Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Metaphor

The title of the Ayn Rand novel, Atlas Shrugged, is a metaphor. It uses Atlas (the character in Greek mythology condemned by Zeus to shoulder the weight of the heavens) as a symbol of Americans shouldering the weight of a stifling government. The question is posed, “What if Atlas shrugged?”

There is elegance in this formulation. It is both intriguing and subtle.

If you are looking for those attributes in the recently-released movie, Atlas Shrugged Part I, you will be disappointed. The movie is a different kind of metaphor.

The movie distinguishes itself with its lack of subtlety. Writer and producer John Aglialoro works to stay true to the prose in the novel. While he may have satisfied the Ayn Rand purists, he has failed the rest of us.

Ayn Rand’s book, of necessity, has to use the narrative of its characters to help us understand what is going on. The movie should show us, and should do it with visual creativity. That doesn’t happen in Atlas Shrugged Part I. The characters in the movie are employed as voices of the obvious.

Here are some places where liberties could have been taken…

--The disheveled character coming in for a meal at the diner: The waitress is concerned that he may not be able to pay for his meal, and questions his intent. He angrily responds that he has “plenty of money!” That’s fine, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting (and enigmatic) if he would have thrown down a gold coin in payment, along with that parting shot, “Who is John Galt?”

--Dagny Taggart walking the rails in her high heels, and being told by Ellis Wyatt that she is a good manager: Wouldn’t it have been more powerful to show her engaged with her workers, solving problems, and dressed in a hardhat and coveralls? The audience doesn’t quite see her as an effective supervisor when she’s decked out in stilettos on a railroad right-of-way.

--The final scene of the destruction of the Wyatt mining operation: Is it believable that the first responders would allow Dagny to push past them to get near a dangerous structure fire? Does the final message Mr. Wyatt delivers have to be prominently displayed in large handwritten print and posted on a fence post? It seems cartoon-like.

--Ayn Rand created Henry Rearden and Dagny Taggart in the style of mythological characters: They do incredible things and have heroic accomplishments. Is it uplifting to see them engaged in adulterous behavior and then enjoying orange juice the morning after? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to work the sexual tension as long as possible?

--Being a vegan was probably not a popular lifestyle when Ayn Rand wrote her book, yet we see the film focused on Henry and Dagny relishing meat and potatoes. Is it really necessary to make that point?

--Does high-speed rail have a place on mountainous grades and along a twisting river bank? The thought of the lateral “G forces” on the passengers as they make their 150 MPH journey clashes with reality. A sophisticated audience winces.

The film does have an important message, and its timeliness could not be better. A story in the The Wall Street Journal showcases Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius using the heavy-handed political tactics that are depicted in the movie.

Unfortunately, the distraction of the movie’s attempt to stay true to the novel overwhelms us. The film becomes a different kind of metaphor: a metaphor of Republican incoherence.

Republicans find themselves stung by clichés of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” and failing to field electable candidates. The construction of this movie seems to highlight those failings.

Ayn Rand’s work resonates in America today, and we are seeing in real time the examples depicted in her novel. Yet this “teaching opportunity” is lost in Atlas Shrugged Part I. Republicans can’t seem to deliver the message.

Samuel Goldwyn was right: “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.”

UPDATE 5/19/2011:
If you wish to see a really well-written review of the movie (as compared to this post), read P.J.O'Rourke's piece in The Wall Street Journal.

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1 comment:

  1. You said,

    "Republicans find themselves stung by clichés of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat” and failing to field electable candidates. The construction of this movie seems to highlight those failings."

    Very well said!