“Atlas Shrugged”: Who is Ayn Rand?

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

In a word, arguably the most influential American writer of the last hundred years. In the latter half of the twentieth century, Ayn Rand was at once the most reviled public intellectual by any of the actual intellectuals in America. And the only one of them to have had any genuine impact on the American psyche and the public at large.

Born in Saint Petersburg in 1905, she was a childhood friend of Nabokov’s younger sister Olga. And after becoming one of the first women to graduate from a Russian university, she emigrated to the States, gravitating to Hollywood. There she found work as an extra on a Cecil B. DeMille picture, and she then spent the next decade or so working as a Hollywood hack and writing minor plays and unremarkable novels.

That all changed with the publication of her two monumentally successful novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The former was published in 1943, and although largely ignored by critics it sold millions and was quickly adapted into a Hollywood film and a Broadway play. 

With the financial security that that afforded her, she moved to New York where she was able to further develop her so say philosophy of Objectivism. This she was going to more fully explore in a non-fiction book called The Moral Basis of Individualism. But she put that to one side to work instead on a follow-up novel to The Fountainhead; Atlas Shrugged.

Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged was, she explained, “a demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of self-interest”. But to her deep disappointment it was critically panned, not withstanding the fact that it was an even bigger commercial hit than The Fountainhead – between them, they’ve so far sold over 30 million copies.

But she spent the rest of her life largely ignored, producing non-fiction books that nobody read and expounding upon her philosophy of Objectivism to deaf ears. So how is that she came to be so influential?

Her impact came in two waves. In the period in which she was writing Atlas Shrugged, in the 1950s, she attracted a small but fiercely loyal group of acolytes. One of whom just happened to be a certain Alan Greenspan

Author Ayn Rand, in August 1957 on Park Avenue.

So when, three decades later, Greenspan became Chairman of the Federal Reserve, a post he held between 1987 and 2006, Rand’s hitherto ignored philosophy of Objectivism suddenly seemed wondrously prescient. Its rabid anti-communism and purblind deification of the individual went hand in glove with the Reganomics that is seemed to have so impressively anticipated.

But it was rise of big tech in the late 90s and early oughts that really saw her come into vogue. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel (PayPal), Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia), Travis Kalanick (Uber) and, apparently, Steve Jobs were and are all fanatical and very vocal fans. And a cursory glance at Atlas Shrugged quickly reveals why. 

Rand’s would-be Great American Novel is essentially an incredibly bloated romance novel. Personally, I love romance novels, the best ones of which are all almost exactly 195 pages long. Atlas Shrugged is just 50 pages shy of War And Peace

Essentially, its world is populated by a handful of exceptional and blindingly brilliant individuals who are personally and single-handedly responsible for propping up and fuelling the economy. And whose visionary plans society, the government and the great unwashed are perpetually trying to foil. 

Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Free from conventional morality and unfettered by the shackles of organized religion, these sexually promiscuous, physically imposing latter-day Greek gods (they’re almost all gods, interestingly) were likewise chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his The Bonfire of the Vanities, an actual, bona fide Great American Novel. But his ‘Masters of the Universe’ were unceremoniously felled by the layers of irony he hacked them down with. 

Irony, alas, seems to have eluded  Rand entirely. Instead, what we get are reams and reams of monochrome prose consisting of occasional bursts of romance, which she’s actually pretty good at, amidst pages and pages of her tedious and puerile cod philosophy.

All of which is monumentally dull, not to say wearisome if what you are looking for is interesting, grown-up ideas and a good read. But it’s just what the doctor ordered if instead you’re a borderline sociopath with a Napoleon complex. Hence her vogue in the oh so male world of big tech.

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A Small Present, Just for You

Good news! This blog is moving into phase 2 of its life. Phase 1 was the slow and methodical building up of the blog from scratch. Phase 2 revolves around my book, which I’m going to be self-publishing this November.

Before I can do that though, I need to move the blog to a new email subscription service.

But don’t worry, you’ll still get your monthly missives, plus the occasional extra bonus material and all the exciting news about the soon to be published book. 

All you have to do is to send me your email address so that I can add your name to the new list.

Send your email address to: anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com

That’s all! Just one, incredibly brief email, and you’re done.

And once you do, and the list is up and running, I’ll send you this month’s post PLUS an Exclusive Bonus Chapter from the book.

Your bonus chapter, The Death of Socrates describes how he ended up on trial in the first place, and what the likes of Plato and Nietzsche made of his contrary behaviour over the course of that trial.

The important thing is: send me on your email address!

Otherwise, this could be the last that you hear from me. And just imagine what an unmitigated disaster that would be.

So send your address to anthonyokeeffe6@gmail.com and, as ever I shall keep you posted every month, and more!

And thanks for your continued support!

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HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen.

First things first; Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is something to behold. It’s Back to the Future directed by Lars von Trier on a particularly good day, and scripted by Dennis Potter. Except it’s been fused in a parallel universe on the other side of the looking glass, so that race and gender have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this succeeded where so many others have failed?

Scosese’s Raging Bull.

As has been well documented, two fundamental changes have taken place across the media landscape over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a proverbial golden age of television. And on the other, the world of cinema has become completely polarised. 

Superficially speaking, that polarisation has always been there. 20thcentury cinema was made up of Hollywood films, and independent films. But those two canvases produced a wide variety of different kinds of films. Hollywood could mean Double Indemnity, The Godfather or Raging Bull. Independent could give you The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.

Amelie.

It’s impossible to imagine any of those being made today with the aim of screening them primarily at the cinema. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cinema today; franchise products, and really low budget, genuinely independent fare.

That’s what Scorsese was complaining about in those series of interviews that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which culminated with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t connect, he says, with any of those superhero movies, because there’s nothing at stake. How could there be? They’re superheroes. And none of the people making those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much money involved in the franchises they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hungry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to television that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when exploring the comic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendetta.

Ignoring the super of your heroes and viewing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their superpowers, then there’s no need for all that green screen nonsense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the relationships between your various characters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find themselves. What would drive an articulate, intelligent person to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendetta worked so powerfully, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watchmen is such a triumph. The DC universe of masked crime fighters allows him, and the Wachowski siblings before him, to explore individuals whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbitrarily gifted with some nebulous super power. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcentury American, are the two most pressing personal and societal issues? Race and gender. So here we are in Watchmen, presented with a cast (and crew) who are predominantly black, and female. And older.

Lindelof’s The Leftovers.

Interestingly, both V and Watchmen originated with the perennially grumpy Alan Moore, who, predictably, has disowned them both. I tried reading (is that what one does with a graphic novel?) his Watchmen, and I have to confess it sailed serenely over my head. I just found it flat, and static, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watchmen is so much more dynamic. And relevant. 

You can see the trailer for Watchmen here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Leftovers, which I reviewed earlier, here.

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If Beale Street Could Talk, the new Barry Jenkins film.


If Beale Street Could Talk.

If Beale Street Could Talk is the keenly awaited follow up to the surprise hit that Barry Jenkins had in 2016, when he won the Academy award for Best Film with Moonlight. And if that weren’t pressure enough, it’s a James Baldwin adaptation. 

Tish and Fonny are childhood sweethearts, but the latter is in jail having been falsely accused of rape. And Tish is pregnant with their first child. So she and their two families are trying desperately to somehow raise the cash needed to pay for what will almost certainly be a fruitless attempt at legal redress. 

Beautifully shot and impeccably crafted, Jenkins takes an elliptical approach to the narrative as he moves back and forth through time to construct his story one piece at a time. Essentially it’s a love story with shades of Romeo and Juliet, as Fonny’s mother looks down from a height at the match her son has disastrously made with his unworthy mate.

This is brilliantly captured in what is in effect the central scene, as they two families square off from one another as Tish’s parents announce the happy news of her pregnancy. And therein lies the rub. For this scene is what the first third of the film culminates with. And although the rest of the film is perfectly fine, indeed mostly very good, the rest of the film never quite lives up to that first third.

Mahershala Ali and Alex R. Hibbert in Moonlight (2016)

This, you’ll remember, is exactly what happens with Moonlight, which I reviewed earlier here. That film is divided into three parts, and the first two, and especially the first, are excruciatingly moving. But the third is ever so slightly underwhelming. Well, to put it in Wildean terms, to fail to ratchet up the dramatic tension of your story once is forgivable, but to do so twice feels like carelessness.

James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

All drama must needs move through an arc, rising and rising, before finally falling. You need to pass through E C C C C; Exposition, Conflict, Crisis, Catastrophe before final Catharsis. And dramatically speaking, both of Jenkins’ two principle films flatline after the drama of their first halves.

If Beale Street Could Talk is still a very good film, it looks ravishing and it’s a wonderful antidote to all that green screen nonsense. But Jenkins will need to work with someone on structure and the building of dramatic tension if he’s to avoid becoming but a brilliant stylist.

You can see the trailer to If Beale Street Could Talk here.

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, clever video game, dreary drama.


Black Mirror:Bandersnatch.

Erstwhile television critic and screenwriter Charlie Brooker launched Black Mirror in 2011 on Channel Four, and in 2015 he and it moved over to Netflix for its third season. 

Sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Tales of the Unexpected, each episode presents a one-off, stand alone fable that explores a technological dystopia set in the very near future.  Invariably, the stories revolve around a societal What if question that is taken to its logical extreme.

The topics that each episode explore are momentarily intriguing, and it’s all glaringly au courant, that is to say trendible, so the first twenty minutes are generally fairly entertaining. But invariably the episode soon fizzles out, because Brooker is not really concerned with, and therefore not much good at, drama. He’s all too easily dazzled by the cleverness of his initial conceit. And his latest, Bandersnatch, continues the trend.

Black Mirror.

Nominally a feature film, it’s his and Netflix’s attempt at that much heralded hybrid, the interactive film. The idea of an interactive film emerged about 25 years ago as the digital revolution took off, and there were a number of factors that brought it into being.

First, DVDs replaced video, and with them came the advent of the deleted scene. At the same time, a new generation of video game consoles arrived, offering massively more sophisticated graphics. And the evolving world of Virtual Reality promised an even more impressive visual landscape, from which who knew what might emerge. 

So viewers began to ask themselves, what if we could decide what happens in a story? Could we choose a version of the film with those deleted scenes, instead of the one that the film makers ended up deciding on? And if so, what other things could we change about the stories we watch? Bandersnatch is the realization of that fantasy.

Your first decision, to ease you in.

So, as ever, for the first twenty minutes, you’re intrigued. You get ten seconds to make a black or white, Yes or No decision. And the story progresses, and ends, according to the decisions you make. Except it doesn’t.

Inevitably, if you make the “wrong” choice or choices, the film ends prematurely, and you’re offered the opportunity to go back to your “wrong” decision, and choose the other option. Of course you could politely decline, turn off your devise and pick up a book instead. But obviously you don’t, you go back to follow the alternative story lines, with their choice of endings, to see what other ways the story could have gone. 

Our hero’s been offered a deal, what does he do?

Which is an interesting idea, and it’s all terribly meta and frightfully clever. But as soon as you can go back and change your decision, that decision no longer has any weight or value. So any sense of tension and all the drama is immediately neutered. 

When one character says to our hero, one of us is going to jump off this building, who’s it going to be…And the action freezes for a jagged 10 seconds, and youhave to decide who, that’s exhilarating, and frightening and thrilling. But as soon as you can go back, and make the other decision, just to see what happens, before you know it, you’ll be glancing at your phone to see what you’ve missed since you started playing the game. 

And there’s the rub. Because interactive dramas already exist. They are called video games, which is what this is. And as a video game, it’s really interesting. Because what it shows is that the future of video games lies not with VR, but with live action. Bandersnatch is what video games will look like the day after tomorrow. 

Which is a really interesting polemic. And a polemic, like all the other Black Mirror episodes, is what this should have remained as. Had it appeared as an article in Vanity Fair, or in one of the Guardian supplements, it would have provided for a really interesting distraction. But as a drama, never mind a 90 minute plus drama, it’s woefully dull and progressively tedious.

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