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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.

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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.

Buyer Beware of the News

How do you know what you know? This is the question studied in the field of epistemology. If you go by reason, it’s important to apply the question to today’s media, too. The freedom of speech implies freedom of the press and, as censorship and so-called soft censorship or suppressed speech worsens, trusting the facts you read, watch and hear becomes more challenging.

CNN’s recent report linking Russians to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly posting about racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — one fake Facebook account for “Blacktivist” had thousands more ‘like’s than BLM’s official account — underscores the potential power of foreign and domestic enemies and adversaries to affect the course of American news, events and laws. The whole police-are-racist position may have been impacted by such false posts, claims of outrage and expressions of disgust. CNN’s report (read it here) shows that the Russian state-sponsored smear campaign against police, whites and American law enforcement was conducted with specific targets including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where controversial police shootings were being protested by BLM, leftists and others — and feverishly covered by the press.

CNN’s report raises disturbing questions about reporting, gathering, aggregating, disseminating and consuming facts, assertions and conclusions regarded as “the news”. Does Russia, which reportedly tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, consider black outrage over police brutality and institutional racism to be distinctly pro-Trump in political terms? If so, what other steps if any has Russia taken to foster leftist and BLM outrage? Are riots and attacks by anarchists who show up whenever Nazis exercise free speech — or vice versa or both — funded by Russia? Amid a national sports controversy purportedly instigated by opposition to police racism, it’s legitimate to question the origins, sourcing and funding.

This is especially true because, increasingly, journalism in all forms is unduly influenced by unseen, anonymous and secondary sources such as posts on Twitter and Facebook. Today’s news assignment and segment producers and editors are as whim-worshipping as the president. The coverage of purported trends is often highly charged with emotionalism, sensationalism and hyperbole. News often comes in spurts to match short attention spans. Suddenly, the news is dominated by events in Houston — Florida — Puerto Rico — depending on a variety of factors, including ratings, advertising, favoritism, related crony-controlled entities and political bias.

In today’s perceptual-based media, news aggregators and prodcuers tend to pounce on whatever third-hand (or, sometimes, non-existent, as happened in Mexico) reports emanating from some batch of real, premeditated, purchased or automated posts that, in turn, feed pre-programmed algorithms calculated to determine what’s trending. This estimate then regurgitates the same false, distorted or misleading claims. This invariably feeds your small or large screen or page as what’s news.

Earlier this month, I cautioned against deciding which movie to see based on what a band of programmers decides by consensus (read my post on Rotten Tomatoes here). This week, as Saudi Arabia prepares to let women obtain permission to drive, someone using a word commonly and quite distinctly associated with Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) followers (the flipside of the left’s social justice warriors or SJWs) threatened to kill anyone supporting women drivers (read the article here). This makes me doubt whether the threat is credible.

Is someone really trying to stop any attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern, civilized age? Who stands to gain from the press and public assuming that Saudi Arabia is encountering, facing and defeating opposition to women drivers? False claims of horrific threats have in some cases been found to have been self-generated by members of intended victim groups. Arsonists, in certain cases, are the firemen whose job is to put out fires. America’s history of enemy agents who infiltrate the highest levels of American government, movements, industry and institutions, from Soviet Russia’s Communist spies to Islamic terrorists’ agents in place, must also be kept in mind. The nation is deeply and severely fractured and divided over a range of complicated and serious issues. It stands to reason that America’s enemies will exploit the divisions.

So, CNN’s report is more evidence that outsider and insider forces have every reason to divide Americans, which makes one’s need to read, think and judge with ruthless rationality more urgent. Anyone opposed to statism is well warranted to conclude that failed statist schemes such as ObamaCare might be intended to fail — to lead to total statism. Or that terrorist threats feed the total surveillance state. And it is reasonable to suspect that fake news propagates the media, including social media — to achieve total government control of the media. Congress is now considering legislation to regulate social media, a threat that reeks of censorship which authoritarian Trump seems seriously predisposed to enact.

What can stop it is you, or, more broadly, each American reading, thinking and judging for himself or herself what’s real, what makes sense, whether a claim has a credible source, makes a credible assertion, fits a particular agenda, context or policy goal, who’s making the claim (and who influences, owns or controls who’s making the claim), what’s at stake, where reports are coming from, how it’s being delivered, i.e., with breathless emotionalism, and why it’s coming out now.

I first warned about the emergent need to better discern how media’s consumed in a February 13, 2015, blog post on “New Media and You” (read the post, in which I first used the term ‘fake news’, here). I addressed the issue again later that year after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly engaged in a televised spat, which I saw not as a real conflict but as two sides of the same mangled and defective coin (read “The Circus Cycle” here).

More than ever, the reader, thinker and trader — anyone who thinks for himself — must beware of what’s news and, as a corollary, assert his absolute right to judge what’s news for himself.

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.

Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.

RIP, Hugh Hefner

Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.

In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”

On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.

The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.

Why Hollywood’s Finally Got a Hit

The worst summer at the box office in decades finally closes with a record-breaking hit in a new adaptation of an Eighties novel by horror writer Stephen King. The movie’s titled after the bestselling book, It. The Warner Bros. picture stars Jaeden Lieberher (Aloha, Midnight Special, St. Vincent) as the leader of a group of bullied children who are terrorized by a clown, and, this weekend, It smashed records in several categories, including an opening day beating of Marvel’s recent hit Deadpool. Why It is a hit is as simple as ever; audiences figured It looked like a good movie.

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And It is a good movie (read my review here) if a clear, coherent and character-based plot’s the standard for what makes a movie good. Not every good movie’s a hit, let alone a records-breaker, and, of course, not every hit’s a good movie. This summer’s dismal returns suggest a confluence of factors for declining box office trends. When it comes to seeing movies, people are more savvy about oversaturated marketing and advertising, more discriminating with their dollars and there are many more sources for discernment, for starters. There are more sources for entertainment, too, and, with rising cable prices and lower quality service and control of choices, streaming is growing as an option.

Today’s consumer has a wide range of choices in not only creative material but also the format for seeing the material — streaming a movie or TV show or listening to a book being read on a tablet, watching a Blu-Ray or DVD or seeing a classic movie or show via a variety of free, pay and subscriber models — and the range is both exhausting and daunting. An invitation to accept a clear-cut value proposition such as It‘s promise to deliver a coherent blend of character-based humor, plot and frights in the movie theater makes the choice easier: come to the theater and you’ll be scared, humored and entertained. That’s the appeal of It in a nutshell. Weekend receipts indicate that word of mouth was apparently better than decent. It blew past the summer’s overrated hit Wonder Woman.

But an article by Brooks Barnes in last week’s New York Times about an aggregator website co-owned by movie studios, to the extent they’re still studios, points to trouble for Hollywood movies in the future. The popular site, founded by Berkeley college students who named it Rotten Tomatoes, evoking the medieval practice of mobs physically assaulting criminals (which the Times reports spread to theaters and pelting artists with tomatoes in the 19th century), purports to rate movies based on an aggregate of numerous reviews.

Now, the studios that bought the site blame the site for poor box office results.

There is some truth in the claim. Audiences tend to stay away from movies with low ratings, which are decided by a committee of the site’s employees at an office in Beverly Hills. A 36-person bunch, who report to a former studio executive at a company partly owned by a unit of NBCUniversal, which owns MSNBC, NBC News and Universal Pictures which is itself owned by Comcast, the cable TV cartel, decides numerical ratings. The site’s senior “editor” sports a pink mohawk and dresses up as a comic book character at events the site sponsors in which audiences and movie critics are squared off in a confrontational contest. Rotten Tomatoes calls these events Your Opinion Sucks. The site’s “editor”, Barnes writes, was in charge of three such “sessions” at this summer’s Comic-Con. “Let’s just say that it’s not an accident that I chose a costume that needs a whip,” the Rotten Tomatoes senior movie “editor” quipped in a Catwoman costume.

This is the caliber of operations that studios, which the article admits game the movie review system with pre-release screenings of carefully selected critics deemed more likely to write a positive review of a given film, both condone and condemn. Not that it’s possible to rely on ratings by committees that (claim they) skim or read reviews and then put numerical values on them to choose which movie to see. Rotten Tomatoes, for its part, told Barnes that it aggregates a diversity of reviews because “critics at traditional outlets tended to be white men” and “Rotten Tomatoes wanted to include female and minority voices.” Try to numerically factor that, RogerEbert.com.

As Barnes reports, Americans increasingly use aggregated reviews from sources such as Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon, Yelp and TripAdvisor to make decisions on whether and what to buy. According to an entertainment industry consulting firm, 34 percent of U.S. teenagers consult Rotten Tomatoes before buying a movie ticket, an increase from 23 percent a few years ago. But he wrongly concludes that this rotten chicken coming home to roost represents a “battle between movie companies and critics.”

Going by what other people think of what other people think of other people’s reviews is not a conflict between the Hollywood moviemaker and movie reviewer. It’s the oldest, laziest form of conformity and it’s a byproduct of the mass dumbing down of American culture — the refusal to read, think and form a judgment based on the thoughts of one’s own reasoning mind — and this groupthink, rule by consensus or mob rule poses the gravest threat to Hollywood, movies and the culture. Whatever its merits, despite the fact that its audience may have been drawn by the groupthink, too, though I am more optimistic than that, at least It appears to have earned its audience based on the promise of a good movie, not by the allure of an arbitrary number picked by a band of bean-counters in Beverly Hills. On the other hand, It, a horror movie which also gains from the theme that deep-seated fear can be conquered, was made by a movie studio that also owns part of that popular and meaningless website.

 

The Bambi Articles

Three of my articles about Walt Disney’s 1942 classic, Bambi, are now archived on the site. The movie, which was based on a novel and adapted from a 900-word screenplay, made during a world war and lost the studio money for years, has a fascinating history with relevant lessons for today’s moviemakers and moviegoers alike.

My film review is based on my first viewing of the animated motion picture, which I saw for the first time when the movie debuted on DVD 12 years ago and was surprised to find I thoroughly enjoyed. I wrote about Bambi for a movie site in which I was a partner (which was sold to a database subsidiary of Amazon that no longer offers in-depth articles). Read my review of Bambi, which includes details of Disney’s 2005 Platinum edition DVD, here.

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This was one of my first themed online series. My starting point for Bambi was an essential history of Walt Disney’s wartime follow-up to Dumbo and Snow White, which includes basic facts, such as box office stats and budget, and tracks the movie’s origins, background and legacy. The editorial experiment worked, too, I’m happy to say (not all of them did) as pre-social media readers read, shared and printed the articles in high numbers, especially considering that they came to the site for statistics. I created the Bambi series to entice them to stay, read and browse other site pages. The history of Bambi and the other two articles formed the editorial model for my thematic approaches to covering film, particularly classic film, which extended to our in-depth coverage of Star Wars, classic Disney and Sony’s Spider-Man pictures, as well as films about Islamic terrorism, Alexander the Great and the Alamo. Bambi got things started. Read the Bambi history here.

As editor and writer of the movie site, and wanting to add a third article for a trilogy of rotating pieces heralding the arrival of the film on DVD, I also sought interviews with some Hollywood artists whose work I’d admired whom I had reason to think might be interested in, and possibly influenced by, Walt Disney’s Bambi. Among these were a Back to the Future screenwriter, the creator of Hollywood’s most popular animal-themed franchise since Lassie and an animator who had attended the highly regarded, Disney-made Cal Arts academy in the Santa Clarita Valley. During extensive interviews with each, their comments and insights went far beyond the usual and predictable compliments for influential movies. Read the article about artists praising Disney’s Bambi—incuding their thoughts on its most controversial scenes—here.

Twelve years after these articles were first published about the movie which basically made me an instant classic Disney fan, the Burbank, California, studio is planning to release what they call a Signature Collection Blu-Ray/DVD combination set. So, Bambi goes on sale next week (May 23) on iTunes, Amazon and all that (support the site and buy the new collection here). Bambi remains one of my favorite Disney pictures and, if you read the articles, I think it’s easy to see why. In the future, I’d like to give all the great movies, works of art and singular histories the fuller examination they deserve.


Related

Movie and DVD Review: Bambi (2005)

History of Bambi (2005)

Hollywood Remembers Bambi (2005)

Pre-Order Bambi