Sunday, October 14, 2012

Taggart Trainwreck, Part II: Chuck Your Premises

Atlas Shrugged, Part II is, from a form and technical standpoint, a better film than its predecessor in every way. This does not make it a good film. Rather it is a curious simulacra thereof--it is a passable film for people who do not look for the normal criteria of complex characterization, nuanced moral understand, wit, or empirical plausibility in their films. Nietzsche likely did not have this in mind when he wrote of the transvaluation of values.

I am serious when I say it is better-made. The acting, with an entirely new cast (the previous cast having been  entirely replaced for budgetary reasons, something I can't recall happening before in a franchise), has advanced beyond the canned line readings of yesteryear to the formation of rudimentary character types. So we get Patrick Fabian (James Taggart) looking sleazy, but for the unintentional reason that he looks like a less doughy Glenn Beck. Samantha Mathis (Dagny Taggart), looking oddly like Amy Poehler playing Hillary Clinton, gets to look sad a bunch while sad piano music plays. Richard T. Jones (Eddie Willers) looks sad about his characters' unrequited love for Dagny Taggart. The only notables are Esai Morales, who as Francisco d'Anconia gets to be a little snotty, and Jason Beghe (Hank Rearden), who has an amazing gravelly voice that sounds like the second coming of Michael Wincott that I rather embarrassingly find attractive enough that I caught myself thinking, "I'd seize his assets."

The actors are aided by having an actual director this time, in the form of John Putch, best known for playing Sean Brody in Jaws 3D, who actually has a decent amount of experience behind the camera--40 credits to Paul Johansson's three--and displays an actual grasp of film vocabulary, of concepts like creating space and narrative momentum with camera movement and cuts, and using music to emphasize character. (There's a moment where the soundtrack goes down to a hushed drone while the camera focuses on Hank Rearden's miserable, harpy wife among an applauding crowd that's tacky and sort of wonderful for its efforts to cultivate a hissable villain.) Basic stuff, yes, but a great leap forward from the shambles of Part I. The low budget still shows, particularly in the janky visual effects and the set dressing of the streets of a supposedly dystopic New York City. Nor does the direction ever rise above serviceable; the handful of action scenes are awkwardly staged, and the ending, which should be religiously euphoric, is a terrible fumble of telegraphed mystery; but it is at least in service to a coherent narrative.

There are even a few inspired moments, two of them in the same scene. The poor shopgirl Cheryl, at her wedding to James Taggart, confronts Dagny about her being icey and non-altruistic. Says Cheryl, "I'm Mrs. Taggart. I'm the woman in this family now." "Quite alright," replies Dagny. "I'm the man." At the end of the scene, after he has given a much-truncated version of his "Money is the root of all good speech" in response to some wag (probably Taggart) who said the opposite, and after been asked why he has blown up his mines and intentionally made them worthless, Francisco d'Anconia quips, "Money is the root of all evil--and I got tired of being evil."

Both of these exchanges are taken verbatim from the book, but in light of everything can and often has gone wrong in these movies, one should give credit for successfully translating the rare attempts when Ayn Rand's arid sense of humor manages to land. The film does have a couple notable moments of its own invention: first is a sequence in which famed composer Richard Halley, having finished performing his Fourth Concerto, is to take a bow, but when the curtain rises, he is gone, and on his piano sits a card that reads "Who is John Galt?" (This is the only time of the uncountable many in the movie, that this catch phrase doesn't sound awkward and stupid, precisely because it's not spoken.).

The one truly great moment is a wonderfully gonzo sequence, a montage of people protesting the government's announcement that it's going to freeze the economy by making it illegal to hire or fire or give a raise or spend more or less money than the year before (yeah, about that...). They're all freaking out, amid which the camera frequently cuts to a disheveled homeless guy furiously carving something into a flat piece of wood, and things get more desperate and intense, and he keeps carving, and the music crescendoes, and we have to know, 'what is he writing?!' and he finishes, and it reads:
Here lies my country
Born: 1776 - Died: yesterday
If the whole movie were so over-the-top, it could stand proudly alongside The Fountainhead as a kitsch classic--and who knows, maybe the final installment (in which the story really jumps the rails into bugfuck crazy) will do that. But as it is, Part II must contend with mere competence. And with competence comes the simple bigotry of expectations, of (pardon the term) objective standards, which it does not come close to meeting.

For now that the story is in navigable form, and now that the action is beginning to rise, it becomes even more clear how preposterous the whole thing is. The 2016 setting is still a jarring anachronism, with characters carrying smart phones and iPads but still communicating and behaving as if it were the 1960s. The action hinges on coincidence--such as when Dagny finds, among all her employees, the man who coined "Who is John Galt?--and on magic, which can be the only explanation for Dagny suddenly knowing how to fly a plane just when she has to use one to chase Galt down. The villains' behavior makes sense only if one accepts that people could be so absolutely spiteful and moronic. The aforementioned law that freezes the economy is so stupid on its face that Lenin himself would have scoffed. (In the real world, as we saw in 2008, the economy froze on its own because the banks that had been swindling their customers with junk mortgage bonds were suddenly imperiled and were terrified of extending credit to one another, and the government had to spend untold sums just to make it move again.)

It all stems, of course, from Ayn Rand's rancid and wrong-headed ideas about the individual and government, to which the movie is in thrall. At one point Rearden, on trial, gives a speech that is supposed to be inspiring, about how the real innovators are expected to have "no wealth, no recognition, no respect." This is supposed to have resonance in a time when the rich are paying lower income taxes than ever before, when Steve Jobs in life and death is lionized for his entrepreneurial spirit, and when whole websites and hardware lines are devoted to MySpace and YouTube and i. But so it goes for a movie whose most famous performers are Sean Hannity and Juan Williams, playing themselves. Thus does "Objectivism" find kinship with "Fair and Balanced."

The worse thing is that the filmmakers are deliberately softening Rand's message. Not just in the abridgment of her endless speeches, which was inevitable, but in the way it avoids her nastiest explications. For the Taggart Tunnel disaster, the most notorious episode in the novel,  in which a bunch of "altruists" die in a train wreck and pages are spent detailing how they absolutely deserved to die, is in the movie stripped of all its misanthropic bristle. In the book the passengers suffocate from the exhaust of a coal engine that scummy politician Kip Chalmers insisted on using, thus making them the bringers of their own destruction. In the movie, the coal engine collides with another, incoming, train, making it sort-of-not-entirely-their-fault. During the scene we see we see the passengers coughing and choking and hitting the emergency break. We are clearly meant to empathize with them, however stupid Chalmers was for ordering the use of the coal engine. Which is an entirely defensible, human point of view to take, but it is the farthest thing of Ayn Rand's, and it is intellectual cowardice to pretend otherwise, particularly in an adaptation of a book whose endgame replays this scenario--stupid people bring about their own death and deserve it--on a global level.

Atlas Shrugged, Part II was announced with the subtitle, Either/Or. Taken from the title of Book II in the novel, it's a fitting encapsulation of its fundamental problem. It's neither the outright shit-show of its predecessor, nor is it a madcamp masterpiece on the order of The Fountainhead (nor is it a quality movie, but that was never going to happen). Instead, its technical abilities are just good enough for it to put forth its ideas and arguments which are by and large unworthy of merit or consideration. As was Rand's novel, it is a mediocrity, which in its Manichean, worldview, is the worst sin of all.


  1. Readers want more literary criticism and not film criticism, even though your game is film criticism.

  2. I would contend that Ayn Rand wasn't wrongheaded with her ideas of the individual and the government. She was spot on. The Individual is that the government has no right to take from the wealth of those who have earned it and give it to those who have not even so much as lifted a finger to do for themselves. That scene where Rearden makes the case that the true innovators are supposed to have no wealth, no recognition, and no respect is very appropriate. It's precisely what the progressives and their allies in the Occupy movement seem to think. They seem to think that people are just supposed to produce products, create businesses and hire people out of the goodness of their hearts instead of a desire to make money. The film is is where we'll find ourselves if the current heavy-handed government take from the producers and give to the parasites course continues. Soon we might all have to ask "Who is John Galt?"

  3. I've written enough about Atlas Shrugged that I really don't feel like engaging Jonathan's comment at length and will instead let it stand as a useful counter-example to what I'm saying. Either you believe there is a mass of "parasites" who "have not even so much as lifted a finger to do for themselves," and that progressives and the Occupy Movement think someone like, say, Steve Jobs are "supposed to have no wealth, no recognition, and no respect"--or you don't. I view such types who do with a mixture of sadness and amazement, with a dash of fear and loathing.

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