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Books: Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 60

My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.

Buy the Novel

But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.

Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.

Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.

I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.

In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.

Winter Writing

A movie about exceptionalism overcoming racism at an agency of the government, an effort to restore a building and a forthcoming book about accounting for an entire arts genre give me fuel this winter.

Top U.S. film

America’s top movie at the box office is Hidden Figures, which centers upon three individuals of ability in the Jim Crow-era South, when racist laws infected even an aeronautics U.S. agency charged with launching an American into outer space. It’s a wonderful film, really, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s written and directed by the same individual who wrote and directed 2014’s St. Vincent, which is also very good. His name is Theodore Melfi and he recently talked with me about writing and directing the talented cast, which includes Empire‘s Cookie, Taraji P. Henson, his thoughts on racism, storytelling and what he’d do differently and having his movie screened at the White House. Read my exclusive interview with Melfi about the nation’s number one motion picture here.

Eagle Rock Clubhouse by Neutra

Speaking of exclusive interviews, I’ve recently had the pleasure of interviewing architect Dion Neutra at his home and office designed by his father, the late modern architect Richard Neutra, whose legacy I explore in an article about a campaign to restore one of Neutra’s signature buildings (read the story on LATimes.com here). I’ve been covering this effort by an architect and a realtor who say they want to restore the Los Angeles clubhouse to its original splendor, and finally met and interviewed them at Neutra’s building for a detailed restoration tour. The building, a parks and recreational center in northeast Los Angeles, opened in the 1950s with a stage that plays to both interior and exterior audiences, a kitchen with a window for selling concessions, an athletic court, reflecting pool and sloping landscapes—all in glass, brick and Neutra’s favored metal, steel—with a director’s office overlooking gymnastics, trails, pine trees, playgrounds, tennis courts and with retractable walls to let the air and spectators or audiences inside. The two gents are in talks with Dion Neutra as I write this.

New book this March

A forthcoming book features new and interesting data about the words and works by William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Stephen King, Agatha Christie and Ayn Rand among other literary greats. It’s titled Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017) and the author covers detailed statistical analyses of these and other writers in a solid narrative. Among the newly mined data are authors’ ‘favorite’ words, how sexes write differently—Rand rates as “masculine”—and use of adverbs, exclamation points and novels’ opening lines. Mine is the book’s first non-trade review. Read my article here.

The newest Writing Boot Camp starts up next month (seats are still left in the 10-week course, so register here), moving to Tuesday nights, the day after my all-new course on social media (register here). These courses evolved from career camp workshops I was asked to teach several years ago. I subsequently taught a series of nine media and production workshops for Mood U, online, economic development, expo and public library presentations and developed the writing and media classes into full courses a few years ago for adult education in LA. They’re works in progress yet past students give positive and constructive feedback, so I’ve created Facebook groups for past students. Stand by for details and more on the upcoming courses.

Meanwhile, thank you for your readership, support and trade. I read every piece of correspondence, though I’m sometimes slow to respond, sent through the site and social media. This year, I plan to remake my website and I am working on other projects, from stories in manuscripts and screenplays to my cultural fellowship, new partnerships and a new media enterprise. For now, I want you to read, share and gain value from these articles about inspecting works of art and making, or mining, something good.

Springtime Festivals

This spring, two annual festivals caught my attention. The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at University of Southern California (USC) is always interesting for its literary lectures, panels and appearances. I usually learn about new stories, books and publishing deals, trade trends and developments and run into someone I know or want to know and this year was no exception. I learned about everything from new literary journals and adapting Greek plays to new small publishers, printers for self-published books and blogs, resources and programs for writers.

FOBooksUSC2016The Festival of Books panels, in particular, can get pretentious as writers and editors share their thoughts from the ivory tower and some of the comments reinforce that today’s dominant intellectuals are disconnected—some knowingly—from audiences and reality. For instance, a dramatic arts dean at the university, a published author, admitted that he hadn’t read the play he was adapting. He added that he’d read it once decades ago but seemed oddly proud of his not having studied and mastered his topic, as if this was the point of adaptation; to evade the cause of the work. Others rambled and most speakers at the panel discussions talked as if everyone was familiar with every term, work and literary reference, though moderators tried to keep them grounded in communicating with a wide, general audience.

Listening to writers talk about writing makes me think about better habits, tools and techniques and the event offers an opportunity to meet other writers, editors and publishers. For some of my contracted projects, it’s especially helpful to know about new producers in the market at any point in the writing-to-publishing process. So, overall, I’m glad I went.

Turner Classic Movies hosts a classic movie festival in Hollywood every year, which I attended for the first time in 2015 and again this spring (read my roundup of 2015’s event here and a preview of 2016’s festival here). The panels are, perhaps not surprisingly, less pretentious than the book festival’s, though I found myself wanting more of the exchanges than some of the brief interviews and panels delivered, though Faye Dunaway’s interview was extensive and the star of Network, The Towering Inferno and The Thomas Crown Affair was thoughtful and gracious (more on this later).

ClubTCMBWA panel discussion on journalism and movies with writers, editors and a producer, which I wrote about for LA Screenwriter (read my report here), could have lasted another 45 minutes and I would have stayed. TCM’s panel, which was moderated by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a TV journalist earlier in his career, included writer/director James Vanderbilt (Truth), Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight), broadcast news producer and author Mary Mapes (portrayed in Truth by Cate Blanchett) and journalist/editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., portrayed by John Slattery in Spotlight—Bradlee was partly responsible for managing the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the subject of Spotlight, which won 2015’s Oscar for Best Picture.

This year, I was able to see at least one past Best Picture Oscar winner on the big screen as with last year’s screened classic movies—Too Late for Tears (1949) with Lizabeth Scott, Gunga Din (1939), Malcolm X (1992), Viva Zapata! (1952), So Dear to My Heart (1949) and The Sound of Music (1965)—and this one, Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 hit Rocky, was a film I had never seen in any format. Read the reviews, which include notes on accompanying festival interviews where applicable, either on The New Romanticist or here on the blog as available. So far, besides Rocky, I’ve reviewed Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) with Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood (1991) with Cuba Gooding, Jr., Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich and Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945) with Dorothy Maguire. I’ve added a review of The Virginian (1946) starring Joel McCrea, which recently screened at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, too, and there are a few more reviews to come (of The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Band Wagon (1953) and I’ve Always Loved You (1946).

Additionally, I plan to post a roundup of 2016’s TCM Classic Film Festival, themed this time to “Moving Pictures”, including coverage of other lectures, interviews and related news, such as TCM’s new fan club, Backlot, and its new streaming partnership with the Criterion Collection. ‘Like’ my Facebook page for regularly posted mini-reviews of films on TCM’s lineup.

For live instruction, evaluation and discussion of movies, books and media, and studious breakdown of the writing process, feel free to attend my classes if you’re in Los Angeles this summer. Space is limited for updated courses on social media (read more and register here) and Writing Boot Camp (read more and register here) in Burbank. If you want help with a project and you’re unable to attend, let me know (I can probably help by phone, FaceTime or Skype). Otherwise, read the monthly newsletter for tips, tools and thoughts. Look for new reviews, articles and stories to come.

Preview: TCM Classic Film Festival 2016

This week, Hollywood returns to its idealistic, enterprising and glamorous origins, welcoming those who really power the motion picture industry with TCM’s seventh annual Classic Film Festival. I attended for the first time last year and wrote about it here.

80fd3868f6692b85f0c9a3cca2d9d1dbFor four days, the best movies (and, admittedly, others, too) take over Hollywood’s most legendary and best movie theaters to be seen, discovered and enjoyed uncut and commercial-free, to borrow the phrase made famous by Ted Turner’s namesake Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Films from the silent era with Buster Keaton to the Golden Age with Doris Day, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper and through the modern era with Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett will be studied, examined and discussed by fans, filmmakers and movie stars.

This year’s event passes are sold out, though individual tickets are available as the festival encourages passholders to choose from among several competing movies.

For instance, on the festival’s first night, one can see 1964’s movie about interracial marriage One Potato, Two Potato with leading actress Barbara Barrie discussing it with a film historian afterwards or watch a 40th anniversary screening of All the President’s Men (1976) and hear thoughts on journalism from both the men who made Oscar’s recent Best Picture winner about journalism, Spotlight, Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, and the Washington Post‘s Carl Bernstein, portrayed in the movie by Dustin Hoffman.

But one could also choose from among three other movies in the same time frame: Harold Lloyd’s 1925 classic The FreshmanDark Victory (1939) starring Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, and Elia Kazan’s 1945 adaptation of Betty Smith’s novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Here, the best is showcased in abundance.

Billy Dee Williams is scheduled to talk about Brian’s Song (1971). The boy who gave voice to Walt Disney’s Bambi (1947), Donnie Dunagan, recalls making the animated classic. Faye Dunaway appears at an anniversary screening of Paddy Chayefsky’s biting and brilliant 1976 satire, Network.

Guests include archivists, scholars, authors and other artists and intellectuals. See the actor who played the boy in 1989’s Cinema Paradiso. See 1989’s Field of Dreams. Indulge in discussion of dogs in films, an examination of the movie score, a conversation with Elliott Gould about acting, thoughts on playing opposite Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from co-star Katharine Houghton or an appearance by Angela Lansbury at a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Get to know Truth‘s Mary Mapes and James Vanderbilt, The King and I‘s Rita Moreno, Leonard MaltinChildren of a Lesser God‘s Marlee Matlin, Carl Reiner, the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, Trapeze‘s Gina Lollobrigida, Rocky‘s Talia Shire, or On the Waterfront‘s Eva Marie Saint remembering 1966’s The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

The theme for this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival is Moving Pictures, meaning there’s an emphasis on movies that move the audience to think, to feel, to act.

Many of the 100 featured films do exactly that and, in today’s disturbing times, several stand out as extraordinarily relevant. From questions raised and dramatized about so-called income inequality in Douglas Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows and blacks’ lives depicted in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood to the penetrating portrait of media complicity in enabling the rise of a charismatic power-luster seeking government influence in Elia Kazan’s prophetic 1957 masterpiece A Face in the Crowd, the best pictures earn renewed respect over time.

Turner Classic Movies, honoring its creator, Ted Turner—a media titan who once bought billboards asking “Who is John Galt?” the philosophical challenge from Ayn Rand‘s Atlas Shrugged and created TCM because he loves movies, particularly Gone With the Wind (1939)—continues to earn respect, too. With a wine club, movie-themed Disney cruise, forthcoming app with the Criterion Collection for streaming classic movies and original programming and publishing, TCM skillfully brands itself as an expression of passion for movies which exists with outlets in reality, not as some obscurity for dilettantes pondering the avant-garde.

This week’s film festival is the best example, bringing together people who make and watch movies and doing so with a sense of joy, humor and especially with seriousness for thinking about what moves the world—which is exactly what ultimately moves and makes the best movies.

TCM fundamentally thrives as a source for great movies. But it also serves as a reminder and catalyst for today’s Hollywood to consider and honor its exciting and productive past and move the audience, studio and filmmaker alike to project into the future. Its annual presence in Hollywood gathers and converges the industry’s most loyal patrons and producers to worship what’s glamorous, grand and magnificent about movies, ensuring that industrialization carries on.

Statism in the Arts

The rise of statism in America continues to spread into the arts. Besides government-controlled or state-sponsored or favored subsidies, endowments and grants, or programs, from PBS and NPR to other funding, the influence of the government in art is pervasive and insidious. From hideous public projects to brilliant arts programming for television, its mark is everywhere, mixing the putrid with the inspired.

SXSWLogoThis week, statism infects the 30th annual South by Southwest arts conference and festival (SXSW®) in Texas, which describes itself as a “unique convergence of original music, independent films, and emerging technologies.” The March 11-19 event series in the Lone Star state capital promises “intellectual and creative intermingling among industry leaders” to learn about and trade in new ideas, arts and business.

Unfortunately, contradicting its premise and purpose, SXSW’s keynote speaker this year is the nation’s top government official: Barack Obama.

As with the improper appearances by Mrs. Obama and Joe Biden, the nation’s vice-president, at the Academy Awards, the increasing and insidious escalation of high-ranking government officials and their wives at private arts groups taints the activities. An arts event predicated on official government approval is a disturbing prospect and such a connection is insinuated or implied by these engagements. This is true in general. It was true when Ronald Reagan, a former union president, actor and Hollywood activist, was president of the United States and participated in the Oscars (and Reagan was a former Academy member). It is true now, too, more than ever, with the government imposing censorship, imposing control over every aspect of private life and actively violating individual rights, including the freedom of speech.

That the Texas festival would have as its keynote speaker a president who seeks to force an American business to violate its terms, contracts and rights and the rights of its customers is despicable (see “Apple Vs. the State“). That it would do so knowing that this president’s administration has unjustly blamed an artist for an act of war (Benghazi), sought to intimidate or initiate force against Americans including journalists for exercise of free speech, creating content and reporting facts (denouncing CNN and pressuring a preacher not to exercise his freedom of speech and burn the Koran) and incessantly seek to indiscriminately spy on all Americans (persecuting Edward Snowden for whistleblowing) is impossible to ignore, deny or evade. The people who run SXSW should disinvite President Obama, who opposes individual rights, and replace him with an individual who respects individual rights, including and especially the right to freedom of speech.

Otherwise, this festival is, like the presidential frontrunners for bigger, more controlling government (Clinton and Trump), a farce and a fraud.