Friday, April 29, 2011

Meditations after viewing "Atlas Shrugged" for the second time

I went to see "Atlas Shrugged, Part One" for the second time last night, this time with my wife, who saw it for the first time. And I realized several important things.

The first is about the role of preconceptions and expectations in shaping one's enjoyment of a book or film.

There's a world of difference between the perceptions of a typical audience member, and what someone schooled in film production and technique will "see" and appreciate. And I believe that explains -- if only in part -- the huge divergence between the opinions of typical filmgoers to "Atlas Shrugged, Part One" and those of many critics and reviewers.

The typical audience member is looking simply for a good, absorbing story, told effectively enough to hold his interest. The experienced film reviewer or critic, though, will focus far more on the "how" of the film: on cinematic technique, including the nuances of the writing, dialogue, direction, camera-work, etc. At least, technical aspects will enter into his awareness and consideration far more, and have a much greater impact on his enjoyment, than they will for the ordinary movie fan.

This is analogous to how I, as a writer and editor, might read and enjoy novels, as opposed to how most readers do. When I read popular fiction, I wince frequently at "head-hopping" points of view, at adverbial "tags" in dialogue, at unimaginative descriptions and superficial characterizations. However, I also realize that most readers haven't much of a sense of these or other writing issues. They read for the story. The story either holds them or it doesn't. If it does, they forgive or overlook all sorts of technical shortcomings -- if they are even aware of them as such. This explains why some novels are hugely popular, even though they come up short as "literature."

It puts things into perspective to recognize, however, that method is never an end in itself. The point of narrative-driven arts, such as novels and films, is to tell a story: The story is what the audience wants. And the point of technique and method is only to serve the storytelling. They consist of an array of tools and methods used by the artists to tell the tale more effectively -- that's all.

Yes, you may fail to tell a great story effectively because of your technical deficiencies as an artist. On the other hand, however, you may be a master of technique and still be a lousy storyteller, because you may have a lousy story to tell. David Lean, for example, was a consummate director whose body of work includes many film classics. But even bringing all his artistry to bear on "A Passage to India" could not salvage it from being an interminably boring trifle.

Again, for the artist, the point of fiction-writing or movie-making is not to demonstrate one's mastery of The Rules of his profession, then to dazzle his audience with his technical prowess. In fact, it is poor artistry to show off one's technique to the extent that it calls attention to itself -- thus distracting the audience from being "lost in the story." If I'm watching a film and constantly thinking such things as, "Wow! Look at that tracking shot!" -- that is flawed storytelling. Again, the point should be to tell a good story effectively. If you have done that, your work stands up as competent art.

So last evening, I went into "Atlas Shrugged" trying to shed my preconceptions and expectations and view it as pure storytelling. And I found that I liked it much better the second time around, because I was more able to look at it as a work independent of the novel upon which it was based. I thought it was effective storytelling that held up well on its own merits.

Was I still aware of cinematic shortcomings? Of course. On technical grounds, I could have suggested a number of changes that I think would have enhanced the storytelling. But, in answer to the basic question: Was the film, standing completely in isolation from the novel, an absorbing, entertaining, effective presentation of the story of "Atlas Shrugged"? -- my answer is an unequivocal "yes."

My wife is a better test case, since she has never read the novel, and the only way she could have perceived the film is as a stand-alone piece of storytelling. She also liked it, very much. She followed the plot completely, found it entertaining, thought the acting was good, felt that its look and special effects were impressive, and found the message to be disquieting and persuasive. "It was better than I thought it would be," she said to me as we left the theater. She plans to recommend it to her friends.

My wife is, I believe, far more representative of most film-goers than either I or film critics are. Those of us who know something about film-making, and who know and love the novel, are aware of many technical issues that could have been improved upon to make the film even more effective. We also know the novel intimately and are aware of the many divergences between the film and its source material, including psychological subtleties and missing subplots. We view all of these as lost opportunities. We forget that most viewers are not burdened with the baggage of that knowledge.

Anyway, in my first viewing, I couldn't distance myself from that wider context and step into the shoes of somebody seeing the film without any of my preconceptions and expectations. I was able to do that much more this time. As a result, my verdict has changed for the better. I think "Atlas Shrugged, Part One" stands on its own as good, effective, entertaining storytelling -- and thought-provoking storytelling, too. I move it up a notch on a scale of 1-10, giving it an 8.

The second viewing confirmed one other thing for me: Critics who have been lambasting the film are clearly reacting more against its Narrative -- its heroic worldview and individualist values -- than to any cinematic shortcomings. The film holds up far better technically than many films that win their approval -- including films that are not only technically poor, but utterly depraved. It is a good film of a great novel, and absolutely undeserving of the vile pounding it has received from the corrupt cultural Establishment.

If you want some examples of what I mean, consider the fact that for "Atlas" the combined score of critics on the "Rotten Tomatoes" website is just 9 percent positive -- while their combined score for the laughably pretentious, psychologically preposterous, ponderously paced, incoherently plotted, and otherwise completely stupid "Eyes Wide Shut" was 77 percent positive. ("Eyes Wide Shut" managed to achieve what I had previously thought to be impossible: It made sex excruciatingly boring.) Consider just one prominent critic, Roger Ebert, and his respective takes on both films. Read what he wrote about "Eyes Wide Shut"; compare that with what he wrote about "Atlas"; then tell me whether he is responding to technique of narration, or to clashing Narratives.

I could say the same for the wretchedly degenerate "Blue Velvet," a David Lynch exercise in sadism, foul-mouthed depravity, and psychological lunacy that transported 91 percent of the critics into rhetorical orgasms. Some sample comments, all approving: "One of the most subversive films of the 1980s, delving into the corrupt underside of the then-idealized faux innocence of the 1950s with an almost alarming ferocity." "A beautiful film about sickness, a funny film about degeneracy." And perhaps most revealing: "An unsettling film that depicts the moral rot underlying the American Dream through arresting cinematic images that are at once realistic and surreal."

Consider these comments. Then consider what "Atlas Shrugged" is all about. Ask yourself whether these creatures are merely focused on upholding The High Standards of Cinema -- or whether they are, in fact, postmodern propagandists who see their mission as subverting uniquely American values.

The "Atlas Shrugged" controversy is about much, much more than film criticism, my friends. Make no mistake: This film is positioned dead-center on the front lines of a raging cultural war: a war to the death between the American Narrative that has led to our nation's greatness, and the Nihilistic Narrative of those who wish to obliterate it all.

You can show what side you're on, this week. Go see "Atlas Shrugged, Part One" while it's still in the theaters. If you've already seen it, see it again. It's a film that grows on you with repeated viewings. And it bears a Narrative that urgently needs to be championed and spread through our ailing culture.


Darlene Bridge Lofgren said...

I am so tired of saying this - but you are one hell of a writer; your use of language, the way you pack so much into so few words, the clarity of the concepts, your underlying passion and your overriding logic. Delightful. Absorbing. A bit of word wizardry going on there...And I so deeply appreciate this championing of a film worth championing.

Robert Bidinotto said...

Darlene, you always manage to do what critics never could: You leave me without adequate words.

Thank you, my dear friend.

Larry Abrams said...

Darlene may be tired of saying it, but she is right.

Michael Harvey said...


I went to see the film for the third time last night. I had similar problems to yours at my first viewing, but loved it anyway.

At the second viewing, I saw things that had escaped me completely the first time.

Last night, I cried, marvelling yet again at what a great story Atlas Shrugged is, and at the courage it must have taken for John Aglialoro to remain so completely committed to Ayn Rand's vision.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Robert Bidinotto said...

Larry and Michael, thanks so much for your generous compliments.

Judd Weiss said...

Robert. Excellent.

Good writing is good thinking, and communicating it well. Having something interesting or important to share is the point. It's the fundamental reason to bother organizing words together. How you choose to share what's on your mind (voice, technique, style) is a tool.

Some great insights here. Thank you for sharing.

Robert Bidinotto said...

I very much appreciate that, Judd.

aladne said...

Hey Robert, If you want to see Roger Ebert's bias in full-throated screech check out his review of "Eye for an Eye", based on Erika Holzer's book. Here its crystal clear that his tirade is moral/philosophical and his little to do with the film's worth--he's almost kind to "Atlas Shrugged" in comparison.
--Alan Ladne

Robert Bidinotto said...

Hi Alan,

I think I remember that review.

Incidentally, I hope you are in better health these days. I lost track of you since we last spoke. Drop me a private email and let me know what's going on, okay?

Diane Viewing said...

Like Wyatt's Torch, your words comfort me, allowing me to think that there are still brilliant minds shining day and night.

Diane Viewing

The Watcher said...

The producers should post the first half hour or so of the movie at youtube. It would counteract the smears more effectively than a trailer and a few brief outtakes alone. Moreover, the novelty of doing so would get a fair amount of press. I've submitted the suggestion to the official AS-Part I site.

Brian said...

I am going to see it again, at your urging. Maybe today, as the ticket will be 1/2 price.

BTW, this is the first I've seen of your blog since you lost it some time ago, when something called JournalSpace (if I remember right) melted down. Glad I re-found you!

Robert Bidinotto said...

Brian, glad we could reconnect. And I'm glad you're seeing "Atlas" again. The producers need ever vote of confidence they can get.

You're right, my old host was JournalSpace, whose servers were apparently sabotaged. I assume Blogger is a wee bit more reliable!

I'll be opening a second blog in a few weeks -- that one devoted to fiction (my own work, thrillers, and the sefl-publishing revolution). So stay tuned.

Robert Jones said...

Robert. I had written a review of "Atlas Shrugged, Part I" for Modern Conservative. In my review, I expressed my disappointment for how the movie was executed versus what it COULD have been. Even still, I was writing from a point-of-view of respect for the novel, which I consider an epic classic.

That being said, I read some of the negative review which -- aside from being similar to mine in that they noted the technical problems of the movie -- used their reviews for gratuitous attacks on Ayn Rand's politics and sense-of-life. I had given the movie a three-star rating, which for me was a "bad review."

I, too, watched the movie a second time, to be fair to it. The last time I repeatedly watched a movie over and over at the theater, in order to let it grow on me, was in 1990, with "The Godfather, Part III." I believe "Atlas Shrugged, Part I" in the same category, although not nearly as technically proficient, the script had similar problems.

You remarked: "If I'm watching a film and constantly thinking such things as, 'Wow! Look at that tracking shot!' -- that is flawed storytelling."

Yet, that's the problem I had with some of the movie. There were too many out-of-place shots panning the beautiful autumn foliage. They took me away from the story. The story worked best when it went slowly, taking its time with just letting the plot and characters to develop. If the rest of the movie were made as thoughtfully as the scene "Henry Rearden comes home," I would be hailing it as a masterpiece (and that's the truth, before God, because I made such a statement on your Facebook page when that clip was released).

Before Aglialoro and crew go back to the set and location, they need to spend a lot of time watching excellent movie adaptations from the 1930s and 40s: "Dodsworth," "Gone With the Wind," "Rebecca," "Now, Voyager," and "Double Indemnity" were movies that made the viewer reLIVE their source material, rather than just reCALL it, as "Atlas Shrugged" did.

"Eyes Wide Shut": Ditto. "Blue Velvet": I must disagree (partially); it is one of the best suspense thrillers I've seen, and Dennis Hopper's psychopathic villain Frank Booth is on par with James Cagney in "White Heat" and Robert Mitchum in "Cape Fear."

Sense of Life, and here is where I am coming from. I agree that the projection of the benevolent sense of life, of heroism and aspiring to being better than one's potential is a transforming experience rarely encountered in the movies. For decades, I have been arguing that, as much as I love the movie "Taxi Driver," that it DID deserve to lose out to "Rocky" in the Oscars, and that Rocky was a far superior movie. This speaks to your point about the camerawork being "invisible": "Taxi Driver" was made from the montage perspective, whereas "Rocky" employed the more old-fashioned (but more apropos) mise-en-scene. The average viewer will be reached more directly by the latter, because the story comes before the technique ("Rocky" has much to admire for technique that it hasn't been given credit for. One example is that the "Steadicam" was invented to follow Rocky Balboa around on his workouts).

I'm hoping that when Parts II and III of "Atlas Shrugged" are made, a few additional scenes can be fimed to fill in the narrative gaps in Part I.

The Watcher said...

I saw the movie tonight.

I agree that it's decent but not great. The basic story is fine, and the acting is fine. Special effects aren't perfect, but the main problem is that the scenes are unnecessarily abbreviated throughout.

Of course there's a legitimate concern about being talkier than can be sustained cinematically. But the makers overcompensated here. Ten scenes could easily have been five minutes longer and showed more of the psychological and philosophical drama going on between characters. The movie is only an hour an a half long. Suppose on a wish list of ten scenes, only five could have been reasonably expanded to make a two-hour movie. Why not do that? More and meatier dialogue between characters doesn't seem like a cost issue. And it's not about the limits of dramatic adaptation. The story would still have moved along briskly.

We don't, for example, see any buildup to the conflict between Lillian and Dagny at the anniversary party. Francisco's encounter with Rearden on the same occasion seems perfunctory, with no buildup. Was there no way to dramatize Francisco's interaction with the woman who claimed that love of money is the root of all evil? The writers certainly solved the problem of condensing and rendering Francisco's speech about money--by eliminating it. Yet without any version of the speech, which is delivered for Rearden's sake and not the woman's, Francisco's reference to the words he's giving Rearden "for the time when you'll need them" makes little sense. It seems to me that even a viewer unfamiliar with the novel would vaguely sense a problem here, even if he were unable to pin it down.

There are other weaknesses in the movie (including a confoundingly premature revelation toward the end), but the film is definitely better than the ideologically hostile critics are making it out to be. It is drastically under-publicized, and it needs to be better publicized to counteract those critics.

The Watcher said...

R. writes: "The typical audience member is looking simply for a good, absorbing story, told effectively enough to hold his interest. The experienced film reviewer or critic, though, will focus far more on the 'how' of the film: on cinematic technique, including the nuances of the writing, dialogue, direction, camera-work, etc."

This isn't really true, or there would be no cinematic art as opposed to purely literary art. And who is the "typical" viewer? A great many movies have crap stories but get by on slickness, giganticus special effects, actorial charisma, etc.

Sally said...

"The typical audience member is looking simply for a good, absorbing story, told effectively enough to hold his interest. The experienced film reviewer or critic, though, will focus far more on the 'how' of the film: on cinematic technique, including the nuances of the writing, dialogue, direction, camera-work, etc."

The movie (and its also weak sequel) did not do better precisely because of the weaknesses of all these different aspects, and especially the script.

The post confuses the question of whether a viewer is able to articulate what is good in a product, and his ability to perceive those aspects at all. People who are especially good at articulating what they see and why it's good or bad may become critics, let's hope honest ones. But inability to articulate or pick out consciously as one is seeing or reading or listening does not mean that all the things wrong with a production don't add up and don't have an impact on a person's enjoyment. Viewers certainly responded positively to the fact that the movie is offers a vision of entrepreneurs that is not available in other cinema. In that respect it may be water in a desert. But it could have been fine wine, and it isn't.