My take: Wolf: Scorsese’s Best Film?
My take: Wolf: Scorsese’s Best Film?
Joe Giambrone | Political Film Blog
With Wolf of Wall Street Martin Scorsese stomps on Consumerist Christmas like Godzilla on crack. This is the boldest, most audacious piece in recent memory, a film whose release date holds even deeper meaning than most American audiences could possibly process. They were assaulted, intentionally, on levels far deeper than their supposed virgin eyes. The naughty sex and drugs and runtime are the shallow criticisms currently making the mainstream rounds. Yawn.
Wolf is not about sex and drugs. The film is about money, power, greed, the legitimacy of this market-based wealth accumulation system. The sex and drugs are simply window dressing to a far deeper sickness, one that claws right out from the screen like a 3D Craptacular and strangles the audience where they live: their own greedy little insatiable egos. Because Jordan Belfort did it, he already topped them all. They could never compete. It’s been done.
Wolf has meaning across the society, the way we organize ourselves here as buyers and sellers, each competing to one up the next. Scorsese has finally matured to the point where he can tell it like it is, the American experience, the actual American Way, the American Dream, the myths, the reality, the psychology we’ve all been sold. This is a far bigger story than the tale of one super con man with a drug problem: we’re all complicit.
I’m of the opinion today that Wolf of Wall Street is indeed Scorsese’s best film, the full 2 hour and 59 minute cut.
People will likely respond with Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Of the three, Taxi Driver is the only film to reconsider.
Goodfellas is one of the most overrated of all Scorsese’s efforts. From the first trailer I saw it was plainly obvious: this is no Godfather. Scorsese’s artifice, his penchant for voiceovers and intrusive directorial voice left me distanced and unconvinced on any level. Better gangster films are not difficult to locate. Sorry, film geek boys; you can stop pitching this as some greatest film. It ain’t.
Conversely, with Wolf of Wall Street Scorsese’s style meshes gloriously with this over the top exploration of excess and debauchery. DiCaprio’s voiceovers provide a witness, a sounding board, a then-and-now take on the events that heightens the black comedy and makes for a hilarious counterpoint to the events unfolding on screen. With Wolf, the intrusive and jarring cuts, freeze frames and confessions all serve to bring the story to life.
Raging Bull was another effort that left me cold. Jake LaMotta was a sad sack, uncharismatic, a chore to watch. The film felt like penance rather than magic. Interesting photography couldn’t save this drudgery, in my opinion.
That leaves Taxi Driver (or perhaps you’re rooting for Casino? Hugo? Mean Streets?) Up against Taxi Driver we have an interesting dilemma. The two productions couldn’t be more different, the budgets, the visual aesthetics, the tone.
But that was 40 years ago. The world has moved on, and cinema has moved on. I don’t know if one could reasonably compare the two films. Is that even a rational thing to do?
That leaves Wolf, this week’s surprise affront to decency and American blinders. Scorsese just came off a 3D kids’ movie, Hugo, to turn in probably the single most thought provoking film of the year. We can’t help but see our place in Jordan Belfort’s world, because we’re not even at the servant’s quarters level. Everything he does, he does to profit himself in the manner proscribed from on high: greed is good. Greed is everything. Our entire civilization is predicated on greed now. The lurch to self-interested depravity as our religion, the cornerstone of our world, hoarding wealth for ourselves and our own, well, it needs to be acknowledged. It needs an offensive matinee showing. It needs shocked, flabbergasted little old ladies squirming in their seats out in Bumblefuck.
Amazing, nothing short of amazing. Dicaprio’s tour de force performance helps lay bare the moral depravity of Wall Street better than Michael Moore could dream of doing.
Wolf of Wall Street is a black comedy about an anti-hero who represents the ultimate ugly American. He’s the cornerstone of an ugly empire, in this case a Wall Street trading firm that does what Wall Street trading firms do: take money from suckers and put it into their own pockets.
As an up and comer, a nobody, not born to the manor, Dicaprio’s guy might just be fair game, a sacrificial lamb to draw attention away from the rest. In its totality, Wolf is a smart, meaningful, sexy, groundbreaking piece of American cinema that lays bare the obscenity of Wall Street rape and pillage. Scorsese tops Wall Street films that have come before and goes balls out, full bore.
I’m really glad we made it to the opening day of Wolf. Some scenes had me laughing my ass off — and not everyone at the packed house got it. Some stunned faces, some grumbling. Great movie.
Vision vs. reality?
Amazing that Obama gets a spot of uplifting blather in the trailer, when he was ultimately responsible for beating them down and dragging them off to jail across this nation.
My take on the Occupy Movement and its meaning (or lack thereof):
Where to start? How about with an observation concerning World War Z and how Hollywood muddles nearly any political point it ever tries to make in the service of maximizing viewership? “That’s how they sell the most tickets imaginable, by appealing across a broad spectrum, and combining so many ideas that everyone can walk away feeling like they got what they wanted (Anthony Kaufman).” Pretty good observation, and it also lets the perpetrators of propaganda off the hook for the more malignant ideas they push on the masses. Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises was a case in point. So what has that got to do with Tom Cruise dancing around in his underwear?
Risky Business spoke to me when I first snuck in to the multiplex through the exit door and caught it. I guess I was 16, a junior in high school. Joel (Cruise) has a debauched best friend Miles who is always prodding him to cross that next line. I had a similar real world compatriot, and so this relationship at the opening of the movie immediately grabbed my attention. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also a bevy of stunning prostitutes in the film, including Rebecca DeMornay as Lana. That’s enough to attact 90% of 16 y.o. American boys, and so where does this thing go?
It goes off into the world of business, capitalism, Yale. It’s an odd and sometimes confusing journey into supply and demand. In this case the supply is Lana and friends, the demand are the little rich boys of a Chicago suburb who are ready to put their money down.
Ah, but the competition is not going to sit still while upstarts like Joel try and pilfer a stable of high class call girls. Enter Guido the killer pimp. And then it seems Joel himself has ascended into the pimp racket. There are some strange complications however, as prostitution, pimping and competition also entail the little matter of stealing whatever’s not nailed down. In this case, the stealing is from Joel’s own house – scratch that – Joel’s parents’ house while they are away on business. The stakes for Joel keep raising, especially after his Dad’s turbo Porsche ends up in the lake.
One might try and claim a clear pro-capitalist, even libertarian slant to Joel and his pimp business. Supply, demand, profit, everyone’s happy (not Guido). But is that the ultimate point of Risky Business, or is there a larger ironic point to be gleaned? The ending, and its Yale business school tie-in leave room for contemplation.
Oh I hate giving away plot, and yet I need to stuff a sufficient amount of words into these things. See the movie, if you haven’t already. You tell me what you think.
Killer Joe is a stage play adapted for the screen this year and starring Matthew McConoughey. This twisted tale of Texas trash licks the envelope. The cast really carries this pretty simple story of greed and murder. The story is reminiscent of noir stories of the 1950’s, but with a bit of a harder edge.
The ending is intended to disturb, so it’s not for the squeamish. Still, a pretty engaging low-budget adaptation now out on DVD.
The Cult of Extreme Success
by Kim Niccolini
If you’ve read anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film The Master, you’ve probably read a lot about how the movie is a thinly veiled biography of L. Ron Hubbard and the history the Church of Scientology and Dianetics. Then there are those who have expanded the interpretation of the film to include a vast range of weird religious cults that have infected America throughout history – everything from The First And Second Great Awakenings, to Transcendentalism, to snake handling Pentecostal Christians, to “est” and to believers in the Milton Bradley Company’s Ouji board which can be purchased at a store near you. Interestingly, missing from these interpretations of the film are references to religious cults gone bad and which ended in violence (e.g. People’s Temple, Waco Texas, Heaven’s Gate, etc.).
In retrospect, it makes sense that the more violent cults have not been referenced in relation to this film because in many ways The Master operates on multiple levels that move beyond the mere surface level of its subject. It is a film about American opportunism, sexual repression, and religious fervor, but it is also a movie about how Hollywood itself, of which Anderson is part, is its own kind of cult, selling its own brand of transcendental relief through the silver screen. Maybe movies don’t offer a way to reach heaven or the mystical realm of our past and future lives, but they do give us a place to lose ourselves for the duration of a film. If a director is as adept at manipulating the audience as Anderson is, then the films can even lure us into their doctrine against our will, not unlike the cult leaders he depicts in his films. Even if we read the film as an idiosyncratic vision of the history of whacky American religious cults and namely Scientology as depicted through Paul Thomas Anderson’s eyes, we have to remember that Scientology itself is woven into the Hollywood landscape in figures like Tom Cruise (who plays a cult leader in Anderson’s Magnolia and John Travolta). The news headlines constantly remind us of the connection between Hollywood and Scientology.
Cult leaders are no strange territory for Paul Thomas Anderson. In his first feature film Hard Eight (1996) Philip Baker Hall plays Sydney – a Patriarch Gambler and Cult Leader of Casinos who takes in the young, naïve and fucked up and teaches them “his way” to beat the system and line his pockets with cash. In Magnolia (1999), Anderson gives us the insanely obsessive and hilarious Tom Cruise (a literal Scientologist) who plays the leader of his own Cult of the Cock, a cult that teaches men to be men by “worshipping the cock and taming the cunt.” Already in this film, Anderson has merged whacky American religious obsession with sexual repression. He brings Hollywood into the picture with the figure of Jason Robarbs who plays Tom Cruise’s father and a major Hollywood producer and executive. In Boogie Nights (1997), Burt Reynolds plays a guru of porn, a cult leader in the film industry who brings young people into his fold and exploits them to support his “vision” and his bank account. Finally, in There Will Be Blood (2007), Daniel Day Lewis – a foreboding vision of megalomania—pares down American obsessive behavior and greed by connecting it to Western expansion, economic opportunism, and the oil industry. In this film, which precedes The Master, Anderson shows America’s tendency toward relentless pursuit of success devoid of human emotion and connection. Success itself is an artifice and god to which one dedicates his life.
As Anderson’s images of cult leaders and American obsession have progressed over time, his movies themselves have become more and more hyper-stylized and emotionally removed. In films like Hard Eight and his epic masterpiece of ensemble cinema Magnolia, we could find place for human identification, where we could ground ourselves in sincerity and emotional identification. Both movies provided moments of enormous emotional catharsis. But the more Anderson made films, the more the emotion became subverted by his own private style. The internal components of his films have become so private and so locked inside his own vision, that they resist emotional access from the audience. Yet, people like me continue to watch his work with the fervor and dedication of devoted followers. It could be that is Anderson’s point. He strips us of emotional identification, so we have no choice but to succumb to his vision just like we would to a cult leader, except that we’re watching movies and get to leave the theater when the film stops rolling.
This brings me to The Master in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd (The Master and Founder of The Cause) and Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell (a fucked up veteran who becomes one of Dodd’s acolytes). The two actors play against each other with tremendous tension and energy. Both actors completely embody their characters – one showing his absolute obsession with power and control and the other physically embodying the inner torment of a war veteran and the emotional collateral he carries.
Much has been written about the acting performances (which are indeed superb) and the thread of Dianetics within the film, but very few critics have attempted to penetrate below the surface of the movie or analyze it at any depth other than commenting on its style, acting and historical references. One of the reasons so few people have attempted to dig below the surface of the acting and the overt subject matter is because the film intentionally resists analysis. Either what it has to say is written on the surface in its over-the-top performances and blatant reference to cult religions, or its subtext is deeply subverted by the intensely private vision of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like a cult leader, he resists penetration and doesn’t allow access to him or the interior of his film because that would make his “product” vulnerable.
From the onset, The Master is one of the tensest movies ever made. It immediately throws the audience into an uncomfortable state and then toys with the audience for the full 137 minutes of the film. It opens with Freddie Quell guzzling paint thinner or some other toxic concoction on the beach with a bunch of hyped-up and sexed-out soldiers wrestling on the shore in what is an overtly homoerotic war scene. If Jean Genet were to make a movie, it would have this scene in it. Freddie, however, does not engage in the Homo-Wrestling. Instead, he builds a naked woman out of sand, shoves his hand in her genitals, and then masturbates into the ocean, demonstrating his heterosexuality in the extreme. Freddie eventually passes out next to the giant naked sand woman with his head resting against her breast. If that is not a tense way to start a movie and make the audience immediately uncomfortable, then I don’t know what is. Certainly this opening scene does not allow any room for identification whatsoever. Joaquin Phoenix’s distorted and contorted body playing against the homoerotic wrestling scene on the beach, the glaring sun showing every drop of sweat and smudge of dirt on his twisted face, the close-focus askew camerawork – all of it is disorienting, unsettling, alienating and tense.
We then follow Freddie through various mumbled jumbled scenes in which he is fucked-up emotionally, wasted on his toxic drinks, and obsessed with sex. Freddie’s dialogue further alienates us. We can’t understand half of what Freddie is saying because he is so wasted emotionally,
physically and chemically. When he does open his mouth, it’s usually about pussy or cock. Freddie’s messed-up head and wartime trauma have led him to an addiction of drinking poison of his own concoction – cleaning fluids, kerosene, paint thinner, and who knows what else. In between he just wants pussy. While working the fields picking cabbages, he nearly kills a migrant worker with his poison booze. While the audience laughed at many of the opening sequences, it was uncomfortable laughter, the kind of laughter that says, “I have to laugh at this or run away.” There were those in the audience who chose the second option and walked out of the movie because this is a film that forces the audience to feel uncomfortable. Like a cult religion, it forces us to buy into its insanity or leave.
Speaking of religious cults, Freddie eventually ends up on the run where he lands on the (borrowed) cruise ship of Lancaster Dodd. So begins the tense and dysfunctional relationship between Dodd, Freddie and Dodd’s wife Peggy (a truly bizarre performance by Amy Adams). Dodd falls for Freddie’s “poison” – his paint thinner home brew. Dodd can’t get enough of Freddie. He wants to convert him into his fold, and he wants to drink down Freddie’s poison. But really what Dodd falls for is Freddie in general. Much has been made of the “homoerotic nature” of Dodd and Freddie’s relationship and of the opposing acting styles and demeanors of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. I observed these two characters from a different standpoint.
Sure, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance of Freddie Quell portrays a man in enormous physical, emotional and psychic crisis. But that doesn’t mean Hoffman’s performance is one of austere purity like many reviewers have noted. When Anderson focuses on Lancaster Dodd’s face — with his day old stubble, his drunken and obsessive red face, his flaky skin and all the physical evidence of his toxic life – he is no pillar of cleanliness and stability. He looks as dirty and debauched as Freddie. In fact, he looks even more so. Dodd attempts to hide his debauchery behind his religious megalomania and The Cause. Freddie wears his dysfunctionality on the surface. As the movie plays on and Dodd seems to both want to heal and exploit Freddie, truly what is happening is that he is in love with Freddie.
In the meanwhile, Dodd’s wife Peggy stands by with her formidable presence and attempts to orchestrate The Cause from the sidelines. Amy Adams’ portrayal of Peggy is as disturbing as those of Hoffman and Phoenix. She is pregnant throughout the movie, an image of American domesticity and hetero stability, yet she does not exude wholesome feminine passivity; she is a portrait of menacing manipulation, spite, and control. Part of the way she orchestrates control takes place in a bathroom sink where Peggy gives Dodd a hand job while she stands there pregnant in her pajamas. When she finishes with “the job,” she wipes her hands on a towel and leaves the room. Surely, this scene is an uncomfortable moment for the audience. But, if you want to read below the surface, it’s Peggy’s way of handling (pun intended) Dodd’s homosexuality while also performing the role of the Public Wife so Dodd can sell his bizarre religious sham to the public. In American culture, you can’t be a religious cult leader and out of the closet!
The public, by the way, are a bunch of rich people who use Dodd and his bizarre melding of mysticism, eastern religion, and his own random thoughts for their entertainment. Dodd is just a fad. He is used by the rich people for entertainment much in the way that Dodd uses Freddie. Everyone is using someone in this movie, and in the eyes of the wealthy, Dodd is just a disposable fad who can be tossed away when he no longer suits their whims.
In the meanwhile, Freddie maintains his devotion to pussy to such a degree that when he attempts to go sober, he hallucinates that all the woman at one of Dodd’s revivals are naked. The camera cruises over every variety of pubic hair and boobs on women ages 17 – 70. At moments the camera holds still on close-ups of pubic hair or aging buttocks. In the meanwhile, the naked and pregnant Peggy looks out at us as a kind of dare. Yes, the uncomfortable moments are stacking up.
While much has been made about the homoerotic bonding between Dodd and Freddie, I beg to differ. This is a movie about opposing sides of sexuality in conflict and connection with each other. The issue at the core of the film is that Dodd is a repressed homosexual who is in love with Freddie, but Freddie is clearly entirely heterosexual to such a degree that his heterosexuality is seen as almost an aberration. Indeed Dodd calls Freddie “aberrated” when they first meet, but Dodd is the one with the aberration if we are to go by standard American social codes. The movie ends with Dodd professing his love for Freddie in song. Freddie turns his back on Dodd and walks away. He lands in a bar and has sex with some bar girl. Freddie plays “The Master” game with the girl, and she just laughs it off. In the end, Dodd’s hyper controlling mystical vision is nothing but one man’s attempt to control his own desires more than others.
The filmmaking style itself does not make the sexuality any more comfortable. Paul Thomas Anderson has become a bombastic, epic, filmmaker whose style is so extreme that even if the subject matter didn’t make the audience uncomfortable (for example in the scene when the pregnant Peggy talks about fucking with dildos) the filmmaking style itself pushes the audience to the brink of acceptable bounds between the filmmaker and the audience. It’s extremely artificial and staged while also closing in on uncomfortable aspects of human nature – the traits that we would rather ignore. So the filmmaking style with its austere, hyper-stylized, a-historical settings is as impenetrable as the characters.
Paul Thomas Anderson seems to have reached the point where he intentionally pushes all the buttons he can push and produces huge alienating idiosyncratic films just so he can test his audience’s commitment to his films. As a filmmaker who makes films that intentionally alienate the audience from emotion but then also seduce the audience into succumbing to their obsessive vision, Anderson is not unlike Lancaster Dodd or L. Ron Hubbard. Like these cult leaders, Anderson tests the followers of his totally unreasonable doctrine, and by testing them he lures them in and holds them captive to his vision. (At least for those who don’t walk out.)
I’m a pretty hardcore film geek and have a very high tolerance for oddness, excessiveness and insanity in films, but even I was overwhelmed by the tension of the The Master for the first hour or so. Finally, I realized that the only way I could “enjoy” this movie was to give myself into it entirely. I had to relinquish myself to its obsessive excessive vision just like I would give into a charismatic cult leader who is completely off his rocker yet somehow irresistible. I did give in, and I came out with lots of interesting thoughts about the movie. However, all my thoughts were really about how Paul Thomas Anderson manipulates the audience by making the audience feel tense, uncomfortable and then converted.
All that said, I remain dedicated to Anderson’s films. I think it’s interesting that when his films contained the most authentic human compassion and expanded their cinematic worlds and emotions to places outside of the insular vision of this 21st century auteur that he referred to himself simply as P.T. Anderson. But the more and more insular, idiosyncratic and alienating his films became, he expanded his name to the complete Paul Thomas Anderson a name as long, wide and expansive as the 70 mm film he uses to record his compulsive visions. I guess that’s Anderson’s point in this movie more than anything. He is Lancaster Dodd, and he won me over again.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Editor's Note: With the second installment of this Ayn Rand novel coming to screens, let's take a closer look at the philosophy and mindset of the much-referenced author.]
Ayn Rand and Al Qaeda
Two Voices, One Terrorism
by Evan Knappenberg
Originally published at Counterpunch
As an embarrassed former advocate of “Objectivism” (the hate rhetoric disguised as philosophy by the late Ayn Rand) and as a former US army intelligence analyst, I was struck by an almost unconscious image of the firebrand Russian Capitalist author that has been growing in the back of my mind for quite some time. Let me preface this by saying that the vast majority of people who agree with Ayn Rand on particular issues (e.g. atheism) have problems with her world-view taken as a whole, and those who do take Rand at face value are usually emotionally-susceptible young adults who don’t know the hypocrisy of her views: for example, that Rand relied on Medicare in her later years despite her hatred of public health programs. It bears noting that by and large, Randians are harmless anti-social oddities, until, like Alan Greenspan or Paul Ryan, they are given a public platform from which to hurl righteous moral thunderbolts and play havoc with other peoples’ money. I have yet to meet (face-to-face at least) a “Rand-roid” who seemed capable of any type of physical violence. Rand herself, however, is in another entire category: morally- and legally- dangerous.
In her 1100-page shelf-busting Atlas Shrugged (1957), as well as in her 900-page doorstopper The Fountainhead (1943), Rand commits a series of federal crimes. In Atlas, the protagonist South-American mine-owning billionaire logically and methodically kills striking American workers with sniper fire from a rooftop while Rand praises his 20-20 vision and steady hand. In Rand’s “magnum opus” (which many of her followers have compared to the Bible,) a squad of executive-class terrorists carries out armed attacks with the stated goal of “stopping the engine of the world” and destroying “parasites,” “lice,” “dolts,” and “collectivists.” The terrorist-businessmen have a fleet of marauding pirate ships which they use to seize only humanitarian aid shipments; they laugh while the victims of their infrastructure attacks starve or freeze to death, presumably because “the dolts” didn’t have the good sense to invent something from scratch to sell for millions of dollars. Perhaps most striking is Rand’s depiction of her railroad baroness heroine’s cold-blooded execution of a fresh-faced, young United States soldier after what can only be described as an ideological rant that runs almost a hundred pages. In this scene, Rand makes it clear that the murder is being committed for what amounts to a violent political disagreement, and she praises her character’s calm, remorseless, methodical execution of a uniformed member of the US military. And this is just a sampling of the terrorist acts extolled in Rand’s novels.
In The Fountainhead (1943) , the protagonist, a jilted and sociopathic architect with undiagnosed personality disorder, blows up a public building for a diversity of purely selfish and convoluted aesthetic reasons. Rand’s fondness for terrorism is mostly openly political violence, which amounts to an endorsement of terrorism, which she justifies through a series of emotive attacks on altruism, religion, Cartesian rationalism and Kantian epistemology, among other targets. She is also fond of rape. Reference the scene in Fountainhead in which her “perfectly selfish” architect-hero rapes his debutant heroine counterpart. Sadly, Rand seriously intended this depiction of sexual violence as her ideal male-female partnership; Rand honestly saw this kind of rape as both passionate and loving. For more of these bizarre cases of insane rhetoric, try Rand’s Romantic Manifesto (1969).
Rand’s rhetoric is little more than hate speech targeting environmentalists, union workers, immigrants, the poor, churches, government employees, newspaper publishers, modern artists and 18th-century philosophers. Her vitriol ran the gamut of Christians, socialists, Platonists, anti-abortion protestors, prose poets, NGO workers… the list continues. If any of this type of agonizing fundamentalism is starting to sound familiar, now I would like to direct your attention to another monomaniacal millionaire who fantasized about killing US soldiers. The man I am thinking of had the stated mission of bringing the world to its knees using both terrorist physical violence as well as crippling economic violence. That’s right, Osama Bin Laden.
If comparing Ayn Rand to Osama Bin Laden sounds extreme, you don’t know Ayn Rand sufficiently. Unfortunately, those of us who are aware of her extremism were mostly indoctrinated into it at an early age. Social critic John Rogers said of Atlas Shrugged: “…it is a childish daydream that can lead to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood in which large parts of the day are spent inventing ways to make real life more like a fantasy novel.” Renowned thinker Raj Patel agrees. If you would rather save yourself from the high blood pressure associated with reading Rand, John W. Robbins does an excellent take-down of Rand’s mis-titled, self-styled philosophy (“objectivism”) in Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of her System (1997). Rand considered herself the arch-nemesis of the centuries-dead Immanuel Kant, presumably after once hearing his 1785 work on ethics referenced in her semester-long academic career in Petrograd University. Robbins barely has to exhale for the charade of “objectivism” to fall apart. Robbins thoroughly exposes Rand’s willful misunderstandings of the metaphysics and epistemology which she was so found of. After reading Robbins, I was left wondering if Rand might not have benefited from some well-timed Cliffsnotes or a copy of Aristotle for Dummies. To witness Rand’s disturbing personality and its effects on her followers, The Ayn Rand Cult by Jeff Walker is highly recommended. Walker details the arbitrary psychological abuse Rand doled out to her young followers on a regular basis, including the decades-long extra-marital affair she had with a man half her age, who was “excommunicated” when he finally left her. Walker does a good job of explaining the intense hatred between various sects of “objectivism” after Rand’s death, which are still at each others’ throats a generation removed.
As to the damage done by Rand’s followers, I wont even touch Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, who was banned from the UK for hate speech. I could also point to Alan Greenspan who, after the economy collapsed in 2008, publicly admitted to doubts about the “rational free-market” idea which he took from Rand. I could also point to vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who is admittedly not a good Randian because of his professed Christian faith, but still cites Rand as his inspiration to cut veterans’ benefits, the medicare programs that Rand relied upon, and almost every last thread of the social safety net. Perhaps I could also offer myself as an example of Rand’s mischief: my life has been a spotty process of embarrassing violence and rehabilitation in the aftermath of reading Rand. I personally blame Rand for my temper, which I learned to justify from an early age with the outrageous rhetoric of a “John Galt” terrorist or “Howard Roark” rapist. But it is only after my involvement in anti-terrorist operations as an intelligence analyst in the Middle East that I dare to venture the (tasteless?) comparison of Rand to Bin Laden.
Behind the provocative light in which I am portraying Ayn Rand, there is another more troubling and critical issue at stake in this comparison. By evoking it, I hope to eviscerate the Obama administration and the federal court system, as well as the moral stench that is the Patriot Act. Knowing the danger of openly mocking both Rand and the xenophobic “we-got-‘im” armchair patriots, I would hope to turn the attention of both camps to the hypocrisy of the Global War on Terror, and how even someone as patriotic as Ayn Rand easily fits into the category of terrorist. My hope is that the libertarian fringe will at least try the shoe on to see if it fits, and then to consider some truly moral alternatives to their beliefs. First, I call into evidence the recent case of Tarek Mahenna.
Unlike Rand, Tarek Mahenna was born in the US, a natural American citizen. As a follower of Islam, Mahenna was upset about the treatment of civilians in lands occupied by US troops. In April 2012, Mahenna was convicted of the new and ambiguous federal felony called “material support of terrorism.” Mahenna’s sole offense was that he admittedly watched and re-posted al Qaeda internet videos on his personal computer. Mahenna’s conviction was upheld on the basis of his motivation for watching violent videos: according to federal prosecutors, Mahenna was watching said videos in order to radicalize himself to support terrorism. This talking-yourself-into-something it turns out, is a federal crime that is punishable by 20 years in federal Supermax. It also begs the question: aren’t the libertarian “terrorists-in-intentive-pre-radicalization” doing the same thing with the writings of Ayn Rand that Mahenna did with the al Qaeda propaganda? The offenses depicted in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are at least as odious as anything Osama Bin Laden ever said in his infamous tapes, or for that matter anything that Agent Jack Bauer is depicted doing in the television show 24. Ayn Rand explicitly considered herself an intellectual propagandist, even going so far as saying in public that she was “aiming for” young, left-leaning intelligent types, presumably to radicalize, much the same as Mahenna allegedly was.
The real-life Orwellian twist to the story is the fact that at no point was Tarek Mahenna ever criminally violent in his direct actions or speech, even though, according to the Christian Science Monitor, he was repeatedly provoked by undercover FBI agents who failed at eliciting even verbal agreement for violence. This is more than some of Rand’s followers, myself included, can say.
This trend of faux-terror is becoming disturbingly common in not just large Muslim enclaves, but in modest communities of color and dissent. This, and the blurring of lines in cases like Mahenna’s, raises some serious questions: what is terrorism, essentially? What is radicalization, and where is there culpability? What is hate speech? What is violence? Who decides what is an acceptable depiction of violence in any context?
It is obvious from even a basic philosophical standpoint that the current spoken and legislated conceptualization of Terrorism as such is supplemented by a non-verbal, unwritten and ideological legal code that adjudicates not on the basis of criminal action or even intention. Instead the unspoken paradigm that determines who is patriotic and who is a dirty terrorist is ideological. How else can you explain the imprisonment of someone like Tarek Mahenna and the simultaneous freedom of the Yaron Brook, a fundamentalist Randian leader who has, undoubtedly read and promoted the emotive, political violence –the terrorism– that make up a large part of the writings of Ayn Rand? Certainly Christians and democratic socialists must cringe everywhere whenever the term “radical” is thrown around. But the question stands: why isn’t the FBI infiltrating the Ayn Rand Institute with agents trained in the art of provocation? Why isn’t anyone concerned with the explicit calls to political terrorism in Rand’s writing? Why is representative Bachmann focused on the imagined terrorist sympathies of Huma Abedin and not those of Leonard Peikoff? The answer is simple: ideology.
At its best, Rand’s ideology is merely raunchy and outdated. At its worst, we could cite the policies of Greenspan which brought us economic disaster, or the political career of someone like Paul Ryan. There is, to my knowledge, at least one internet-based group trying to build a Rand-inspired armed separatist group in this country. So is Rand’s ideological embrace of violence any better in than the ideology of the self-aggrandizing Saudi millionaire whose obscure rantings culminated in bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, New York and Washington? Is Rand’s ideology any more or less rational, and by what standard? As we move forward toward a post-9/11 pluralist democracy, what place do either Rand or Bin Laden have in our public discourse? This is a serious question that requires a serious answer, and not in the form of a work of fiction.
Evan Knappenberger is an Iraq war veteran, former teenaged “objectivist,” and philosophy and theology student at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
This is NOT a movie review of the recent film, which I have no desire whatsoever to bother with. This is so much more informative and useful…
Ayn Rand: the Tea Party’s Miscast Matriarch
by PAM MARTENS
Gary Weiss, long time Wall Street reporter and author, has written a new book, due out this week from St. Martin’s Press, on the rising influence of Ayn Rand in modern politics. Titled Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, the book removes the propaganda mask that has been so adroitly affixed to Alan Greenspan’s page-boy coiffed goddess of laissez-faire capitalism and the Tea Party’s mother ship.
While lecturing others for most of her life on the meaning of morality, Rand had extramarital sex for more than a decade with a younger man who worked for her. His wife was among her inner circle of friends and Rand herself was married. A believer in acquiescence to selfish desires, Rand published a 1964 collection of essays with Nathaniel Branden titled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. Adding particular poignancy to the title, Branden was the young subordinate with whom she was sleeping.
Rand, and her supporters, including Alan Greenspan, viewed altruism as evil: altruism is evil, selfishness is good. And tens of millions of dollars of corporate money is backing that philosophy today in America, no doubt to give obscenely paid CEOs a sip of Rand’s guilt-free narcissism while stoking the fires for more deregulation of a country just crawling back from the crippling effects of deregulation. This is the mindless irrationality of Rand’s brand of rationality.
Money, even for those who don’t work in finance, is still a part of everyday life. Every time we buy food, pay bills or go to work, we deal with it. Because money permeates so much of what we do and what motivates us to be both very good and sometimes very bad, it makes a great movie subject. Here are some of our favorite films about the supposed root of all evil, taking a look at greed, generosity and everything in between.
Addressing greed, crime and business, these films take a hard look at how humans interact with money…