Dagny, looking svelte in her powersuit.
So at CPAC 2011 I went to an event where some of the folks who made "Atlas Shrugged" were going to play the trailer.
To tell you the truth, I wasn't terribly interested, but I was walking the halls of the convention aimlessly with a friend of mine who does social media. He felt it was important to make an appearance.
"I've been talking with these guys for years about helping them promote the film." I got the feeling from his body language that he wished I wasn't there. Probably because he had studiously avoided telling me over those same years that he knew anyone working on the film. Especially when I commented back, "Uhm. You do know that I make feature films, right? Would be great if friends once in a while introduced me to film investors on the conservative side of the aisle." He ignored my comment, making it pretty clear he wouldn't introduce me.
Smart guy; was probably afraid I'd be honest with them.
So I shrugged and walked off.
Then two other friends who do social media (The Fleming-Hayes Group) wanted to go with no ulterior motive, so I shrugged, because I figured, what the hell, we can go get a drink after.
We sauntered in five minutes late.
Inside the (very small and packed) room on the second floor of the hotel was mostly a bunch of Ron Paul supporters in the audience, and a few people at the front of the room at a cheap card table. They were trying to figure out how to get the trailer to play on a rather unimpressive computer screen.
And failing badly.
Some boring guy started talking about how important the book was, blah blah, and telling everyone about some new social media site designed for conservatives to network (yaaaawwwwn), in order to stall for time. Why is it that anyone who believes in a CAUSE ends up sounding like the granola summer-camp counselor warning you to wear sunscreen?
After about ten minutes of that, I shrugged and left.
I figured, if these are the people making a movie about John Galt, hero objectivist, individualist, symbol of GREATNESS, and they couldn't figure out how to make their own damned trailer play on Windows, well, geez, man. Forget it.
Earlier in 2010 my film composer of choice, Mark Slater, was briefly considered to do the music for the film. Or knew someone who knew someone who was looking for a composer. Or something. They didn't hire him, so I kinda figured, these guys must be stupid.
But there's another reason for my apathy. Just to make sure I'm alienating everyone, allow me to say: Ayn Rand's book "Atlas Shrugged" was crap.
Quote me: Crap.
The first thing you do when you're going to celebrate the greatness of a free mankind is, I dunno, use all that there freedom to write a good book.
Don't get me wrong. Rand was a great political philosopher. She was just a crappy fiction writer. Her ideas were great; even her plot "hooks" were great (the producers of society go on strike when collectivists take over; the world's greatest architect blows up a building that he designed when collectivists ruin his vision). But she couldn't get that into any interesting form.
And form is king.
I read her books when I was in high school, then college, and I thought they were pretty bad even back then. As I re-read her tortured and miserable prose today in preparation for this review, I could only hear Eric Cartman's "Awesome-O Voice" saying "I. Am. John. Galt. I. will. bore. the. collectivists. to. death. and. save. the. world. with. lots. of. words. saying. the. same. thing. over. and. over. With. Uhm. Adam. Sandler."
"I. Am. Awesome-0."
For instance, there is Francisco d'Aconia's uber-long and oft-quoted speech on money. Great philosophy. Lousy fiction. Google it, people have posted it. I won't bore you with the text, even though I totally agree with the philosophy. I just think the writing - which is supposed to be entertaining fiction - is lousy. Francisco sounds like Dagny sounds like Reardon. And everyone sounds like Awesome-O.
Dear Ghost of Ayn Rand: form should equal function. It's not just WHAT you say (which is great), it's HOW you say it (which sucks) that makes a great work of art.
So to the movie.
Look, before I go on, let me make things perfectly clear. It would be great for me if "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1" was a good movie and went like gangbusters. It would be great for me to honestly say, "Wow! What a work of art!" and the film gets them into the theaters in droves. Then I wouldn't look like I was sour-graping the thing.
Also, an "Atlas Shrugged" success might entice some of those damned goofy libertarian-objectivist-conservatives like the Koch Brothers to get off their asses and invest in movies that celebrate freedom, which are the kind of movies I want to do. Instead they spend their time throwing their money away by donating (yeah. Donating. WTF? Are they libertarian-conservative-objectivists or not? Shouldn't they f'ing INVEST? Why not bust out some koom-bah-yah and granola while you're at it, guys?) to political action committees and smarmy politicians. This does nothing to change the pop culture, which is where freedom is losing -- worse than big time. We need more guys like the one who invested in this movie (only with better taste in directors).
Instead, all of our freedoms are being eroded away because of our current pop-culture. John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are doing more to destroy freedom than Obama ever could, and no amount of donating to think-tanks and goofy PACs is going to save things.
And hell, I'd love to do "The Fountainhead" right now. The first movie version, in black and white, was a piece of crap. Of course, the book was crap, but that's the point - a great filmmaker takes the material at hand and turns it into great art. Welles adapted a crummy potboiler into Touch of Evil and Alfred Hitchcock turned something forgettable into Vertigo.
More than that, it would be great to see a good film for my eleven bucks. Give me another Vertigo. Give me another Wild Bunch. This movie is supposed to be all about success, competence, greatness. Right? Where the hell is all of that achievement in the film as a film? Nowhere, because...
Unfortunately, we don't have a John Galt directing this film.
It starts with an unimaginative and cliched compilation of newsreels showing how awful the world is in 2016. Intercut with a train racing across a track. Just so we're not confused ('cause we, as an audience, are all stupid), the newsreels are even in square aspect ratio with rounded corners, just to let you know you're looking at "media." But isn't this 2016? Haven't we already migrated to widescreen HD TV?
The movie then goes on to introduce the characters and blah blah, and doesn't much give a damn where the camera is placed, or how the actors are blocked.
My God, some of the blocking for the actors is awkward. All of the actors are good actors; Taylor Schilling is good, so is Grant Bowler. But actors can't save a movie when the director can't come up with anything more interesting than to have them stand up and walk around the desk and plop their asses on top of it as they deliver their dialogue. At one point Dagny Taggert is hanging out on the train tracks wearing some slinky power suit and Reardon meets her, saying something about how she looks so "at home" with the workers on the rail.
No, she didn't. She looked like she just walked out of the trailer in her powersuit and everyone said, "Ooo, Taylor, you look Awesome-O in that powersuit and high heels. Now go walk along the train track. And remember, look sexy, svelte, and unemotional. We gotta shoot this scene in half an hour."
Then there are the weird points where the "producers" of civilization start to go missing, because the text that pops up with the goofy "bleep-bleep-bleep" sound effect tells us they've gone missing. As their faces suddenly still-frame and go into black and white. What should have been the focal narrative tension for the film is just... blah.
Really? That's the best you can do to build up the drama that the men and women who make civilization work are suddenly disappearing?
Also, there is a love scene that is so cliched and lacking in imagination that I nearly walked out. Here. Is. Awesome-O. He. Is. Mounting. Her. Pan. Camera. Diagonally. That. Will. Make. It. Awesome-O.
Everything in the film was shot as boringly as possible, as unemotionally as possible, for that extra "Ayn Rand Robot Feel." Which made Dagny Taggert's scream at the end even more cringe-worthy. And the shot of the burning oil fields became bathetic, as opposed to operatic.
Were we ever made to feel that thrill of entrepreneurship that would make us scream in horror with Dagny at the sight of the destroyed oil field? No. Were we ever made to feel the sheer joy of creation at any point in this film?
Here you've got the opportunity to do an entire movie like "The Third Man", where the character of interest is always talked about but never seen. Except to show up in silhouette and fedora to persuade captains of industry to shrug. And you stick him in a fedora. No one else wears a fedora but John Galt. I suppose my friend Stacy McCain would disagree, but if only one person in the entire film wears a fedora, and it's not made organic to the film, it's a silly affectation, not a masterful stylistic stroke. It's just silly.
Then there was the supposedly "rousing" scene where the train Dagny was working so hard (though we never saw her working hard) to get running, is on the move. For some reason the film cuts away to a helicopter shot of trees for way too long before cutting back to the train. A "look at the beautiful trees" shot. Why? Rand's philosophy, in part, encompassed a certain disdain for "amazement" at nature. Nature is the raw material from which mankind carves greatness. Why are we cutting away to shots of trees on a hillside? Who gives a crap?
You may say I'm nitpicking. Screw you, this is supposed to be "Atlas F'ing Shrugged!" Where every element, every shot, every bar of music is supposed to be perfect.
I could go on and on, but it's too depressing to see a mediocre director try to make an homage to greatness. I kept flashing back to Vidor's crap in "The Fountainhead." Shudder.
If you've read my blogs on movies, you know that I prefer those films in which the imagery is suffused with meaning. Here, there is no intricacy to the imagery. Instead of building a great piece of cinema with leitmotifs, with imagery that means something, it's just another installment of 90210 with objectivist sentiments.
This was a movie directed by a television director and actor, and it looks like it. It's a made-for-tv special on "Atlas Shrugged," but it is not a great film.
Look, guys, we need great film celebrating freedom. Kudos to the executive producer behind it. I hope the next conservative movie he does has a better director.
Update 4/18/2011: Belated day-late thanks to Smitty from The Other McCain for his linkage and thoughts on the subject of Randism. I don't have as much issue with her philosophy as he does, but points well taken on the limitations of the mind.
Update 4/19/2011: Belated day-late thanks to Sundries Shack for the linkage.
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