Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Atlas Shrugged. Did you?

I’ve been told by a good friend of mine, a lifelong friend whose opinion I value, that I must, before I die, read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. This is her favorite book, one that she said changed her life the way that, say, Jack London’s The Iron Heel changed mine. Now I’ve heard, as everyone has in these last four years, the constant equating of Tea Party politics with the Objectivism supposedly touted by this book, and of course this added layer of revulsion thrust Atlas Shrugged even further down my abyssal reading list than it already was. I did, however, reactivate my Netflix subscription about halfway through the summer and one of the films in my “when I’m bored enough” queue was the screen adaptation of the first part of Atlas Shrugged.

I typically watch Netflix in three different ways: First, I scour it for good movies that I missed in theaters or On Demand, or that weren’t widely released. Some of my favorite directors, Michael Winterbottom, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Catherine Brilliat, Bernardo Bertolluci, Gus Van Zant, Lars Von Trier, Takashi Miiake etc, often have superb back-catalogs of early films or collaborations that I use Netflix to catch up on. Not all of these are good, mind you, but many are, and some surprisingly so, like Winterbottom’s amazing Code 46 which in my opinion is possibly the finest science fiction film of the past ten years.

The second way is that I catch up on episodes of television shows that I missed or that everyone insists I at least check out, or television shows from the past that I’d like to re-watch to study their form, narrative, and plot. I’ve watched the entire series, sometimes 50+ episodes, of several shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Battlestar Galactica, My So-Called Life, The Wonder Years, and even some guilty pleasures like Family Guy, Robotech, and the History Channel’s Deadliest Warrior.

The third way, and this is how I encountered Atlas Shrugged: Part 1, is that I cherry-pick titles from Netflix’s huge library for even the smallest whim of interest. I give these films five, maybe ten minutes tops to engage me and then I start fast-forwarding to hunt for any visually interesting moments or unexpected plot twists. My standards of viewing for these is essentially nil. I might, for example, watch American Ninja 3 back-to-back with a low-budget zombie film and a documentary about Mexican drug cartels, all of which would take me less than twenty minutes to skim through, and maybe yield one or two moments worth watching. In this way, I “watch” dozens (or I suppose over the years now, hundreds) of lesser films.

Last night, finally, I decided to check out Atlas Shrugged: Part 1. Like other ill-fated adaptations of controversial books (if you missed the queasily laughable adaptation of the even-queasier novel Battlefield Earth, count yourself among the lucky), I had low expectations. I’d read reviews that roasted the movie for being vacuous, emotionless, and just all-around hilariously awful. I’ve read Ayn Rand’s short sci-fi novel Anthem, which I actually liked quite a bit, and I read—and then listened to as an audiobook because I couldn’t scrape my eyes over it any longer—
The Fountainhead. I only made it about halfway through the audiobook of The Fountainhead, however, which I found insufferably dull and eventually unreadable. So I had mixed feelings, at best, about Rand when I decided that I’d trade ten minutes of my time to see what Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 was all about.

As has only happened a few times with that third Netflix viewing style, however, I ended up watching the entire film, and, unexpectedly, I can report that it’s nowhere near as bad as Battlefield Earth. There are plenty of things to hate about the movie. The dialogue is preachy, stilted, and unnaturally expository (Rand’s fault), the actors’ timing is grim and determined, and what little emotion is shown on screen comes at moments that contrast sharply with them as portraits of actual human beings (director Paul Johansson’s fault), and the film’s pacing and photography are uneven and jarring in the same ways that Joss Wheadon’s films (which I hate) often are.

That said, there’s something intensely relevant about this film, and the message it’s trying to get across. Spending two hours following the machinations of big businesspeople may not sound like a lot of fun, but there may never have been a more relevant time than now to examine the lives of the people who run and influence American industry. Which makes this film’s failure to connect sort of meta-disappointing. The conversation that this film encourages is one that operates on a level that could be enormously helpful for America right now, regardless of any one particular stance for or against it. In a time when widespread class and economic consciousness is as warped and emotionally-driven as it is, a return to idea-driven rationales and objectivity would be a huge change from the reactive, PR- and controversy-obsessed nonsense that passes for discourse in modern public policy. To put it more bluntly, this story demands a level of intelligence and abstract thought that almost guarantees that if you can follow it, even if you don’t agree with it, you can make better and more informed political choices than if your chief exposure to economic theory is Facebook memes and Jersey Shore.

Forgetting for a moment, though, the film’s potential real-world relevance, it’s just really not that terrible of a movie in parts. The actress who plays Dagney Taggert does a passable job of being interesting to watch, and shows a few moments of inflection that feel like she had to wrestle them bodily from Johansson’s stifling, lifeless vision of Atlas Shrugged as dry Objectivist text come-to-life. The costumes and settings look quite good, and there were a few decent editing choices. Showing the construction of a railroad was mildly interesting, as were several sweeping exterior shots of Colorado and California. There were a number of subtle but well-conceived background moments that let the viewer in on the extent to which the America of 2016 is descending into poverty; details that reminded me of the sorts of atmosphere that directors like George Romero are so superb at. And finally, regardless of what you might think of Atlas Shrugged’s message, the film (and the book, I presume, though I haven’t read it) is relatively well plotted.

It suffers, though, it really does, from the lack of familiar faces for the characters. It wants badly for naturalistic dialogue, better pacing, and especially a more humanistic portrayal of the main characters’ lives. How on earth is anyone supposed to connect with Hank Rearden when he never wears anything except tailored suits and does nothing except sit behind a desk, go to lavish parties in exquisitely-detailed settings, and drink alcohol? He’s supposed to be a sympathetic character. Dagney, at least, has a few moments where she walks to work through slums or shows up on a job site to supervise the work. She seems like she’s grounded in a world that actually exists and that a moviegoing audience might be able to understand. The rest of the cast is not. Still, there are moments, like the brilliant and not-quite-coincidental relevance of high-speed rail in a real-world just in the last five years so heavily impacted by fluctuations in the price of oil, that shine in this film, and in the re-imagining of the 1950’s Atlas Shrugged as a modern, near-future sociological science fiction story. Because this is so often the type of story I myself write, I was struck throughout by all of the ways in which it could have been done better—the adaptation and execution both—and it gave me pause to consider why wasn’t it? If the ideas here are so influential (and I can’t argue their timeliness and relevance, if only as one side of a very divisive debate), why wasn’t this film taken more seriously from beginning to end?

A brief perusal of Atlas Shrugged’s Wikipedia page seems to suggest that Rand herself was the primary barrier to this film being made. During her life she evidently insisted on primary creative control of the film adaptation of it, and so much so that she personally derailed several attempts by others to make the film with a bigger budget and better acting talent. Is this, then, to be the legacy of all politically-minded stories, I wonder? Does Atlas Shrugged’s failure in the box office mean that we may never get a film version of Jack London’s magnificent Chicago-set epic of American socialism The Iron Heel? I sure hope not, because that’s the book I tell my best friends they have to read before they die, and it would break my heart to see it done as half-assed as Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 was.

So if you watch this movie (and I’m not sure I recommend you do, but I’d definitely caution you to make up your own mind instead of just listening to critics or taking the dismally-low ranking at Rotten Tomatoes as all the reason you need to avoid it) feel free to groan at the awful montages, the awkward sex scene at the end, and the ham-fisted way in which the narrative handles the passage of time. Laugh and throw popcorn at the screen when Dagney breaks down and cries at the sight of an oil refinery on fire when she’s been a hard, emotionless bitch to every living creature on screen, including her love interest, for the duration of the film. But ask yourself: when was the last time a movie demanded the audience follow a line of macroeconomic theory in order to understand the plot? When was the last time a massive doorstop of a book like this was brought to the screen that didn’t feature middle-school wizards or Hobbits? Even if you think Rand’s flavor of Objectivism is complete horseshit (which I kind of do), isn’t it better to be engaged by forms of entertainment that speak to the kinds of problems that Americans are widely accused of ignoring? Metacritic gives Jersey Shore and Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 aggregate critical scores of 53% and 28% respectively, but at the end of the day, even if Rand’s opus does nothing to sway my political opinion toward her own, I’m confident I know who wasted their time and who didn’t.

1 comment:

Straightjacket Simple said...

Scott and I bought the audiobook for a two day road trip. It sat on my "To Read" list for years. We were a bit "meh" and had about an hour left when we arrived at our destination and never finished it.
I'm going to wave my fist at you and order you to watch "Sherlock" again. Series 1 and 2 are on Netflix. It's amazing. The actors are amazing. Cumberbatch and Freeman are great, but that's to be expected. But Scott's Moriarty is stunning. He's haunting, like Bardem in "No Country for Old Men". Initially, I was horrified at the idea of a modern Sherlock Holmes. That lasted for about five minutes once I got around to watching it. It's the best thing I've seen on TV. Ever.