22 April 2011

A PINCH OF GALT

As I am an honest person, I should confess that I was never going to admire Atlas Shrugged - I'm sorry, Atlas Shrugged: Part I, to give it its proper, and stupendously overweening title. Fact is, I am one of those folks for whom the very name "Ayn Rand" triggers some deep revulsion, instinctive and vigorous. Was I looking forward to seeing the craven, pandering adaptation of her best-known work fail at the box office? Yes, I was. Was I looking forward to making fun of its massive incompetence, instantly apparent from its embarrassing trailer? Yes, I was. Was I prepared for how fucking boring it was going to turn out to be? No, and that's the worst of all - Atlas Shrugged: The Phantom Menace isn't even fun-bad, it's just colossally inept; it's almost impossible to imagine how such ludicrously melodramatic material could be made without a trace of camp, purposeful or inadvertent (one recalls the 1949 film of The Fountainhead, with a Rand-penned script, redeemed enough by King Vidor's crazy-quilt operatic direction that it just manages to be worth watching).

Atlas Shrugged - which I have not read, have no desire to read, and on the basis of this film, am most certainly never going to read in the future - tells the story, in essence, of how all the captains of industry in America pack up their toys and go home. Or, as Rand would have it, the smartest, most capable, generally all-around most superior folks - all of whom happen to be wealthy business leaders - sick and tired of being forced to underwrite the existence of poor people (if they're so deserving of food, shelter, and dignity, why aren't they brilliant industrialists?), spirit themselves away to a magical new world where individualists can be as rugged as they like, and there is no taxation. That hasn't happened yet by the end of this first chapter, which is mostly concerned with setting up the paragons of human virtue Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling), heir to the nation's foremost railroad company, and Henry "Hank" Rearden (Grant Bowler), inventor of a new kind of super-steel that threatens to put all the other metal companies in America out of business. Together, Taggart and Rearden combine forces to build the finest high-speed rail line in North America - someone should tell all the Rand acolytes in Washington presently fighting high-speed rail with everything they've got.

Does that sound like a plot? Hell if I know. Atlas Shrugged: The Curse of the Black Pearl has a story, I suppose, and it even kind of has conflict, if by "conflict" we mean "Dagny Taggart* stares down everyone who disagrees with her or stands in her way until they back down". Mostly, it has talking. Weirdly esoteric talking about weirdly esoteric things. For this is, in its fashion, a film about Ideas, and that's satisfying up to a point, though writers John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole might have done a better job of clarifying those Ideas and Expressing them Clearly and Coherently. An opening voice-over and montage tries to set up the film's peculiar vision of 2016, but never quite manages to explain why there's no longer any air travel, or how the entire U.S. government was replaced in just two election cycles by Stalinists, though I suppose the latter point makes sense to the sort of person whose understanding of what words mean is shaky enough that corporatist Democrat Barack Obama can be described, without shame, as a "socialist".

And then there's the main bulk of the movie, which concerns Dagnabbit's attempts to build her railroad, and Rearden's attempts to something, I guess it involves him keeping control of his super-steel despite the government and his competitors bending all their will towards socialising the smelting industry to get his efficiency-increasing metal safely off the market. It takes a lot of verbiage to get this done, with actors like Michael Lerner and Jon Polito adding an unfair patina of legitimacy to endless scenes of dirty politicians cutting crooked deals, and doing it in language that is basically inscrutable. At times, the only possible way to understand what is happening in any given moment is to just give up and assume that because the bad guys are doing it, it must be evil, but the dialogue typically involves so much jargon floating around that it's not even clear why they're evil, besides their pure evilness.

In short: while it would be possible to object to Atlas Shrugged: The Rise of Cobra on philosophical grounds, it's giving the film much too much credit to do so. The correct objection is on sheer dramatic and aesthetic grounds, by which yardsticks this is a complete, dismal failure. That it makes no sense and pushes through its story with a stubborness that does not in any way make up for its lack of momentum is one of its chief problems. That it possesses such atrociously uncharacterised characters is another. The villains, I've mentioned, aren't apparently driven by any coherent, real-world ideology; the heroes, meanwhile, aren't apparently driven by anything human. I cannot imagine either one of them actually being happy; they are not driven by the desire to have money, power, or influence; they have sex (it's okay, because Rearden's wife is a cartoon harpy), but that clearly does not excite them nearly as much as talking about building shit does. The simple answer, of course, is that they're not characters at all, but representatives of a philosophical proposition. This might be okay in a novel (though based on the book's reputation, my guess is that it's not), but it's a hard go for a movie.

Making matters worse, Schilling and Bowler are both pretty awful actors. Bowler less so; he basically just uses his chin and his masculinity to do all the work for him, a bland but not unholy thing to do (it's not that far from the routine shtick of Fountainhead star Gary Cooper). Schilling, though, whoo boy. Her performance is an early frontrunner for Worst Thing in a 2011 Movie, all bug-eyed expressions and clipped line readings and the feeling, overall, that she is playing a woman who spend every off-camera moment regenerating from a pod. It's not entirely inappropriate - the onscreen evidence suggests that Dargy Tangent has neither an inner life nor the ability to feel feelings, and perhaps Schilling is just committing fully to the role it was written. Perhaps she's just giving a terrible fucking performance and refusing to give the film the only human core it might possess. It's a tricky distinction.

Overseeing it all, Paul Johansson - primarily a TV actor, secondarily a TV director, and only a distant third, a director of films - has no real sense of how to deal with this, his first theatrical feature. There are meaningful close-ups on people at moments that in no imaginable way require such a thing; his handling of the innumerable "men in a board room conspiring" scenes require the actors to really stretch out the words, robbing these inert scenes of even the minute inertia they might have possessed; his blocking is disorienting and involves a lot of purposeful striding, then standing still, then purposefully striding over there - his Hank Rearden and Tangy Dorrit seem to be aware that they're striking poses, and make the best of it. And his bland staging emphasises, rather than hides, the film's rushed production schedule and cramped budget; the film looks like the kind of indie that sets a scene in a refinery because the producer's uncle was able to get them into a refinery one Saturday, with unconvincingly redressed sets that are forced into roles they're ill-suited for (Rearden's "office" looks like it's in a stairwell). Really, the only thing he is any good at is showing off the trains that anachronistically litter this movie, watching as they gleam in the sun: it's almost easy to understand why the lovers would rather talk about locomotion than screw each other, for in Johansson's hands, trains are infinitely sexier than the prudish mechanism of the film's lone sex scene.

It has always been a mystery why ideologically conservative movies over the past two or three decades have been so artistically incompetent ('twas not always the case; some of the best films of the 1940s are as reactionary as you could ever hope for); I think that Atlas Shrugged: The Sands of Time might contain at least something of an answer. Movies of this sort fundamentally do not care about people, and are frankly proud of how much they do not care about people, and the dramatic arts are all inherently fixed on the idea that, at the least, people are interesting enough to observe for 90 minutes or more. This is not the opinion expressed in Atlas Shrugged: The Fellowship of the Ring; here, people aren't interesting, they're just a necessary evil, except for the necessary part. Draggy Target at one point gapes in unhidden contempt, "What's the point of all this stupid altruism?", and she speaks for the whole of the movie, which whatever its motives - creating a counter-ideology to mainstream Hollywood, paying tribute to a great American novel, attempting to con the Tea Partiers into buying tickets to a shit-ass cheapie programmer because it's their political duty to do so - was certainly not created out of a desire to perform an act of kindness to the human race.

2/10

29 comments:

Allau said...

Tim, I love you! But I will keep my Josep instead.

Daniel said...

Haha maybe you should pack your bags pal. Maybe the movies horrible but just because the story isn't about rainbows does not mean its stupid.

Alyson said...

Thank God Ayn Rand is dead. I read the Fountainhead, but haven't read Atlas Shrugged, so I was going to avoid the movie on that basis. Then I saw you reviewed it, got psyched when you said you also hadn't read the book, then found out the movie is incompetent and not hilarious. What a shame.

Also, these haters are ridiculous, just like Ayn Rand.

For the record I enjoyed The Fountainhead but the woman is still nuts. Was nuts.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I have a very dear friend who turns out to be a big fan of The Fountainhead and wanted me to read it--but I'm not GOING to, because the only possible reason I'd do so would be so I could write a blog post eviscerating it, and that's the sort of vindictive thing that you don't want to DO to a friend, even if she turns out to be, somewhat terrifyingly, a Rand fan.

james1511 said...

My lone experience of reading Rand was For the New Intellectual, which comprises an essay and excerpts from all the novels. More than *half* the book is taken up by bits of Atlas, including the entirety of "This is John Galt giving you a pseudo-philosophical justification for being a self-centred turd". About thirty pages into the latter I finally snapped and literally threw the book away from me in disgust. I've read some dreadful shite before, but never has a book induced such vehement hatred in me.

Colin said...

I've never read an Ayn Rand novel--though I've been meaning to, less because of all the politically fueled publicity she's been receiving lately than because she was, apparently, bafflingly, my liberal democrat grandfather's favorite novelist--but it gave me no end of pleasure to learn recently that she was, lo and behold, an atheist. Doesn't that just make you want to rent billboard space in all 22 of the red states and emblazon them with the words "AYN RAND WAS AN ATHEIST"?

Bryce Wilson said...

It's worth noting that Ayn Rand was once considered so beyond the pale on the political spectrum that William Buckley called her an idiot to her face.

William Buckley. Told someone to fuck off. For being too conservative. Let that seep in.

Would that today's conservatives had as much sense.

K Wild said...

What made it deserve a 2 as opposed to a 0?

Robert said...

Here's my usual bit of Ayn Rand apologia - I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when I was 19 and just snapping out of a conservative religious upbringing - and in that context I did get something out of them. Individuality is good, humans are capable of greatness, it's OK to be happy on your own terms and not devote your life to a Higher Power - it was nice to have these things spelled out for me because they weren't part of my mental vocabulary at the time. The flaw with Rand's philosophy (as I've since realized) is that it's too rigid and it assumes a level playing field (that everyone could be a Taggart or a Reardon if they'd only apply themselves!) but there are some good ideas in there. Just throwing that out there because I think she gets shat on unfairly sometimes.

All that said, i'm sure the movie is horrible and I have no desire to see it. Also I've been reading your reviews for awhile and this is my first comment! So um, keep up the good work.

larry said...

Wow! I guess the fact that the movie is terrific and powerful, just escaped you altogether....

Everyone who just read your scathing criticism should immediately and summarily ignore it, and go buy a ticket. They might actually learn something.

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I guess the fact that the movie is terrific and powerful, just escaped you altogether....

Damn, Tim, how could you miss that? It seems like a pretty key point!

M.C. said...

If I want to learn Rand's philosophy, I'll read one of her expository works. Not sit through what I hear to be an unbearably tedious film adapted from what I know to be an unbearably tedious novel.

dfa said...

Play Bioshock instead!

Tim said...

I will admit, it is a point of shame that I failed to mention how terrific the movie is. Sort of like when I forgot to point out that after Gnomeo & Juliet, narrative art has reached its apex & we never need to make movies again. But criticism is always an imperfect science.

Anyway, enjoying the Rand hate-in. I wish I had more to say than that after two days away.

TPatter said...

It’s funny that you said the movie was both “boring” and that the language was “inscrutable” and people were “talking about weirdly esoteric things” (like ideas). It sounds like you had a basic grasp of the gist of the story to the extent of the Washington directives, acts, and laws trying to limit Rearden’s monopoly on “producing too much” and creating a “social danger”. We can’t have that—people working hard and producing too much. It’ll make the others look bad, eh? To clarify about why air travel was obsolete, you might have missed the part of the movie in which gasoline prices were up to $37.50 a gallon. Did you actually say that you thought that the “heroes” were “not driven by money”? Rearden clearly admitted to working for money as his goal. As you said, you seemed surprised that the heroes were not driven by power or influence [read: controlling others]. Simply, while they did not live for others, they did not ask others to live for them either. Fair enough. In response to your comment about your interpretation of the heroes not being as exited about sex than they were “about building shit”, can you actually say that you don’t have any work/hobbies/interests that jazz you like that? Finally, in response to your comment that the movie was “not created out of a desire to perform an act of kindness to the human race”, that is not entirely false. People who make movies do so to make money. Is there a problem with that? Actually, while such types of people do not do so for the sake of others, it often ends up benefiting these others (e.g. knowledge, information, job creation, etc.--even charity sometimes).

Yojimbo_5 said...

Dude, you lost me at "which I have not read, have no desire to read, and on the basis of this film, am most certainly never going to read in the future."

Yeah, the movie's really bad (really, REALLY bad), but it's a bad adaptation. Don't paint the two versions with the same brush. Are you really going to tell me "The Godfather" is one of the most brilliant novels ever written because the movie is so good?

Also...pretty apparent you weren't paying attention. For that, you have to stay after class and watch it again.

Brigdh said...

I have been looking forward to your review of this movie ever since I first saw the trailer. And you have totally lived up to my expectations. Great review, once again!

Neil Fulwood said...

Tim, you've made me laugh out loud for the entirety of this review, and saved the two and a half hours of my life that I might have committed to this film on the basis of its wonderfully histrionic trailer. For both, my thanks.

PhranqNMD@gmail.com said...

It is amazing to see your political bias color a movie so. This goes for the numerous other 'critics'. I NEVER saw such a review spread between critics (likely liberal biased) and the people who saw it.

You think the characters were bland or caricatures? Prob since you are unfamiliar with the economic conservative / libertarian viewpoint. I can't blame you however since you are seeing such a RARE movie idea in a liberal Hollywood. So now you understand 'somewhat' the other side... what I mean is I have to put up with all of the liberal movies that ALWAYS, ALWAYS make the bad guy a red tie Conservative! Ex.??? 'Dave', 'Man of the Year', etc... OR as the EVIL real estate tycoon or business man to steal Xmas or turn the 200 year old landmark into a shopping mall. That list of movies would take an hour typing. Now add in liberal Hollywood telethons, fundraisers, AND Michael Moore 'documentaries'... PLUS tax payer supported liberal PBS (FOX is private BTW), ..... I find it astounding that ONE movie with conservative ideas flames such revoltion. Think about it.

Robert Hamer said...

Damn, the Rand devotees are just seething at this review. That means you did it right, Tim.

Tim said...

I guess, but I never feel complete without a death threat or two. Randians must just be nicer people than Trekkies.

JD said...

re: "you only hate it because you're liberal"

Regardless of ideology, a shoddily-filmed movie with bad actors talking about trains and logistics for three hours sounds pretty damn boring to me.

franklinshepard said...

I consider myself a relatively conservative person, and you couldn't pay me to see this movie. In general, I disagree with a lot of what Rand says, although I agree with parts of it. And I actually thought The Fountainhead is a quite entertaining read. (Couldn't make it through the film version of that, either - sorry, Patricia Neal!)

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Good lord, given how ascendant Rand's "ideas" are in this culture, you'd think her fans would be sufficiently self-confident not to get all whiny and defensive over every negative review of a terrible movie. Evidently not, however!

James R said...

the fact that the movie is terrific and powerful

This is not a fact.

A ≠ B.

Randroid fail.

Tim Kornegay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matthew said...

Predictably, the negative critical reaction to this movie has inflamed the Randians to such an extent that they need it to be solely motivated by bias. It has nothing to do with the movie being overlong, dramatically inert, shoddily filmed and equally shoddily acted. It's like Christians claiming that the negative reaction to Christian-centric message films are solely the fault of bias: it has nothing to do with the individual merits of the film and the fact that the worst ideological movies bury themselves in a niche.

I consider myself a liberal, and although the laundry list of supposedly "liberal-centric films" are not as definitive as some posters here would like to think (I find Michael Moore to be risible, but his films generally do well because they know how to balance messaging with unpretentious filmmaking styles, even though some of his work has - gasp - been criticized in some respects by even Tim himself, an acknowledged liberal). Conservatives cry bias all of the time, although I could spend nearly the same amount of time outlining right-wing tropes that have long endured in Hollywood movies.

ringleader said...

Heyyyyy, watch what you say about Trekkies.......

James R said...

The film's producer is now talking about not making the rest of the films. Another victory for liberal bias!