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.

Monday, August 27, 2012

One Nation Under Galt

Pity the liberal reader of Ayn Rand. Not only must he contend with the expanse of Rand's prose--a literary South Dakota is it, flat and largely uninspiring but for some notable exceptions--so is he also assailed with the barbs of his left-of-center friends. The progressive estimation of Rand hovers between punchline and taboo, wherein she is either too self-evidently ludicrous or morally abhorrent to be considered, and so any prolonged engagement with her, especially by one of their own, liberals view with an admixture of bemusement, condescension, and barely-concealed irritation. (Many of this blog's readership have scoffed at my efforts more often than not, I'm sure. You know who you are.)

What a relief it was, then, to find a fellow traveler in Gary Weiss. Weiss, a seasoned reporter of the Wall Street beat, was like many observers aghast not just at the 2008 Financial Crisis and the damage it wrought, but at the tepid measures taken afterward to prevent it from happening again, and the concerted efforts by Congressional Republicans and the Tea Partiers to thwart even those modest efforts, all the while proclaiming the wisdom of a literary and philosophical pariah. In Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America's Soul, Weiss sets out to understand Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, and more than that its adherents, from low-level Tea Party organizers to the leaders of the various Objectivist factions, in order to understand her appeal and growing influence in our politics. In doing so he re-read Rand's novels and had to deal first-hand with the collision of ideas on the place of government that are fundamentally at odds with his own.

I spent much of the book nodding in recognition. Here, the almost guilty enjoyment of bad literature: "Oddly... I was enjoying her novels and becoming vaguely simpatico to her beliefs, even though they were contrary to everything I had been taught and experienced since infancy. Her novels were compelling and persuasive in ways that I couldn’t quite put my finger on."

There, the sense of being inspired even in spite of oneself: "Reading Rand’s books again recently, even as I was put off by her dogma, made me feel better about myself. I regret not having read Fountainhead more carefully when I was a kid. That book and perhaps Atlas might have changed my life for the better, and might have given me greater confidence to identify and pursue my own self-interests over the years."

Most palpable is Weiss's almost lurid fascination with Objectivism, which, though he cannily observes is almost pathologically anti-empirical, is internally consistent and provides a systematic approach to viewing the world that can feel more intellectually satisfying than progressivism's at-times fuzzy and (let me stress, necessarily) ambiguous end results-focused ethics. So excited by it is he that in his interactions with Rand-admiring Tea Partiers, he positively delights in the search for a full-blown Objectivist, one who doesn't try to square Christianity with the Randian circle.

With a few notable exceptions, including a fascinating interview with Oliver Stone, who tried to direct a more humane adaptation of The Fountainhead, Weiss's interactions with these mostly humble folk form the bulk of the book, and for good reason. It's easy enough to crack wise about yet another middle-aged white person at a rally with a John Galt sign. It's less easy to do so when a multitude of figures from disparate backgrounds independently testify to the impact of Rand's works:

Yet again I was hearing how Rand had crystallized her readers’ opinions into the hard rock of ideology. Again, I heard the same “confirmation factor” that Pamela Geller [yes, that one], Iris Bell, and others had described, almost word-for-word, as if they were comparing notes. Rand spoke to something deep inside these very different people— the Long Island career woman, the Chicago-born graphics designer, and the small-town California lawyer.... 
Atlas Shrugged originally inspired [Mark Meckler, organizer of Tea Party Patriots], he said, because it appealed to him that “people who do the right thing, working hard and producing the best they possibly could for the sake of it would seek out other people who were doing the same. To me it was inspiring that there are groups of people who do this. I knew how I was, how I worked. I did my best for the sake of doing my best. I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anyone else.”  
Meckler described himself as not the “quintessential kid who would be reading Atlas Shrugged,” which he defined as a preppie “in an argyle vest in an Ivy League school or something.” He was into punk rock and normal 1980s kid stuff like that. He wasn’t politically active, though he’d been following politics since he was twelve, reading the Los Angeles Times and talking about current events with his father. From an early age he felt much as he did as an adult, that “the less that government was involved in our lives the better.” Reading Atlas Shrugged appealed to those yearnings, much as a kid with a passion for social justice might be lit up by books that are soft on altruism (like just about every other book written since the dawn of time).

Precisely because the broad contours of Objectivism are self-help bromides (it's no coincidence that Rand's lover and disciple Nathaniel Branden, after his split with Rand, when on to become a formative figure in the self-esteem movement of Psychology),  Rand's notions of individualism, to say nothing of her suspicion of government, appeal to those without any particularly coherent ideology--such as the Tea Party. Weiss rightly notes that:
The overarching factor, the reason Objectivists were so prominent in the Tea Party, was that the Randers had been exposed to some degree of ideological preparation— not necessarily very much, but enough— and had a sense of direction that non-Randers in the movement didn’t have. Non-Randers are unlikely to have an entire philosophy to buttress their views, and to disseminate to their comrades. Rand distilled vague anger and unhappiness into a sense of purpose. Yes, it was extremist and drew inspiration from her early days in Russia, but it reflected values of individualism and free enterprise that were native to the Heartland.
How Rand's ideas might be best combated are demonstrated in Weiss's account of a debate between Ayn Rand Institute president Yaron Brook and Miles Rapoport, president of progressive think tank Demos. Brook is a practiced speaker, animated and quick-witted, and Objectivism's tenets of individualism make it easy to flatter an audience. Rapoport, taking his time and shuffling notecards, is at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to presentation, but he's able to match Brook when it comes down to pointing out what Objectivists actually believe and how--objectively--wrong they are. They need to, in the Randian parlance, check their premises:

Brook trotted out again the shopworn “trader principle” Randism about people relating to each other by the “voluntary mechanism of trade. It’s win-win.” Rapoport replied that trade “connotes two equal partners. But in our society, in commerce, in the marketplace, we don’t have equal partners.” And it’s government’s role, he said, to see to it that those roles are somewhat equalized. He was low-key and stating the obvious, but it was necessary because Rand’s dogma is predicated on ignoring the obvious. Or saying, as Brook did, that one achieves income equality by giving poor people “the opportunity to rise up and make a fortune.” That brought to mind Anatole France and “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

"The lesson of the evening," Weiss concludes, "was that Objectivism can only be effectively debated by reminding the listeners that, as Rand put it, “existence exists.” Reality exists, and reality does not work in her favor most of the time."

Weiss does not make a perfect case against Randism. Too often he pulls a Godwin and peppers his analysis with direct Nazi comparisons. The similarities between Objectivism and a more general fascist mindset--a worship of beauty and power and antipathy towards liberalism, Communism, and the downtrodden--are there and are worth exploring, but Weiss doesn't do his homework here, and so he comes off sounding shrill.

Leaning heavily on Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Weiss also at times condescends to the Tea Partiers he's met, wondering aloud why they would so willingly vote against their interests. This is a failure to understand that, for one thing, a certain segment of the Tea Party considers removing government aid for poor people (read: minorities) to be very much in their interest. He also fails to consider that some of Tea Partiers of yes, the lower and middle classes, may have a genuine if misguided belief that they are indeed entirely self-sufficient and should remain so. Anybody who has tried to convince a stubborn aging parent to receive outside care will understand the difficulties of dealing with someone convinced of their own omnipotence, and it does no one any good to persist in thinking they're just stupid.

Finally, the book's final chapter is a letdown, a hyperventilating prognosis of the dystopia that would befall America should Rand's ideas come to pass. It ought to be enough to point out the ongoing fraud of the financial sector, and the reality of American life before the advent of labor laws and health and safety codes without getting into overheated rhetoric about how "The Coast Guard would stay in port while storm-tossed mariners drown lustily as they did in days of yore."

On the whole, however, Ayn Rand Nation makes an important contribution to the center-left discussion on the current right-wing resurgence and Rand's role in it. Weiss largely deals with Rand as she can only be dealt with, head-on, and his example should be followed. If we liberals have confidence in the validity of our ideas and that they will prevail, then there is nothing to fear in bringing moral vampirism into the daylight.

Monday, June 25, 2012

La Miserable

I decided to pick up Les Miserables (Ayn Rand's favorite novel by her favorite novelist) to read in my downtime this summer. I'm not going to do a blow-by-blow response series, for it's beyond the scope of this blog and I'd like to not lose another half-year of my life, but I might occasionally throw in an observation or two. Like now.

Reading the opening chapters of Les Mis after coming off of Atlas Shrugged, two facts present themselves: Rand was unusually charitable in her love of Victor Hugo, for his worldview is about as far from hers as can be imagined. We are introduced to the Bishop of Digne, Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, his life story, his home, his routines. He is an utterly selfless man, devoting every free moment and spare income to the poor. A looter and moocher, in the Randian parlance. Rand in fact originally was going to include a priest character in Atlas Shrugged, a genuinely altruistic man who toils to realize his moral vision and then comes to understand it has already come to pass and ravaged the world, but she abandoned the character because she didn't think such a creature could ever be convincing (not that an inability to craft believable characters never stopped her before). It is amazing, then, to know she could admire Hugo in spite of him standing for everything she despised.

And not only did she admire him, but she owed him certain characteristics of her own writing (one hesitates to call it style). Her first and "objectively" best novel We the Living owes much to Hugo in its panoramic view of post-revolutionary Russia, but the strongest influence I can trace--perhaps because it's so immediately obvious--is what looks to be a shared tic of anecdote. All three of Rand's full-length novels dole out their exposition of character histories with a series of vignettes, that always end with a pithy line or action or fact to emphasize a character's essence. A representative sample from The Fountainhead, detailing the rise of self-made newspaper magnate Gail Wynand:
He remained in the building, sitting on the stairs outside the city room. He sat there every day for a week. No one paid any attention to him. At night he slept in doorways. When most of his money was gone, he stole food, from counters or from garbage pails, before returning to his post on the stairs. 
One day a reporter felt sorry for him and, walking down the stairs, threw a nickel into Wynand’s lap, saying: “Go buy yourself a bowl of stew, kid.” Wynand had a dime left in his pocket. He took the dime and threw it at the reporter, saying: “Go buy yourself a screw.” The man swore and went on down. The nickel and the dime remained lying on the steps. Wynand would not touch them. The story was repeated in the city room. A pimply-faced clerk shrugged and took the two coins.
Les Mis is absolutely rotten with this kind of character building, even as it builds in the completely opposite moral direction. Here is the bishop dealing with the problem of an overcrowded hospital:
"Monsieur," he said, "How many beds do you think this hall alone would contain?" 
"Your Lordship's dining hall!" exclaimed the director, stupefied. 
The bishop ran his eyes over the hall, measuring and calculating. 
"It will hold twenty beds," he said to himself; then, raising his voice, he said, "Listen, Monseiur Director, here's what I think. Obviously this is wrong. There are twenty-six of you in five or six small rooms; there are three of us in space enough for sixty. That is wrong, I assure you. You have my house and I am in yours. Give me back mine and this will be your home." 
Next day the twenty-six indigent patients were installed in the bishop's palace and the bishop was in the hospital.
Another example of characterization-by-anecdote:
His conversation was cheerful and pleasant. He adapted himself to the level of the two old women who lived with him, but when he laughed, it was a schoolboy's laughter. 
Madam Magloire sometimes called him "Your Higheness." One day, rising from his armchair, he went to his library for a book. It was on one of the upper shelves, and as the bishop was rather short, he could not reach it. "Madam Magloire," said he, "bring me a chair. My highness cannot reach that shelf."
It's almost like telling a joke, with the point of the story, the character's defining quality, revealed like a punchline. It goes without saying that her reading of Hugo did not, alas, impart to Rand a sense of humor.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going, Going, Galt

No, I'm not withdrawing my talents from an ungrateful world of altruistic parasites. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'm en route to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose literary department I'll be interning with (for free!) for the next couple months. It's going to be terrific fun and a great opportunity, but the workload--I'll be helping to work on seven productions and much more besides--means I'm not going to have time to read or watch much else, and certainly not to write about it.

Thus the Rand-Along is going on a hiatus for the next few months. Once I'm done I will resume, with write-ups on some of Rand's lesser-known work and Nathaniel Branden's memoir, Judgment Day: My Years With Ayn Rand. As the election draws closer I'm going to watch and review the movies adapted from Rand's books in anticipation, if you can call it that, of the release of Atlas Shrugged Part 2. Until then, I may update my main blog periodically with links and cross-posts to the material I write for Williamstown. Should be good.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


So this might sound strange after all my complaints about how Atlas Shrugged is really a terrible crank novel, but after finishing it a few days ago, I have to say I actually sortakindasomewhat loved the shit out of its final section. The book is still bad, but awesomely so. Its wild-eyed third act shows Ayn Rand at her best, such as it is, and at her worst, which more often than not is so bad, its negativity so multiplied, that it cancels itself out and attains a masterful campiness. It is Alpha and Omega. It is some bitchin' kitschin'.

We left off with Dagny Taggart returning from Atlantis, John Galt's Colorado mountain hideaway. It doesn't take long for the book's numerous idiotic villains' scheming begins to fall apart. When they try to blackmail Dagny into supporting their policies, by threatening to expose her affair with Hank Rearden, she proudly announces it to the world. When they attempt to seize Francisco d'Anconia's mines, he goes Galt and blows them all up, leaving not a penny behind.

Just about every venal powerbroker receives his comeuppance, to which they all respond with a great wailing and gnashing of teeth. Hank Rearden's harpy wife Lillian is an instructive case. Here she is, after Rearden has told his lousy family--who were apologizing to him in order to get a cut of his wealth before it's seized by the government--that they can starve for all he cares:
"I have something to tell you!" cried Lillian, with the sound of that impotent rage which wishes that words were brass knuckles. "You're so proud of yourself, aren't you? You're so proud of your name! Rearden Steel, Rearden metal, Rearden Wife! That's what I was, wasn't I? Mrs. Rearden! mrs. Henry Rearden!" The sounds she was making were now a string of cackling gasps, an unrecognizable corruption of laughter. "Well, I think you'd like to know that your wife's been laid by another man! I've been unfaithful to you, do you hear me? I've been unfaithful, not with some great, noble lover, but with the scummiest louse, with Jim Taggart! Three months ago! Before your divorce! While I was your wife! While I was still your wife!" 
He stood listening like a scientist studying a subject of no personal relevance whatever. There, he thought, was the final abortion of the creed of collective interdependence, the creed of non-identity, non-property, non-fact: the belief that the moral stature of one is at the mercy of the action of another. 
"I've been unfaithful to you! Don't you hear me, you stainless Puritan? I've slept with Jim Taggart, you incorruptible hero! Don't you hear me?... Don't you hear me?... Don't you...?" 
He was looking at her as he would have looked if a strange woman had approached him on the street with a personal confession--a look like the quivalent of the word: Why tell it to me?
If you don't yet grasp the hilarity of this situation, watch this scene from Wayne's World, which plays the same dynamic a little less straight and which maps onto Atlas's "dude wants awesome hot chick but his old girl's a crazybitch" plot rather uncannily:

At this point some "good" characters die too, not just in spirit but in body, in as grandiose fashion as possible. Jim Taggart's wife Cheryl, having become herself smart and independent, finds out Taggart married her only because she was poor and her misguided hero-worship inflated his petty, shriveled ego. When she confronts him about this whole 'you're a vicious fraud' thing he can only respond by hitting her. She escapes into the streets, is stricken with panic and throws herself off a bridge.

This should be harrowing, but in Ayn Rand's hands it's simply hilarious. What finally pushes Cheryl over the edge, so to speak, is a social worker she comes across:
The social worker seized her arm. "It's a disgrace to come to such a state... if you society girls had something to do besides indulging your desire and chasing pleasures, you wouldn't be wandering, drunk as a tramp, at this hour of the night... if you stopped living for your own enjoyment, stopped thinking of yourself and found some higher--" 
Then the girl screamed--and the scream went beating against the blank walls of the street as in a chamber of torture, an animal scream of terror. She tore her arm loose and sprang back, then screamed in articulate sounds: 
"No! No! Not your kind of world!" 
Then she ran, ran by the propulsion of a burst of power, the power of a creature running for its life, she ran straight down the street that ended at the river--and in a single streak of speed, with no break, no moment of doubt, with full consciousness of acting in self-preservation, she kept running till the parapet barred her way and, not stopping, went over into space.
Another character, a boyish government inspector shot in a firefight, takes four Hamlet-like pages to die while delivering reams of exposition to Hank Rearden about the government's nefarious schemes to stage a riot at his mills in order to justify taking them over. For the boy's troubles, Rearden drops his derisive nickname "Non-Absolute" and tells him, "You're a full absolute now, and you know it." This is what passes for character development in Atlas Shrugged.

Even as the proceedings grow more hysterical, the book does on occasion manage to be good on its own terms. I speak specifically of the chapter depicting the collapse of the entire Taggart rail system, and with it America's agricultural distribution network, without which the country is doomed to mass starvation. It hinges all on a scarcity of copper wire, beginning in a train station in California, which is bailed out with half the supply in Montana, which in turn runs out and is bailed by Minnesota, which runs out in turn. The country is depending on Minnesota's wheat in order to survive the winter, and so they receive half of the wire of the Taggart Terminal, the central command of the entire railroad.

You see where this is leading:
On the night of October 15, a copper wire broke in New York City, in an underground control tower of the Taggart Terminal, extinguishing the lights of the signals. 
It was only the breach of one wire, but it produced a short circuit in the interlocking traffic system, and the signals of motion or danger disappeared from the panels of the control towers and from among the strands of rail. The red and green lenses remained red and green, not with the living radiance of sight, but with the dead stare of glass eyes. On the edge of the city, a cluster of trains gathered at the entrance to the Terminal tunnels and grew through the minutes of stillness, like blood damned by a clot inside a vein, unable to rush into the chambers of the heart.
(As it happens, Minnesota and the wheat crop were lost anyway--the freight cars they were supposed to receive were diverted towards a pet project of the mother of Kip Chalmers, the bureaucrat who died in the Taggart Tunnel disaster. Her plan was to grow and distribute soy beans in Louisiana to teach the country about the noble ways of the Orient. The soy beans, however, were harvested too early and all rot. Rioting ensues in Minnesota.)

Putting aside the characteristically preposterous behavior of the various characters, the series of cascading catastrophes does a fairly excellent job of generating tension and excitement. It's similar to the earlier Tunnel disaster sequence, but on a grander scale.

The success of the two scenes has to do with Rand's weird psychology. She and her heroes only value human beings insofar as they are creative and productive--they are judged by their discoveries, creations, and inventions, which she really does value more than 'lesser' human beings. What
else are we to make of how, on learning of the Taggart Tunnel's destruction, "Her scream sounded like the screams that had rung out in the one last moment in the darkness of the tunnel"? Or, for that matter, her insistence that it would be better for the majority of humanity to die of starvation, famine, and violence rather than for the best people in the world to accept some compromises? Rand's lack of interest in relationships and her outsized love of man's intellectual and material creations explain why these disaster scenes have the kind of tension the rest of the book so sorely lacks.

Nothing demonstrates the aforementioned misunderstanding of drama more than the 60-page speech John Galt gives to the American people at the book's climax. It regurgitates, at great length, everything Rand and her characters have been saying to this point, and ties it all together with the mantra of "A is A." This is Aristotle's Law of Identity, which is a simple premise of deductive reasoning, and which Rand mangles and elevates into a final truth that existence exists, what we see is real, and anyone who disagrees is therefore fooling themselves and wants to die and so they should. Basically.

I went into this project fairly certain I would devote a post to The Speech; it's the most famous piece Ayn Rand ever penned. But there isn't much to say that I haven't said already. It took Rand two years to write (and, so goes the joke, it takes two years to read), and shows in its slapdash quality. The climactic speech's of Randian heroes past were always long-winded, but there was always some sense of structure, some point they were building toward.

The Galt speech by contrast runs all over the place; just when it looks like he is wrapping it up and offering a choice, an ultimatum, he drifts back into more ranting about human parasites. Structure was one of the few things Rand did well in her writing--logical organization being something of an obsession for her--and the speech is, not unsurprisingly, the greatest grind. That Rand spent two years in writer's hell trying to make a 60 page speech sound less philosophical and more believable, is both ridiculous and a little sad.

So the speech is terrible, and yet the fevered, operatic excess of it all serves as an appropriate kick-off to Atlas Shrugged's deliriously gonzo endgame. The cabal of bureaucrats and lazy businessmen not-running the show kidnap John Galt and beg him to save the country. Then, after exposing their attempts to blackmail him into publically supporting their John Galt Plan--which with its promises of entitlements and no taxation sounds more like a modern day Republican party tax pitch--the whole leadership collapses into factions, two of which end fight over Project X, the government's secret soundwave weapon, and end up blowing a 100-mile-wide crater in Iowa. Galt is sent to a secret bunker to be tortured into leading the nation, and is rescued by our protagonists, now all badass and assembled like the Avengers, if the Avengers had four asshole Robert Downey Jr.s instead of just one. Once Galt is freed, they escape to Atlantis as panic-crazed New York City goes dark beneath them.

If the third part of Atlas Shrugged ever gets turned into a movie, it absolutely needs to be directed by Roland Emmerich to do justice to both its wide-scale destruction and its exuberant trashiness. The plot is high comedy, and so is the writing. Here's bureaucrat Chick Morrison begging Galt to save the world.
"...Deep down in my heart, I can't believe that you're a total egoist who feels no pity for the people." He pointed to a pile of papers he had spread on a table. "Here's a plea signed by ten thousand schoolchildren, begging you to join us and save them. Here's a plea from a home for the crippled. Here's a petition sent by the ministers of two hundred different faiths. Here's an appeal from the mothers of the country. Read them."
Here's evil scientist Dr. Ferris, being evil:
"Get this straight," said Dr. Ferris, addressing him for the first time. "We want you to take full power over the economy of the country. We want you to become a dictator. We want you to rule. Understand? We want you to give orders and to figure out the right orders to give. What we want, we mean to get. Speeches, logic, arguments or passive obedience won't save you now. We want ideas--or else. We won't let you out of here until you tell us the exact measures you'll take to save our system. Then we'll have you tell it to the country over the radio." He raised his wrist, displaying a stop-watch. "I'll give you thirty seconds to decide whether you want to start talking right now. If not, then we'll start. Do you understand?"
Here is Francisco d'Anconia, delivering, in Ayn Rand's version of dry cool action hero wit, my absolute favorite line in the entire book, which I've italicized for effect:
"Who are you?" he cried at the sight of Francisco entering as if he owned the place. "Nobody's supposed to come in here tonight!" 
"I did," said Francisco. 
"Why did Rusty let you in?" 
"He must have had his reasons." 
"He wasn't supposed to!" 
"Somebody has changed your suppositions."
And at last we have the book's closing passages, in which the death of most of humanity (or its liberation, depending on how you want to look at it) is commemorated with a triumphant concerto from composer Richard Halley. In which banker Midas Mulligan makes an inventory of the now mass graveyards of U.S. cities which will be his new investments. In which pirate Ragnar Danneskjold returns to his old habit of reading Aristotle. In which wise Judge Narragansett crosses out the "contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction" in the U.S. Constitution and adds a new amendment in which "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade." In which Francisco d'Anconia and Hank Rearden, who have both slept with Dagny Taggart and were in love with her until she met John Galt, have a jolly laugh about how "She will probably try to take the shirt off my [Rearden's] back with the freight rates she's going to charge, but--I'll be able to meet them." In which Dagny and Galt stand, looking out on the land they are going to reclaim:
"The road is cleared," said Galt. "We are going back to the world." 
He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.
Atlas Shrugged is frequently attacked for its idea that humanity owes everything to its greatest minds and deserves to starve for its monster ingratitude. In the real world, of course, things are much more complicated than that, and so this is a fairly repugnant worldview to the real world. In Ayn Rand's hermeneutically sealed universe, however, the people who don't agree with her really, really, really deserve to die, and it's very satisfying when they do. Straw men burn most bright.

Rand was wrong, egregiously wrong, about a great many things, but in this case her idea that evil prospers only by the sanction of the victim is only too appropriate. Liberals tend to respond any mention of her and Atlas Shrugged with snide dismissal if not disgust, which gives Rand, who set out to antagonize them and get under their skin, exactly what she wanted. Yes, the book is a travesty of philosophy and literature. But the saving grace of travesties is the humor they provide! And Atlas Shrugged, especially towards the end, is a very funny book. Ayn Rand never intended that (mostly; the idea of a Buddhist soy bean cult is too self-evidently funny to be accidental), and would cry and howl in despair to learn a bleeding-heart liberal managed to enjoy her self-described masterpiece. But so it goes. A good time is a good time. A is A.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


C.S. Lewis once defended the use of metaphor and anthropomorphism in the Bible--the Garden of Eden, God the Father--as the least worst way of conveying something that lies beyond the perception of the five senses. God being beyond human comprehension, so his logic went, it is only by metaphor, by reference to already tangible phenomena, that a picture, if incomplete, of God could emerge.

I would make a similar argument for conveying the unique badness of Atlas Shrugged, whose back cover bills the novel as "unlike any other book you have ever read." True, every novel is unique, but one as absurdly ambitious as this is especially so. One cannot grasp the totality of its oddness without actually reading it. Since 1,000+ pages is large investment for a book that's largely awful, however, the need arises to find a proper frame of reference when describing it to lesser masochists. (Thus the previous comparison of Ayn Rand's characterization to trashy horror movies.) With all its talk of "the murder--and rebirth--of man's spirit," Atlas Shrugged is best viewed, in keeping with the C.S. Lewis thread, as (ir)religious, apocalyptic literature, an eschatology of the anti-christ of lit.

The book's religious angle may not be immediately apparent. The setting, a near-future America ruled by morons, is a dystopia, the premise a mystery story: who is responsible for the disappearance of Teh Best on Earth? Who invented--and abandoned--the brand new motor that could power the world? Who is John Galt? Yet consider this appraisal:
Atlas Shrugged cloaks itself in the conventions of ordinary airport thrillers, but it does far more than just provide an Objectivist alternative to decadent mainstream entertainment. It creates an Objectivist theory of everything, one that slates current events into a master narrative in which the world is destroyed and then remade to rational specifications. It’s an alternate universe in which conservative Middle Americans are vindicated against everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs — especially liberals....

I did modify that excerpt a little. The book in question is actually Left Behind, the first installment in the mega-selling fundamentalist Christian book series that imagines the events of the Book of Revelation following the Rapture, in which all the world's Christians are taken to Heaven, while the handful of those who remain and become Born Again must contend with a world of nonbelievers and nefarious internationalists. Even as Atlas Shrugged sets itself squarely against Christianity, to stake a claim to its feelings of exaltation and transcendence, it can't help but mirror it in many crucial aspects.

One of these is, perhaps not so surprisingly, is the idea of a paradise. This comes to the fore with the unraveling of the book's mystery, starting with its third section, "A is A." Dagny Taggart has charged Quentin Daniels, a young and typically brilliant physicist, with attempting to figure out how the mysterious motor she discovered in a scrap heap at the Twentieth Century Motor Company works. When Daniels tells her he is quitting because of government interference, she fears that the Destroyer--the name she's given to the man who is making off with the best and brightest--will snatch him away too, and so dashes off to Utah to reach Daniels before it's too late. Her train breaks down and so she happens upon an airfield and buys a plane that she conveniently knows how to fly. She lands in Afton, Utah, just as Daniels and a mysterious stranger are taking off, and pursues their plane into the mountains of Colorado, where it disappears. In trying to find their aircraft her own runs out of fuel and she makes a crash landing with a comically defiant cry of, "Oh hell! Who is John Galt?"

Her awakening is described in language of unearthly serenity:
When she opened her eyes, she saw sunlight, green leaves and a man's face. She thought: I know what this is. This was the world she had expected to see it at sixteen--and now she had reached it--and it seemed so simple, so unastonishing, that the thing she felt was like a blessing pronounced upon the universe by means of three words: But of course. 
She was looking up at the face of a man who knelt by her side, and she knew that in all the years behind her, this was what she would have given her life to see: a face that bore no mark of pain or fear or guilt. The shape of his mouth was pride, and more: it was as if he took pride in being proud..... 
This was her world, she thought, this was the way men were meant to be and to face their existence--and all the rest of it, all the years of ugliness and struggle were only someone's senseless joke. She smiled at him, as at a fellow conspirator, in relief, in deliverance, in radiant mockery of all the things she would never have to consider important again. He smiled in answer, it was the same smile as her own, as if he felt what she felt and knew what she meant. 
"We never had to take any of it seriously, did we?" she whimpered. 
"No, we never had to." 
The man is John Galt. He is the redeemer of Ayn Rand's godless Calvinism, Objectivistly perfect, the man who will restore light to a benighted Earth. He is not the first such creation of Rand's. Howard Roark of The Fountainhead had his Christ-like aspects, but he was still only an architect; he would live in Galt's Gulch, but not lead it. Galt is Rand's Übermensch, proud of pride rather than King of Kings. So great is Galt that he discovered a new physics, with which he used to build his motor, which he then abandoned on a junk heap when he left the communist Twentieth Century Motor Company, just as he would lead the captains of industry to leave their factories to join the junk heap of greater humanity. (There is no such thing as subtext in an Ayn Rand novel.)

The valley in which Dagny crash-landed is Galt's Gulch, a hideaway for all the departed which has at its entrance a prominent statue of the dollar sign. Dagny had viewed the genius' sudden disappearance with increasing dismay, for the loss of intellectual capital they represented, and to see them all again in one place is, for her, to walk among the heroes of Valhalla.
[Philosopher Hugh] Akston smiled. "What does this look like to you, Miss Taggart?" He pointed around the room. 
"This?" She laughed, suddenly, looking at the faces of the men against the golden sunburst of rays filling the great windows. "This looks like... You know, I never hoped to see any of you again, I wondered at times how much I'd give for just one more glimpse or one more word--and now-now this is like that dream you imagine in childhood, when you think that some day, in heaven, you will see those great departed whom you had not seen on earth, and you choose, from all the past centuries, the great men you would like to meet." 
"Well, that's one clue to the nature of our secret," said Akston. "Ask yourself whether the dream of heaven and greatness should be left waiting for us in our graves--or whether it should be ours here and now and on this earth."
Not just Heaven, but Hell as well is considered in relation to the here and now:
"Shale oil?" 
"That's the process which you were working to develop while you were on earth?" She said it involuntarily and she gasped a little at her own words. 
He laughed. "While I was in hell--yes. I'm on earth now." 
"How much do you produce?" 
"Two hundred barrels a day." 
A note of sadness came back into her voice: "It's the process by which you once intended to fill five tank-trains a day." 
"Dagny," he said earnestly, pointing at his tank, "one gallon of it is worth more than a trainful back there in hell--because this is mine, all of it, every single drop of it, to be spent on nothing but myself."
 The language here recalls the Bible's parable of the rich man in Hell, found in Luke 16:
The Great Teacher makes the rich man cry out, "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame." --Why did he not ask for an ocean of water, or a pail-full at least, or a pitcher-full; why restrict himself to the least drop? Plainly he knew himself to be placed beyond all good. He knew this was the utmost he could ask, and even this is denied him! What could our Lord have designed but to teach this? How irresistibly is this taught and with what overpowering force! What remarkable facts are these! How obviously and how forcibly is the truth taught here that saints at death pass into a state all joyful, but the wicked into one of unutterable torment!
In the Christian Hell, the rich man cannot purchase even a drop of water because it has become priceless. In Objectivist Hell, the rich man can produce a trainful of oil, but it has become worthless.

Lest one think I am coloring my interpretation of all this with my own biases, consider Rand and her disciples' treatment of Atlas Shrugged and Galt. Rand famously balked at editor Bennett Cerf's suggestions to make changes to the unwieldy tome with the retort, "Would you cut the Bible?" Following the publication of Atlas Rand fell into a deep depression, weeping in response to the savage reviews it received, for which she would chastise herself that John Galt would not feel this way.

Nor was Galt the only point of reference in the Atlas framework of viewing the world. When Nathaniel Branden grew wary that Rand might find out about his affair with the decidedly not intellectual Patrecia Gullison, he described her as an Eddie Willers, Dagny's right-hand man at Taggart Transcontinental, who is rational and competent but without any distinguished gifts. This is to say nothing about the Collective, the cult that grew up around Rand.

The religious mode suits Atlas Shrugged. The Galt's Gulch chapters are immensely dull--as perfection, even a morally inverted perfection, can only be--but the action picks up fiercely afterward, as Dagny opts to rejoin the world in a doomed attempt to save it from self-destruction. The book's version of America falls apart before our eyes, its numerous villains deform themselves into complete and irredeemable monsters, and its heroes bloom heroic in utterly ridiculous grandeur. The third and final part of Atlas Shrugged, is a book of revelation.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Preach the Controversy

He walked, as if this were his form of last tribute and funeral procession for the young life that had ended in his arms. He felt an anger too intense to identify except as a pressure within him: it was a desire to kill. 
The desire was not directed at the unknown thug who had sent a bullet through the boy's body, or at the looting bureaucrats who had hired the thug to do it, but at the boy's teachers who had delivered him, disarmed, to the thug's gun--at the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms who, incompetent to answer the queries of a quest for reason, took pleasure in crippling the young minds entrusted to their care. 
~ Atlas Shrugged, page 910
This is an old story in internet time, but it's worth digging into the implications of BB&T paying schools to teach Ayn Rand's creed of radical selfishness:
John Allison, CEO of banking giant BB&T, calls Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged "the best defense of capitalism ever written." He says that Rand changed his life, and he's working to ensure that the deceased author isn't left out of the nation's college curricula.
Since 2005, the BB&T Charitable Foundation has given 25 colleges and universities several million dollars to start programs devoted to the study of Rand's books and economic philosophy. In January, the company announced it was donating $1 million to Marshall University in West Virginia.
The money would establish a course dedicated to Rand's Atlas Shruggedand Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and help create the BB&T Center for the Advancement of American Capitalism on campus..... 
"[Objectivism] goes against the collective wisdom of the human race, I think, pretty much everywhere," says [Sociology professor Rick] Wilson. "I think it's a curious interpretation of philanthropy to use corporate money to promote, really, an extreme philosophy."
More curious is the interpretation of philanthropy to spread an ideology that is anti-philanthropy and, moreover, explicitly misanthropic ("I worship individuals for their highest possibilities as individuals, and I loathe humanity, for its failure to live up to these possibilities"). Yet it is not exactly a contradiction. If one believes Ayn Rand's ideology, including the idea that money is the greatest arbiter of objective value, then the willingness of well-endowed corporations to funnel large sums of cash towards promoting Ayn Rand's ideas proves their value. Never mind the scholasticism, here's self-validation!

I'm actually not opposed to the idea of including Rand in certain college curricula, in the abstract. Aside from  the woman herself being a freakishly interesting topic of study, she has exerted a profound influence on American conservatism. The Tea Party moment in politics and the current Republican party's reflexive animosity towards government is impossible to understand without considering her. I think assimilating Rand into a political economy or philosophy curriculum could go a long way towards defusing her cultural potency. It's hard for a figure or school of thought to remain a totem of greatness or vice when its been approached and dissected and ventriloquized by academia; Marxist readings may still be fashionable in some scholarly circles, but in the broader American culture Marxism itself is all but dead. The only people of note who take it seriously try to link it with Barack Obama. (These types, incidentally, are often Randians.)

Moreover, I think most students are smart enough to see through Rand's nonsense. For those who need a little guidance, that's what professors are for, and that's the real problem with the course as implemented. Marshall's BB&T money stipulates that Atlas Shrugged must be distributed to grad students at the Lewis College of Business, as well as undergrads taking a course on the book and its ideas. The course is an elective, but--irony of ironies--the seminar on the America's pre-eminent radical individualist is short on skepticism:
A student—whose would only speak on terms of anonymity—that has had ECN 408 said they had no preexisting knowledge that the course was sponsored by BB&T and that only on the first day did they become aware of the BB&T Center and the course that was created with it. 
“I thought it was a standard economics theory course,” the student said. “My initial impression was that it would be interesting. I already knew some Rand philosophy, but thought there would be other points presented rather than say a pro-business one such as Rand’s. But that was not the case. 
“It felt like complete indoctrination,” the student said. “It would be better if multiple points were discussed rather than just one.” 
According to Marshall’s course catalog, ECN 408 is supposed to discuss, “Marxism, capitalism, communism, fascism and socialism considered as theories, movements and actual political economies.” The course’s current syllabus, however, does not contain any direct readings on Marxism, communism, socialism or fascism.
There's also the fact that the literary and philosophical value of Atlas Shrugged is minimal, and that the investment of time is goddamn enormous, and that the resources of both the school and the students could be much better used teaching and learning about far better writers and thinkers who don't have rich companies helping them sell hundreds of thousands of books every year three decades after their death. But set that aside.

The real question is not "Should Ayn Rand be taught in college?" but rather "Who is asking that Ayn Rand be taught in college?" The Rand case recalls ongoing cases to teach the Bible and creationism in public schools and science classes under the Trojan Horse guise of "Intelligent Design," and not just because, as I'll discuss in my next post, Atlas Shrugged is quite literally the Objectivist Bible. The topics, Christianity and Ayn Rand, are worth exploring, but from multiple sides, and not just taken at their own word. There is world of difference between pedagogy and proselytism.