Saturday, April 23, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1

"Not So Much 'Who Is John Galt' as: 'I'm John Galt; Who the Hell are YOU?'"
"My Only Goal Is To Make Money"

Of course, "they" released this on the traditional Tax Day. 

But, strangely, with very little fanfare.

The first film adaptation of Ayn Rand's last novel "Atlas Shrugged" has been in the works for decades, defying transference to the screen.  Tough to do, without going against the very nature of the ethos behind it.  Do it without compromises, without watering it down, put "the vision" on screen with no concessions.  All well and good.  Trouble is, "Atlas Shrugged" is more of a tract than a drama—a sort of mystery story ala "Heart of Darkness" with the introduction of a shadowy character that everybody talks about, but doesn't show up until the end...and then flies in the face of drama by delivering a chapters long speech.  Dramatically, it's a bit Apocalypse Now...or Triumph of the Will.  Those words had better be pretty profound for all the build-up, and if it follows that other film adaptation of a Rand work, The Fountainhead, it's going to come across as pretty stiff...if not propagandistically one-dimensional.

The makers of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 place the story entirely in our world (the date is September 02, 2016) and world conditions are such that a gallon of gas costs $37.50 a gallon.  Bridges have collapsed due to poor planning and construction (by those damn Unions), yet somehow the two protagonists manage to get around in a rental car.  Wall Street has dipped below 4,000 (which must mean most people are actually working), and waves of Nationalization have hit the world economy.  An unholy troika of government, lobbyists and greedy industrialists (in league with weak-willed science organizations) are manipulating the truth and legislating accordingly, busting monopolies, extending welfare benefits, and making it hard for business to get anything done...with the possible exception of the oil companies.

The answer to all our problems is...(wait for it)...trains.*  I suppose Rand could have gone all the way back to the horse-drawn carriage, but for some reason diesel trains (at $37.50 a gallon, you say?) seem to be the answer for getting people and things to and from anywhere.  Not that we actually see anybody riding those trains, just rental cars and limo's. 

And this, first among many things, is what is wrong with ASP1: it feels like it was filmed in a bubble.  As if the world was nuked ten minutes before the cameras started rolling.  The streets seem closed or deserted, like a government-enforced siesta was in place.  The locales are either cities, or vast stretches of wasteland.  It has the look and feel of the old series "The Colbys," with glitz and glamor a couple dozen domestics below "Dynasty."  Even the most swell-egant party scene looks cheap—and unfinished.  The characters are unreadable, except they all say precisely what is on their minds at all times behind their blank expressions.  There is no subterfuge—the good guys and the bad guys don't couch their words (even the politicians don't practice politics), everyone is so comfortable in their skins and intentions that they just blurt out whatever is on their minds with no squelch and no dolby.  But, subtlety is not on anyone's agenda in this movie.  I suppose we should be grateful that the villains aren't twirling their moustaches and tying Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling, expression-less, except for the movie's final moment "Noooooooooooooooooo!"  Jesus.) to her own railroad tracks.

It's funny.  I do not agree with Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.  I think, as a writer, she's a terrific speech-maker, but hasn't a clue how to write characters (like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, two other advocacy writers).  But, strangely, I really wanted this movie to work, or, I wanted somebody to make a good version of it—to, at least, give it a chance to be measured on a level of competence (whatever you say about The Fountainhead, it is often well acted and King Vidor did a hell of a job directing it).**  It is a highly regarded novel and should be given a Class-A treatment, like lesser books (like Gone With the Wind and The Godfather) received.  It deserves it.  Instead, it is such a cheap-jack production it reminded me of the dissapointingly arid television versions of "The Martian Chronicles" and "Brave New World."

Who could possibly want to read this book after seeing this?  And that is a tragedy.  For whatever hokum Rand spins, it is a tragedy when an adaptation takes away interest from the original incarnation, so that folks can read it and decide for themselves.  Rand would probably want it that way.  And the people who made this movie have done her no favors.  In fact, they could not have done a worst job if they were actively seeking to trash the book.

They made it boring.  And that's a shame.  It undersells the product in the Marketplace of Ideas.

One last thought: the basic premise of "Atlas Shrugged" is to present a counter-argument to Union strategies that are seen as inhibiting commerce and growth (rather than serving as a hedge against the advantages that the Powerful have over their subordinates).  It asks: what would happen if the architects and artists and inventors went on strike?  My guess would be a hedged "nothing."  Buildings have been built before—the blue-prints are there for successful buildings—it's only ego and greed and the need for Legacy that motivates a unique structure in architecture.  And that's the core-structure of Rand's argument—the exhaltation of the vain-glorious, as Rand herself was.  The counter-argument is Douglas Adams' response in "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," where the film-makers and advertisers and artists are shipped off and marooned on pre-historic Earth...because they make nothing of intrinsic value and don't contribute to a Society's essential infrastructure. Oh, they make things people enjoy, but mostly what they do is provide bread-and-circuses, distractions from the necessary demands of proper attention to governance and marketplace.

I know the first people I'd send on the space-ship.

Atlas Shrugged, Part 1 is a Waste of Time.

* Nah.  Simply "nah."  Most of the entrepreneurs and developers I'm acquainted with HATE trains.  Why?  Because they end up being a "monopoly" that influences land-rates wherever they happen to lie...and manipulate growth to surrounding areas, rather than allowing strip-malls to be planted wherever the developer has drained a wetland.  Things have to come to the train, rather than going to their properties.  Plus, there's a strong contingent that feel that trains of any kind are a threat to a laissez-faire approach to traffic—people have more freedom in cars on roads to go to and frequent the properties the developers own and manage.  Trains?  How anti-capitalist!

** At the screening I went to—the first—the movie got a round of applause from the individuals who came to applaud whether they liked it or not.  The kid who came in to clean the theater after the showing—and waited patiently for the hold-outs who wanted to see the last projected frame (they probably thought, as I did, that there might be previews of a Part 2 that could show some promise—there isn't, btw)—and I had a little discussion about the movie: "Any good?"  "No.  Pretty lousy, actually."  "Well, people were applauding..." "Yeah, I know.  I think they were applauding the idea of the movie rather than the movie itself.  Really, you should read the book and make up your own mind."  "I'll check it out..."  Good.

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