Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Seek the Original: Atlas Shrugged part 2

[[Updated on March 29, 2013]]

It occurred to me my original review of Atlas Shrugged was long and unfocused. I made the mistake of writing a review right after I finished reading it. I didn't give myself enough time to digest it. So here's a shorter review of:

Atlas Shrugged
by Ayn Rand

This is Ayn Rand's world:

The world is divided into two groups of people: rich entrepreneurs, and poor parasites. People who take responsibility for their lives by starting businesses and making lots of money and earning prosperity; and people who just want to skate by in life and are content to live off the prosperity of others.

Poor people are poor because they're lazy, and they want to leech off the hard work of others. The rich are the people who take command, get things done, earn their lives, start great businesses and acquire massive amounts of wealth. A person's wealth is the measure of his value to society. In other words: if a person is rich, it can be deduced he or she is doing something of great importance to amass such wealth.

If you are not an entrepreneur, you are lazy, have not taken responsibility for your life, and are just feeding off the effort of everyone else who has. The rich are doing all the work in this country, building skyscrapers, railroads, search engines, etc. They make the world go 'round, and the rest of the people are worthless parasites.

But the rich have grown tired of these lazy freeloaders stealing their success, so the rich revolt against the poor. That's right. In Ayn Rand's world, the rich are in fact being exploited by poor people who refuse to take responsibility for their lives and work for a living.

In fact, society as we know it arose because these freeloading poor people gathered around rich people to steal their prosperity. People who could not survive on their own gathered around the people who could, and leeched off their hard work. They created an elaborate system to support their lifestyle. Communism. In all its forms, it's a system that says people who do no work should be rewarded, and the rich people who do all the work don't deserve to be better off than people who don't work. Hell, any form of government is, from Rand's point of view, an elaborate mechanism to steal the rich man's wealth and give it to the poor people who refuse to earn it for themselves.

Ideas such as charity, laws and the like were created to keep the rich person from getting too prosperous and leaving the parasites behind. Giving a person charity only encourages that person to be dependent on you; a good person would deny him help because that would spur him to help himself. Parasitic people created religion itself to make the rich person feel guilty for having ambition to succeed. Greed, ambition, perseverance became demonized to keep the rich person in his place so he will continue to do all the work and allow the parasites to steal his success.

It's gotten to the point where lazy, poor people don't even realize they're conspiring to steal the rich man's wealth. They do it completely subconsciously now, and without even realizing it, they're sowing their own destruction by enacting communist ideals. Communism impedes the rich man's ability to work, which has the effect of hurting the parasites.

What's the story? What's it matter?! Nobody praises this book for its wonderful prose or engaging characters or bold setting. Everyone is content to ignore the terrible, soap-opera dialogue, the poorly crafted narrative description, the heavy-handed moralizing and booooooooooring monologues. Instead they choose to examine the message. The MESSAGE!

Atlas Shrugged is a longwinded, heavy-handed, ineptly told story about the rich realizing the poor have been exploiting them for centuries, and enacting a grand conspiracy to cut off the parasites' food supply. The rich will no longer allow the poor to live off their hard work. They're going on strike.

Rand says, in short: the world will be a better place without all these poor people who refuse to work for a living; they just want a handout and they want to make the rich pay for it. Oh, how much better off the world would be without the poor. The rich will live happily ever after!

There is so much to say about this idea. One, it goes against everything anthropology has shown. Prehistoric people banded together for mutual protection and cooperated to survive.

Two, religion was not created to keep the rich person feeling guilty. It was created to explain things which early humans had no explanation for, such as why volcanos erupt and earthquakes happen, why the stars move and the planets move independently of them. I'm not sure if this is a fictional metaphor, or if Rand really believed it, but I tend to think she's serious.

Three, according to Rand, if a person is rich, he is obviously doing something very beneficial to society to earn such wealth. But just because a person is rich doesn't mean he is valuable to society. Most of the people who are rich today earned their wealth by playing games with the money system, not by producing something valuable to society. Whenever someone says "hard work" is the path to success, I just want to punch them. Nobody got rich doing the "hard work." They got rich by investing, by owning the business and getting others to work for them, then keeping the profits from other peoples' labor. Not everyone, of course, but by and large it is a gross oversimplification to say wealth = value.

Four, just because someone is not an entrepreneur doesn't mean he isn't taking responsibility for his life.

Five, if a person is unemployed, it doesn't mean he's lazy. Dismissing a person as unemployed, or poor, because he refuses to get a job and earn a living implies there are always enough jobs for everyone. Before the recession, many people had stable careers. Many people had done everything they were supposed to do to earn their lives. Then they got laid off.

"Well, it's their responsibility to learn new skills and adapt! Don't stay poor; go out there and do something else! The government should just stop giving handouts and helping people with food stamps and medicare and everyone should just work for a living!"

This is like saying "well, I'm tired of everyone wishing we could go to Mars. Stop whining about it and just do it already!"

To everyone who says things like this: stop it! Stop dismissing it as something simple and easy. Like going to Mars, there is so much more to it than that. There aren't always enough jobs for everyone, college is prohibitively expensive and its value has been inflating over the last few decades, and it isn't always as easy as just getting another job. Every civilization throughout history has rich people and poor people. Haves and Have-nots. But it's not because the poor are just plain lazy and refuse to work. There tends to be a nobility keeping things that way.

I'm not saying there are no lazy freeloaders in the world, but dismissing the unemployed and underemployed out of hand is arrogant and shows just how out of touch you are with how the majority of people have to live. Most of us were taught "do work, get reward." We weren't taught "use money to make money," or "get others to do work for you."

Six, not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Think about it. 200 million people all trying to start a business in the USA alone. There are only so many things you can sell. The market for everything would quickly become so saturated there would be no profit left for anybody.

Not everyone has the aptitude to start and run a business, just like not everyone has the aptitude to sing, act, or teach. Just because a person starts a business doesn't mean it will make him rich. Many businesses fail. Holding people to this standard is unrealistic.

Seven, Rand portrays the end result of socialist policies very clearly: it yields an entire population of wussies. Wimpy, whiny people who don't want to put forth effort to do anything, but expect a handout, expect everyone to do things for them and refuse to take any initiative or personal responsibility. They rely on the government to provide for them.

Funny how a lot of people in America seem to be this way, and America is still the most conservative nation on the planet. A lot of people are still wimpy, whiny, refuse to take responsibility for their actions, are incapable of thinking for themselves and expect to be provided for--but not by the government. By corporations. Companies competing for customer loyalty have pandered to their every whim and desire, and this has generated an entire population of wimpy, whiny, helpless people who expect companies to provide for them. Who expect their every need to be met and for everything to require no effort or hassle.

Big government is not influencing business. Big business is influencing government. I argue government is not the enemy. Businesses that are too big to fail are the enemy.

Eight, people who call any government tax "theft at gunpoint," or regulation a hindrance on business are quoting Ayn Rand, and she portrays both as such. However, the laws and taxes passed in Atlas Shrugged are intentionally trying to derail business! People in the book are actively trying to make it harder for them to do anything! Real laws are not passed for that purpose.

Nine, don't forget what happened before the government passed laws that hindered business: companies hired private mercenaries to murder people and harass workers into submission (it's mentioned in The Men Who Built America). If not for those laws, you can bet business would be doing the same thing today.

Ten, big business of the past abhorred competition. Ayn Rand says competition is the product of the human intellect, and when businesses are free to compete without restrictions, it drives innovation and increases everyone's standard of living. To an extent, yes, but Rockefeller himself saw competition as something to be avoided, not nurtured, because competition was a threat to his survival. Ayn Rand seems to think things were better before laws were passed that prevented businesses from doing whatever they pleased, but a simple look at the reality of the world back in the early 1900's will show otherwise.

As I wrote in my review of The Men Who Built America, laws do not impede business. The laws created the even playing field and forced businesses to compete the way Rand romanticizes.

While I agree everyone has a responsibility to make his own way in the world, it's just plain bullshit to dismiss everyone who is not rich as a drain on society. Ayn Rand's "every man for himself" philosophy is killing America, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

People actually believe this. Atlas Shrugged is perhaps the most important book anyone can read because it is so applicable to the real world. Certain people actually believe it's true. They take Ayn Rand for a prophet, and if only everyone would do as they did there'd be no poor people. Again, to an extent, yes, personal responsibility is a must, but the arrogance of that worldview is astounding. I highly recommend reading some Charles Dickens after Ayn Rand for balance.

This attitude of rich v/s poor is nothing new. Ayn Rand is like if Ebenezer Scrooge never got that visit from the three ghosts of Christmas and wrote a book about how the poor are lazy parasites feeding off his hard work by demanding charity and workhouses and wages. (Real Ghostbusters, anyone?) Scrooge himself said he "can't afford to make idle people merry" at Christmastime, referring to the poor. Because poor people are poor because they're lazy, not because people like him who run the businesses play games with the money system, crash the economy, cut and outsource jobs, decrease wages, and then blame the people for being poor and out of work.

Hoo boy, I could go on and on yet again about it. This is the short review. For more discussion of Rand's philosophy, see the big review.

Now let's talk about the sequel nobody asked for...

Atlas Shrugged part 2: The Strike (2012)
starring Samantha Mathis and Jason Beghe

More agenda. Just like with The Men Who Built America, someone was hoping to influence the election. I never would have recognized it if I hadn't read Atlas Shrugged when I did.

I thought it was ironic when the History Channel series presented the history of the titans of industry, it ended up making the progressive's point as well. Depicting the giant corporations in the early 1900's intimidating employees to vote for their candidate, contributing billions of dollars to influence the election and put their man in Washington so he wouldn't require businesses to improve wages and safety... It all looked too familiar. Someone must have realized it was so similar to what was happening in the present that they delayed the last episode until after the election, fearing it might have the opposite effect.

But Atlas Shrugged 2 was not delayed. In fact, it was toted as a film that would change the election.

On Rotten Tomatoes, only one major critic gave this a positive review, but three-quarters of the audience rated it high. I think these people, too, chose to ignore the storytelling and filmmaking and focus on the MESSAGE! Because the MESSAGE is just so deep!

So they got a whole new cast, a new director, a new crew... Hell, this isn't a sequel. This is a whole new franchise! Even with a new cast and crew and director, the same problems remain: the movie totally fails to tell the story, and when it actually tries, it's heavy-handed, preachy and boring, just like the book on which it's based.

Part two of the book is all about Dagny searching for the inventor of an engine that can pull electricity from the air itself. Cheap, unlimited energy is at our fingertips, but the inventor is nowhere to be found, and Dagny can't figure out how to make the engine work. How she can figure out what the engine does at all is a mystery even in the book, but just roll with it.

Meanwhile prominent businessmen are disappearing and nobody knows why, but there could be some correlation between the government pushing business around, telling them how to operate, which only makes it harder for them to stay profitable.

The book tries to create this sense of mystery about who John Galt is, but even in the book it's so blindingly obvious who he is a child would guess it. The book wastes so much time building up to the shocking revelation we saw coming hundreds of pages ago it's laughable. Furthermore, the characters in the book can't figure out that communism is sweeping the nation; they can't figure out they're surrounded by wimpy idiots who want a handout; they totally fail to see the pattern and it makes them look really, really stupid.

The first movie didn't bother to establish any kind of mystery about John Galt, which was a good choice, but it also didn't establish what he's doing and why. It didn't show how the government pushed Wyatt to torch and leave his oil fields to burn. It didn't show how the government's liberal policies are killing business. Now we're in the second movie, and it's time to bring these reasons front and center.

Does it get a point across? Does it tell the story?

Well, a little.

The movie shows that all the woes of the economy are the fault of big government interfering with business. Businesses are failing left and right, but only because of the laws that make it impossible for them to operate at a profit. The people in government don't see that their policies are in fact causing the economic crisis, not helping it, and if they would just get out of the way of the rich entrepreneurs, everything would fix itself. Instead, the government passed laws that keep corporations from setting their own prices, firing or hiring anybody, and from producing anything new, all in the name of the public good.

People are protesting the greedy rich people, when in fact the rich are the only ones who have the knowhow and determination to make a difference in the world. The protests are not in the book. The act of protesting requires a spirit of determination and enterprise, which the ordinary people in Rand's book lack. This was a direct snub against the Occupy Wall Street protestors--the filmmakers trying to reach the people they thought were protesting against hard work, wealth and success.

But all of this comes out of nowhere. There's no reason for it to happen, and it's never shown what's going on or why. In the book, the reason is very clear: the entire country is made up of wimpy people who want a handout, and a communist attitude is sweeping the country, inspiring people to enact these policies. The movie doesn't even show why these people are protesting. It doesn't show what kind of economic crisis has swept the nation, or what caused it. It's all about the government being the cause of all economic woes.

The same problem that killed the first movie kills the second: unless you read the book, you will have no idea what's happening, or why. The book makes damn well sure you know what its point is, and it drills it into your skull a minimum of six times per chapter. The movie can't convey its own ideology for two main reasons.

The first: Atlas Shrugged is not a visual story. There's nothing in it that can be conveyed through action, so trying to make it into a movie in the first place is ludicrous.

The best the movie can do is convey little flashes of Ayn Rand's MESSAGE through the dialogue. Characters occasionally say things like, "what right do you have to expect me to produce and for you to consume?" "It's because of your government policies we're in this mess right now." "History shows the only way to make the trains run on time is to nationalize them."

All the movie shows is that CEOs of billion-dollar corporations are disappearing because of the government. Taken without context, it comes out of nowhere and the reason the government is doing this in the first place is not clear. Now granted in the book the exact reason isn't revealed directly until part 3, but it's still obvious even in part two.

The book establishes that the rich people in Ayn Rand's world make things, and everyone else takes what they make. All we get in the movie are a couple speeches, like the one about money during Jim Taggart's wedding. Money is the root of all evil, says Jim, but then Francisco d'Anconia asks everyone: what is the root of money? He lectures that money is a wonderful thing; it represents man's hard work and if a man has a lot of money and if he acquired it honorably and not through extortion of other hardworking people, then his money represents all the good he's done for society and he deserves his wealth.

He means "extortion" in terms of unjust taxes and laws. He doesn't see how easy it is to make the progressive's point with the same word?

He also says that when people stop chasing money--when money ceases to be the tool men use to deal with each other, then it becomes an economic system of "pull." Men gaining influence with other men, men using other men as tools, making shady back room deals to take from others what they did not produce.

Really, Francisco? Crony politics would not exist in a monetary society, and people with money would never use it to gain "pull" with other people? Like, say, big business buying politicians to gain "pull" with the government? You don't even need to read the book to pick apart that speech.

This is the second reason the movie can't convey its own ideology: it was changed to fit the times. Ayn Rand's book is all about the dangers and evils of communism. The movie's message was updated to be anti-government. But not every detail was changed. Some details in the movie cry out how the government is evil, but others retain Ayn Rand's anti-communist message, and in this new context, they make no sense and are incredibly out of place.

Again, the producers and financial backers aimed Rand's message at the real-life Occupy Wall Street protestors, as if somebody felt the need to defend the wealthy. Somebody thought the protests were badmouthing success and wealth, but like so many things in life, it wasn't that simple.

And who is Jim Taggart's wife? He marries some girl he met at a generic department store, but the movie doesn't tell us who she is, or even her name. In the book, this girl is one of those people who wants to work for a living and create her own prosperity instead of leeching off someone else's hard work. You won't know that unless you read the book. The wedding is abrupt, only a set piece for Francisco's speech. Clearly audiences care more about philosophical speeches than about who these people are.

The movie almost makes a point that these rich business owners are the job creators, and to pass laws that restrict their actions is to hurt the economy. But just like in the book, the government regulations in this movie are intentionally trying to make it harder for businesses to do anything. Not to stop worker deaths, not to prevent another Love Canal incident, not to prevent trusts. Of course they'll have that contrived result.

This is like a Christian movie: low budget, heavy-handed, and so lame nobody who isn't already born again doesn't already agree with Rand's philosophy would even tolerate it.

It is better than the first movie. I'll give it that. There is some action, the speeches give a little context for what's happening, and the government interference is more overt. The first movie didn't even try. But because the story was only updated halfway, its point is lost.

Maybe if this were set in the 1950's with a heavy-handed anti-communist agenda, it might have been an ok movie within the historical context. Instead, the filmmakers tried to shoehorn the story into a near-future date to be more generally anti-government, warning of the dangers of Obama's policies and what happens when government gets too big and tries to tell big business what to do. I'm surprised the filmmakers didn't make the president black to drive home the point.

Why are Americans so worried about government getting too big, but totally don't notice when business gets too big? You know, the Founding Fathers wrote the almighty Constitution on the belief that too much power concentrated in one place was the real evil in the world.

Other than a few lines of dialogue here and there, the MESSAGE does not come through clearly and will likely leave audiences puzzled because the movie still doesn't establish who these people are and what they're doing. It can't decide if it wants to convey the modern anti-government message, or Ayn Rand's anti-communist message.

Read the book if you wanna know what's going on. The movie is not good enough to influence anyone, let alone an election.

Appendix: nitpicky production notes

If the rich decided to up and leave, would the world even notice? If the super rich decided to go on strike, what would happen? Would there really be no one in the world with any ability left? What sort of valuable work do they do, without which the entire world would grind to a halt?

Dagny has an engine that can pull static electricity from the air. I don't think the guy who owns the coal mines (Ken Danagger) will be happy about that. If nobody needs to burn coal to generate power anymore, that'll put him out of business overnight. Does Ayn Rand really think he would be ok with the engine John Galt created? Judging by what the great titans of industry did, he'd probably try to destroy it to protect himself. (Or buy it out and make sure it's never heard from again.) That's how corporations behave. That's what real businessmen do. Competition is not honorable. Competition is a threat, and they will respond to it like a wounded animal.

Hank Rearden runs the cleanest steel mill in the world. No dirt anywhere!

The producers couldn't get a real courtroom for the courtroom scene? Where are they?! High school auditorium!? College lecture hall!? Not to mention they used the fake audience gasp when Rearden's sentence is suspended. Lost all respect for the people behind this film as soon as I heard it. If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch this:

Hollywood, please STOP IT!

Only one actor I recognized: Robert Picardo! His role is so small... and he gives the second most believable performance in the movie.

Paul McCrane as Wesley Mouch is the best. He plays the part very well. Just the kind of evil bureaucrat you love to hate.

Third best: the Taggart repairman who comes to service the broken train Dagny is riding towards the end. He's only there for a couple minutes to explain what happened to that factory Dagny and Hank found in the first movie, and for those minutes the movie connected me with real storytelling, and it was interesting. Then it went back to agenda.

I hate it when filmmakers show the end of their movie at the beginning just to get the audience's attention. It reeks of bad storytelling--like admitting your story is so weak you have to show the fight scene at the end just to get the audience to pay attention to the beginning.

Isn't there room for some balance here? Obviously too much government interference is a very bad thing. Just look at what decades of dictatorship did to Russia's development. Then again, not enough interference and we'll have another mortgage scheme wreaking the economy.

And Dagny's bracelet is made of Rearden metal. Why isn't it blue??

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