Saturday, September 13, 2014

This is John Galt Sleeping

There was no shortage of Schadenfreude to go around when John Aglialoro and the producers of Atlas Shrugged raised funds on Kickstarter—asked for a handout, that is to say—in order to fund the third and final installment of that charity-despising, money-hemorrhaging ode to wealth creation. It’s easy to laugh at their expense, at the screaming irony and hypocrisy of it all. It’s much harder to laugh at the result of that fundraising campaign, so broken as a film and adaptation that it’s scarcely even laughably bad. I’m not even talking about the nonexistent special effects, tacky sets, and completely new cast; by now that’s to be expected. What is genuinely shocking is the abridged 112 99 minute runtime and the butchered storytelling. Atlas Shrugged is terrible as literature and philosophy, but as page-turning pulp fiction its narrative is sturdily constructed. Its third film installment, however, is an unstructured mess.

Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? picks up where the previous one left off, with the Brilliant train magnate Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) crashing a plane in a Colorado valley while in pursuit of the mysterious John Galt (Kristoffer Polaha), who she believes is responsible for all the disappearance of the only people who matter in the world, the smart ones. She is correct, but then learns, after being told, repeatedly, by everyone there, that they are actually on strike, because altruism is evil. She falls in love with the Brilliant engineer Galt but leaves Galt’s Gulch to rejoin the world in order to save her family’s train line that her brother James Taggart (Greg Germann) is running into the ground with his collusion with a cabal of eeeeevil government altruists led by dull head of state Mr. Thompson (Peter Mackenzie). Galt gives a speech to the nation, Dagny decides she’s done trying to save a sinking ship, she saves Galt, and everyone flies away while New York City goes dark.

The strangest thing about all this is how little it builds off the previous two installments. Entire subplots and characters that received attention before are referenced obliquely, if at all. Dagny’s affair with Brilliant steel magnate Hank Rearden, for instance, which occupied a great deal of earlier runtime, is acknowledged only by a shot of her playing with that Rearden Metal bracelet she got from his shrew of a wife Lilian and a phone call she receives from him saying he’s gone Galt. Rearden’s (unintentionally) hilarious intro is in fact his only appearance in the movie, except, maybe, the ending.

Yet this is not a self-contained film. Discussions about Ellis Wyatt’s oil fields or the John Galt train line or Galt’s Brilliant new engine are only understandable in the context of the (incomprehensible) parts one and two, as is the staggeringly large cast, which, to alienate things further, has been replaced yet again. The multitude of disappeared captains of industry make an appearance, but do little to justify the inordinate amount of time spent with them. Laura Regan’s Dagny essentially has two modes: glowering at socialists and looking quirky and happy at freedom-lovers. Juaquim de Almeida looks much too old for Francisco d’Anconia, a debauched playboy who was Dagny’s lover when they were younger, while Polaha’s John Galt is a blandly handsome personality void; admittedly, this is staying true to the book. (The cheesy device used to re-re-introduce each character, a sepia-toned freeze frame with the character’s name and ‘Missing’ status, is a frequent source of amusement.)

So instead of drawing from what came before, the story lurches forward, first at a leisurely pace--a good half hour is spent in Galt’s Gulch, during which absolutely nothing happens besides characters spouting off Objectivist talking points--and then with increasing franticness. The collapse of the nation’s supply lines, which actually made for one of the genuinely good parts of the book, just kind of happens. Any momentum that might be built up, is dashed by the frequent interruptions of a narrator who fills us in on the other, far more interesting things that are happening (a battle at a steel mill! a character’s suicide! a bridge collapse!) but which the filmmakers clearly did not have the money to film. The deadly effect of all this on the film’s pacing is to make it feel somehow both endless and malnourished.

For there is a great deal of material that did not make it to the screen, and sadly much of it was the campy best the novel had to offer. Gone is Hank Rearden’s shrieking, awful family getting kicked to the curb, his wife confessing that she fucked the lowly James Taggart as petty revenge. Gone is Ma Chalmers’ soy bean cult. Gone is the extended death speech of the “non-Absolute” kid at Rearden’s mill. Project X, the giant super-secret government weapon, has been lamely reduced to Project F, the torture device used on Galt (a particularly egregious pulp anachronism given our country’s recent history with torture). My favorite line in the book, the awesome-lame “Somebody has changed your suppositions” is nowhere to be found.

The whole climax is a botch, really. John Galt's infamous 60-page speech is stripped of Rand's characteristic atheism and misanthropy, and is reduced to about five minutes of anti-government self-help boilerplate. Absolutely none of the film’s stable of hissable villains receives an onscreen comeuppance. A character who the book implies is basically dead, the merely adequate Eddie Willers, the movie implies that he gets rescued by the heroes (it’s too cheap to make that rescue explicit, of course). The film ends with New York City plunging into a blackout—except the Statue of Liberty, of course—but shies away from even the implication that everyone on Earth except our ‘heroes’ is going to die, deservedly. In doing so it is intellectually dishonest, breathtakingly so; that smart people are awesome and everyone else can literally fuck off and die, is the entire point of the book and Rand's philosophy, and the filmmakers obviously don't have the courage, even in a kamikaze project like this, to come out and say it. The abridged ending also robs the movie of Rand’s perfect-awful ending in which Galt “raise[s] his hand and over the desolate earth… trace[s] in space the sign of the dollar.” Worst of all, the fade to black is followed by text from Galt’s climactic speech and quoted as if he were a real person, that is also read by Galt, which suggests a real disregard by the filmmakers for their audience’s intelligence, and then an end card that reads, “The End. No…It’s the Beginning,” which suggests a disregard for their own.

Like in Part II, there are scattered moments that don’t exactly work—nothing here really works—but their enjoyable badness makes it easier for the whole thing to go down. The sappy piano-and-strings score tries really hard to make the proceedings sound exciting and inspiring. The extended stay in Colorado means we get a lot of really pretty outdoor photography, including some aerial mountain shots that probably ate half of the budget. A top of the show flashback of John Galt leaving the 20th Century Motor Company and saying he’ll “stop the motor of the world” hits a nice sweet spot of camp posturing and mistaken profundity. There is a howlingly bad sex scene between Galt and Dagny in a train office during yet another crisis that challenges Watchmen’s Night Owl-Silk Spectre mid-air romp for the dubious honor of worst coupling of this century. And finally, credit must be paid to Larry Cedar, a Deadwood veteran whose scheming scientist Floyd Ferris enlivens every scene he is in merely by dint of his gargoyle scowl. He, and to a lesser extent Greg Germann as James Taggart, understands the needs of this overblown melodrama for a villain we love to hate, possibly more than the creative team understands it.

This is all thin gruel for what was supposed to be an adaptation of the deliriously awful climax of a deliriously awful book. It ends up the dullest of them all, so much that the biggest laugh the half-full audience got was from an old man who fell asleep twenty minutes in. The budget, a quarter of the first movie’s $20 million, is so small the filmmakers couldn’t afford even bad special effects, leaving us to gawk at a cast so marooned by James Manera’s slack direction and his and Harmon Kaslow’s mangled script that one can barely even be incensed by their characters’ indignation at those who believe that “everyone deserves a living.” One can only roll one's eyes at the parade of conservative cameos that includes Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ron Paul, and Grover fucking Norquist. Their presence in such a dire product smacks as much of ideological masturbation as it does the creators thinking it would be cool to put their friends in their rinky-dink movie, which is about what all this comes down to. Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? purports to celebrate greatness and human achievement, but is itself an affront to those values and in a roundabout way is the best possible evidence that could be marshalled in favor of its argument: something so unwatchably bad does not deserve to exist.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Lady Sing the Red White and Blues

Performed drama was never Ayn Rand's forte, what with the lack of identifying human characteristics of her characters. Her novels are entirely her creation and so can at least be appreciated, if that is the word, as expressions of her personality. Generally speaking, they lose this consolation when they make the transition to stage and screen. The Fountainhead is redeemed by its high camp, but Atlas Shrugged, Parts 1 and 2 are simply dreadful, lacking in zesty enthusiasm, basic craft, or both. Austin Shakespeare's adaptation of Rand's novella Anthem is not quite so terrible, but neither is it terribly good either. Call it a faithful rendering of its source material.

My thoughts on the book, and its plot, need not be rehearsed here. Suffice to say that Ayn Rand's vision of a dystopia run by morons and the man (Matthew Lieff Christian) and his consort (Tina Johnson) who stand against it, is crippled by Rand's failure to see the absurd humor of the scenario. The stage show (awkwardly listed in the playbill as ANTHEM AYN RAND) changes little of the story or its telling, though it does make some specifications (more on that in a moment) and it also adds a couple "characters" into the mix, an old couple (Sofia Lauwers and Lelund Durond) that live at the House of the Useless. Their scenes do nothing to advance the threadbare story/parable of Equality 7-2521 and his discovery of individualism, but serve to flesh out the world a little by describing the loveless process of procreation at the House of Mating. They also give more stage time to supporting actor Lelund Durond, who manages the small miracle of adding little bits of stage business (an old fogey singsong of a collectivist hymn, some idle doodling) that inject personality and humor into his many walk-on roles.

Durond's relative liveliness jars with the po-faced solemnity of the rest of the proceedings, but without it the show would be unbearable. The other actors (including Alex Teicheira and Sarah Walker Thornton) try to make do by committing to the characters' straight-facedness. Of them, only Christian is able to make it work, mostly through the relaxing cadence of his voice, but even this grows one-note and tiresome midway through the show. The starkest example is, not surprisingly, the unintentionally funniest scene in the book, when Equality presents a council of scholars his rediscovery of electricity, and they spurn him because his invention would disrupt the work of the Department of Candles that is spread across divisions in multiple states. Played for laughs this would be an absurdist scream, but here it's merely ridiculous, like the final Knights Who Say 'Ni!' scene, but played deadly serious.

The actors are helped in no way by the adaptation by Jeff Britting (an affiliate, naturally, with the Ayn Rand Institute). The story is told, as in the original, by first-person past- and present-tense diary entries. This is deadly under normal circumstances--such narration in a book is the vehicle through which information is conveyed; onstage the actors and interacting characters are that vehicle, and narration makes everything that happens into a second-hand experience. With Rand's dour, wooden dialogue, in which everyone speaks with 'shall's and 'unto's and without using contractions, like a character in M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, the characters are robbed of personality, and the story of any immediacy.

Perhaps the best element is the staging, but that's still problematic at best. The costumes by Theresa Squire are appropriate at least at least , drab sack-cloth getups befitting a wasted society. Director Ann Ciccolella wisely opts for minimal staging, using an open space dotted with upturned lighting instruments that stand in for trees, holes in the ground, and pools of water. Yet such a setup feels like it wants to be an immersive experience, with the (collective?) audience included and perhaps implicated in its proceedings. Instead it's held at a distance by the proscenium staging and, especially, the show's over-reliance on rear-projection that looks to be easily its most expensive aspect, with constantly changing animated backdrops and effects, and a score (composed by Britting) that rarely lets up.

These two, the music and projection, contributed to one of the few camp pleasures of the evening, at the very end, in which Equality-7-2521 and Democracy 2-5799 have returned to free those among them that also showed some initiative. The music swells and the video changes to sunlight bursting through the darkness, and the whole cast is chanting "I! I! I!" that holy word newly rediscovered. It's the one time that the show lets itself go over the top, and I was glad that the end-of-show applause followed thereafter so I could unstifle some of my laughter without being a churl.

The source material is bad enough, and the stage show can't save it, but there's one detail that makes it all immeasurably worse. That specificity I mentioned before? See, the book, to keep its fable-like quality, takes place in an indeterminate location, in which Equality discovers a tunnel with long-forgotten technology; this is where he goes to be alone and re-discovers electricity. In this adaptation this tunnel is concretized with a projection of the very distinct grid pattern of the tunnels of the DC Metro, placing the action explicitly within America's capitol.

As it happens, the federal government, the company of company town Washington, DC, is in the early days of a shutdown that could inflict considerable damage on the country's still fragile economy, as well as its capacity for scientific research and public health. This entirely avoidable shutdown is a product of Republicans in the House of Representatives who, in their belief that the long-debated, legislated, and Supreme Court-upheld Affordable Care Act is socialism, have decided that losing an election shouldn't stop them from getting their way, to hell with the consequences, which may include defaulting on our national debt in a few short weeks.

The intellectual godmother of these freedom-frying sub-Jacobins? Ayn Rand, of course. Fuck you very much, you hateful bitch. In death you may yet succeed where the Soviets failed in destroying this country.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Throw Out Everything But the Kitschin' Sink

For what it's worth, Ayn Rand was a better philosopher than novelist. Rather than dress up her ideas in literary drag, her essays allowed her to drop the pretense of telling a story and instead tell the reader exactly what to think, no John Galt Potemkin middleman necessary. The Romantic Manifesto, a collection of essays laying out Rand's views on art and aesthetics, is perhaps her most interesting non-fiction writing, dealing as it does with these very distinctions (and thus highlighting her comical failure to adhere to them). It is of little use for evaluating art in general, but tremendously useful in evaluating Rand's art, a very particular breed indeed.

The first couple essays are devoted to the question of what art is. Rand defines it as "a selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." It is man's way of making concrete abstract concepts that could not be fully articulated in words alone. For instance, The Fountainhead's Howard Roark communicates more clearly Rand's ideals than any discursive treatise could hope to. Art is a product of one's "psycho-epistemology," one of Rand's obnoxious coinages, which has to do with the interaction of conscious thought and unconscious, automatic functions. Art to Rand is a deliberate expression of an artist's "sense of life," his view of man's place in the universe. Thus, an ancient Greek sculptor depicts man as a god, while a medievalist depicts him as a deformed monster (never mind that Greek gods were merely anthropomorphic and far from virtuous, and their human heroes were racked with tragic flaws--these elisions are Rand's, not mine).

Rand hastens to add that while art is an expression and culmination of values, it is "not the means to any didactic end," which is pretty rich coming from the author who shoehorned into her magnum opus a 60-page speech describing in detail her unified theory of existence. Still, Rand's definition in itself is superficially agreeable. Most people consider their writing and art to be self-expression, and while few would call it a concretized abstraction in so many words, I'll grant it a fitting shoe.

But in Objectivist aesthetics, this general classification is not nearly enough. For there are meanings and implications, good and "malevolent," that derive from the various "senses of life," and woe unto those whose interests fall outside of Rand's acceptable and narrow artistic parameters. For her, art must be representative, uplifting, deliberate. Any departures are more or less morally treasonous. This is not an exaggeration:
If one saw, in real life, a beautiful woman wearing an exquisite evening gown, with a cold sore on her lips, the blemish would mean nothing but a minor affliction, and one would ignore it. 
But a painting of such a woman would be a corrupt, obscenely vicious attack on man, on beauty, on all values--and one would experience a feeling of immense disgust and indignation at the artist. (There are also those would feel something like approval and who would belong to the same moral category of the artist.)
The great dichotomy in Rand's aesthetics is Romanticism versus Naturalism, which she takes to be "the world as it should be" versus "the world as it is." The latter she considers mere journalism, and a concession to mediocrity and the belief of a "malevolent universe," as opposed with her own conception of man as a rational being in total command of and responsibility for his destiny. (She attacks the real Romantics of the 19th century for having ceded reason to the classicists they reacted against and looking to emotion for their celebration of man).

A very black-and-white conception it is, with austere limits on what qualifies as art, let alone good art. She is willing to concede some talent to a handful of Naturalists, such as Sinclair Lewis and John O'Hara, but otherwise most art and literature after Dostoevsky and Hugo is a wasteland. Anna Karenina is "the most evil book in serious literature." The "dots and dashes" Impressionists were silly barbarians who "attempted to disintegrate perception into sense data." Modernism is completely alien to her conception of art, and so she dismisses it as so much noise and scribbling. She blames it all on Immanuel Kant and his Critique of Judgment.

Rand hates easy, and much of the rest of the The Romantic Manifesto, including an introduction she wrote for Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three, functions as a screed against nearly all the art of her day. This includes the "Hindu dance"--which, she notes with unreconstructed racist scorn, "presents a man of flesh without skeleton...distort[ing] man's body, imparting to it the motions of a reptile"--and also includes collage: "Blades of grass glued on a sheet of paper to represent grass might be good occupational therapy for retarded children--though I doubt it--but it is not art."

Tell us how you really feel, Ayn:
The composite picture of man that emerges from the art of our time is the gigantic figure of an aborted embryo whose limbs suggest a vaguely anthropoid shape, who twists his upper extremity in a frantic quest for a light that cannot penetrate its empty sockets, who emits inarticulate sounds resembling snarls and moans, who crawls through a bloody muck, red froth dripping from his jaws, and struggles to throw the froth at his own non-existent face, who pauses periodically and, lifting the stumps of his arms, screams in abysmal terror at the universe at large.
It's worth pausing to note that this isn't an entirely inaccurate representation of certain specimens of modern art. Consider Francis Bacon's Painting:

It's certainly not beautiful or exalted, but neither was Britain in 1946. Art should engage the world, which was a very different place than it had been in the 19th century; to pretend otherwise would be grotesquery of an entirely worse and different sort. (Again, you see, the clashing emphases on "is" and "ought.") Rand never uses the phrase "degenerate art," but it's hard to imagine her disagreeing with the National Socialists' attacks on the modernists.

But I digress: if Romanticism is dead and everything is terrible, what is good? Among Rand's eclectic list of acceptable artists and works are Fritz Lang's Siegfried, Mickey Spillane novels, and Buck Rogers. Tap-dancing is her favorite style of dance, for its pure joyousness and absence of tragic gloom.

She also enjoys the TV show The Avengers, as detailed in the most revealing of the Manifesto's chapters, "Bootleg Romanticism." The essay seethes with indignation at the creators of the show, who intended it as a "tongue-in-cheek" spy thriller whose joke the audience didn't get. For Rand, this is intellectual malpractice. Thrillers are to her a kind of modern, commercial Romanticism that presents heroes who are willing to fight against an evil antagonist for a set of pre-determined values. They are to be inspirational--everybody wants to be James Bond, while nobody wants to be (say) Willy Loman. So when humor, a means of ridicule, is aimed at one's values, it is to make them ridiculous. To make James Bond self-deprecating would be "to destroy him" (it is for this reason she considers Dr. No to be superior to From Russia With Love).

The obvious point is that James Bond is simple escapism, but Rand has a rebuttal for that too. Romanticism and thrillers, she says, are escapes from the merely humdrum matters of "real-life," while Naturalism, in its 'surrender' to mediocrity and depravity, is the real escape, "from choice, from values, from responsibility."

Put aside for now the ugliness of Rand's anti-social value system--it is by now well-known and as such is less interesting than the scare quotes she throws around 'real-life.' She downplays to the point of irrelevance material issues like holding down a job, taking care of a family, or dealing with an illness in favor of abstract concerns like upholding values and principles. These are vital matters--people are rightly judged when they abdicate moral responsibility because it's the easy thing to do, such as Joe Paterno's tacit acceptance and shielding of Jerry Sandusky's child rape--but they are not the only concerns. Indeed, it's because practical matters are a person's first concern that moral dilemmas and compromise arise at all. Were we all purely ethical beings, there would be no dilemma, and no heroism.

More than anything, this is why Rand's prose rings so wooden and false. Because she sees humans as solely driven by their ideas and premises, even when they are abandoning them, she drains them of personality and attachment to material needs, and so they end up as speakers in a bland philosophical dialogue.

This she actually demonstrates at the end of the book with a short story, "The Simplest Thing in the World." It deals with a writer, Henry Dorn, who sits down with the intention of writing what he knows will be a crap commercial novel for the sole purpose of making money. Every scenario he tries out eventually spins itself off into something meaningful, and of course he can't have that. Eventually he puts his writing aside and opens up the Classifieds.

The artist selling his talent to the highest bidder is a familiar scenario to any pop culture observer, yet in Rand's hands it doesn't read plausibly at all:
Just be stupid, he said to himself. That's all. Just relax and be as stupid as you can be. Easy, isn't it? What are you scared of, you damn fool? You don't think you can be stupid, is that it? You're conceited, he said to himself angrily. That's the whole trouble with you. You're conceited as hell. So you can't be stupid, can you? You're just being stupid right now. You've been stupid about this thing all your life. Why can't you be stupid on order?
(The only way this doesn't sound stilted is if one imagines it being declaimed in a black-and-white movie, perhaps by an announcer or a New York gangster.)

The story is essentially Dorn trying to convince himself to write dreck, which gets things exactly backward. Hacks don't choose to be hacks--Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are convinced of their own talent as much as Ayn Rand was--and those who do have talent to squander do so with considerations, usually financial, that trump artistic preciousness. Think of Nicholas Cage, who's acted in shitshows for over a decade to maintain his $30 million a year lifestyle, or Michael Caine, who famously said of Jaws: The Revenge, "I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” Artists compromise their talent as a consequence of their (crappy) commercial work, not as a means to it. A slight distinction, 'tis, but a crucial one.

Actions determine values at least as much as values determine actions. Rand makes Dorn's situation implausible first by putting all weight on the ethical side of this divide and making Dorn a paragon of absolute integrity, and then doubly implausible by having him try to imitate the conscious sellouts that don't actually exist. It's a parody of a caricature. (The story dates back to 1940, but this criticism is characteristic of most of her work; it's why the characters, especially the villains, of The Fountainhead and, most especially, Atlas Shrugged, are such cartoonish monstrosities.)

There is a term for this frankly neurotic compulsion to see the world in such stark terms and to banish all unpleasantry and paradox: kitsch. Here it is, as famously defined by Milan Kundera:
The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unacceptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.
It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.

Kundera was reacting to Communist Czechoslovakia. Hence his formulation that "The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a basis of kitsch." Replace "brotherhood" with "individuality" and you have Objectivist aesthetics in a nutshell. Soviet Communism shaped Ayn Rand to such a degree that she would be unrecognizable without it, so it should it is only logical that her artistic aesthetic should follow a similar track. The Soviets' manifesto memorably opened with the declaration that the spectre of Communism was haunting Europe. The Romantic Manifesto makes clear that Rand, too, was unable to give up the ghost.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Taggart Trainwreck, Part II: Chuck Your Premises

Atlas Shrugged, Part II is, from a form and technical standpoint, a better film than its predecessor in every way. This does not make it a good film. Rather it is a curious simulacra thereof--it is a passable film for people who do not look for the normal criteria of complex characterization, nuanced moral understand, wit, or empirical plausibility in their films. Nietzsche likely did not have this in mind when he wrote of the transvaluation of values.

I am serious when I say it is better-made. The acting, with an entirely new cast (the previous cast having been  entirely replaced for budgetary reasons, something I can't recall happening before in a franchise), has advanced beyond the canned line readings of yesteryear to the formation of rudimentary character types. So we get Patrick Fabian (James Taggart) looking sleazy, but for the unintentional reason that he looks like a less doughy Glenn Beck. Samantha Mathis (Dagny Taggart), looking oddly like Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton, gets to look sad a bunch while sad piano music plays. Richard T. Jones (Eddie Willers) looks sad about his characters' unrequited love for Dagny Taggart. The only notables are Esai Morales, who as Francisco d'Anconia gets to be a little snotty, and Jason Beghe (Hank Rearden), who has an amazing gravelly voice that sounds like the second coming of Michael Wincott that I rather embarrassingly find attractive enough that I caught myself thinking, "I'd seize his assets."

The actors are aided by having an actual director this time, in the form of John Putch, best known for playing Sean Brody in Jaws 3D, who actually has a decent amount of experience behind the camera--40 credits to Paul Johansson's three--and displays an actual grasp of film vocabulary, of concepts like creating space and narrative momentum with camera movement and cuts, and using music to emphasize character. (There's a moment where the soundtrack goes down to a hushed drone while the camera focuses on Hank Rearden's miserable, harpy wife among an applauding crowd that's tacky and sort of wonderful for its efforts to cultivate a hissable villain.) Basic stuff, yes, but a great leap forward from the shambles of Part I. The low budget still shows, particularly in the janky visual effects and the set dressing of the streets of a supposedly dystopic New York City. Nor does the direction ever rise above serviceable; the handful of action scenes are awkwardly staged, and the ending, which should be religiously euphoric, is a terrible fumble of telegraphed mystery; but it is at least in service to a coherent narrative.

There are even a few inspired moments, two of them in the same scene. The poor shopgirl Cheryl, at her wedding to James Taggart, confronts Dagny about her being icey and non-altruistic. Says Cheryl, "I'm Mrs. Taggart. I'm the woman in this family now." "Quite alright," replies Dagny. "I'm the man." At the end of the scene, after he has given a much-truncated version of his "Money is the root of all good speech" in response to some wag (probably Taggart) who said the opposite, and after been asked why he has blown up his mines and intentionally made them worthless, Francisco d'Anconia quips, "Money is the root of all evil--and I got tired of being evil."

Both of these exchanges are taken verbatim from the book, but in light of everything can and often has gone wrong in these movies, one should give credit for successfully translating the rare attempts when Ayn Rand's arid sense of humor manages to land. The film does have a couple notable moments of its own invention: first is a sequence in which famed composer Richard Halley, having finished performing his Fourth Concerto, is to take a bow, but when the curtain rises, he is gone, and on his piano sits a card that reads "Who is John Galt?" (This is the only time of the uncountable many in the movie, that this catch phrase doesn't sound awkward and stupid, precisely because it's not spoken.).

The one truly great moment is a wonderfully gonzo sequence, a montage of people protesting the government's announcement that it's going to freeze the economy by making it illegal to hire or fire or give a raise or spend more or less money than the year before (yeah, about that...). They're all freaking out, amid which the camera frequently cuts to a disheveled homeless guy furiously carving something into a flat piece of wood, and things get more desperate and intense, and he keeps carving, and the music crescendoes, and we have to know, 'what is he writing?!' and he finishes, and it reads:
Here lies my country
Born: 1776 - Died: yesterday
If the whole movie were so over-the-top, it could stand proudly alongside The Fountainhead as a kitsch classic--and who knows, maybe the final installment (in which the story really jumps the rails into bugfuck crazy) will do that. But as it is, Part II must contend with mere competence. And with competence comes the simple bigotry of expectations, of (pardon the term) objective standards, which it does not come close to meeting.

For now that the story is in navigable form, and now that the action is beginning to rise, it becomes even more clear how preposterous the whole thing is. The 2016 setting is still a jarring anachronism, with characters carrying smart phones and iPads but still communicating and behaving as if it were the 1960s. The action hinges on coincidence--such as when Dagny finds, among all her employees, the man who coined "Who is John Galt?--and on magic, which can be the only explanation for Dagny suddenly knowing how to fly a plane just when she has to use one to chase Galt down. The villains' behavior makes sense only if one accepts that people could be so absolutely spiteful and moronic. The aforementioned law that freezes the economy is so stupid on its face that Lenin himself would have scoffed. (In the real world, as we saw in 2008, the economy froze on its own because the banks that had been swindling their customers with junk mortgage bonds were suddenly imperiled and were terrified of extending credit to one another, and the government had to spend untold sums just to make it move again.)

It all stems, of course, from Ayn Rand's rancid and wrong-headed ideas about the individual and government, to which the movie is in thrall. At one point Rearden, on trial, gives a speech that is supposed to be inspiring, about how the real innovators are expected to have "no wealth, no recognition, no respect." This is supposed to have resonance in a time when the rich are paying lower income taxes than ever before, when Steve Jobs in life and death is lionized for his entrepreneurial spirit, and when whole websites and hardware lines are devoted to MySpace and YouTube and i. But so it goes for a movie whose most famous performers are Sean Hannity and Juan Williams, playing themselves. Thus does "Objectivism" find kinship with "Fair and Balanced."

The worse thing is that the filmmakers are deliberately softening Rand's message. Not just in the abridgment of her endless speeches, which was inevitable, but in the way it avoids her nastiest explications. For the Taggart Tunnel disaster, the most notorious episode in the novel,  in which a bunch of "altruists" die in a train wreck and pages are spent detailing how they absolutely deserved to die, is in the movie stripped of all its misanthropic bristle. In the book the passengers suffocate from the exhaust of a coal engine that scummy politician Kip Chalmers insisted on using, thus making them the bringers of their own destruction. In the movie, the coal engine collides with another, incoming, train, making it sort-of-not-entirely-their-fault. During the scene we see we see the passengers coughing and choking and hitting the emergency break. We are clearly meant to empathize with them, however stupid Chalmers was for ordering the use of the coal engine. Which is an entirely defensible, human point of view to take, but it is the farthest thing of Ayn Rand's, and it is intellectual cowardice to pretend otherwise, particularly in an adaptation of a book whose endgame replays this scenario--stupid people bring about their own death and deserve it--on a global level.

Atlas Shrugged, Part II was announced with the subtitle, Either/Or. Taken from the title of Book II in the novel, it's a fitting encapsulation of its fundamental problem. It's neither the outright shit-show of its predecessor, nor is it a madcamp masterpiece on the order of The Fountainhead (nor is it a quality movie, but that was never going to happen). Instead, its technical abilities are just good enough for it to put forth its ideas and arguments which are by and large unworthy of merit or consideration. As was Rand's novel, it is a mediocrity, which in its Manichean, worldview, is the worst sin of all.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Taggart Trainwreck, Part I

Atlas Shrugged, Part I was never going to be a great movie or even a good one. But it just might have, under the proper circumstances, followed like The Fountainhead's lead and found its niche as a freakishly compelling curiosity. It could have at least had the dignity to be an interesting failure. As it is, it fails to even interest.

The story of how the movie came to be is more interesting than the movie itself, so let's stick with that for as long as possible. Basically, attempts have been made since Atlas Shrugged was published to bring the unwieldly tome to life on both the big and the small screen, with Faye Dunaway, Charlize Theron, Russell Crowe, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt all at one point attached to the project. Numerous offers on the property were made, but all were rejected or eventually fell through; Rand, as was her wont, demanded absolute creative control, still smarting as she was from Warner Brothers' temerity to cut a single line from her script for The Fountainhead twenty years before. She finished a script for a first part of a TV miniseries before she died. At that time she had expressed interest in Farrah Fawcet playing Dagny Taggart, so much did she appreciate Fawcett's work on Charlie's Angels.

After Rand's death the rights remained in control of her heir and sycophant Leonard Peikoff, who guarded the rights with a jealousy he hoped could match her own. After the rights had cycled through a number of options and producers, one John Aglialoro paid Peikoff a cool million for the production option and full creative control. Numerous scripts were written and rejected, including one by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, who was determined to condense the story into a single, two-hour feature.

If only.

The title alone, Atlas Shrugged *Part 1* is enough tipoff that things have gone wrong. Rand was both smart and, yes, skilled enough to cut The Fountainhead's 700+ pages down to feature length, and the same was well within possibility even with this famously stubborn work. But that did not happen under the auspices of director Paul Johansson (an actor whose previous claims to fame were parts in various network television shows and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day) and writers Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole (an indie horror film writer whose Wikipedia bio endearingly notes, "His script for Atlas Shrugged: Part I... did not prevent that film's failure").

So the movie is a sprawling mess, for basically two reasons. The first--and I speculate, but it's a reasonable speculation--is that the creative team, such as it is, was terrified of alienating Rand's fanbase, which was essentially the only audience a project like this could hope to attract. The second, very real reason, the reason this particular incarnation of Atlas Shrugged exists at all, is because Aglialoro's rights to the property were set to lapse. So not only was the thing rushed into production to meet an arbitrary deadline, but the splitting of it into three parts ensured that they would have time to get the rest of it "right" even if part one was a dud.

And oh, what a dud it is. The setting--what was the near future in 1958, in which trains could conceivably have still played a large role in transportation--has been "updated" to 2016; because American governance in 2011 is so socialistic, it only makes sense that air travel would have collapsed by then, right? Right? The story remains basically unchanged: America's smartest people are disappearing thanks to the "mysterious" (as in he wears a trenchcoat and is perpetually under-lit) John Galt (Paul Johansson. Yes, he actually cast himself for the walk-on role of Randian Superman), leaving railroad tycoon Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) and steel magnate Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) to save the world with their awesome train line and new metal--

And see, that's the problem right there. Business deals about building new rail lines and politics over stupid Soviet-style controlled economies are just not interesting. 

Neither for that matter are characters. Atlas featured by far Rand's weakest dramatis personae, so there was never going to be much for the actors to draw from. Only "billionaire playboy" Francisco d'Anconia (Jsu Garcia), something of an affable smartass in the book, showed anything resembling a sense of humor or personality (Garcia looks pretty but does nothing to enliven the character). Not that this was an exceptional ensemble anyway. Except for Jon Polito--here playing one of countless government slugs, who played a real strongman once upon a time in Miller's Crossing--the cast are unknowns with bit part credits scattered across film and TV. Rebecca Wisocky as harpy wife Lillian Rearden comes the closest to the kind of bitchy melodramatic villainy that Rand was angling for, but under Johansson's slack direction it fails to register. Even Rand's misanthropic philosophy, expressed in lines like "They're a bunch of miserable children, desperate to stay alive," is so dead on arrival I can't even muster the energy to get exercised about it.

The whole thing looks cheap because it is, all of it, right down to that obnoxious poster which turns Atlas into the AOL mascot holding up a fucking tennis ball--and it all just kind of sleepwalks from point to point without any underlying logic or spirit. Even at her most crappy and repellent one could at least respect Rand for pouring everything she had into her work. If hers was a heavy hand, at least it had a grasp of the material. The right kind of commitment and deadly seriousness could have at least pushed lines like "Find Mouch" into so-bad-it's-good territory, but most everybody here seems satisfied to have just shown up to get the damn thing made.

Critics shrugged, and audiences too, such that Atlas Shrugged Part I failed to make even a fourth of its paltry $20 million budget back in theaters. Aglialoro was so dispirited that he threatened to Go Galt and withhold his talents from the looters and moochers who didn't bother to see his shitty movie. And yet he didn't, he found the requisite financing, and now Atlas Shrugged Part II, with a completely new cast, opens today. And because I am no looter but masochist, I am going to pay real money--not in gold, alas--to see the dreadful Object. Let us consider it an act of that lowest of Objectivist vices: charity.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Drill Gary Drill

I knew King Vidor's adaptation of The Fountainhead would be something very special from its opening shot: a skyscraper set among the New York skyline. It is revealed--by turning!--to actually be the side of a book--The Fountainhead!--which opens to let us know it's adapted by its author--Ayn Rand! It's tacky and ridiculous, but strikingly so. It also bespeaks a fidelity to Rand and her novel which is, shockingly, not a liability. Far from it--it manages to retain enough of Rand's "philosophy" to satisfy all but the most ardent Objectivists (including Rand herself, but more on that later), and also translates her wild-eyed sensibility with such craft that the ordinarily suffocating didacticism can be safely bypassed and the movie enjoyed as a luxurious camp artifact.

The process of adaptation began within a year of The Fountainhead's publication. Though initially slow to sell, over the summer of 1943 it became a runaway hit, and by the end of the year Warner Brothers came knocking. Rand demanded what was then an extraordinary sum for the rights, $50,000, which the studio paid. Rand, a Hollywood veteran, produced a script treatment for them. After several years in development hell and wooing by an A-list that included Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart, the studio attached Vidor and star Gary Cooper to the project. Rand tightened her screws and, along with being guaranteed that she would write the script and that it would be adhered to, she was regularly consulted on the set about character motivations and acting style.

The resulting screenplay is a masterpiece of concision, at least as far as the normally logorrhoeaic Rand goes. The core story of rugged individualist Howard Roark struggling against and triumphing over the forces of collectivist blah blah blah remains, but with whole sections either excised completely or drastically condensed; gone is Peter Keating's mother as well as his sometime lover, along with Ellsworth Toohey's circle of intellectual mediocrities. Numerous episodes have been expunged in order to let a few major events drive the action forward.

The film's opening scenes are a terrific example of its economical approach: an aggressive montage, with Roark standing in shadow, back to the camera each time. First Roark being ejected from architectural school, then being told by Peter Keating to be like him and make what everybody else likes, and then listening to curmudgeonly mentor Henry Cameron (Henry Hull) argue with himself before offering him a job. Then: "Wait! What's your name?" "...Howard Roark." The door shuts, and the camera pivots to the pages on Cameron's daily calendar, blowing in the wind and all but blaring, "PASSAGE OF TIME." It's not even necessarily good, but it's compelling viewing.

The relentless editing gives new focus to the story, away from the vacuous Peter Keating (Kent Smith) and inhumanly mediocre Ellsworth Toohey (played with effete European relish by Robert Douglas), and onto newspaper tycoon Gail Wynand  (Raymond Massey) and love interest Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who  doesn't show up until two hundred pages into the novel but here makes her first appearance within twenty minutes. From a structural standpoint this is a problem; Toohey doesn't do much to become a full-on villain, and Keating his patsy, until well into the third act, so there is no consistent opposition to Roark. But with so much else to gawk at along the way, this ends up not being nearly so much a problem as one would expect.

For the film lives and dies by its style, which makes eminently watchable a script that would be otherwise unsalvageably hokey, stuffed as it is with dialogue chunks like:
WYNAND: I merely wanted to show you that all men are corrupt, that anyone can be bought, and that you are wrong in your contempt for me. There is no honest way to deal with people. We have no choice except to submit or to rule them. I chose to rule.
DOMINIQUE: A man of integrity would do neither.
Yet rather than try to mine this for psychological depth, the actors instead play it with a crazed earnestness suggestive of religious fanatics. This I think is a kind of Rosetta Stone for Ayn Rand's enduring appeal and for why her sensibility tends to translate so poorly to flesh and blood depiction. In portraying them, it doesn't matter what these people believe--an ugly amalgamation of the unchallenged, the impossible, and the indefensible--but that they believe. Most real people have doubts and internal conflicts, while Rand's creations have all the mythic judgmental certitude of an Old Testament prophet.

None of the performers demonstrate this better than Neal as Dominique Francon, a character who comes off on the page as an irritatingly contrarian bitch but who Neal imbues with a sad longing that makes her, not necessarily sympathetic, but sexy and entrancing (Neal replaced Lauren Bacall at the last minute, and began an off-screen affair with Cooper; Rand initially wanted Gretta Garbo for the part). It's the eyes that do it. Rand wrote Dominique as "myself on a bad day" and there are indeed a couple shots in which Neal wears a manic stare that encapsulates, within a few frames, everything about Rand and her "glare that could wilt a cactus" that Helen Mirren spent 90 TV-movie minutes trying and failing to capture.

The performances are augmented every step of the way by Vidor's direction, which goes for the garish gusto every step of the way. Max Steiner's music swells and stings to underscore, as it were, every very emotional beat of the story. The set design is delightfully ostentatious, with a giant map of the world befitting a James Bond villain that spans the wall of Wynand's office, and little details like a fish tank lamp or a giant, tacky portrait on the wall of newspaper editor Alvah Scarret. The lighting is bold when it wants to be, such as the giant shadows in the rape scene. The framing and editing work hand-in-hand to bring all this together and scream the subtext. Consider the scene of Dominique's first glimpse of Roark, a back-and-forth edit that contrasts Patricia Neal's idealized Hollywood goddess looks with the most brute sight and sound of masculine penetration possible.

The most unnatural aspect of the whole thing is, obviously, Howard Roark's five-minute courtroom speech, unusual and unprecedented in its time and perhaps even more out of step with today's jump-cut driven movie rhythms. It's a dramatic dud for all the obvious reasons (the same reasons that have me salivating with sadistic glee at the prospect of the two hour John Galt radio speech being adapted for the nigh-guaranteed Atlas Shrugged Part III), but it is helped in no way by Cooper, who is, somewhat inscrutably, the one weak link among the major players. He is simply, at age forty-eight, too old for an archetype of timeless virility. His gaze communicates confusion more than stoicism, and he makes the kiss-of-death mistake of trying to make Rand's heavy-handed dialogue sound believable, which comes off all the worse when everyone else is acting on a completely different level. (He admitted as much after seeing the finished cut of the movie.)

Though Rand was initially proud of the film and the fact that it had been shot as originally written, she later denounced it as hopelessly compromised after discovering that a line of dialogue had in fact been cut, and from Roark's speech no less: “I wished to come here and say that I am a man who does not exist for others.” Outside that hardest of cores, the movie is appreciated by Randians for--what else?--its spirited defense of individualism. Yet, as I have hopefully made clear, there is considerable outside appeal as well. Though it remains true to its source material, in letter and spirit, more than any adaptation I can think of, it tempers Rand's poisonous opinions with enough actual style and skill that those opinions are easy enough to ignore.

That irony, that paradox, is what is so fatal to Objectivism as a whole: it is because of "others" that The Fountainhead exists on film as anything more than an incompetent joke; Atlas Shrugged, as we will find, would not be nearly so lucky.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Ayn Bland

“The life of Ayn Rand was the material of fiction. But if one attempted to write it as a novel, the result would be preposterously unbelievable.” So wrote Barbara Branden, in the introduction for The Passion of Ayn Rand. Showtime's producers must certainly have this quote in mind during the conception and production of the TV movie of the same name, adapted from Branden's biography of Rand. For the movie they produced, unlike its unwieldy and larger-than-life subject, is lukewarm and and indecisive.

The main, obvious problem with this approach is that it's not Ayn Rand's story being told, but that of her secret relationship with her number two man, Nathaniel Branden. In itself this is not a bad idea, as the affair spanned the period of her greatest public prominence. But even then Rand is not the real focus. This is a 90s Showtime TV movie, which necessitates a multitude of softcore sex scenes. Because if there's any reason to watch an Ayn Rand movie it's for the boffing.

What this means from a story standpoint is that the Brandens are over-emphasized, to the point that the movie ends basically as soon as they exit the picture. The story begins with their introduction to Rand (Helen Mirren) and her husband Frank O'Conner (Peter Fonda) and ends with a speech Rand gives after casting them into outer darkness, and is bookended by a framing device, with Barbara visiting the public viewing of Rand's body as well as her grave. Issues like Rand's prior life in Russia or the mammoth John Galt speech are included but barely touched on. Even within the weird "Collective," it feels like a by-the-numbers love story.

Worse, Rand's Objectivism is engaged in only the most perfunctory and obvious ways, reciting the basics but neither digging into their implications or their very subjective origins, nor offering a spirited defense. It keeps the contentious material all at arm's length in a way that would irritate both Rand's devoted partisans and her vehement detractors in exactly the wrong way. Why make a movie about one of 20th century America's most controversial figures that scrupulously avoids controversy?

And why must it be so dreary? Rand's aesthetic was a mixture of the agit-prop obviousness of Soviet Realism with the boldness of the Hollywood silent movies she consumed avidly as a young woman and later wrote treatments for when working for Cecil B. DeMille. Her tastes in high--middle-brow, really--culture were Romantic (Victor Hugo, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov), and the popular entertainment she deigned herself enjoy were stunningly obvious (Charlie's Angels and Mickey Spilane novels). True, her dialogue was wooden and her prose dry, but beneath the surface one can sense her mad, wild-eyed fervor.

Surely some of this could have been utilized to get us inside her strange and frightening mind. Instead we get a bland lite jazz score that is at war with the tone of every scene that doesn't have naked people, cheap production values, and Toronto standing in for New York. The one time the movie does come alive is, not coincidentally, a sequence with Rand and Branden dancing to Strauss's "Blue Danube Waltz," that manages to convey Rand's goofily old-timey stridency (even here they get things wrong, as she was on record saying she would "take a funeral march in preference to" the "Blue Danube Waltz").

The only thing keeping the entire endeavor from going completely off-rail are the performances. Best in show goes to Peter Fonda as Rand's cuckolded husband Frank, deftly shading the sadness of his predicament with a welcome self-awareness, such as a scene where he's discovered passed out in a phone booth and remarks, "I must have been trying to make a phone call, which is odd because I don’t know anybody." Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel comes off as mostly a twerp that's too big for his britches; over time he becomes sort of fun to hate, yet the muddy intentions of the movie make it not at all clear whether this is the intended impression. Julie Delpy's Barbara has a certain fierce independence that, misconceived though her centrality to the movie is, at least anchors the film as best as can be done. At this point I should give special mention to Sybil Temtchine, who takes a largely thankless role as Nathaniel's late perfunctory love interest, originally a 'patient' that comes in for some public humiliation from him and Rand, and becomes one of the few sympathetic people in the whole sordid mess.

As to Mirren's performance as Rand: it is accomplished, it feels "lived-in." But as written, the character's roughest edges have been neatly sanded so that she exudes neither magnetism nor repulsion; notably, her exclamation, "I hate surprises!" with which she kills the buzz of her own surprise party, is lukewarmed by a subsequent, "but seriously, don't ever do that again" half-joke. Rand scorned humor and self-deprecating humor particularly as a sign of weakness and an unserious attitude toward life. She would never have seen anything funny about, say, her enjoyment of Charlie's Angels as a depiction of the world as it ought to be. If anything, Mirren does her job of conveying the script's neutered version of Rand too well.

The "Passion" of The Passion of Ayn Rand, the original book, connoted Rand's manic drive to succeed. The Showtime movie takes it to refer merely to her sex drive. Everything else is window-dressing. As yet it remains the only dramatization of of her life story--there was talk of adapting the book into a stage production directed by Peter Hall, but it seems to have never come to fruition--which makes its tepid approach an especial waste.