"Atlas Shrugged, National Review, And The Dangers Of Self-Seriousness"
Ayn Rand’s pomposity has a certain immunity to irony. The unbearable pretentiousness of awful philosophy masquerading as “serious” novels has been a literary punchline for roughly the past 70 years since the Fountainhead, and yet we still have a Vice Presidential candidate who touted Rand’s work as the best “moral case for capitalism” (Adam Smith and John Locke notwithstanding). Rand’s appeal, both in its high school infatuation and more troubling lifelong believer varieties, appears to be enduring. So it’s probably not going to be worth much for me to point out that the new trailer for the new Atlas Shrugged film suggests, among other things, that the government’s first move when “society is collapsing” is seizing America’s supply of patents:
It’s all very Book of Revelations as written by Jamie Dimon. But what makes this mess truly execrable — yes, even more so than the prospect of salvation by corporate boardroom — is the refusal to dial down the aforementioned self-seriousness. The idea that a select number of one percenters could save the world by discovering limitless clean energy and going on strike is intrinsically silly, much like the scene in Independence Day where Will Smith threads an alien spacecraft he’s never flown before through a needle after Jeff Goldblum destroys advanced alien software with a computer virus. But Independence Day has the good sense to cast two talented comedic actors in the lead roles and let them riff. Sure, basically everything that happens in the movie is hilariously implausible, but it doesn’t really matter because the film is winking at the audience the entire time.
Atlas Shrugged can’t do that, because its plot serves principally as the delivery mechanism for a crude political message. Government has to be absurdly anti-capitalistic in a crisis because Rand’s argument itself paints a very simplistic picture of government’s ills. Any ironic pokes at the strangeness of the proceedings would serve to undermine the movie’s central goal. It’s not, then, that seriously drawn far-fetched plots can’t serve as effective allegory — no one who’s familiar with the history of science fiction could say that with a straight face. Rather, the problem with Atlas Shrugged: Part II is that the message corrupts the medium.
A similar effect is on display with National Review‘s cover art for its Romney/Ryan endorsement, which (unintentionally?) aped a bit of Soviet kitsch art that I happen to have at home as part of a propaganda collection:
National Review is, whatever its other merits and faults, a movement conservative outlet. The core defining element of contemporary movement conservatism is elevation of the movement’s goals (which are now basically the Republican Party’s goals as well) to the level of a prime directive. It’s kind of hard when you’re attempting to lionize an establishment political party to get the kind of distance, ironic or otherwise, that’s needed to produce more sophisticated art. Hence why the cover ended up looking like rote Soviet realism — in neither case could the artist do anything but self-seriously laud its subjects given the purpose of the art.