Since I’ve already stuck my toes in the water of talking about Ayn Rand and Objectivism here, I might as well wade in a bit deeper. The first thing that is important to understand about this film is that it is based on a book by a woman who occupies a very strange position in our culture. Somewhere Nietzsche comments that “great men” (meaning politicians) are noteworthy primarily for the art of appearing to create waves when their only real aptitude is for riding them. This phenomenon is difficult to suss out, both generally and in individual cases, because sometimes individuals really do make a difference, but when they don’t, they will often look as if they did. In Michael Moorcock’s Behold The Man, a time-traveller from the present goes back to see the historical Jesus, and, finding him not up to snuff, reenacts his career as he remembers it from the Bible. The results for subsequent history are seen to be negligible; what was needed was someone to represent certain things at a particular moment in time.
Ayn Rand is almost impossible for anyone to be objective about, because, as we all know, capitalism itself is either her fault, or to her credit. She descended from heaven and made it happen. Her not inconsiderable aptitude for self-dramatization, the increasingly contextually hazy settings of her novels, and her continued ideological influence on partisan politics, guarantees that she cannot be read the way one reads figures from the more distant past. Somehow one cannot respond to her writing in terms of the influences on it. Somehow one cannot regard her sexual shenanigans without judgment (presumably because all other writers and artists have always been such models of emotional stability). To read her as if she were a normal figure, to situate her historically, to judge the quality of her prose and thought, automatically also ushers in the Sarah Palin Presidency, and the ensuing Fall of the West. I focus on the absurdity of how detractors respond to her because I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who have, over the years, focused on the contrary absurdity.
Now all of this is quite unfortunate. First, the very phenomena alluded to above are themselves screaming for someone to come along and deconstruct them, and to my knowledge, the only person to even try, however glancingly, was Zizek (yes, that Zizek). One would think you pomo commie theorists would be all over this shit, because not only is she an expression of what you take to be prevailing ideology, but possibly the purest and largest cultural symptom of capitalism we’ve got! One can dream… Second, Rand represents a very peculiar moment and vantage point in our culture, and one we would do well to understand better: she represents an intersection of all sorts of ambivalences, mostly about modernism and liberalism, as seen through the eyes of an immigrant whose prior knowledge of America was conditioned by Hollywood movies and Soviet propaganda. While Maureen Dowd complains decades later about a fictitious bombing of some public housing as if it had actually happened, few fans or detractors seem to know that, on the one hand, Beaux-Arts, and on the other, a character modeled on Gertrude Stein, are mocked in the same book.
Anyway. They made a movie out of Atlas Shrugged. Now this is not a particularly original observation, but this is her worst book. I fear to mention its evident shortcomings as literature, because enough people have already done that, and despite the subtle but important differences, her earlier fiction will tend to get tarred by the same brush. And, indeed, there is no shortage of people willing to say very harsh things about all of it:
My position in regard to Rand is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me—namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Rand is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between… A good third [of readers] do not know the difference between real literature and pseudo-literature, and to such readers Rand may seem more important and more artistic than such trash as our American historical novels or things called From Here to Eternity and such like balderdash.
And on and on it goes, pretty much nailing the shortcomings in extraordinarily closely observed detail: the characters who are not so much observed from life as constructed to prove points, the ideological fervor, the overheated moral imagination, the almost nauseatingly vivid descriptions of settings and persons disapproved of, etc. etc. etc. Except that in the preceding quote from Vladimir Nabokov, I’ve written “Rand” where he had written “Dostoevsky.” That’s just how bad she is!
Atlas Shrugged was said by Rand to take place “about ten years from the time when one reads the book” but I think that its fedora hats, Trumanesque president, Oppenheimeresque physicist, half-communist Europe, recently tested mega-weapons, enthusiasm for tobacco and apparent absence of an inter-state freeway system, pegs it as taking place in an alternate reality that looks an awful lot like the early 1950s, when much of it was written. What happens? Well, it’s very Hollywood: there’s this conspiracy of corrupt corporate executives trying to take over the government by stealth in order to protect their mismanaged corporations and fleece the public, all under the auspices of dirigiste economic policies that would do France under a conservative government proud. A vanguard of the oppressed and productive decide to tune in, turn on and drop out; they start a commune of self-sufficiency and free love somewhere in the woods in Colorado. Since late capitalism is doomed to destruction if the workers’ species-being is not set free, this is more or less what happens. In the meantime, there are a lot of rich suits who behave despicably in hotel lobbies. The whole thing is presented in a prose-style that conjures up visual images from a ravishing form of socialist realism. It’s absolutely riveting.
You think I’m making this up?
Through some profound misunderstanding, this woman, and this book, became very important to conservatives, despite the vigorous attempts of the National Review to warn people off. Ever since, its fan base has been growing and growing, and with it, the demand for a movie. The general consensus was that it was, like Lord of the Rings, unfilmable. It opened Friday.
You will either love it, or hate it. You will be wrong. It is a fundamentally misguided project. First, it is set in the near future, our near future, making it very difficult to explain how the world of 2011 becomes so like 1953 so quickly. This is, I suppose, partly deference to Rand’s conception, explained above, and partly an attempt to make it topical. After all, aren’t the shortcomings of dirigiste policies pushed by corrupt corporate executives our biggest policy challenge today? (Maybe in China, sure.) There is a serious point here: because of Rand’s attempt to characterize the events in the story as ahistorical, readers both sympathetic and unsympathetic seem incapable of seeing what is before their eyes, or, more seriously, distinguishing between fact and fiction. It is perhaps the most un-topical plot for an American political film I can think of.*
The production does the best it can within these constraints, which is surprisingly well. Given what I understand was a limited budget, production values are solid, if somewhat 70s-ish. The narrative is compressed but intelligible. Crucially, an excess of venom has been bled away from the dialogue without destroying its content; failure to do this would’ve ruined the film. And lastly, the actors really do act. A small quibble: in the book, the question of what “Who is John Galt?” means is left undetermined for a surprisingly long time, and as we begin to suspect that there is such a person somehow responsible for the state of the world, it remains unclear for even longer whether he is a good guy or a bad guy. All this is jettisoned almost without a second thought, probably because the filmmakers have forgotten what it was like to read this book for the first time, or assume that most of their audience have.
But in the end, it just doesn’t work, and the proper adaptation of Atlas Shrugged remains unmade. A proper adaptation would be fifteen hours long, and look like a cross between Martin Scorcese’s The Aviator and Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It would star Megan Fox, be directed by Zack Synder, and it would be completely awesome.
*Let me explain. Since the crash of 2007-08, there has been a resurgence of people claiming topicality for Atlas Shrugged. This is because she describes a world falling apart for economic reasons, and we live in world falling apart for economic reasons. I would set the bar higher, however, and insist that its topicality be attributable to it offering a cogent economic analysis of our current situation, and this I do not think it can do. The book focuses on antitrust and intellectual property law, along with voluntary industry wide self-regulation, as the primary forces bringing about the collapse. Whatever one may think of any of those things, it is just not credible to think that this is where our current problems lie, which is with fiscal and monetary policy. To shift to a higher level of abstraction and say that our current problem is government and the book says that too is just too vague to amount to topicality. I do not recall the book discussing fiscal or monetary policy at all, but if I’m wrong, gentle readers, please enlighten me (with page numbers).