Atlas Sucked: A review of a review

Yesterday, this movie review crossed my sights. At least, that’s what I think it’s trying to be, although it comes across as…well, see for yourself:

Who is John Galt? He’s the Han Solo of the most important movie flop of the year.

The first Tea Party movie, the long-gestating adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” hits theaters on Friday (not coincidentally, Tax Day).

Did you catch it? Or rather, did the “reviewer” hit you hard enough over the head with it? No? Read on, then:

The movie is a dystopian public affairs parable — poli-sci-fi — about a collapsing society beset by massive economic strife (the Dow has sunk below 4,000 and gas is $37 a gallon). Airline crashes and oil prices have made railroads economically central again. Nationwide, infrastructure is crumbling; formerly highly paid executives roam the streets begging for work.

A dynamic female railroad executive, Dagny Taggart, takes a chance on a new high-tech steel alloy, made by an arrogant industrialist named Rearden, that could save her business. But her brother, who runs the Taggarts’ firm, is more interested in cultivating ties with a government that keeps passing policies meant to equalize wealth, which is quickly vanishing, and even goes so far as to ban anyone from owning more than one company.

Meanwhile Dagny and other corporate leaders are losing some of their most talented people, each of whom disappears after asking the Delphic question, “Who is John Galt?”

Oh, oh, Delphic, is it? That’s an awfully grand word coming from a dude whose photo (along with that ludicrous “Han Solo” reference) makes me wonder if his voice has even changed yet:

That Freudian slip in the subhead is good for a laugh and a half, too. Yes, “tarting” is exactly the right word for this, albeit inadvertently:

The film is a low-budget affair with almost no marketing muscle. Its success will depend entirely on word of mouth. Its producer’s hopes that it will turn out to be an unexpected hit — “My Big Fat Objectivist Rant” — are unfounded. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” depended on broad jokes about nutty dads and wacky immigrants. “Atlas Shrugged” is over the heads of most of the audience, being thick with convoluted industrial scheming and enough talk about entrepreneurship, unions and monopolies to fill a copy of The Wall Street Journal.

Yet the movie’s chief flaws — on-the-nose-dialogue, a cheesy score, no-name actors — are fixable, and it is alive with the potency of Rand’s convictions. “Atlas Shrugged” is a rough draft of a movie, but one that’s good enough to renew interest in the story’s cinematic possibilities. Both Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron have been wooed to star as Rand’s indomitable heroine of the rails and each would be wise to lend her prestige to such a bold project, one that offers juicier dramatic possibilities than “Aeon Flux” or “The Tourist.”

Actually, I’d say both actresses dodged a bullet with this one. At least they’ll both recover from the flops of the respective crappy films mentioned here. Recovering from such a monumental flop as “My Big Fat Objectivist Rant”, however, would prove impossible. Even their looks wouldn’t be enough to save them from that kiss of death. And this wouldn’t help them either:

“Atlas Shrugged” is like the Bible (the only title that outscored it in an unscientific 1991 survey that asked readers which books had most influenced them). Neither is to be taken literally. Each makes a lot of valid points.

Try not to snicker too loudly at this, people. “A lot of valid points”–such as the stoning of disobedient children, as prescribed in Deuteronomy? Such as arrogantly marching off and leaving society to wither, as prescribed by Alissa Rosenbaum, alias Ayn Rand–who, incidentally, made that biblical comparison first, in response to an editor who rightly told her to trim her inane ranting? But yeah, I suppose she had a point; just not the one she thought she had. Both the Bible and Atlas Shrugged are just over-long and extremely overrated works of fiction. (And of the two, I much prefer the Bible–at least it occasionally breaks out into poetry and has a few humane heroes. Both of those virtues are conspicuously lacking in Rand.)

But hey, at least our widdle criticus admits that his referenced “survey” (which he doesn’t link or even footnote) is unscientific. That’s a tacit way of admitting it’s absolute bullpucky.

The idea that Atlas Shrugged is over anyone’s head is absolute bullpucky too. Considering that the book is most popular among bitter, alienated teenagers (whose interest in it drops off precipitously after age 20, along with their angst and acne), I’d say it’s not over most moviegoers’ heads at all, but well beneath them. As is this bit of sob-sistering on the part of our “critic”:

The film is an indie labor of love, not multiplex fodder. It was shot on a ludicrously meager budget of about $10 million, big talent agencies refused to send it any clients (though it still managed to score a few familiar faces, including “Barton Fink” Oscar nominee Michael Lerner) and it was rushed into production because otherwise the producer’s option would have expired two days later. The producer is a first-time amateur and neither the screenwriter (Brian Patrick O’Toole) nor director (Paul Johansson) has any credits to brag about.

Oh, the poor, dear, brave things! Just look at what a vast amount of machinery they were up against in Big Liberal Hollywood! They couldn’t get much financing–only a measly $10 million! They couldn’t get any big stars–all the agencies were against them! They couldn’t get any big writers or directors! Oh, woe is them!

Okay, let’s get serious here. Does this little turd even realize that Ayn Rand got her start in so-called liberal Hollywood? It’s true–she was once a lowly, googly-eyed screenwriter, before becoming a (heavily promoted) bestselling novelist. And some of the biggest actresses of the day vied rather extravagantly for a role that ultimately went to Patricia Neal–that of Dominique in The Fountainhead. Which, of course, is based on the Rand-rant of the same title. So let’s not delude ourselves that Hollywood would never shit out a Randroid movie. It did, a long time ago–and the movie was a flop, probably for the same reasons as this one will be: it was long-winded, preachy, implausible and more than a little bit rapey. It tried hard to be grand, and came off only as melodramatic and inhumane. (And yes, I’ve seen it. An experience I will long remember, and longer regret.)

Yet whether the movie, which is set in 2016-17, has any resonance in 2011 depends on your answers to questions like these: Can you picture the government hiring a “Coordinator of Economic Planning”? Can you picture such a coordinator giving directives meant to correct the fact that “rich people are getting richer, poor people are getting poorer”? Do you see any instances of crony capitalism involving close ties between certain CEOs and certain political figures? Do you see any powerful unions out there? Do you worry that fuel prices could rise to unaffordable levels, and if so, do you think the government might have anything to do with that?

Now, this is the first thing I’ve seen (and it comes on the second page of the piece) that actually seems to make sense. Unfortunately, it’s followed by this:

Liberals will scoff, “Oh, that could never happen” of things that already are happening. Then they’ll scoff at the box-office receipts — as if the puny circulation of The New Republic or National Review meant either of these magazines should be dismissed.

“Things that are already happening”? Like what? The frankly ludicrous gas prices and the planes falling out of the sky? Shit, we’re nowhere near to that. Amurricans kvetch about gas prices all the time; I’ve been hearing them do that since I was a kid in the 1970s and the Saudis got a little uppity. But now the Saudis are tame, and even though the oil companies are raking in the profits hand-over-fist (with zero government price-fixing!) it has yet to get anywhere near the per-gallon price Rand “predicts”! Likewise, if airplanes are falling out of the sky, it’s because the greedheads running the airlines are cheaping out on maintenance and not replacing their fleets faster than metal fatigue would force them to. You can’t blame the government for that, although you certainly can blame it for refusing to regulate industries properly. (I do.) Rail travel is still as little used in the US as it was after Ronald Reagan gutted Amtrak for the sake of the Big Three, and no one–government or the banks–is offering any incentives to change that, nor are any railway execs smelling golden opportunities and pouncing on them. There is no office of central economic planning, unless maybe you count the Fed, and it’s not owned by the government, but by private banks!

I will concede that there are plenty of crony capitalists cozying up to politicians out there, though, and they all have in common an unaccountable predilection for Ayn Rand. (Poor taste? Indubitably.) But powerful unions? And a government setting gas prices? Pfffft. As if! There are no real-life Dagny Taggarts, dagnabbit.

As for the New Republic and the National Review, their puny circulations do indeed tell us something: that they, and the influence they have, are overrated, and that their right-wing, elitist readers and writers are all too often out of touch with the larger reality. Just like the guy who wrote this:

Most movies, even movies that earn many times what “Atlas Shrugged” will make at the box office, don’t matter. “Hop” and “Sucker Punch” are not going to create any activists, stir any conversation, make people want to read more about the subject. Despite playing on only a couple of hundred screens (and only covering the first third of the novel), “Atlas Shrugged” is going to have an impact. It’ll make kids want to read the book, it’ll get argued about on widely read blogs, it’ll make some viewers question their assumptions: Why is it, exactly, that we are supposed to hate successful businessmen?

I wasn’t aware that we were “supposed to hate successful businessmen” (or -women; don’t let’s forget Ms. Taggart, now!). In fact, I get quite the opposite impression from the overwhelming majority of Hollywood’s output. We are supposed to worship the suits–even when, like Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, they overreach and create only the financial equivalent of a black hole. We are supposed to believe, wholeheartedly, that Greed Is Good, that The Strongest Will Survive, that the devil should take the hindermost, and that the capitalist system is a magnificent machine that may sputter a bit when monkey-wrenched, but never really breaks down. Even when, out here in reality, it does, and does so all the time, and does so–worst of all–with government touchingly prepared to offer all kinds of concessions and bailouts to the real looters, and none to their victims.

I don’t doubt that Atlas Shrugged will generate a broader reaction, though–and, outside the usual crowd of pizza-faced punks, or right-wingers still stuck in that petulant adolescent phase, it will be one mainly of revulsion and groaning and derisive laughter. Surely not what Rand, or her filmic adapters, had in mind. And surely not what our not-so-critical critic has in mind, either:

And who is this mysterious John Galt, the shadowy figure not fully explained in the movie, who seems to be leading a pinstriped rebellion of the country’s business leaders?

Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, whose plan to restore sanity to federal budgeting made headlines this week, has reportedly ordered his staffers to read “Atlas Shrugged.” That leaves him open to being associated with the more distasteful elements of Randism.

Bring it on.

Ryan need only state that (of course) he doesn’t agree with everything Rand stood for and never said otherwise. Even making Rand a respectable topic in the national conversation (Thursday afternoon, “Atlas Shrugged” the book stood at No. 79 on Amazon’s list of bestsellers) will challenge some minds.

This is Rand’s moment: Her demon vision, despite the odor of brimstone and the screech of axe-grinding that envelops it, seems less and less unimaginable. For all its stemwinders, its cardboard capitalists and villainous bureaucracy, “Atlas Shrugged” makes ringing statements: that wealth has to be created before it can be divided up, that government isn’t necessarily your friend, that the business of America is business.

There is so much here to chuckle at, I hardly know where to begin. Paul Ryan? Are you serious? Oh dear, I see you are. Poor baby. Don’t anyone tell this boy that Ryan’s “sane” budgetary move, like the movie, is a flop foretold. (In this case, it flopped even before the review came out. And in the New Republic, to boot. Ouch!)

And how about that Amazon sales rating? Yes, that tells us so much about the virtues of Rand–especially after that whine about the New Republic and the National Review and their teeny-weeny circulations. Thank heaven for wingnut welfare, or all these piss-ant pundits would be out of a job and would have to go looking for a real one–in a world where Randian principles have led to so much gutting that finding one is nearly impossible!

Clearly Kyle Smith is trying to have it both ways here. Just like any Randroid, he’s trying to have his cake, eat it, and force someone else to pay. That way, he can go on harboring smug, fallacious notions about the basic nature of wealth, while overlooking the fact that in the US, government is indeed the friend of the richest (and virtually nobody else). And that this notion that “the business of America is business”, while a ringing statement sure enough, is ringing more than a little off-key in this age, where those “too big to fail” are getting federal bailouts while the peons who used to work for them are left to starve and their houses are foreclosed, and the only ones still making money are those who already had plenty of it to begin with. If you’re not born with a silver spoon up your ass and a golden opportunity under your nose, like Rand’s fictional railroad heiress Dagny Taggart, well, off to the human scrap heap with you, you fucking moocher. Nobody owes you a living, even when they owe their own cushy living to your labor–or, as is more often the case, that of some poor bastard in the Third World.

But oh, what a testament to Ayn Rand’s power of persuasion it is that this big lie of hers simply refuses to die, and that her cult (financed by shadowy billionaires such as the Koch Brothers) keeps that eternal flame of capitalist conformity brightly lit. We obscure leftist bloggers will have to keep on bringing up the fact that she was a hypocrite who took social security payments and government-funded healthcare during the last decade of her life because her books, those perennial bestsellers, ironically weren’t selling well enough to save her from the spectre of good, old-fashioned, capitalist medical bankruptcy (brought on, of course, by her own foolishness–she had lung cancer from all that dogmatic capitalist smoking). Or that her greatest inspiration was a psycho-killer who went to his execution pissing himself for fear. Or that she was a speed freak whose Benzedrine habit, not her purported brilliance, was the real fuel of her windy rants. None of that matters. What matters is that her shitty books, and the shitty movies made from them, enjoy a reputation for being “influential” because shitty “critics” and shittier “thinkers” keep promoting them, pushing them…and whining that the world is against them when even a cursory glance at reality shows the exact opposite. Ayn Rand’s shit has succeeded only too well. How long before it is finally, definitively discredited, and sinks into the obscurity it deserves?

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6 Responses to Atlas Sucked: A review of a review

  1. Slave Revolt says:

    Touché, Bina.

    I read Atlas, and The Virtue of Selfishness way back and they creeped me out.

    The Rand craze is fueled of ignorant fear. Indeed, I can see a bit of whacked-out Nietzsche in her extolling the great capitalist ideal man. Psycho shit.

    But this is the fuel for the mass delusions that prevail in naive US collective consciousness.

    I have to see this movie on DVD just to mock it.

    • Sabina Becker says:

      Part 1 may come out in (a laughably few) theatres, but Parts 2 and 3 will be direct-to-DVD releases, I’ll bet. I wonder if they’ll bother to Blu-Ray it or not. I also wonder how long we’ll have to wait before the Conservative Book Club is offering it 3 for $1…

      And, as the old saying goes: Nietzsche is pietzsche, but Sartre is smartre.

  2. chris says:

    IMHO no mention of Ayn Rand is complete without this:

    “There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.”

    • Sabina Becker says:

      LOL…I’d seen that one before, but you’re right, it bears repeating. Over and over and over again!

      I came to LotR as an adult, and I’ll confess I have yet to finish it–it bogs down a lot in names and ancestries, rather than getting on with the action. But at least it’s too long for good reasons, and ones which honor the old Germanic epic style on which the cycle is based. I can’t say as much for Rand; she’s just really bloody long-winded, and for no good reason at all. Bamboo-splinter toenail torture is more fun than reading her.

      • chris says:

        I’ve read LotR at least three times in the last forty years. It was my introduction to epic fantasy and I still love it. I still have the ’70s paperbacks too.

        Read Atlas Shrugged at about the same time and was horrified by the time I was half way through. I finished it and gave it away. I’m still horrified by its sales numbers.

        PS- This is pretty cool, Peru turns left.

        The “outcome”, he said, “could not have been worse”. There is a saying in Latin America to describe the hysteria that overcomes elites when they hear someone suggesting a more equitable distribution of wealth: “when they sit down to dinner, they see Hugo Chavez in their soup.”

        • Sabina Becker says:

          LOL–I wish I could see Chavecito in MY soup…but Ollanta still has another round of balloting to go through, and for all we know, Peruvians might decide they prefer Keiko Fujimori, asshole dad and all, over him. Any Latin American election where a candidate doesn’t get a clear majority on the first ballot automatically goes to a second round a few weeks later. A lot can still happen.

          I had a roommate at university, in my second-last year, when I had a two-bedroom basement apartment–a law student with a real Rand fetish. Seemed to think she was going to overthrow the horrible, oppressive socialist system here, as I recall. Of course she had that book, and a number of others. Once, when she was out, I sneaked one look at the cover, then at the contents, and decided that the cover blurb was the biggest load of horseshit I’d ever seen. The prose was so thumpingly awful. Didn’t engage her in any of her anti-socialist talk, either–and wasn’t at all sorry when she decided not to renew her part of the lease. I wonder if she’s actually overthrown anything, or if she threw in the towel and joined the real world after graduating law school. Haven’t felt compelled to google her, though. I figure that if, on some odd chance, she accomplished anything spectacular, I’d be bound to hear of it soon enough.

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