directed by cinema master John Carpenter, They Live focuses on an apolitical construction worker who discovers a magical pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he sees a zombified world controlled by ghoulish aliens. The ghoulish aliens espouse beliefs almost exactly the same as Reagan Republicans. The film’s musical score is simple, the plot equally so. It stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David. Carpenter lays on his criticisms of Reagan’s economic and social policies with a trowel. Anyone with half a brain would be able to pick up on the satirical element. Yet the movie is Pure Awesome?
Why is that?
John Carpenter, like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Maya Deren, owns a seat in the Cinema Pantheon. He created the slasher genre with Halloween. He directed the action-comedy-martial arts cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Throughout his career, he worked with Kurt Russell, a vocal libertarian. Kurt Russell is made of pure Awesome.
The magic of They Live occurs because of its light touch. The political criticisms remain trenchant and serious, but the overarching story has huge dollops of the ridiculous. The sunglasses? Casting a WWF wrestler? The really, really, really long fight scene? The obviousness? The ridiculous aspects become resolved with its bent humor. The film wouldn’t work by casting Robert Redford as the lead. This is hardly Dog Day Afternoon or Godard’s Weekend.
But seriousness isn’t a roadblock to an effective film with heavy-handed political satire.
Mislabeled as a thriller, Land of the Blind (Robert Edwards, 2006) lays the satire on thick. In the film, Emperor Maximilian II runs a banana republic-type country. Tom Hollander portrays Maximilian as a garish cartoon dictator, equal parts savagery and incompetence. (Hollander also played a cold-blooded technocrat in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.) Maximilian’s world involves wealthy elites who don’t speak the native language, police setting monks on fire, blackface routines, and the Emperor helming atrocious action movies. The Emperor also keeps charismatic political dissident John Thorne in prison.
Thorne used to work as a writer. Then through the incompetence of Emperor Maximilian II and populist anger, Thorne is released. Here is the pivotal point where Land of the Blind stands out among political satires. The de rigueur critique of rightwing regimes has a long tradition in Hollywood. The only thing easier than satirizing a Southern preacher figure is to satirize a rightwing dictator. That’s easy money. In the film, once Thorne gets power, things actually get worse. Thorne, played by a bearded arrogant Donald Sutherland, turns the unnamed country into a theocratic hellhole, akin to post-Revolution Iran. Land of the Blind succeeds in showing the awfulness of rightwing and leftwing regimes. Hardly an endorsement for the mealy-mouthed centrism so beloved to voters in the United States, the film shows that regardless of where one goes on the political spectrum, the extremes will only bring poverty, atrocity, and despair. (Something the mass of American devotees of the “lesser of two evils” method of voting should consider the next time they enter a voting booth and do their obligatory duty to further this republic into a neck-deep swill of corruption and incompetence.)
The heavy-handed political satire can be done well on film. It takes a light touch and a humanistic vision of society. Like Crash Davis said, “Strike-outs are boring … and fascist.” Atlas Shrugged has a lot of strike-outs in it. I don’t agree with its philosophy, but sweet Christ! does it have to be so boring? That’s the cardinal rule in Hollywood. A movie flops not so much from any political consideration, but because it bored the audience.
Atlas Shrugged, Part I, good luck! But if you bore your audience, it’s your own damn fault. A book based on the philosophy of making money should at least have the good sense in actually making some money.
By the way, where’s Angelina Jolie? Can’t Objectivism buy A-Listers or are Coen Brothers character actors (John Polito for the win!) the best that can be done?
“On the roof of a structure above the gate, he saw, as he came closer, the slim silhouette of a man who held a gun in each hand and, from behind the protection of a chimney, kept firing at intervals down into the mob, firing swiftly and, it seemed, in two directions at once, like a sentinel protecting the approaches to the gate. The confident skill of his movements, his manner of firing, with no time wasted to take aim, but with the kind of casual abruptness that never misses a target, made him look like a hero of Western legend–and Rearden watched him detached, impersonal pleasure, as if the battle of the mills were not his any longer, but he could still enjoy the sight of the competence and certainty with which men of that distant age had once combatted evil.”
Reflections: As it should be obvious to anyone reading this blog, I concur with Matt’s opinion. Reading Atlas Shrugged is nothing short of a punishing ordeal. This isn’t even fun anymore. The lazy bloated writing, done to support a philosophy that idolizes severity and efficiency (O! the irony!), makes for slow laborious usurious reading. It’s usurious in that I’m getting less out from the effort it takes to read this monstrous shit-monument. I hope that I can get through John Galt’s lengthy speech without wanting to nail a steel tent spike through my skull.
Warning: Do not read Atlas Shrugged and operate heavy machinery.
The present chapter doesn’t assuage my fears. The most aggravating thing about this chapter was the lack of characterization. Ma and Bro Rearden come on bended knee to Hank, pleading for help. Unfortunately, Philip really doesn’t want a job and Hank’s mother still acts like a castrating shrew. It seemed like Rearden’s family genuinely saw the error of their ways and pleaded with Hank for forgiveness and mercy. I almost came to appreciating these characters on a human level. “Hey, they saw the error of their ways. People can change. Maybe there’s more to this book than nakedly pornographic agitprop?” All for naught. It was all a con job to get a handout from Hank. The family members remain static caricatures, the dire times making them more and more shrill.
The only character that does “change” is the Wet Nurse, aka The Non-Absolute, aka Tony, aka Empathy Bait. The absurdly protracted death scene is somehow engineered to elicit the reader’s sympathy. “Aw, the young kid, never had a chance. Stupid colleges and their gol-durned book-learnin’!” But isn’t that rather paradoxical (not to mention manipulative and obvious)? The foundation of Objectivism is its rejection of Altruism, since the act of giving is anathema to selfishness. Fine. How does that work for a modern fictional narrative? If I’m supposed to feel sympathy for Non-Absolute’s death, shouldn’t I give a damn? As it stands, I don’t. Not out of any orthodox adherence to Objectivist doctrine. The lack of change in the Rearden’s family of repellent leeches and in Non-Absolute’s contrived death did the opposite of create empathy. It created a hatred that burned like a acetylene torch. After 1000 pages, endless speechifying, characters so absurdly good they practically shit marble, and characters so evil Stalinist propagandists are telling Rand to take it down a notch, my sympathies lie with no characters, none of their situations, and none of this cod-Nietzschean meets Eurotrash macho-slut lookism. The best thing to occur in this narrative would be for a comet to hit the planet annihilating all life. A little bleak and nihilistic I readily admit, but at least then, Rearden, D’anconia, and Galt could shut the fuck up already!
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter VI: The Concerto of Deliverance
Summary: Strange doings are afoot at the Rearden Steel plant. The workers are demanding a raise, there’s a phantom tax lien placed on Hank’s assets, the parasitic Rearden family are clamoring for money, and a high conclave of Looters, including Wesley Mouch have summoned Hank for a meeting in New York. What’s it all about, Alfie? Turns out, the government ghouls are trying to leverage Hank into signing off on a Steel Unification Plan modeled on the disastrous Rail Unification Plan. All caps on steel production will be lifted, and all steel profits will be pooled between producers. Rearden, being all smart and stuff, instantly realizes that the whole thing is a scam meant to enrich Orren Boyle’s goldbricking ass at the expense of the uber-efficient Rearden mill, and that the end result will the be the bankruptcy of Rearden Steel. Hank tells the assembled slapdicks to get bent and drives back to the mill…where a pack of “workers” (actually government thugs under the direction of Cuffy Meigs) has set fire to the plant. Rearden’s REAL employees, who of course worship their brilliant boss, have rallied to the plant’s defense, shooting it out with the looters. Outside the mill, Hank finds the bullet-riddled body of the young government stooge who had slowly been coming around to the Hank/Dagny/Galt way of thinking. In a hilariously protracted death rattle of exposition, the young man, who Hank called “Non-Absolute” in a rare fit of terrible humor, explains that the government stooges had come to him with their plan to foment violence at the Rearden plant as a pretext for a looter takeover of the factory. Hank tries to carry the kid to safety, but he dies in Hank’s arms, even after Hank told him specifically not to. What a dick.
Not even vampire Pee Wee milked his death this much.
So Hank jumps into the fray, is waylaid by a pair of thugs but saved at the last moment by “Frank Adams,” a new employee at the plant and a crack pistol shot. Sure enough, “Frank Adams” turns out to be Francisco d’Aconia undercover. They share a meaningful look, and set the stage for Francisco to finally tell Hank the truth about Galt’s Gulch.
Reflections: After poor, young Non-Absolute dies in his arms, Hank lets rip with a blistering internal condemnation of the brainwashing of students in America’s public educational institutions. According to Hank, Non-Absolute wasn’t killed by some government thug, he was killed by the mental poison fed to him over years of so-called education, which left him unable to fend for himself in the cutthroat world of adulthood. This segment is typically tedious Rand, but it goes a long way towards explaining this book’s continued popularity among teenage boys. For instance, behold this bravura paragraph:
“From the first catch-phrases flung at a child to the last, it is like a series of shocks to freeze his motor, to undercut the power of his consciousness. ‘Don’t ask so many questions, children should be seen and not heard!’–‘Who are you to think? It’s so, because I say so!’–‘Don’t argue, obey!’ –‘Don’t try to understand, believe!’–‘Don’t rebel, adjust!’–‘Don’t stand out, belong!’ –‘Don’t struggle, compromise!’–‘Your heart is more important than your mind!’–‘Who are you to know? Your parents know best!’–‘Who are you to know? Society knows best!’–‘Who are you to know? The bureaucrats know best!’–‘Who are you to object? All values are relative!’–‘Who are you to want to escape a thug’s bullet? That’s only a personal prejudice!'”
“You’re not the boss of me!” –Ayn Rand/every fifteen year old in America
Doesn’t this sound exactly like the inner monologue of every half-bright, hormone-addled teenager to ever sulk their way through the halls of a junior high school? Hyperbolic, resentful, deeply put-upon, devoid of perspective…I certainly recognize the thought process from my own stifled and falsely-grandiose pubescence.
Rand speaks to the particular worldview of adolescence not only with her hot-house prose, but in the general thrust of her philosophy. Your average white American is most likely never going to feel more repressed and controlled than during the time of their secondary education. The mechanisms of social control are never more visible than when you spend every moment of your day under the thumb of parents and teachers. Also, your lack of personal freedom is coupled with a complete absence of personal responsibility. It’s the perfect environment to generate fantasies of unjust restraint and limitless genius, and Rand channels that sensation masterfully. Hopefully, most of the tragically oppressed mega-geniuses who spend their teen years railing against the hegemony of mediocrity mellow out a bit when the dead hand of educational/parental authorities lifts and they finally come to realize the limits of their thought-to-be limitless intellects.
“He remembered her hammering derision of his work, his mills, his Metal, his success, he remembered her desire to see him drunk, just once, her attempts to push him into infidelity, her pleasure at the thought that he had fallen to the level of some sordid romance, her terror on discovering that that romance had been an attainment, not a degradation. Her line of attack, which he had found so baffling, had been constant and clear–it was his self-esteem she had sought to destroy, knowing that a man who surrenders his value is at the mercy of anyone’s will; it was his moral purity she had struggled to breach, it was his confident rectitude she had wanted to shatter by means of the poison of guilt–as if, were he to collapse, his depravity would give her a right to hers.” Women! Amirite?
“‘Have you anything left to loot? If you didn’t see the nature of your policy before–it’s not possible that you don’t see it now. Look around you. All those damned People’s States all over the earth have been existing only on the handouts which you squeezed for them out of this country. But you–you have no place left to sponge on or mooch from. No country on the face of the globe. This was the greatest and last. You’ve drained it. You’ve milked it dry. Of all the irretrievable splendor, I’m only one remnant, the last. What will you do, you and your People’s Globe, after you’ve finished me? What are you hoping for? What do you see ahead–except plain, stark, animal starvation?'” –Hank Rearden
“I’d like to live, Mr. Rearden. God, how I’d like to!…Not because I’m dying…but because I’ve just discovered it tonight, what it means, really to be alive…And…it’s funny…do you know when I discovered it?…In the office…when I stuck my neck out…when I told the bastards to go to hell…There’s…there’s so many things I wish I’d known sooner…But…well, it’s no use crying over spilled milk…Over spilled anything, Mr. Rearden.'” –Non-Absolute
“On the roof of a structure above the gate, he saw, as he came closer, the slim silhouette of a man who held a gun in each hand and, from behind the protection of a chimney, kept firing at intervals down into the mob, firing swiftly and, it seemed, in two directions at once, like a sentinel protecting the approaches to the gate. The confident skill of his movements, his manner of firing, with no time wasted to take aim, but with the kind of casual abruptness that never misses a target, made him look like a hero of Western legend–and Rearden watched him detached, impersonal pleasure, as if the battle of the mills were not his any longer, but he could still enjoy the sight of the competence and certainty with which men of that distant age had once combatted evil.” NEVER MISSES A TARGET! Of course not!
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter V: Their Brother’s Keeper
Reflections: This book has gone beyond a chore to read and has officially become a punishing ordeal. There is not a single moment of prose in this chapter that doesn’t simply reiterate points made somewhere in the previous 900 pages of concrete turgidity. The government is a vampire. “Altruism” leads inevitably to mass suffering. Dagny Taggart is a hot piece of tail who is the only person worthy of receiving the sacred member of John Galt. It was kind of funny when Rand put John Maynard Keynes’ famous line “in the long run, we’ll all be dead,” in the mouth of the vicious, small-minded, absurdly named government commissar Cuffy Meigs. Suck it, Keynes! At least we’re one chapter closer to the end of this nightmare. And now…Conway Twitty!