Sunday, May 8, 2011

Reflections on Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I saw it the moment it opened, 12:10 PM, Friday, April 15. The work was credible. I found it impossible to imagine seeing the movie without having read the book. So, for me, it was a matter of my own visualizations versus their realizations.   Overall, the movie is everything I wanted and a bit less.  This is true, also, of  Pride and Prejudice or the Star Trek franchise.  Atlas Shrugged is primarily for fans.  

[Note: These comments are based on earlier posts to Rebirth of Reason and Objectivist Living discussion boards.  They are edited and amended for this presentation.]

The film has been compared to My Big Fat Greek Wedding which had near-zero traffic at first but which stayed in theaters for a year, building a following.  Atlas can go to dollar cinemas at the malls for months to come.  Producers of the 1939 Wizard of Oz were reluctant to take on a story that was not popular and which failed as a film in 1910.  I hope that we don't have to wait 30 years for the next attempt. 

I felt that Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt did the most credible job of projecting the character. Taylor Schilling delivered her lines well, but she has not deeply felt what it is like to grow up around trains, major in engineering, and all the rest. Her acting, like all of their acting, was competent acting. But Beckel really looked and felt like an oil man from Colorado  (In the book, Wyatt is a young genius, and Beckel is not young, but that is a quibble.)  Grant Bowler did not feel like a man who bought his first steel mill at 25, after being hungry on the streets at 12. The exchange of the bracelet could have been done closer to the book.  The ride along the John Galt Line could have been shot from the nose of the cab.   But it was not my movie to make.  I appreciate the work of those who did, the producers, director, and actors.  I was happy to see Armin Shimerman as Dr. Potter.  Shimerman played the Ferengi, Quark, on the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series.  (Quark runs a bar; and the Ferengi are consumate traders.)  At a Trekker con, I asked him if he had read any Ayn Rand.  He said that he read The Fountainhead and would be revisiting Rand to add depth to his character.
On the Objectivist Living discussion board, Kat, on 15 April 2011 - 10:05 PM, said:The Owen Kellogg scene was almost comical because the guy was such a dweeb you would think Dagny would be firing him rather than giving him a promotion.
I replied:  I liked that. I understood it, to the core. In a rational world where people who are motivated by the ideas portrayed in Rand's work, who do you think would be in charge? Our world is a collectivist tribalist remnant which is only now discovering individualism. Even the LP convention organizes people alphabetically by state. Is that individualist thinking?  Dagny would see the brilliant mind. When she said that she was "grooming him for management" what do you think she meant? He just needs a couple of classes or seminars in public speaking and project management. It is in our world of the collectivist corporation and the altruist state that the Owen Kelloggs of the world do not find leadership within complex organizations.
The theme of "the mind on strike" is deeper as every social structure knows social loafing.  We call them "slackers" because when not pulling their own weight, it is their segment of the line that hangs loose. The demise of General Motors, Chrysler, and Bear Stearns was due as much to internal expropriation of talent and "sanction of the victim" operations as anything the government did -- after all, every firm suffers government intervention in some way, though, granted that software development is not the same as investment banking and heavy industry.  But, that, too, points to the deeper theme: common wage employees who see themselves as sole entrepreneurs offering their best effort for the the highest rewards were not welcome in the corporations that failed.  Long ago, they were attracted to other kinds of work, other employers, as other workers were drawn to the failing corporations for non-objective motives. 

Even though Atlas Shrugged is a philosophical detective story about the theft and recovery of genius, this is primarily a political movie, as many people read  Atlas as a political novel.  However, the book's three parts were named for metaphysical axioms.  Dialog and narrative integrate epistemology with ethics all through the book. 

Ultimately, while the conflict between government and business is obvious, deeper is the nature of those in any social context who carry the project on their shoulders despite the loafers.  ("Social loafing" is a known fact.  In economics it more formally labeled the "problem of the free rider" or defined by various "externalities."   The counter presentation is the "tragedy of the commons."  Tragic though it be, no one suggests doing away with the commons.)  That applies to the people within a corporation - or within a government agency: police and military face the problem of "goldbricks."  In the book,  it always comes back to metaphysics and epistemology.  The movie does not hinge on those conflicts.

It could.  In a different day, a different Atlas could be an explicitly philosophical movie, derived from metaphysics and epistemology, in which the political conflicts are seen as expressions of deeper motives.

 It could be told from the point of view of John, Frisco, and Ragnar at Patrick Henry University with Profs. Akston and Stadler and follow forward from there, peaking at the 20th Century Motors, bringing Galt to the Taggart Transcontinental, Ragnar at sea, and Frisco a playboy, ending with Dagny's decision to create The John Galt Line.  "Let him come and claim it," she says.  "He will," Francisco replies.  End Part I.  The central "action" would be arguments among the boys and Akston on the proper course of action, on their isolation from Stadler over the State Science Institute.  You might think that a movie cannot be carried by dialog, but what makes Pride and Prejudice, a perennial favorite?  It is the only movie I have watched three incarnations of -- and not a gun, bomb, or starship...

A psychological Atlas could portray the disintegration of James Taggart, from "Don't bother me!" to his realization at the State Science lab machine that he wants to die.  That would be the dark shadow that illuminates Hank Rearden's self-discovery -- a story that could play out in a laissez faire utopia.   Rearden's conflict is really within himself and reflected in his relations with his family, hallmarked by his wife.  The government was largely irrelevant there, but the theme was the same and the action followed the same path: he quit working for his family; he also quit working for the government.  And, as for the mind not working, his was not properly engaged on the problem of Dagny Taggart.  Until Francisco d'Anconia gave him a kick start, Rearden's thinking about romance was not actually thinking at all. 

If you search YouTube for fan-made Atlas Shrugged trailers, you will find several efforts.  This is one of the best by high schoolers:

We will see other complete productions of Atlas Shrugged, created with animation software that allows the director to choose from the full range of Hollywood greats.

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