Saturday, November 19, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 - Film Analysis

I've been intrigued by the name John Galt since I first read it in progressive news articles discussing the Tea Party, specifically supportive protestors who had the phrase adorned on posters at rallies. This interest was exacerbated by the awesome privilege of living in an area where Who is John Galt? license plate frames are worn with pride and Tea Party stickers tastefully litter rear windows of SUVs. It got me thinking; who is John Galt?

I want to say, first, how stupid of a phrase that is to represent such power; it's clunky, it's awkward yet it's touted as perfect poetry every time it's uttered. It parades as philosophical and thought provoking but it's anything but clever and it always serves to halt questioning and leave mystery. It is touted in the same vein as "because God says so," a classic favorite for the religious right.

I started with Ayn Rand's nearly 900 page novel but it was difficult to commit to something I didn't particularly care for the first few pages in. The book, very early on, provides a forum for character Eddie Willers' consumerist gush; I wasn't in line with his thinking but then I was biased going into this adventure.

When I read that the Koch Brothers were showing the film at a recent gala protested by the 99%, I decided I would see if the film could keep my interest better than the book; the odds were far better.

Hell Comes to Santa Clarita

I thought I'd note that the overpopulatedoverdevelopedethically puresuburban hell that is Santa Clarita, played host to some of the films homier slices of country life along two lane roads such as the Cafe Inn. Why mention it? Anytime taken to rag on Los Angeles County's Most Business Friendly City is time well utilized.

Where is Everybody?

In the opening of the film, facts and news snippets come at you quicker than you can effectively process and think about any of them as Taggart Transcontinental's Rio Norte Line is about to go off track. The film effectively had no time to explore Eddie's consumer idealism; understandable.

Barren streets of New York in 2016?
Very quickly the viewer begins to learn a little about the universe of the film. It seems as if this universe exists in a vacuum of which only inhabitants seem to be crooked politicians, union representatives, lobbyists, executives, CEOs, retired CEOs, a handful of labor workers, a handful of middle-class Americans at the welfare truck, and a handful of destitute. New York's streets appear impossibly barren but there's no answers as to where literally millions of people are; the store fronts are closed, there is a scattering of a bum or two but where is the bustling population of New York in these exterior shots?

I had to halt the film and think about that; what was the movie indicating by having so few people? Perhaps Rand went into detail about how America became so empty, however, the film doesn't seem to. Maybe America's majority population has been outsourced by this time; or maybe the film wishes to deny the idea of overpopulation by making streets and sidewalks appear empty, a stark contrast to the truth. And even in the gas crisis of the film, there are no indications of large groups of the population loading up onto these trains or waiting at stations yet it's declared the only affordable way to get freight and passengers around. There's little mention of any employment crisis but I guess that's because the population is so minimal; no family business or small business types seem to exist, no artists or designers, only top executives and the destitute...a new dream for America.

The film and it's lack of populace indicates how inconsequential people are viewed in terms of business and politics; the public has no bearing and is unaffected by the policies of business and government so we'll just remove them from the equation. It's as if this universe existed in a bubble of just politics and business but, we know our country is far more than that; Atlas Shrugged, however, can't be bothered to tackle populace problems.

This Could Change the World

The only issues this film is prepared to tackle is those of big business and evil, regulatory government that pushes everyone to work and distribute at the same rate and according to need.

I find it hard to imagine our government pushing heavy regulation on any corporation in a time of great strife but I can let this go; it's a movie, let them have their reality. The film, however, seems to indicate that corporate money is dirtying politics but not in favor of corporations over people, as in our reality, but instead corporations pitting against each other to achieve some sort of Communist symbiosis but this is where things get far-fetched. I doubt any corporation would make moves that would push government policy towards corporate equality; that would only hurt them if conditions were ever right for them to run with their success. This goes against the integral ideas of business of working hard and moving up.

The film is liberal as it paints the picture for too much corporate control of politics but pollutes this with the idea that the government should, instead, have a hands off approach to business; zero accountability to anybody and only using 'the market' to regulate it. The market, in this case, being the corporations they work with; not consumers because, remember, they are all but non-existent in this universe.

"Dagny, this could change [our] world." 
In one scene, Dagny Taggart and Henry Rearden discover the ingenious engine in the abandoned 20th Century Motor Company office; Rearden declares that "...[the engine] could change the world." In reality, it would really only change Taggart and Rearden's world but, despite their disinterest in people, they like to feel like part of the solution. They surely would have no desires to share the engine with the other companies so other rail lines would become obsolete and Rearden and Taggart would rule the rails until such time as they betrayed each other for a little extra scratch; the accumulation of wealth indicating their supreme success. And why wouldn't they; neither of them have any concept of help or loyalty, if one of them falls behind, so be it. Or maybe they respect each other far more, however, they cannot be bothered to extend that respect to anyone else; not that anyone else in this film was portrayed as respectable, only slimy and as equally as motivated by money as everyone else...and EVERYONE is motivated by money according to this film.

Tread Heavily and Carry a Big Cock

One of the early scenes of the film shows Rearden's enamored secretary delivering him messages from two science organizations, in regards to his new metal no doubt, and one from a labor union. Rearden asks for them all to be filed which means thrown away. This short scene becomes a glowing illustration of Rearden's large-cock business ethics; his oppressive loafer on the the head of his labor employees though few are ever seen and his rail production appears completely automated. It seems Rearden Steel offers very few jobs.

The scene illustrates how much disregard corporate executives have towards their workers; labor unions would improve the lives and conditions of his workers but he has no care for this, it will only impede his success. This is nice thinking for a bubble, however, it doesn't work in a real world setting because people are affected by it and they don't stay as quiet about oppression as this film would prefer.

An Artist at Heart

There is a scene in which Rearden gives to his pompous wife a bracelet made from the first pour of Rearden Metal. This effectively paints Rearden in a positive light; an 'artist' at heart, someone with a sentimental side. His wife, however, is extremely dismissive of the gesture and barely tries to hide it; her friends support her dismissal.

"Who are you wearing?" asks Lillian Rearden.
That scene can serve to highlight some of Rearden's lack of compassion for people, however, unlike most movies, it would lead to an eventual divorce and marriage to someone who made you happy; it would lead to Rearden becoming less a businessman and more a man of the people. This film takes the, perhaps, more realistic approach of affair and oppression in response to inadequacies at home.

The film seems more focused on removal of worthy figures from the general population to Atlantis, John Galt's unseen haven. Instead of people working to better the nation for everyone, these people choose to retreat and start over; basically leaving us to destroy ourselves. It's this lack of connection or compassion that makes corporations so toxic to the general public; no feeling whatsoever to the people who make your product, buy your product, create the roads, run the websites, etc. No connection to the pawns of this world.

An Altruistic Horror Story

It's easier for consumable media, such as this film, to take a stand rather than meander and philosophize on both sides of the issue; this movie takes a stand for individual achievement and success, however, it's unlikely that an all-encompassing collective movement would ever stand in the way of individual achievement being rewarded fairly. The film implies that ingenious inventions will only exist in an entirely for-profit society and with that ideology; the movement of open-source software is in direct contrast to this line of thinking.

The film asserts negative implications of allowing individual achievements going unrewarded and forcing all innovation be made available to all for the sake of equal competition. Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park discussed the notion of a cancer cure in the same vein; suggesting pharmaceutical scientists could have long ago released a vaccine for the currently incurable disease but would not because they would be unable to profit from it, instead being forced to charge a nominal fee, at most, to allow wide access to those afflicted. I don't believe anyone desires to penalize individual success but the public does tend to believe that individual success should not be at the expense of society. The film implies withholding is good for everybody but there's no logic in existence to make that idea a correct assertion.

In the real world, the arguments are not against the success of an individual but against hoarding of the elites to the point where it's harming those who aren't part of the elite. A certain degree is expected or else why would anyone work for the elites, however, a certain degree of altruism is expected from those who achieve yearly salaries many of us could not fathom or imagine needing in our lifetime. Executives' success is built upon the labor of others, this can never be forgotten but that's where we are today where the only praise is given to more money.

Recently, Sarah Palin asserted that the 99% just seek a bailout of their own; this is untrue, they desire an entire government structure change and a alteration of social priorities away from money. The last thing they want is endless amounts of money to form the new elite.

The Only Regulation is Unfair Regulation

More oppressive regulation on business?! How could they?
There are a few scenes in the film which portray Orren Boyle and James Taggart working with the government to impede and equalize the progress and success of Rearden Steel; the idea of jealous competition pushing to even the playing field. Perhaps if corporations were entirely excluded from political proceedings they would be unable to influence policy against each other in their dog-eat-dog, money-focused culture.

Henry Rearden and Dagny Taggart prefer the notion of self-governance and governance by the invisible hand of the market but this idea implies corporations will always act in the best interest of the public because corporations are people too. This corporate humanity begins to get convoluted, however, when executives begin to lose feeling for their own home country and people. With that kind of disloyalty, dare I say treason, it's hard to imagine corporations could EVER have any care for what happens in America when they can easily and without much heart-break pack up and move somewhere else; maybe even space soon enough.

There's also the notion of those employed to check and enforce business regulations; should further unemployment be tolerated to allow corporations to self-regulate? Should those practices continue if it's found to not be in the best interest of the general population? The corporate CEOs would assert a need for zero accountability on the basis that the people will always be against corporate practices because they lack the appropriate insight to understand the harmlessness of corporate ways.

A Bureaucratic Nightmare

At one point in the film, a union representative visits Dagny Taggart at the office for her John Galt Line insisting workers would not be riding on the line's untested, unapproved Rearden Metal rails. Dagny fires back at the representative insisting they cannot have it both ways, that is, demanding employment and forcing workers to halt their work. Unions are painted as villains of industry when the relationship between unions and employers should always be a symbiotic tug-of-war for company productivity and employee rights and safety.

In our world, if executives shared any bit of the burden, then perhaps they could open themselves to some altruism by maintaining employees in times of economic hardship.

What's Wrong with the World?

What person has never asked this question; the corporate elite ponder on it as well but they never once seem to think that the issues stem from everyone's focus being money. It's clear every character in the film is, at least somewhat, motivated by money (or sport in the case of Francisco D'Anconia); the film touts the idea that there is not a person on this earth unmotivated by money. This is an obvious falsehood especially in a nation of liberal pot-smoking, free-thinkers. We have passionate artists, programmers, designers, photographers, filmmakers all hoping to make money but are not motivated by it; people who'd rather, do as the businessmen do, and reinvest it into their work and eventual success. Not everyone wants to be a millionaire because of the responsibility it carries (or should carry); substantially less want to be billionaires.

A butler to every household; the new American dream.
In the universe of this film, Henry Rearden, hardly a selfless man, is a protagonist, or hero. This is entirely acceptable, Rearden is somewhat decent and honorable, however, this film depicts a world where the 'good guy' has no friends. A man with his principles, apparently, will stand alone in contrast to the majority and their ideals. Hollywood tends to favor a hero character being the one surrounded by friends; the villain brooding alone with, perhaps, a loyal subordinate or two. Atlas Shrugged is definitely in contrast to 'liberal' Hollywood but its message could be poisonous to the upcoming generation longing to be that lone wolf CEO with little care for anyone but themselves. Unfortunately, a lack of care has a way of manifesting itself in a way that's equally as bad as a hatred for mankind.