04.17.11

Braving the Atlas Shrugged Crowd

Allen Barra went to see the low-budget, poorly reviewed film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which has targeted a Tea Party audience. He found “Shruggies.”

“The Shruggies are coming,” the assistant manager told me, motioning toward the patrons who milled around the lobby in clusters, waiting for admission to the first showing of Atlas Shrugged: Part I, released on Friday. Were there, I asked, a lot of advance ticket sales? “Some,” he said, “most of them groups. What we don’t seem to be getting is the date crowd.”

I had opted for the enormous shopping mall complex in Clifton, New Jersey, about five miles from the Lincoln Tunnel, over the 42nd Street multiplex in Manhattan, because I wanted to see how the followers of Ayn Rand dressed away from the environs of Wall Street and NYU. The crowd proved to be a good one, with the theater about two-thirds full, and at least that many for the late show. Most of the men were wearing faded promotional sweatshirts from heavy metal bands of the 1970s and 1980s and baseball caps, mostly with Jersey Devils logos–not a Yankees cap in sight.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Surely the biggest selling cult novel in American history, Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, had been around long enough to inspire three generations of followers for whom “altruism” and “collectivism” were dirty words. Were there going to be some fireworks tonight? Was I walking into a Tea Party organizational meeting? Some people, I thought, might come dressed as characters from the novel–the men in three piece suits and the women in shirtwaist dresses and heels. I thought this might actually be like going to an ultraconservative version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Most of the pre-movie chatter was about how long everyone had waited for this moment. I suspect they’re going to have to wait a lot longer for Part II.

Though Shruggies may not want to admit it–perhaps because it was a box office failure, as this movie is doomed to be– Atlas Shrugged has much in common with King Vidor’s 1949 version of Rand’s other huge, thick novel, The Fountainhead, based on a screenplay by Rand herself (practically the only time she ever worked on an A-list project).

Pauline Kael skewered it perfectly when she wrote, “ ... this paean to the individualism of ‘superior’ people [is] made in a sleek, hollow, Expressionist style ... It’s an extravaganza of romantic, right-winged camp, with a hyper-articulate superman Roark (played by Gary Cooper) standing in the wind on top of a phallic skyscraper and a fierce, passionate Dominique (Patricia Neal) rising in an open elevator to join him there.” With a brief change or two, that’s a fairly accurate description of several scenes in Atlas Shrugged–minus, of course, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

The followers of the high priestess of individualism kept looking at each other, as if for a clue as to whether or not they liked what they had just seen.

I’m going to go against the grain of nearly every review I’ve read of Atlas Shrugged. I don’t know what critics—most credibly in The Hollywood Reporter and Wall Street Journal are seeing in Taylor Schilling as the railroad magnetess, Dagny Taggart. Blond as a Fox newscaster, I saw her change expressions just once, and that in the final scene. Peter Debruge pegged her in Variety as “a generic business suit Barbie.” I never believed her or Grant Bowler, who plays the male lead, the steel tycoon Hank Reardon, for even a moment. Nor, I’m fairly certain, would I ever recognize them if I saw them again. (My daughter tells me that Bowler played Cooter, the werewolf in True Blood.) For that matter, I don’t believe, I’ve ever seen most of the actors in the film, except, in small parts, the guy who played the sleazy night club comic on Mad Men and another who had a recurring part in Big Love.

I’ve also never seen Paul Johansson ( One Tree Hill, apparently), who plays John Galt–as in the “Who is John Galt?” that everyone keeps asking about (I counted six times in the movie, but I might have missed a couple). I didn’t actually see him as John Galt, he always appeared in the dark with his hat pulled down over his eyes, looking like Lamont Cranston in The Shadow.

But I take issue who those critics who say he can’t direct. Johansson’s direction of Atlas Shrugged, particularly considering the film’s obvious budget limitations, is a heck of a job. Unlike the novel, it never bogs down in ideological sludge and moves swiftly and cleanly from scene to scene. If my memory serves me, the film got through nearly 300 pages of text in a little over 100 minutes, and since I had plans to make it to Chevy’s for crab enchiladas and get home in time for Bill Maher, that was perfect.

I think what some fans of the novel–and perhaps a few critics who haven’t read it but are referring to in their reviews as if it were some kind of classic–don’t want to face up to is that the failings of the film lie primarily in how it reflects Rand’s text. Rand was incapable of creating a genuine literary character; and, like all bad novelists, she saw fiction merely as projections of ideas.

As her two 2009 biographers, Anne C. Heller ( Ayn Rand and the World She Made) and Jennifer Burns ( Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right) made clear, Rand knew little about literature (her favorite novelist was Mickey Spillane), economics, or even philosophy. Despite book titles like For the New Intellectual she wasn’t really a philosopher at all but an ideologue who was contemptuous of democracy. (In a moment of blood-chilling candor from her 1936 novel We the Living, a character representing Rand’s outlook tells a Bolshevik, “I loathe your ideals. I admire your methods.”)

And the only ideology that interested her was, as she once admitted, “pure unadulterated laissez faire capitalism.”

Many have pointed out that the release of Atlas Shrugged is ill-timed, coming as America is just beginning to dig itself out of a financial collapse caused, in large part, by the practical application of Rand’s ideas, most notably the deregulation of capitalism. Her disciple, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, confessed to Congress in October 2008, that after all these years he had found a flaw in her ideology, namely that it had never taken into account “the power of human greed.” (Why hadn’t he?)

But that’s the power of ideology--in the minds of its followers, there can be no flaws. As the fellow sitting in front of me put it, “If we had followed her vision completely, we wouldn’t be in this mess now.”

When the credits rolled, there was some polite and perfunctory clapping. Most of the audience seemed a bit puzzled, as if they didn’t know how they were expected to respond. The followers of the high priestess of individualism kept looking at each other, as if for a clue as to whether or not they liked what they had just seen.

A solitary voice rang out in the darkness, “Thank God Obama saved capitalism!” (My daughter swears it was me.) I heard another voice volunteer, “I can’t wait to see this on Mystery Science Theater.” (I confess, I snickered; the thought of those robots saying over and over “Who is John Galt?” is irresistible.)

On the way out, a serious looking middle-aged man handed my wife a flier that asked in bold: “Where is John Galt?” Answer: “He’s in New Hampshire!!! 20,000 Liberty Activists are moving to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project.” I asked him if the 20,000 was meant “as a factual statement.” He gave me an unsmiling stare, then turned away.

I only missed the first eight minutes of Bill Maher.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece misquoted Pauline Kael. She used the term “Expressionist,” not “expressionless.”

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and the Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.