Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, the Movie, Redux

Someone commented to me that they thought I was being too harsh and insulting in my condemnation of Atlas Shrugged, Part 1, by comparing it to the Cortlandt Homes project in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead--from the climax, when second-hand architect Peter Keating allows a masterpiece housing project designed by protagonist architect Howard Roark to be bastardized and destroyed by pretentious intellectual looters.  (See also my blog post on this subject.)  It was suggested to me that AS, Part 1 was actually superior to The Fountainhead movie, screenplay by Ayn Rand herself.

I felt compelled to reply that on almost any measure of artistic merit, AS, Part 1 is inferior to TF.  I won't say "vastly". The direction of TF by King Vidor was not good.  Gary Cooper's portrayal of Howard Roark was wooden, at best.  But it at least felt like a serious movie, not a hacked together weekend production of Second City Television.  Patricia Neal was perhaps the best in TF, and way above actress Taylor Schilling's portrayal of Dagny Taggart in AS, Part 1, in ability and presence.  Raymond Massey ("Gail Wynand") and other actors in The Fountainhead movie were vastly superior to the polyglot band of weekend dinner-theater pirates in the rest of the AS, Part 1 roles.  Rand's screenplay, whatever the shortcomings because of length and post-production studio fiddling, was infinitely better than the pathetic mess written by Aglialoro and his traveling troop of literary clowns.

It was suggested that remarks by me that people are "rationalizing" their liking of AS, Part 1 constituted argument by ad hominem.  I don't engage in personal attacks.  I do try to be accurate and state facts.  I say I'm correct that many people are rationalizing the merits of the AS movie because
A) they desperately wanted to see a movie; 
B) they want to "win one for the Gipper", ie, stick up for our side to promote the movie, and 
C) they want to defend any liking they may have (based on A) or have expressed (based on B) because their self-esteem is tied up in their own (or others)  perception of artistic appraisals, and so they seek to forestall any loss in self-esteem they may suffer because of liking a stinker.
That's not an attack on anyone, merely an observation over decades of what might loosely be called "human nature" in response to movies.

I will forego any psychological analysis of whether that's really "human nature", but let me clarify the other implication of that statement.  An appraisal of a movie involves two aspects of our cognition: the objective artistic merits (including technical details of production) and our own personal value hierarchy and psycho-epistemological sense of life.  Sadly, most people (especially Objectivists) don't realize that there is nothing whatever wrong with liking a stinker for your own reasons. Virtually everyone I know (O-ist or not) attempts to defend their own subjective tastes on artistic grounds, because that is the route to self-esteem (they think).  But in doing so, they undermine the entire aspect of objective appraisal.  That is, objectivity as such.  It's much more honest to delineate what is objectively good about a movie, including a comparative assessment based on the best possible to Man, and simply say, "I like this stinker for my own, personal reasons, but artistically it has serious shortcomings" (or is even a complete bomb).

I can point to many movies for which I like this or that aspect on this basis, but still say it's a piece of crap.  I won't bore you with examples here, but I could provide a long list.  But I won't fake reality either for myself or for others and pretend that my subjective likes and dislikes are artistically good ones and objectively valid.

Of course, people differ in their ability or training or experience to objectively appraise a work of art--they can make mistakes in delineating and correctly assessing the objective vs. the subjective aspects of a work of art.  Errors of knowledge, as Ayn Rand said.  But that doesn't mean they're right.  And when someone either unschooled in the arts, and especially, knowingly unschooled and inexperienced in creating art--especially good art--attempts to flaunt their subjective opinion as worthy of objective consideration by others, they had better have a really good argument with strong facts on their side.  But then, to do that they need more grasp of (in this case) moviemaking, screenwriting, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, ad nauseum, than merely the experience of sitting in the movie theater with a lot of popcorn and soda.  Otherwise, it's all an attempt to defend the Primacy of Emotions and the thesis "It's good because I  like it!"

But I must add this last comment:  those who wish to defend AS, Part 1 purely on the grounds of item B ("win one for the Gipper") are doing Ayn Rand and Objectivism no service at all.  They are damaging us.  Yes, book sales are up.  They would be up if AS, Part 1 was filmed on toilet paper and done with hand puppets--purely because of the publicity.  That is a short-term effect, and it could be accomplished by other means. 

The long-term effect is much more problematic.  You don't inspire people with the intellectuality of Objectivism by telling them we stand for shlock art.  Michelango didn't inspire the people of the Renaissance by doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with paint-by-numbers.  Peter Keating did not inspire people to go into the practice of designing beautiful architecture by destroying Cortlandt Homes.  A is not non-A.

Do you argue that at least the movie inspires the unwashed masses to be made more aware of the more concrete aspects of Objectivism?--individual rights, capitalism, etc--and hope that's enough?  That's the approach of the Libertarians, who treat such things as primary and have no grasp of how metaphysics and epistemology determine them. On that basis, we lose in the long run.  The only possible long-term benefit I see from promoting AS, Part 1 as a wonderful production, is if someone buys the book as a result and then leaves it lying around until some day his future kid picks it up.

But it's still a lie.  The book contests are a much more effective way to expose kids to AS.

How many of you recall what Ayn Rand said to the HUAC committee about lies in regard to Soviet propaganda inserted in American film-making?
Rand:  "... Now, here is what I cannot understand at all: if the excuse that has been given here [to this committee] is that we had to produce the picture in wartime, just how can it help the war effort? If it is to deceive the American people, if it were to present to the American people a better picture of Russia than it really is, then that sort of an attitude is nothing but the theory of the Nazi elite – that a choice group of intellectual or other leaders will tell the people lies for their own good. That, I don't think, is the American way of giving people information. We do not have to deceive the people at any time, in war or peace. ... I don’t believe the American people should ever be told any lies, publicly or privately [that is, by the government or by the movies]. I don’t believe that lies are practical. I think the international situation now rather supports me. I don’t think it was necessary to deceive the American people about the nature of Russia..."
A far better approach in my view is for serious Objectivists to stand up and publicly condemn the movie, and acknowledge and proclaim to the world that the production was hijacked by unintellectual cretins who neither understood nor genuinely respected Ayn Rand nor her ideas, and let the public at large see that her genuine defenders had no participation in and have no respect for the travesty that was filmed.  The controversy that would surround this would surely attract a lot more positive public attention to the book than defending the quality of that movie.  At least Objectivism wouldn't be stigmatized as being populated by "groupies" and unintellectual, artistically unsophisticated and unrefined boobs.


  1. I have to post "Anonymous's" comment because I had to delete my original post to get fix an html problem -- Robb

    Anonymous said:

    "Exactly right. Why don't more people realize it can be okay to like crap? I like a lot of artistic crap. I'm not proud of it, but I know it's crap. I am, however, at least happy to say that I didn't like this movie. Eventually when you come to realize how much crap you like, you start to avoid liking more. It's a useful habit to get into. "

  2. Robb: Amen (in a non-religious sense) to every word you wrote here. Took the words right out of my pen, so to speak. You're right: defending the movie by "liking" or not minding its complete shredding of the novel does more damage to Objectivism than any bile spat on it by a Whittaker Chambers, William F. Buckley, or, more recently, Joy Pullmann of American Enterprise Institute. It's tantamount to, say, Vermeer, painter of luminous figures and compositions, being liked by a cretin who also likes Picasso, or that subway artist with his stick figures. Or maybe I'm slandering the stick figure artist, who at least had the healthy epistemology of a Cro-Magnon cave painter. Instead, the cretin also likes the chimp who didn't completely type out a single play by Shakespeare by chance, but got confused in the first six lines of Henry V, and the rest was random gibberish (post-deconstructionist critics and literary academics would have a field day and long careers interpreting the gibberish).

    Good work here, Robb, and my hat is off to you.


  3. Excellent, excellent. I dont understand why politics supersedes aesthetics. That too in a movie!!Its like saying Obama is good because he wears nice suits!

    I dont like it one bit, I tell you, this liberterianizing of Objectivists.

  4. Agree with most of what you write but the conclusion. What's the point of publicly condemning the movie when the public views the evaluation of the movie as an evaluation of the book? Those that have read the book don't need to see the movie and will recognize its flaws if they do. Those that haven't read the book won't know how far off the mark the movie is until they read the book.

    The fraction of people that go to see the movie as a substitute for reading the book and who might dismiss the books ideas based on the poor qualities of the movie is small and seriously misunderstands filmmaking.

    Why don't you discuss the general failure of movies to live up to the books they're from? This is a widely recognized fact, almost cliche. Everyone knows that 'the movie never lives up to the book'. So is it worthy of note that another movie doesn't live up to the book. The only movies worthy of note in that regard are the ones that do live up to the book.

    Lastly, praising the movie or failing to condemn it will have no impact on Objectivism. The attention the movie is getting, and the controversy, is not about the movie, its about the book. In the decades ahead as we are winning, people won't look back and think 'Objectivism is so silly, remember how they liked that crappy movie?'. No. They'll look back and think 'Oh boy, that movie really was a stinker, but at least it got me to read the book and I'm so grateful for that.'

  5. I agree with this assessment totally. My beef with Aglialoro is that, as an Objectivist, he should have been aware of a great Objectivist author like Ed Cline who is proven in the commercial marketplace and whose work is already optioned by Hollywood. Ed Cline should have been approached to write the screenplay for the movie. Also, literary experts like Andrew Bernstein should have been hired as consultants. Why was this not done? Oh, let me guess; because both of these men are ARI supporters. So Aglialoro put that crap above making a good movie. That is what I find despicable.

    We are in a fight to the death war against (primarily) the Progressives and we definitely need to challenge altruism in the culture. But Aglialoro wimped out and made the novel purely political. This will not do us much good in the long run. Altruism needs to be challenged publicly. Until that is done, there will be no saving the culture. An 'Atlas Shrugged' movie could have been a wonderful opportunity to inject into the culture pro-egoism philosophy. A writer like Ed Cline could have done this while making an exciting screenplay.

    An opportunity has been wasted.


  6. Anonymous: You wrote "My beef with Aglialoro is that, as an Objectivist, he should have been aware of a great Objectivist author like Ed Cline who is proven in the commercial marketplace and whose work is already optioned by Hollywood."

    First of all, who ever said Aglialoro was an Objectivist? You may as well say (and please take this in the spirit it is offered) that Hillary Clinton is an Objectivist, because in her college days she read Atlas Shrugged. (But, that was just a "passing phase".) Kelleyites are not Objectivists. Also, none of my novels has ever been optioned by Hollywood. If any had been, I'd have used the money to buy a half interest in The Strike Productions and fired Aglialoro and his company of intellectual and esthetic dwarves. Thanks for the compliment, anyway. Ed Cline

  7. Ayn Rand wanted to make AS into a mini-series and for good reason ... time to tell the story ... Even if this goes to part 2 and 3 ... it still looks like the Cliff Notes of AS. That said, I will go see it again just to support the production and may have more money for a better actor for Dagny Taggart.


Comments must be polite and well-reasoned, but passion is allowed when directed at the subject matter and not someone who posts -- violate this, and your comment doesn't get posted. Comments may not post immediately -- I'm pretty busy and don't live on the web.