Saturday, April 16, 2011

UNMITIGATED GALT. Whatever understandable prejudice you might have against Ayn Rand, you have to admit that the giant concrete block of her novel on which Atlas Shrugged: Part I is based could make a movie of some sort.

Consider all that happens in it: Dagny Taggart, who wants her family's railroad to succeed on its own merits, is opposed by her weakling brother James, who prefers that it succeed via corrupt influences. Conglomerate head Henry Rearden wants success on his own terms, too, but is opposed by, well, the whole wide world, which instinctually recoils at his greatness. These two superior beings inevitably meet, are inevitably attracted to each other, and inevitably couple, after which they together work to find the solution to their mutual dilemma.

OK, it's ridiculous, but no more so than Rand's The Fountainhead, out of which King Vidor, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal made a silly and operatic but perfectly entertaining film.

That was what I hoped for as I watched the thing last night, because as much fun as it is to slag rotten movies, it is much better to be surprised by a good one, especially when you've reached the stage in life where two hours in front of a stinker sets you dreaming of the warm couch and leftover sesame chicken that you left back home. But it is my great regret to inform you that Atlas Shrugged: Part I is neither good nor good-bad, but bad-bad-bad-bad. I dreamed, not of sesame chicken, but of my own swift and merciful death, and that of the director, not necessarily in that order. It is not a pleasurable surprise, not a hoot, nor an outrage; it is Rand's granite crushed, reconstituted, and spread across the screen with steamrollers.

Taggart and Rearden are supposed to be important and accomplished producers of wealth, but we never see them doing anything productive. Rearden smiles as he watches steel poured in his foundry, and Taggart walks around purposefully with folders, but neither is shown engaged in actual work. In fact the filmmakers seem to go out of their way to avoid showing it: At one point Taggart appears outdoors at a worksite, and Rearden compliments her on her easy manner with the workers, but we never see Taggart actually interacting with them.

It's as if the filmmakers couldn't imagine such a thing (nor can I: "Hello, factotum, your brute strength is useful to my enterprise, keep up the good work!"). In fact, it's as if they thought that the sight of either character doing anything like what real executives do would spoil the effect. Because executives make deals, and Taggart and Rearden can't deal with anyone but each other; the only thing like negotiation they perform is their own meet-cute, in which haggling over price becomes a romantic pas des deux. Everyone else they encounter, besides subordinates, is unworthy of their efforts, and thus can only be browbeaten or belittled.

Consistent though this may be with Objectivist mythology -- noble producers standing among, but not of, ignoble looters -- it destroys any opportunity for actual drama. Atlas Shrugged has several villains, yet none of them is allowed to effectively challenge Ragny Dearden. The union boss and the government factotum are wusses who are easily glowered down; the director of the State Science Institute -- "the last science center on earth," we are informed, all the others having presumably been turned into global warming propaganda centers -- only appears to tell us how pathetic he is; and the D.C. players never even get to meet Tagny Raggart. It's like a version of The Dark Knight in which the Joker says "I don't understand you, Batman," and Batman says, "I don't think you'll ever understand, Joker," and the Joker slouches off to get drunk at the Ebbitt Grill while Batman smiles at his glistening Batmobile.

The short shrift given the D.C. mob especially annoyed me, because their ringleader Mouch is played by the wonderful actor Michael Lerner, whom I thought might at least do something interesting if given a big confrontation scene with one of the principals, instead of being left to sit around being superbad with the other bad guys. In fact, Lerner is not even allowed to be interesting in his own milieu; when Taggart's supertrain succeeds, we see Mouch hearing the news on the phone; I hoped his pause before reacting presaged an explosion of some kind. Then he spoke as if nothing much had happened, and it became painfully obvious that Lerner had just been waiting for a cue, and that the phone voice had ended a beat too soon -- which is the opposite of what anyone should be noticing in a scene like that.

This setup does no favors to the actors playing Dagden and Rearly, either. Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler show some chemistry in their negotiation duet, but after that they aren't allowed do much with one another until their ghastly sex scene. They show interest and admiration, but actual romance was presumably deemed too weakly looter-human for them. (In early scenes, Bowler actually starts to give Schilling a puppy-dog look, before dialing it back to something more suggestive of colonic irritation.) We've all seen movies in which lovers are obliged to restrain their feelings for one another (Cousin Cousine and Remains of the Day come to mind), but this is the only one I can think of in which, once the lovers finally have their night of passion, they emerge pledged to mutual pursuit of a perpetual motion machine.

(Rearden's married, by the way. This is quickly dismissed as an impediment, because he and his wife hate each other. There's so much wrong with the movie that I can't even care about the morality of this, but I do wonder whether South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was thinking about Atlas Shrugged when he went hiking with his true love on the South American-Appalachian Trail.)

The movie is so starved of humanity that the big turning-point scenes are about as thrilling as a Congressional budget negotiation. When the supertrain goes on its controversial trip over the bridge, we know that the bad guys want it to fail, and that the good guys want it to succeed. Drama, right? But not only are the good guys incapable of failure -- they're incapable of doubt, too. Not even the guy who's driving the train seems worried. So the train accelerates (the fastest any train has ever gone in America!), it approaches the bridge, we cross-cut, see the wheels going around, and -- guess what? It succeeds, just like we always knew it would. If the soundtrack swells it's only so we can't hear D.W. Griffith spinning in his grave.

There is only one moment of true feeling and drama in the whole movie. Reardon has made a bracelet out of his precious supermetal for his hated wife, who doesn't understand it/him; at a party, said wife expresses her contempt for the bracelet to Taggart; Taggart impulsively offers to trade it for her expensive necklace. Suddenly, for a couple of seconds, the actors come alive -- because they at last have an ambiguity to play: A simple transaction that has deep emotional meaning underneath. The movie comes alive, too, because we have been wrenched from our preordained path onto something vivid, theatrical, and mysterious. Then Rearden interrupts, and Atlas Shrugged gets back on the supertrain to nowhere.

Other observations:

- The country at the time of the film (2016) is in some kind of chaos which is not well explained -- the Middle East is in crisis, gas is absurdly expensive, and plane travel is moribund, which somewhat justifies the otherwise perplexing and anachronistic interest in railroads. Poverty is widespread, signified by beggars and trash fires. No attempt is made to tie all this together, but it is also suggested that the nation has been given over to sociamalism -- the opening montage shows protesters marching with signs touting those twin menaces, Martin Luther King and communism, and the D.C. guys talk about sharing the wealth in ways that have never been heard in Washington, nor anywhere in the United States except perhaps Louisiana in the time of Huey Long. I suppose this is the film's Tea Party tell, but I notice that it seems not to affect the actions of the principals in any direct way. This is made comically clear when Taggart, dressed in fancy duds, bolts from her brother's limo and walks home through an urban hobo jungle. I know the filmmakers were in a rush, but I marvel that they resisted the temptation to have Taggart explain her natural superiority to a bum, after which he would cower before the force of her logic instead of raping her and taking her purse.

- A shadowy figure appears at intervals to give the good Galt news to select entrepreneurs. (Sample pitch: "I'm simply offering you a society that rewards individual achievement.") His targets then "go Galt," vanishing to be met up with at the Gulch later in the series. The last to slip the surly bonds of socialism in this film is the fat white guy who gets screwed by Taggart's brother and later becomes Dagny's and Rearden's best pal. He leaves his oil fields behind with a sign saying "I am leaving it as I found it" -- though when he acquired the property, it was probably not, as he leaves it here, in flames (to be put out by the union-looter fire department), nor unsuitable for any future use. But I expect the TP people will nod with understanding at his self-evident producer-wisdom.

- It strikes me that the heroes of this series are enabled in their Galt-going journey by an as-yet unseen super-metal and a perpetual motion machine discovered behind a hidden door. The secret ingredient in Rand's Objectivist tale is magic beans.

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