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Apocalypse Fatigue, the Holiday Spirit, and the Battle of Stalingrad

December 22, 2012 1 comment

Statler Waldorf apocalypse

Yet Another Failed Apocalypse

 

Like the inevitable outing of virulent homophobes, we have yet another example of a failed apocalypse. The problem is not necessarily the apocalypse itself, but the frequency of these failed apocalypses has become so grating that even the jokes have become predictable and flat. In 2012 alone, we had Howard Camping’s multiple declarations of impending doom as well as the famous Mayan “apocalypse.” (Ironic air-quotes because it is a classic misunderstanding of a non-Gregorian calendar system by hysterical nutjobs. In December 2012, the Mayan calendar ends. What happens when you reach December 31, 2012 in your household? Most people usually get a new calendar.)

I won’t bother listing the failed apocalypses. Here’s a link. It’s a really long list. And in the future there will be more non-apocalypses added to that list. But people will still be hysterical, declaiming the end of the world, and getting everyone worked up over nothing. Another after-effect of all these failed apocalypses is that apocalyptic rhetoric has lost all meaning.

ApocalypseFINALImage by Allison Morris

Apocalyptic rhetoric has been trotted out whenever a poorly written cash-in reaches the New York Times bestseller list. (Because that never happens.) Until the next sub-literate hack gets a choice book deal and struggling authors continue to struggle in obscurity. All this talk of cultural apocalypse because the author of Fifty Shades of Grey sold some books seems a bit overheated. The wealth of Hollywood wasn’t built on good movies either. The apocalypse is fast becoming meaningless the same way terms “indie” and “edgy” have been eroded to vacuous buzzwords.

Do not misinterpret this post as some snarky smug “religion is dumb, hooray science!” diatribe. (The Internet has plenty of those.) I was raised in a Lutheran household and apocalyptic rhetoric wasn’t in the conversation. Yes, the theological basis for Lutheranism includes the Apocalypse, but there wasn’t any ham-fisted close readings of the Book of Revelation like certain denominations, sects, and cults do. (For examples, tune in to your local religious networks, except EWTN, since the Catholic Church isn’t apocalypse-happy as Kirk Cameron’s flock.) The Apocalypse was part of Lutheran theology, but believers were taught not to presume to know when it would happen.

Presume is the key word here. As with other things, God will determine when the Apocalypse will happen. Hence the constant empty blathering of failed prophets. This goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the Antichrist of the Week. So many people have been charged with being the Antichrist that it gets comical. Cracked.com, the reliable barometer of American opinion, published one of their most hilarious articles saying “Obama is the least efficient Antichrist ever.”

Not to belabor the point, but naming someone the Antichrist has become as politically expedient as calling someone a Hitler. The same people using the same rhetoric have called everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Saddam Hussein to Barack Obama the Antichrist. One doesn’t need a PhD to see what’s going on. Label the political opposition the Antichrist and the flock will follow accordingly. And since Obama was re-elected, American is in a state of moral depravity and God will smite us. Or something. (I live in Minnesota and the state recently voted down the Traditional Marriage Amendment. I’m still waiting for the being-caused-by-gays earthquakes and hurricanes. We did get a snowstorm on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse … in Minnesota.)

The same people who label the President as the Antichrist are the same people who allege there is a War on Christmas. Which leads us to …

The Holiday Spirit

August to December 25th annually, depending on the retailer

First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”

A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

I enjoy the holiday season. I get to home to Wisconsin, be with family, open presents, and generally have a good time. Again, this is not some garden variety anti-religious screed. Those are boring. This post is exploring the issue of fatigue. Along with apocalypse fatigue, the commodification of Christmas inevitably gives way to fatigue. Since free market capitalism is based on the premise of an ever-expanding market, the Christmas season has been incrementally expanded into more of the calendar year. While retailers and businesses are right to exploit the reason for the season, this can have an unintentional blowback effect.

Christmas is fine. Shopping is fine. But I don’t need to see Christmas trees in retailers in August! By the time Black Friday rolls around, I’m already sick of Christmas. To put this another way: I like chocolate cake, but I don’t want to eat chocolate cake for every meal every day for three months. What is happening to me and fellow shoppers is the retail equivalent of diabetic shock.

Ironically, I see myself as a traditionalist here. Christmas season should begin on Black Friday and end on Christmas (with some overlap for New Year’s). The relentless drive to have us shop, shop, shop til we drop has extended the holiday season way too far. The Holiday Season has become a calendar-eating amoeba, devouring everything in its path.

Christmas, the best seven months of the year.

The Battle of Stalingrad

July 17, 1942–Feb. 2, 1943

Nikita Khrushchev: [addressing a roomful of Soviet political officers] My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans… capture this city… the entire country will collapse. Now… I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That’s your job. As political officers… I’m counting on you.

Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Thousands died, thousands more were killed, and it was an ideological wrestling match between two totalitarian superpowers. I only mention this because, as a punchline, I have likened the annual Christmas season to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is a Stalingrad-like battle of enforced cheer and omnipresent Christmas songs. I’ll leave you with a clip of Christopher Hitchens likening the holiday season to living in North Korea. Is it really? Let me know your opinion in the comments section.

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Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film, edited by Michael Cornelius


“Hercules!  Table for eight!” one of the bots says on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  The feature ripe for riffage stars Steve Reeves, has sub-par dubbing, and copious shots of Reeve’s chiseled torso.  Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film explores the history, interpretation, and sexual politics of the sword and sandal film.  Michael Cornelius editorial acumen brings together numerous academic essays focusing on this particular film genre.  The first set of essays focus on the sword and sandal film (also known as the peplum, the name of the short skirt-like garment wore by the muscle-bound heroes).  These essays investigate the peplum film’s development and history.  The second set of essays focus on specific pop cultural products in the peplum genre, ranging from film to TV series to animation and parody.  The essay collection functions simultaneously as a précis and a convergence of numerous disciplines (film history, gender studies, pop culture studies, classical studies, literary theory, and others).  One can hope to see a more thorough investigation of the peplum genre that build off this initial essay anthology, either in the form of monographs or a tighter anthology refracted through one of the various aforementioned disciplines.

This Barthesian excursion into a much-maligned genre seeks to revivify it through reconnections with its classical roots and older waves of peplum films.  The genre originated in Italy with the Maciste films (one even had proto-fascist poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio as a screenwriter), being a modification of the “strong man” film genre.  The connection to d’Annunzio is further complicated by the Second Wave peplum films, those produced in the Fifties and Sixties with American bodybuilders as the “Hercules” figures and financed by Italian production companies.  (Also those routinely skewered by MST 3K.)  Maria Elena D’Amelio’s essay “Hercules, Politics, and Movies” posits that American stars and Italian funding helped viewers negotiate with the Fascist past.  As evidenced by plots involving the musclebound hero liberate an oppressed populace from a tyrant.  The peplum hero also works in a similar way to American Westerns, in that the liberator does not become the ruler, only as a means to restore the political status quo.  While Westerns have the White Hat Hero riding off into the sunset, the peplum usually has the hero heading back to his farm and reuniting with his wife and child.

Heteronormative fail.

On a similar note, several essays explore the problematic sexual politics of the peplum film.  The most notorious film, the recently released 300, had obvious heterosexual cheerleading and made the villains into gay caricatures.  (As one blogger snarkily put it, turning Xerxes’s armies into “a gay pride parade from Mordor.”)  Another essay, by way of counterexample, explores the intentionally problematic sexual politics of Pasolini’s Medea.  Pasolini received short shrift from contemporary film critics because of his status as a gay Catholic Communist filmmaker and poet.  The connection between heroic heterosexuality and conservative politics makes 300 a popular film among American conservatives, but also, predictably, at least given the clockwork-like predictability of Republican gay sex scandals, one of the most unintentionally gay films released in recent years.  However, film fandom operates in strange ways, perhaps giving rise to a resurgent gay fandom for 300.  The film’s ham-fisted sexual politics beg for audience mockery and derision.

The author is a child of the Eighties and grew up playing with and watching the Masters of the Universe TV series.  Michael Cornelius writes an essay finding parallels between the Masters of the Universe franchise and the gay clone subculture (e.g. The Village People, Tom of Finland).

In an overall worthy collection, it is the final essay that disappoints.  Daniel O’Brien’s essay investigating The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in terms of parody within the pepla genre fails not in content, but in execution.  The serious tone of academic writing clashes with the film’s comedic content.  Visual gags and the crazy plot get explained, but the ill fit occurs when O’Brien’s prose belabors the obvious.  Understanding parody and burlesque is instrumental in understanding the pepla genre, since it is another aspect of pepla’s multifaceted nature.  In the end, this reviewer kept uttering the phrase, “Well, duh,” while reading O’Brien’s anodyne explanations.

Despite the final essay’s shortcomings, Of Muscles and Men offers a variety of analyses into the pepla genre and its attendant pop cultural significances and problematic sexual politics.

The Hunger Games


Warning: This is not a traditional movie review, but an exploration of politics and pop culture within the Hunger Games movie universe.  Spoilers ahead!

 

“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” – Guy Debord

Hunger Games fever is sweeping the nation!  Catch it!  The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), focuses on the story of Katniss Everdeen, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12.  Through an act of selflessness, she volunteers to go in her sister’s place to the 74th Annual Hunger Games.  At the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 to 18 fight to the death in front of a national audience.

While this represents only the bare bones of the plot, the film itself offers a unique take on the collisions of politics and pop culture.  The nation of Panem had a nasty civil war where the poorer outlying districts fought against the richer central districts.  When hostilities ceased, a Truce was signed.  The Truce stipulated that two young children be selected from each district to fight to the death.  (A nostalgic film is played on a massive public screen in District 12.  This commemorative film eerily echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia(1938) with its chiseled heroic youths holding swords and striking sculptural poses.)  The process by which the children are drafted is named The Reaping, a term with agricultural and religious connotations.  During the opening text crawl, it is explained that the Reaping and Hunger Games are “penance” the former rebellious districts must pay to the victorious districts.

Susanne Collins vision is fascinating because she shows how a political ideology transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon.  After 74 years, what was once a weighty political ritual has become an empty sports spectacle, complete with sponsors, an opening ceremony, and betting.  Gary Ross is a nice fit for director, since his previous effort, Pleasantville, offers an analogous situation, with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trying to escape, then eventually trying to liberate, an entirely mediated space.  The Tributes fight in a similar mediated space, since personnel associated with the Head Gamemaker can easily manipulate its environment.

Akin to the modern-day Olympics, the Hunger Games seeks to depoliticize a painful political event.  Instead of killing each other for political or territorial control, the contestants kill each other in order to become victorious.  Prior to the actual game, the draftees are treated as media superstars, each getting interviewed by the Emcee Caesar Flickerman.

Manners are important.

The Hunger Games offers a fascinating blend of right- and left-wing authoritarianisms.  Like North Korea or Nazi Germany, there is mass spectacle.  Everyone watches the Games, the same way everyone listens to Big Brother’s instructions via television in Orwell’s 1984.  The economic gap between the districts has echoes of France’s ancien regime and the Occupy movement’s nefarious 1%.  The wealthy districts has a dolled-up citizenry with facepaint, make-up, and outrageous hairstyles.  (Cf. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s futuristic costuming in the Fifth Element).  The film is to be commended for making Elizabeth Banks ugly (she plays Effie Trinket).  Not ugly in the sense of Quasimodo or someone with physical deformities, but someone whose artificiality, arrogance, and unawareness make her simply vulgar.  The largest breach of decorum with her is not the televised murder or economic chasm between district, but “manners!”  In the end, manners are rituals and codes one must follow in a certain socioeconomic group.  Katniss is a threat to Panem, not because of her adept archery skills, but because her intelligence bespeaks a knowledge of codebreaking.  She is victorious as both a tenacious fighter and one who “games the system.”  (We live in an age where school shootings are commonplace, alongside stories of teenagers hacking formidable computer programs.  No wonder this movie and novel trilogy speaks to so many young people.)

When hope isn't contained.When hope isn’t contained.

As the games hit their dramatic peak, someone from a wealthy district kills Rue, a young girl from District 11.  This causes a riot in District 8 that boils over into other districts, creating a tense political situation.  During the ensuing debacle, President Snow talks with the Gamemaker, saying to the effect that “a little hope is good, but too much hope is dangerous.  Contain it.”  When I first heard those lines, I recalled last year’s Arab Spring.  For too long, the United States has spooned out hope in tiny portions to the peoples of the Middle East.  The United States would make constant promises about freedom and liberty, and then simultaneously prop up brutal dictatorships because of either their natural resources or their geopolitical position associated with the Cold War and/or War on Terror.  The Arab Spring was something the United States could not control and it scared us as much as an Osama bin Laden videotape.  One recalls how the United States simultaneously talked about supporting freedom yet made constant associations between Arab Spring protesters and Al-Qaeda.  Freedom and liberty are fine, control and commodities are more preferable.

It is not often that a Young Adult novel can so presciently capture the zeitgeist and offer up such lacerating commentary on our brutal, hyper-mediated culture.

When You Shrug Into the Abyss, the Abyss Shrugs Back At You.


Well, after twenty years and twenty million dollars of his own money, film producer and Galtian superman John Aglialoro finally dragged Atlas Shrugged: Part One into theaters three weeks ago, to a shower of critical brickbats and universal audience indifference. Now, Aglialoro is whining that politically biased film critics poisoned the market with their non-Objective reviews that harped on such minor issues as laughable CGI effects, wooden performances, and a screenplay comprised almost entirely of discussions of metallurgy and corporate governance.  In response, this titan of cinema and gym equipment manufacturing is threating to deprive the world of the two sequels no one was asking for. Some churlish sorts might claim that the free market has spoken, but that would ignore the tyrannical, market-perverting power of Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter.

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

February 13, 2011 1 comment

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?

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter VI: The Concerto of Deliverance

February 9, 2011 1 comment

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.

Quotes:

“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 Brothers’ Keepers

January 21, 2011 3 comments

Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter V: Their Brothers’ Keepers

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
you and you and mostly me and you

Captain Hammer, “Everyone’s a Hero”

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Pages: 909 – 962

Summary:

Copper cables break throughout the United States and the nation is taken closer and closer to the brink of the Looter Apocalypse.  In the words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “Human sacrifice!  Cats and dogs living together … mass hysteria!”

(Hey, come on, this is also a pop culture blog.  Where else will you get cutting edge references from movies made in 1984?)

As matters become more desperate, people riot and rebel against the government.  The government urges people to stay calm, disregard the rumors of violence, and to eat soybeans.  This last dietary measure created by Emma “Ma” Chalmers in Operation Soybean.

When Dagny meets her brother James, he implies a big plan is afoot.  He tries to keep it a secret.  He stands to gain lots of unearned wealth from the nationalization of D’anconia Copper.  The plan includes nationalization of all D’anconia properties in South America.  Then, in spectacular fashion, Rand takes the lazy way out and uses a radio announcer to narrate the destruction of all D’anconia properties.

Philip Rearden begs his brother for a job, his desire for a job now actually genuine.  Hank, in predictable Hank fashion, refuses and has him booted off the property.

While the word devolves into a more medieval society, utilities dying out and industries going under while mystics and despots control the masses too scared and/or too stupid to think for themselves, Dagny is forced to make a fateful decision.  Following a meeting with the Usual Gang of Looter Idiots, she press-gangs many unskilled laborers to work on the rail line.  Communications had gone out and there was a major risk of disaster.  Trains had to enter and leave the Taggart Terminal with orchestrated precision.  During her orchestrations, she thinks she sees John Galt working as an unskilled laborer.  They meet up by the cavern where she stored his engine and then, to quote Captain Hammer, “Yeah, we totally had sex.”

And what a sex scene it is.  Well … not really.  In probably one of the worst sex scenes ever committed to print, Dagny and Galt boink each other.

The many names of John Galt.

Galt vows to meet her again, when the time is right.  He tells her to give him a signal: a dollar sign at the base of Nat Taggart’s statue.

John Galt: “Yeah, we totally had sex.”

Reflections:

Everyone’s a hero in their own way!
Everyone can blaze the hero’s trail!
Don’t worry if it’s hard, if you’re not a friggin’ ‘tard
You will prevail!

Did I say I wanted to see the characters have sex again?  (As opposed to the longwinded speechifying?)  I take it back.  The major irony is the sex scenes in the beginning of the book were qualitatively better than the Dagny-Galt scene.  (Not like those scenes represented good writing either.)  The early scenes, while not exactly erotica, had a rough-hewn realism.  The Dagny-Galt hookup possessed all the eroticism of a credit card contract.  Let me enumerate the flaws:

  • Plodding pace. The momentum of the sex seemed to occur in geologic time.
  • Philosophical distractions. “The sum of her highest values,” oh yeah, that’s hot.  Seriously, the convoluted philosophical writing smeared itself all over the scene.  It rendered the real physical contact of the two Objectivist Heroes into something cold, abstract, incomprehensible, and boring!  Dear Reader, do yourself a favor and read some George Bataille.  Bataille was a philosopher, poet, anthropologist, literary critic, and novelist.  He also wrote some incredible erotica, not to mention his daring philosophy.
  • Just plain boring. A sex scene between the two protagonists who personify the Objectivist philosophy should not put your readers to sleep.
  • Objective Reality: Don’t believe me?  I’m sure my literary criticism in this matter must really steam the Objectivists out there.  How dare I criticize the smartestest person ever to walk the Earth.  Here’s a passage:

It was not the pressure of a hand that made her tremble, but the instantaneous sum of its meaning, the knowledge that it was his hand, that it moved as if her flesh were his possession, that its movement was his signature of acceptance under the whole of that achievement which was herself – it was only a sensation of physical pleasure, but it contained her worship of him, of everything that was his person and his life – from the night of the mass meeting in a factory in Wisconsin, to the Atlantis of a valley hidden in the Rocky Mountains, to the triumphant mockery of the green eyes of the superlative intelligence above a worker’s figure at the foot of the tower – it contained her pride in herself and that it should be she whom he had chosen as his mirror, that it should be her body which was now giving him the sum of his existence, as his body was giving her the sum of hers.  These were the things it contained – but what she knew was only the sensation of the movement of his hands on her breasts.

Rand is a terrible, terrible writer, a below-average propagandist, and seems hellbent to throttle the English language into submission.  One only has to count the times she uses the terms “progressive” and “humanitarian” in such vehemently negative situations.

It seems unfair to compare Ayn Rand to another Russian émigré writer, Vladimir Nabokov.  Nabokov’s family was forced into exile because the Russian Revolution.  So he’s not a fan.  Nevertheless, Nabokov wrote prolifically (in three languages!) and penned some of the greatest literary works, establishing himself comfortably within the Western Canon.  Rand takes her place in the Hall of Crackpots.

Anyone claiming Rand was a great writer is being either intellectually dishonest or monumentally naïve.  It’s getting harder to call this overwrought, overlong, incoherent mishmash, this Everest of Poorly Executed Pretentiousnes, a novel.  Ayn Rand is to fiction what Coleman Francis is to cinema.

What should have been an awesome Doc Savage-Bette Davis hookup read like a nine-year-old describing calculus.  Any more needless steps in that scene and it would come across like badly translated directions from IKEA.  Do I need to emphasize this any more?  Ayn Rand probably would, since she considers you a “friggin’ ‘tard.”

Quotes:

  • “There had been a time when the railroad was called the blood system of the nation, and the stream of trains had been like a living circuit of blood, bringing growth and wealth to every patch of wilderness it touched.”  Unfortunately, by 1957, railroads were becoming obsolete due to the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate System, a vast public works project (Socialism!).  It is truly ironic how many pro-business conservatives make it an axiom of their libertarian rhetoric to stand against any rail project.  Way to defend the outdated, Ayn!  Even at your peak of popularity, you were about as in touch with reality as C. Montgomery Burns.
  • “There was no way to tell which devastation had been accomplished by the humanitarians and which by undisguised gangsters.”  I know, I get the activities of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Al Capone mixed up all the time.
  • “For some reason which nobody could define, the death of her son [Kip Chalmers] in the tunnel catastrophe had given her in Washington an aura of martyrdom, heightened by her recent conversion to Buddhism.”  No philosophy is as diametrically opposed to Objectivism as Buddhism.  Buddhism is at root a rejection of the self.  It declares that attachments cause suffering.  Paradise is Nirvana, a term meaning “nothingness.”  On the other hand, Objectivism’s goal of personal greed comes across as monomaniacal and its adoration of gold is masturbatory.
  • “But they – she looked at the face of her signal engineer – they believed that that muscular contraction of a hand was the only thing required to move traffic – and now the tower men stood idle – and on the great panels in front of the tower director, the red and green lights, which had flashed announcing the progress of trains at a distance of miles, were now so many glass beads – like the glass beads for which another breed of savages had once sold the Island of Manhattan.”  That sure is a long way to go for a backhanded insult to Native Americans.  Here’s what she said at a West Point commencement: “They (Native Americans) didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their ‘right’ to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.”  It sounded better written in the original German: “The Germanic inhabitant of the American continent, who has remained racially pure and unmixed, rose to be master of the continent; he will remain the master as long as he does not fall a victim to defilement of the blood.”  Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.