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Atlas Shrugged: The Trailer, or a Prolegomena on Heavy-handed Political Satire in Film


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.)

“Why’s he calling me meat? I’m the one driving a Porsche.”

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?

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  1. Rachel Holmes
    February 13, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Please continue with the book. Your commentary is the only thing keeping me remotely sane as I wade through this crap. I’ve started John Galt’s speech. It’s pretty much a re-tread of the preceding 1000 pages (quelle surprise) but I need your witty observations to save me from banging my head against the business end of a cleaver.

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