|“Holy shit I almost made Atlas Shrugged....”|
I next heard of Ayn Rand when I was 17, and enamored of a young lady with orange hair who talked often of how her personal heroines were Patti Smith, Kathleen Hanna, and Dominique Francon (the protagonist of Rand's first major novel The Fountainhead), as 17-year-olds do. This friend introduced me to both Radiohead (almost literally, at a gig where she met Thom and Jonny that I had to miss because of a family obligation, about which I'm still kind of pissed) and her boyfriend at the time, who was very cool and played guitar in a band and who was a very, very serious Randian. Over the course of a few months on the same bowling team he and I became rather good if not terribly close friends, which time also coincided with my reading all of Ayn Rand's published fiction and becoming rather insufferably convinced of its genius.
What followed was approximately 18 months during which I would, at intervals, engage in extremely painful re-reads of Atlas Shrugged, each of which revealed additional problems with Rand and her philosophy and that finally resulted, somewhere near the end of my freshman year of college, in my realizing that Ayn Rand and her view of the world were rather profoundly full of shit. The idea that human beings should do their own creative work and not work for their own destruction is not novel. The idea that ever helping another human being is evil is. That, and a naïve, almost fetishistic belief in rich people and laissez-faire capitalism as unassailable, perfect entities, are the cornerstone of the philosophy espoused in Atlas Shrugged, and in Rand's later essays and public statements.
There's more to it than that, of course, as any Rand fan will tell you for hours on fucking end, and some of that more is what makes it so appealing to teenagers. The belief in there being no higher purpose than the self is one that teenagers already share, so reinforcing it with some big words is an easy task. Every teenager regards him or herself as being the sole force by which the world remains cosmically in place, whether as its axis or the mighty, put-upon mythical giant on whose shoulders it rests.
Most of Rand's economic stuff is essentially what American capitalism was like in the 19th century before labor laws came into being, laced with a lot of feverish exaggerations of socialism and communism (never explicitly named in The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged). Because Rand—whose main objection to Communism seems to have stemmed from resentment over losing a comfortable bourgeois life in Russia before the Revolution—positions the rhetorical goal posts in such an oddly, ridiculously asymmetric fashion, she ends up harming her own argument and making communism (a fundamentally flawed and bad system) look better by comparison.
Still, head up its ass though Rand's philosophy is, it's quite popular, mainly among teenagers and the kind of rich person who writes a note chastising their waiter—who works for below minimum wage—for expecting a tip instead of leaving one. In a development that would have no doubt rather appalled Ayn Rand herself—who fought bitterly with many mainstream Republicans in her lifetime—her ideas increasingly became adopted by modern “conservatives,” to the point where Atlas Shrugged has become a rallying point for a considerable chunk of the modern GOP, and enough of one that an enterprising producer, John Aglialoro, bought the movie rights with the intent of making a three-part film adaptation.
Now, in spite of being enormously controversial and pilloried by huge parts of The Establishment, both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were huge best-sellers, thereby seemingly validating a lot of the bullshit in the latter about the free market being the end-all. Considering a lot of the sex and huge action sequences in Atlas Shrugged, it looked like the stuff of a fairly massive blockbuster, as much as I would hope for personal political reasons that America would be spared the subsequent Rand revival. But, as AR herself would say, A is A. Reality is what it is. Money's money. So when I heard that the writer of Braveheart, Randall Wallace, was adapting the novel and Angelina Jolie was going to be playing Dagny Taggart, I braced myself.
But a funny thing happened. Wallace and Jolie left the project and suddenly a couple years later a $20 million (that extremely modest, by movie standards, figure may even include the ad budget) version of the first part of Atlas Shrugged with Jon Polito as the most famous person in it came out and grossed a mere $5 million. Aglialoro issued a good-sport press release being like, okay, the free market has spoken, no parts two or three. But then, presumably emboldened by the perceived vulnerability (stoked by the hermetic Fox News echo chamber) of president Obama in the 2012 election, Aglialoro went full speed ahead on part two, hiring a new cast of slightly better-known but still economically available (to be kind) actors. Part two cost $10 million and grossed a hair over $3 million. Part three is apparently still in the works, if Aglialoro still has any remaining money.
Most of us were so consumed by schadenfreude—which was, admittedly, borderline pornographic—that the question of exactly why the movies failed was left largely unaddressed, beyond them not being good. Consider, though, that never stopped the Twilight franchise, which in being an enormously popular series of badly-written books with a wildly over-defensive fan base serve as a fairly decent rough comparison. Consider also, the Twilight movies, in spite of occupying a range in quality between “fun on the right drugs” to “holy mother of fuck terrible” made mountains upon ranges upon continents of money. Consider its advantages over Atlas Shrugged:
1—No corner-cutting with regard to production values
2—Meticulously careful casting of the principal actors
3—The books came out some time after the Eisenhower presidency
4—Stephenie Meyer's sparkly fake vampires are more realistic than AR's “commies.”
5—Annoying though it is, teenage solipsism > upper-class entwhitelement
Of the above, the first is really the biggest issue. It's kind of sad how a book that so legendarily venerates the rich couldn't even attract one crazy billionaire to invest $75 million in production and another $25 mil in prints and advertising. Yeah, a hundred million bucks is a lot of money, but I thought you motherfuckers swore by your life and your love of it that you would live for no other man's sake nor ask another to live for yours. I thought all that walking around smirking and going “Who is John Galt?” fucking meant something, dudes. You can't even invest a little coin in the Bible for rich jerkoffs? That's sad.
Snark aside, Atlas Shrugged is not a story that can be told on a low budget. Love it or hate it, it is an epic. The novel is set in a vaguely-defined near future where encroaching totalitarianism has led to a mysterious series of disappearances of rich and talented people, the increasing absence of whom leads to a number of large-scale disasters and, ultimately, the collapse of society. Rand's prose—and specifically her dialogue—is stilted to the point of absurdity, but she has an undeniable gift for making things seem important. Atlas Shrugged, absurd as it is, has a feverish drive to it, deriving from its author's grandiose sense of the story's, and her own, importance. It all feels very large, and when visual images emerge through the muddy prose, they are immense in size.
The monumentalism of the novel is completely lost in the adaptation of both movies thus far. The first film is one of the greatest oddities known to cinema, whose use of cinematic language is, rather than merely incompetent, seemingly working at deliberate cross purposes to the material's purpose. Heroine Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) is lit throughout the entire movie as if the camera is trying to lose her in the scenery, a tendency never more prominent than in a party scene where Dagny and her secret lover, steel tycoon Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler) are the only two non-“moochers” in attendance, yet Dagny is completely lost in wide shots; if you didn't know she was the main character in the movie, you'd never know she was even there. Even when in a shot by herself, the camera surrounds Dagny with so much negative space that, without familiarity with the source material, one might assume that the movie was critiquing the idea of individuality itself.
The dramatic climax of the first movie is the debut of the John Galt Line, which railroad executive Dagny has named after her annoyance with the repeated “whaddayagonnado” rhetorical question “Who is John Galt?” Dagny's trains run on rails made of Rearden's unprecedented, revolutionary metal, which he has named after himself—as he frankly should; all politics aside, it's apparently the greatest fucking thing ever, let the guy swagger a bit—across a bridge made out of the metal, that the “moochers” all say will collapse because apparently only the good guys can do math, and succeeds. Now, considering that the action in question consists of a train running flawlessly along a stretch of track and then crossing a bridge that both protagonists know it will because they're smart, one might think there's nothing to the sequence. But there are still things you can do to make the sequence suspenseful. Play up Rearden designing the bridge as apparently flimsily as possible as a fuck-you to the haters. Hell, undercrank the goddamn camera to make the train look like it's going fast if you can't afford to get a train to actually move fast. Don't, for fuck's sake, just plunk the camera on sticks and shoot the damn train going thirty miles an hour and think that's going to do the trick.
The number and nature of the cinematic problems plaguing Atlas Shrugged Part I have led me to the only half-kidding conclusion that director Paul Johansson was engaged in a deliberate act of sabotage. It's silly to think someone would take a directing job under false pretenses in order to make the worst movie possible. He could have just done a shitty job. But the way in which it is shitty is suspicious, especially considering that, as a work that exists only due to ideology, the ideological elements almost read as self-satire. The actors' line readings seem as though they're struggling to stay awake. The filmmaking, in every moment that isn't a two-person dialogue scene (which are shot competently, if without inspiration) works to the direct opposite end demanded by the material.
Atlas Shrugged Part II has different obstacles. It sucks in ways that are far easier to understand. The middle part of the novel features considerably more action than the first, which is primarily given over to establishing the world, Rand's philosophy, and the story. The movie covering that part of the novel had literally half the budget of the first one, which itself strained not to look cheap and shoddy. The first major dramatic peak in the narrative of Part II features alleged playboy (and covert Galt ally) Francisco D'Anconia blowing up his own copper mines in order to devastate the moochers' world economy, which event is sold with uber-serious conviction by Esai Morales, whose every line reading is as convinced of his pending Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Ayn Rand was in capitalism's perfection. The movie then cuts to D'Anconia's exploding copper mines, which consists of one tiny, unbelievably cheap-looking computer-generated poof. It's a pathetic enough failure to make even the most ardent opponent to Rand's bullshit feel pity.
The second, larger dramatic peak comes—naturally—later in the movie. After an emergency directive introduced by oily government functionary Wesley Mouch (a countertextually oily and reptilian Paul McCrane, legitimately excellent as a flat-out evil commie fuck; hey, I give credit where credit's due), Dagny (played here by Samantha Mathis; oh, yeah, Part II features a whole new cast because no one was willing or available to return from the first one) quits her job on her own accord and splits for her house in the country. Right when D'Anconia shows up to formally induct her into Team Galt, she gets news of a catastrophic railroad disaster and, unable to abandon her railroad to the moochers, Dagny races back to work.
Now. The railroad disaster itself is based on the idea that there's only one rail line able to cross the Rocky Mountains, which is stupid, but hey, suspense doesn't build itself. So there's some asshole commie on a train heading west on “important government business,” and the train breaks down because commies are bad at everything, and the asshole commie gets on the horn and browbeats Dagny's dipshit little brother into passing the buck onto some poor derp who, out of terror, sends the commie's train through an unventilated tunnel—which, again, is the only way to cross the Rocky Mountains, in the 2010s—with a coal-burning engine, which, again, actually still exists and runs in the 2010s even though a major plot point earlier dealt with the only guy who was smart enough to mine coal getting Galted away. So they run the train through the tunnel. And an Army special that can't be diverted because it's on “important government business” comes blasting through the tunnel from the other direction, right at the coal-burning luxury train where everyone's choking to death on coal fumes inside. The trains collide and the mountain through which the tunnel runs collapses in on itself, burying everything and everyone permanently inside.
This sequence is a disaster of a different sort. The explosion is, essentially, the same little computer-generated poof from the mine explosion, repeated a couple times. And that's it. As with the previous one, the scene ends when you're still waiting for it to begin. The fact that the footage of the trains attempting to brake to avoid colliding head-on with each other featured heavy use of clips from Tony Scott's Unstoppable and leased because they'd cost less than actually shooting an actual sequence is immaterial. If Bruce Conner taught us anything, it's that it's possible to make a great film using other people's footage (even if the very idea is in direct opposition to everything Rand advocated). But goddamn. It's an event in the story that causes Dagny, who's such a worthy heroine that she went on strike without anyone having to show up and plow her fields with Galt first, to go back into the muck with the commies. You need a physical event that properly conveys this. You can't just trust that all the Randians are going to be sitting there jacking it and going “YEAH YEAH YEAH THE TUNNEL DISASTER OH MAN YEAH NOW DAGNY'S GONNA GO BACK TO WORK UHHHHHHH.” Fuck all the political stuff, that's just inadequate filmmaking.
That's the problem with the whole movie. It simply has insufficient resources and imagination to achieve its intended end. Judging by the fact that it only grossed about what one screening of Twilight could pull in, even blatant Tea Party fan base pandering like inserts of gas pumps calculating the $40 a gallon prices (not a typo; also not thought through) didn't work. Even the climactic, dramatic reveal of John Galt after Dagny crashes her plane (another terrible CG sequence) in the middle of his commune (the single funniest bit of cognitive dissonance in the novel, the fact that Galt has all these industrialists and shit living off the land, man; it's like that one part in Easy Rider, but with short haircuts) sucks. Galt walks from the shadows into a loving, hero's close-up . . . but the lighting is so fucking bad you can't even see him!
For some, the fact that the first two-thirds of the Atlas Shrugged cinema saga has failed so miserably would be enough. I want to know why. I want to know if there was ever a chance for these movies to work in the 2010s. The answer, in all likelihood, is no. It all comes down to the matter of profitability. If there were enough rich Ayn Rand fans out there willing to bankroll a movie version of Atlas Shrugged, outside the system, like Mel Gibson did with his Jesus picture that made All The Money, some of them would have done it, probably imagining themselves to be like Galt and D'Anconia and Dagny and Rearden and all the other characters in the book. Maybe even smoking custom-made dollar sign cigarettes to represent. But not even the most deluded Randians, who still believe, in the face of the last thirty years of American history, that this bullshit still works, not even they were deluded enough to think investing in a movie of Atlas Shrugged would work. And thus the only way the movies got made was on the cheap, with shockingly inept filmmaking talent, released to near-universal mockery.
The appeal of Ayn Rand's philosophy is entirely grounded in the very teenage belief that the fact someone else disagrees with you makes them, by defnition, evil. That this is my shit, this is my room, stay out mom, don't make me share with those icky fucking kids down the street. After a couple years on that insufferable trip, most people accrue some more life experience and realize that the world isn't that simple. That there's more than the self. That lending a friend money is a kindness, it's not the friend sucking your life force out. That being good at something does not give you a set of political beliefs. That being good at one thing does not make you good at everything. That there's such a thing as a worthy adversary. That letting children starve is more of a travesty than paying an extra thousand dollars a year in income tax. That taking your ball and going home is petulance, not nobility.
Who is John Galt? A child.