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.