Penny Lane has been making award-winning, innovative nonfiction films for more than a decade. Her latest documentary, Hail Satan?, about the The Satanic Temple, premiered at Sundance and is being released in select theaters by Magnolia from April 19. Her previous documentary features include The Pain of Others (2018), Nuts! (2016) and Our Nixon (2013). She was named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012. Lane is currently an associate professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Colgate University, where she lives in a very old house and shows movies in her barn. And yes, Penny Lane is her real name.
It’s hard to know what was my favorite part of seeing Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? Maybe it was the fact that I have never sat in a real, actual movie theater to see a movie of approximately made-for-TV quality and far less than made-for-TV consistency of vision. Maybe it was John Galt’s hair, which flowed and flowed, yet never once moved. Maybe it was the utter lack of anything like a sense of humor – which was probably the biggest factor in making AS3:WIJG? the funniest movie I have seen in years.
You guys, I really, really loved this movie.
In case you live under a rock, Atlas Shrugged is the hugely popular 1957 Ayn Rand novel extolling the virtues of self-interest, reason and capitalism, while warning of the dangers of state coercion, socialism and business regulations. AS3:WIJG? is the third in a trilogy finally bringing Rand’s magnum opus (her longest novel, at more than 1000 pages) to the big screen.
The investor behind this trilogy is John Aglialoro, the CEO of a fitness-equipment manufacturing company who, in 1992, paid over $1 million for the rights to the book and full creative control. Since then, the path to getting this final film into theaters has proven exceptionally rocky, with deal after deal (Turner Network Television, Lions Gate) going south, and star after star (Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway) dropping out.
I don’t bring up this history to make fun of anyone. Everyone should believe in something as fervently as John Aglialoro does. Right? I think so? Maybe?
Anyway, I really don’t want to recount the plot of AS3:WIJG? here, in part because you can Google that shit, and also because, even though the plot is delivered through a whole lot of expository dialogue (“Hey, isn’t that Dagny Taggart, COO of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad?”), I really didn’t follow it very well. The plot was pretty confusing.
Which is not to say the dialogue wasn’t good. Far from it — the dialogue was totally awesome! At least as good as anything from Tommy Wiseau. This is a film that features a security guard declaiming, with a gun to his head, “I’m not supposed to decide! I’m just an average guy! I’m not supposed to make decisions about my life!”
My favorite parts of the film are set in Atlantis, Galt’s libertarian-separatist paradise. When we first get there, we meet all the innovators, geniuses and leaders who have gone “on strike” from a society that punishes their talent and hard work with too many taxes and regulations. We meet a brilliant neuroscientist called Dr. Thomas Hendricks (I know this because when he enters the room someone says, “Hey, isn’t that Dr. Thomas Hendricks, the brilliant neuroscientist?”). Hendricks has invented a life-saving medical device — which appears to be an iPad — and as he waves it over Dagny Taggart’s inert body, he says, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish without red tape!” Galt’s iPhone also makes a prominent appearance. A mom talks about home-schooling her kids. Basically, Atlantis looks exactly like a Park Slope farmer’s market, complete with artisanal bread and Apple products. It’s a little bit steampunk, too, as is the whole movie. I’d like to say that’s exactly what the director was going for, but the director clearly had no idea what he was going for. I can only imagine that the director’s statement was, “I really want this to look like a movie.”
The people who made this movie have definitely seen movies before. But they haven’t actually made any. Which should be abundantly clear from their Kickstarter video. Watching just 10 seconds of it should make it abundantly clear that these people really don’t know how to make a movie. Just watch it… go ahead, I’ll wait.
Much snarky hay was made last year when AS3:WIJG? used Kickstarter to raise finishing funds and distribution capital. “But isn’t this charity?” “Lolz The Irony! AS3:WIJG? wants people to be altruistic!” Now, I’m no Randian, but I do love both Kickstarter and capitalism, and to make fun of AS3:WIJG? for “begging for money” is fundamentally to misunderstand Kickstarter.
Look, at least 3,554 people wanted to see AS3:WIJG? get made, and used $446,907 of their money to make that happen. For self-interest. Not charity.
Actually, the filmmakers’ Kickstarter FAQ handles this better than I ever could:
Q: Isn’t asking for charity antithetical to Ayn Rand’s philosophy?
A: Kickstarter is not charity and we do not seek charity. We are offering a voluntary value-for-value exchange. If you see no value in any of the reward levels, you should not back the project.
Regarding the idea of charity however, Ayn Rand had no problem with someone giving money to a cause they care about. If someone deems a cause worthy and wants to donate money, they should be free to do it. What Ayn Rand had a problem with was altruism for the sake of altruism, as a moral duty, or being compelled, or forced, to “give.”
“The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance.” – Ayn Rand
By the way, I don’t even fucking like Ayn Rand. I’m not defending Ayn fucking Rand! But I think this little quote has a lot to teach us, the creative community, about what crowdfunding is really about.
I back campaigns when I really want that shit to get made, and/or I want the incentives being offered. Occasionally, yeah, someone speaks to a motive that is altruism or close to it. But I’m sorry: I never give to a campaign that is “begging” me to “help” them. Even if it’s my friend’s. The point is not for me to give you $5 for your campaign, and then that means you’re obligated to give me $5 when I run one – because all we did in that process was give Kickstarter and Amazon, like, $2.00, and now we’re just dumb.
There’s a mantra that gets repeated over and over in Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? In a confusing sci-fi-ish twist I didn’t really follow, simply uttering this mantra aloud apparently opens the door to a magical energy source that powers the world (or something…).
Anyway, that mantra is: “I swear by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” Although I wish this were a better-written mantra (and again: I fucking hate Ayn Rand), I think I can get behind it, at least as it relates to crowdfunding. Just back the shit you want. No guilt, no obligations. We’d all be better off.
And I would personally like to thank the 3,554 people who helped put Atlas Shrugged III: Who Is John Galt? in a real, actual movie theater, because I love this movie, and I love the world where it exists more than the world where it doesn’t.