Unreasonably Immoderate: Impressions of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Galt? was released to little fanfare and no acclaim last month. As its clunky name implies, it is the final film in a nigh-unwatchable trilogy loosely based on Ayn Rand’s veritable doorstop of a novel. Amazingly, each installment managed to sink lower than its predecessor; the cast was completely replaced for each film, and rumors circulated that Who is John Galt? was originally conceived as a musical. For most people, this combination of awful production and stilted Objectivist dialogue does not an enjoyable evening make.

Not us! Along with our good friend Rory Marinich, we gleefully headed to one of the only movie theaters in our state that was screening Part III and livetweeted opening night. We’re happy to present the fruit of our labors to you here: a timeline of tweets covering our entire journey through this godforsaken film. Enjoy!

#TheShruggening: An Evening of Atlas Shrugged Part III

Some select highlights from the full tweetstorm linked above:

The Weight of Quiet Moments: On “Boyhood”

The critical consensus regarding Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which saw a limited release in theaters last weekend, has been universally, overwhelmingly positive.  “I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now,” New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote in his critique of the film.

High praise for a movie that has no ostensible plot.  Boyhood follows the life of a young child named Mason as he grows up in Texas with his divorced mother and father.  Linklater filmed Boyhood over the course of 12 years, spending a few days annually with the cast and crew to edit the script and shoot new scenes.  As a result, we see Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow from a pudgy kid into a slim young man over the course of two and a half hours.

The film does not traffic in most Hollywood clichés or plot devices.  Individual scenes are, for the most part, composed of quiet moments and routine occurrences.  Mason plays video games, fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), falls in love, and gets a job.  He’s forced to move and picked on by other kids at school.  He celebrates a birthday and graduates high school.  Photography begins to pique his interest.   At the end of the film, he leaves for college.

The focus on Mason’s maturation is juxtaposed with a close look at the choices his parents make and the consequences of their decisions and circumstances.   Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is an absentee father as the film opens, chasing his misspent youth in Alaska.  His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) endures a series of sour and occasionally violent marriages.  Olivia, Mason Jr., and Samantha spend good chunks of the movie just getting by.

Linklater complements these tribulations with momentous events and equal measures of happiness.  Mason Sr. returns to Texas and eventually settles down with a family of his own.  Olivia obtains her degree and becomes a successful college professor.  Genuinely hilarious scenes, such as Mason Sr.’s conscription of his children to post Obama 2008 signs around the community, are generously peppered throughout.

Coltrane’s portrayal of Mason is remarkable, but the film is arguably more reliant on Hawke and Arquette as the two major fulcrums that determine what Mason’s boyhood entails.  They are magnificent.  Both poignantly capture the difficulties and joys of becoming a responsible parent and adult.  Arquette, in particular, deserves Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress consideration for her work.  Hers is a stunning, forceful depiction of multitudes of strength: raising two children by herself, going back to school while working, triumphing over abusive relationships, and, ultimately, letting her children go.

This strong character development alone is enough to make Boyhood memorable, but ascribing it life-changing properties a la Edelstein might strike some as a stretch.  How could a film without any particular action or dramatic narrative arc create such resonance?

For me, the answer came in the cumulative wash of Boyhood’s individual moments of normalcy and routine.  Watching the film in real time focuses the viewer’s attention on small plot sketches and cosmetic changes that connect each period of Mason’s life: how will his new haircut be received?  What will become of his interest in photography?  It’s only when the end credits roll that the enormity and significance of the preceding scenes become apparent- it’s easy to forget you’re watching a decade of growth in the course of two and a half hours.  To fully grasp how those individual quiet moments come together to create a full life is achingly beautiful and almost overwhelming.

To that end, I left the theater with two distinct impressions: a keen sense of how my own body, mind, and spirit had changed since I was a boy, and an appreciation for other people (parents, in particular) that I’ve never really felt after consuming a piece of art.  Boyhood prompts the viewer to recognize that mundane and regular moments are a shared experience and that all people are in the middle of their own narrative of normalcy.  Seeing Mason and his family evolve and change is an exercise in immense empathy; you come to realize the commonalities of your own joys, sorrows, and appreciation of moments both large and inconsequential.  And after the film, it is almost shockingly clear how Mason Jr., Olivia, or Samantha could be any random person on the street.

It is a wonderful movie, filled with small joys, deeply resonant moments, and the gorgeous backdrop of warm Texas landscapes.  Highly recommended.

Weigel, Will.i.am, and What’s Wrong with the Sunday Shows

A few days ago, Chris retweeted an article by Slate’s Dave Weigel entitled “Will.i.am Is Not What’s Wrong With Meet the Press,” in which Weigel recounts a jarring experience he had last Sunday:

On Sunday afternoon, I found myself among the not-insignificant number of Americans confused to see [The Black Eyed Peas’] Will.i.am on Meet the Press. Armed with an iPhone 4, I took this photo of the proceedings.

[Photo of Will.i.am with a serious expression]

Within a few hours, hundreds of people had shared that twitpic, usually with an aside about how much it revealed about Meet the Press’s well-reported troubles. Only a week had passed since Paul Farhi profiled the show and host David Gregory, which ironically shifted the narrative from ‘why is MTP so lame now?’ to ‘whoa, NBC hired a “psychological consultant” to find out how to maximize Gregory’s reach?’

I too was among the “not-insignificant number of Americans” taken aback by this state of affairs. I usually watch ABC’s This Week on Sunday mornings and hadn’t tuned in to Meet the Press in quite some time, so seeing Will.i.am’s mug immediately upon switching to NBC was perplexing indeed.

Evidently MTP has been experimenting with “adding on layers” and attempting to make the program more “interesting” by hosting “big conversations about religion, foreign events and societal trends,” as Gregory put it in an interview with Politico’s Dylan Byers. But Weigel is skeptical that this is really what the Sunday shows need:

Look, I’m a shmuck with a podcast and Gregory is a well-traveled reporter who’s interviewed basically everyone, but I feel this gets at exactly the wrong definition of ‘interesting.’ More interviews, more voices, does not automatically lead to more ‘interesting’ content. It leads to more content in less time—and less exploration of each subject covered. It robs the Sunday shows of their old advantage, their ability to lock subjects in a well-lit room for most of an hour and boil away their talking points.

As the ‘pack a show with segments!’ standard has spread, marquee guests have gotten used to quick sprint interviews that they can ace with some pablum. The main reason that Chris Christie’s post-election Sunday show interviews in 2013 were so lame and unrevealing was that Christie asked for, and received, only seven minutes on each show. But it didn’t jar, because each show was able to toss the segment into their current formats, in which tedious panel discussions fill out the hours like corn meal fills out a brick of scrapple. How did this happen? Who, in the history of ever, has wanted to hear less from the people who run the country and more from Harold Ford?

All I’m saying is: Lay off Will.i.am. He’s not the problem here. What you want is longer and more probing interviews with more seemingly boring people.

I completely agree with the first part of this diagnosis, since I’ve often complained about This Week’s own trend toward offering up “more content in less time.” The show used to consist of a roughly half-hour interview followed by a half-hour roundtable discussion, but is now typically made up of an interview (or two), a roundtable (or two), a “Sunday Spotlight” human interest story, and even a game of historical trivia with the roundtable participants (in an homage to Mother’s Day, today’s asked for the identity of the first woman to give birth in the White House).

“Boiling away the talking points” is a worthwhile objective, and I sympathize with Weigel’s frustration at Sunday show hosts who are too willing to let their guests get away with dodging questions. But Weigel elides his criticism of the “’pack the show with segments’ standard” with shots at “tedious panel discussions,” even though these are really two distinct problems. As he sees it, the issue is not that the proliferation of segments leads to less time spent on any given subject, but rather that it specifically leaves less time for in-depth interviews with politicians. This is the sense in which “the problem is not Will.i.am”; Meet the Press has, according to Weigel, already veered from its traditional mission.

I’m not so sure this is right. If anything, the total amount of time allocated to roundtable discussion on This Week actually appears to have decreased as the number of segments has multiplied. Weigel seems to forget that even in the good old days when Tim Russert hosted MTP, half of the show still (or already) was comprised of roundtable discussion – and even sometimes featured Harold Ford, Jr. Some of the most venerable political talk shows are, and have been for years, nothing but roundtable discussion. A few, like Gwen Ifill’s Washington Week on PBS, are marked by civility and generally productive conversation. Others, like CBS’ McLaughlin Group, frequently degenerate into shouting and feature Pat Buchanan saying things. It’s a mixed bag, but the format itself is nothing new.

“Tedious panel discussions” do have a role to play in the world of public affairs programming. Sure, it takes hard work to find worthwhile commentators who will offer a wide range of perspectives while engaging one another in a constructive way, but roundtables are not inherently a waste of time. Weigel thinks that any time spent talking about politicians is necessarily time not spent talking to politicians, but having journalists or other experts who can synthesize information and interpret the goings-on in Washington is a key part of keeping viewers informed. It should not be reflexively denigrated.

My own preference would be to see the Sunday shows return to the two-segment model, but also to see them limit the conversation within each segment to just one or two topics. Weigel mentions an episode of MTP where Gregory spent a brief few minutes with Texas Gov. Rick Perry hopping from issue to issue without ever getting a substantive response about any of them. Each segment of one of these shows has, in microcosm, fallen victim to the same ailment that afflicts the shows as a whole. Producers may feel as if they need to acknowledge every single political development of the preceding week, even if only by having each guest or discussant offer a thirty-second comment, but it would be a welcome development if they transformed their programs into something more along the lines of PBS’ Charlie Rose, where an entire hour is spent exploring a single topic in as much depth as possible.

Unfortunately, this might result in fewer employment opportunities for the psychological consultants and the Will.i.am’s of the world, but I’m sure they’ll manage. Maybe they can follow in Weigel’s footsteps and become shmucks with podcasts, too.


Shipping Out into the Cosmos

You’d be forgiven for thinking that RM has turned into a one-man operation over the last few weeks, what with Matt posting a slew of excellent pieces and me not making a peep. Thankfully, a couple of other side projects that have kept me occupied of late are winding down, and I’m looking forward to jumping back in and tackling Matt’s recent slate of arguments. (Especially that one about Douthat et al. siding with the Democrats. That should be a rollicking good debate.)

In the meantime, I wanted to post some brief thoughts on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos relaunch last Sunday night. You’ve probably heard the backstory ad nauseum at this point: NdGT is hosting a successor to Carl Sagan’s popular 1980 television program, and the format has been juiced up with slick new graphics and high-definition footage. Perhaps the most interesting part is that Fox gave the show a relatively plum primetime slot, an unheard of decision for what amounts to a science documentary. Credit to Fox – a network whose current programming roster includes not one but two shows with “Hell” in the title – for trying something a little different.

The first episode was a mixed bag. Tyson is an engaging host with a warm, booming voice. He effortlessly nails the role of cosmic tour guide, providing a grounding point of familiarity in a frighteningly massive expanse. The organization of the episode didn’t take full advantage of his easygoing, jocular presence, though. Most problematic was the erratic pacing wherein some segments lasted far too long or were given unexplained weight in what amounted to an introduction for the show’s central conceit and thesis.

While the writers did a fantastic job of showing the geographical and temporal scope of the cosmos, a condensed “history of scientific inquiry” was comparatively short and punchless. It featured an oddly lengthy profile of Franciscan monk Giordano Bruno, one of the first Europeans to understand the extent of the cosmos but one who suffered persecution by the Church for his beliefs. Identifying the Church as a roadblock to pre-Enlightenment scientific development is an important point to make, but the central focus on Bruno seemed disproportionate to other deserving cosmic researchers and scientists. This segment created a narrative foil for progress in the Church but did so at the expense of a more holistic view of other key contributors to our understanding of the cosmos.

Additionally, I would have liked to see a more structured episode that clearly laid out where the rest of the series is heading and what specific topics will be addressed. A more clearly constructed breakdown of the history of science would also have been welcome.

That said, the graphics were very well done and should attract younger viewers in particular. The combination of live action film, animations, and sharp comic-esque animation for the Bruno history scenes worked well. The presentation was roundly engaging and attractive.

Of course, it all comes down to content, and the next couple of episodes will indicate whether Tyson’s work has the consistent substance to back the style. I’ve never seen Sagan’s original series, so I can’t provide an informed opinion as to whether Tyson’s charisma lives up to that standard or whether the writing does justice to its forbear. But the very fact that this team has pulled an educational science show back onto television – in prime time! – is already a measure of success.

Michael’s MacGuffins: Arrested Development, Season 4

(Spoilers ahead.  Skip this post if you haven’t finished watching the new episodes.)

Allan Sepinwall has a great summarization and contextualization of the new Arrested Development season, and much of his review echoes my own thoughts on the show’s return.  The new interlocking format has its advantages and disadvantages, and although some of the episodes are overly long and contain uninspired plot threads, I think the final product succeeds in freshly adapting the AD formula for how people watch television in 2013.

The legacy of this season will ultimately depend on where the show goes from here.  There was little closure to the major story arcs by the last episode and a fifth season or film will decide if the writing team successfully and cohesively wove each narrative strand together.  We can argue whether a specific character, scene, or episode worked well or faithfully adhered to previous seasons, but given that there is still more of the story to tell, we should reserve absolute judgment on Mitch Hurwitz’s final product.

That said, there were a couple of important decisions in season 4 that I though ultimately detracted from the show’s earlier appeal.   One of the more notable ones that both reflects and accounts for the season’s more banal moments is the altered characterization of Michael.

The first three seasons positioned Michael as the one son who had no choice but to keep his family together.  He was the nucleus around which his kin revolved, the sole force keeping them from swinging off the axis of sanity into absolute madness.  Michael was not characterized as unfailingly superior to his siblings or parents, but he was the one authority figure who attempted to act with morality when presented with ethically dubious circumstances.  We see this when he repeatedly attempts to instill the value of truthfulness to his family as they prepare for various depositions and testimonies.  Countless specific cases demonstrate additional instances of moral behavior   His honesty to Maggie Lizer about not reading the case brief against the family in “Altar Egos,” for example, clearly demarcates him from G.O.B. (who had stolen the brief as soon as he possibly could).

Michael has his faults, of course.  At times he’s more narcissistic than anyone else, especially when he ignores or doesn’t listen to his son George Michael.  (Who’s Ann?)  Mitch Hurwitz has noted that in many ways, Michael is actually “the craziest one” for not being able to see what’s around him.  But there’s usually an effective counterbalance of compassion to Michael’s narcissism that demonstrates his love for his son and family.  Michael is also unique for his ability to direct moral imperatives to other members of the family.  Whereas George Michael and Buster exhibit similar inclinations for the good, they’re both subjugated to authority figures and lack the influence (and cult of personality) to impact anyone in a substantial way.  This makes Michael the one figure in the show that, despite clear and persistent character flaws, both attempts and has the sway to affect some sort of normative ideal.

The new season drastically recalibrates Michael’s character and, worse, gives him an inconsequential position of minimal authority.  While part of this is due to the show’s new narrative format of focusing on one character per episode, the sheer gap between who Michael was and is precludes the new season from capturing the same manic dynamic of the past.

Michael is still shown to be compassionate and caring.  His brief monologue in “Flight of the Phoenix,” when he tears up about moving out of George Michael’s dorm and says they’re like twins, movingly shows his love for the closest person in his life.  But subsequent scenes and scenarios make Michael’s caring side almost negligible.  He’s instead made out to be a tone-deaf, out-of-touch buffoon who is alarmingly unable to look past his own ends.  This characterization far exceeds Michael’s previous self-interested delusion to the point of absurdity.  Countless small scenes and larger plot points reinforce this perception, despite the fact that they’re meant to be funny:  getting in the shower with George Michael, taking George Michael’s laptop for a Skype call in the middle of a conversation about FakeBlock, and playing phone-tag with George Michael while having dinner with Rebel are only a few that come to mind.  By far the worst is the unending (and painfully unfunny) debate about which roommate should move out.  “Shoot me if I’m 86 and still living in my grandson’s dorm room,” Michael says to George Michael, a line whose dramatic irony begs for laughter but instead makes Michael’s character look absurd to the point of unbelief.  Michael has gone from a caring yet selfish parent to a total farce.

This is amplified by the curious decision to torpedo Michael’s success and remove his position of authority from the first three seasons.  Michael’s character was so well developed because of the way in which he influenced and affected everyone in the show.  The resulting dynamic created the rich relations between Michael and each other character, often a function of jockeying for power in the family hierarchy.  Michael’s role as both president and nominal patriarch was constantly challenged throughout the first three seasons, and the fruits of these challenges gave the show its wild plot and entertaining character juxtapositions.

Now Michael has nothing.  He’s no longer the center, the president, the patriarch, or even a major player in the family’s fortunes.  Instead, he’s convinced an in-flight magazine article will restore the family’s prestige; drives a Google car around for a job; and only visits his family members to get their signatures for the proposed film.  These roles are simple, uninteresting, and reinforce Michael’s new characterization as tone-deaf to the point of delusion.  The character is in many ways totally wasted by the new format, with the signature collection bit becoming a dull gimmick whose resolution is predictable almost from the get-go.   It’s a little shocking to see the center of earlier seasons become a plot device to collect various MacGuffins that have minimal influence on the main narrative.

Michael’s self-centeredness has also grown by leaps and bounds.   His decision to avoid telling George Michael about dating Rebel is not inconsistent with his characterization in the first three seasons, but it’s disturbing how far he’s now going to get what he wants, especially when it concerns the most important person in his life.  It’s possible to argue that the new Michael was a natural evolution of the character’s selfish tendencies from earlier seasons, especially given the new plot scenarios in which he’s put.  But the extent and rapidity of Michael’s shift, especially when he was the bedrock of the earlier episodes, feels too jarring to seem right.  Michael has become a pathetic character, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was a fuller explanation for how he fell so far from the first three seasons.  Going to live with his son because he doesn’t have internet access doesn’t cut it.  The fundamental personality shifts, coupled with mediocre plot devices, have made Michael a disappointing non-entity this go-around.

Michael’s abrupt character shift matters for the rest of the show because of the fallout from his previous role as the main player in the family-business hierarchy.  Now that Michael is no longer the center, both professionally and personally, each family member has swung off the axis into full-on insanity.  The production limitations of the cast’s schedules necessitated the format change, but from a narrative perspective, the changes in Michael’s character have thrown off the power / hierarchy dynamic that drove the story before.  This has resulted in a host of new scenarios that sometimes stumble since we lose the brilliant interactions that resulted from Michael’s influence on everyone.  Each character is in his or her own orbit; rarely more than two major characters share the screen at the same point.

Beyond the narrative itself, though, the new Michael makes us question what we knew about the earlier seasons and how well we knew the characters at all.  This is the first time in watching the series where I thought there was disjointedness between the story the writers were telling and what it seemed like the characters should be doing based on their histories and established personalities.  In some cases, this disjointedness was only minor and a logical extension of the character.  G.O.B.’s addition to Forget-Me-Nows and downward spiral was surprisingly dark but made sense given his established penchants.  Other decisions, however, were surprisingly bold, unexpected, or strange.  Maeby acting as Lindsay’s pimp was pretty damn eerie and George Sr.’s apparent transformation into a woman was also a complete sea change from his cold, tough businessman persona when the series began.

These shifts were all somewhat justified by each character’s respective history or earlier choices.  Michael’s, however, was more pronounced and more fundamental than everyone else.  Such a substantial change to the show’s bedrock raises questions about how we viewed each character in the past and how we understand them now.  The punch that ends the season is entirely justified for this new Michael, but it also feels unearned, especially since Michael had previously been the “straight man” whom audiences identified with.  This isn’t as severe a case as the final Seinfeld episode, but the punch does somewhat recalibrate how we view the entire series.  Michael’s stark transition to unequivocal jerk alters the show from one man trying to do the right thing amid a sea of harmless insanity to a carnival of jackasses who have few redeeming qualities.  Which is to say that in many ways, this isn’t even Arrested Development at all.

Again, that’s not a bad thing.  Despite this lengthy critique, I do believe the final product did a fine job of freshly adapting Arrested Development for 2013.  It is indeed unfair to argue that this season isn’t Arrested Development, since many of the same dynamics are still in play, just in a different format.  We already knew most of the Bluths were terrible people, and while it is somewhat unnerving to see just how deep their insalubriousness, it’s not anything we can’t handle.  Many of the season’s moments rank as some of the best in the series, and even though the new format reduces the ensemble’s screen time, the brilliant performances of the actors ably filled the gap.  (I particularly loved the Fantastic 4 play rehersals and the entire G.O.B. – Ann wedding sequence).  The interlocking plot sometimes stumbled from all of its twists and turns, but the end result is so stuffed with gags, references, and ingenious links that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  It was a marvel to watch everything unfold.

But Michael’s revamped character is to my mind the fundamental basis for the show’s non-production-derived narrative missteps, and I hope we’ll see the character rebalanced for the subsequent film or season.  Re-setting the cornerstone will facilitate whatever crazy new format Mitch Hurwitz graces us with next.