Film Reviews Of New York In The Fifties; Ayn Rand & The Prophecy Of Atlas Shrugged; and Homo Sapiens 1900

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/14/14


  I recently saw three streaming documentaries on Netflix that recorded failed political histories. They were New York In The Fifties; Ayn Rand & The Prophecy Of Atlas Shrugged; and Homo Sapiens 1900.




  Many years ago I read Dan Wakefield’s book, New York In The Fifties, and found it to be a moderately engaging account of one man’s life, meeting far more famous and influential people. Wakefield himself has mainly been a journalist, so his book had a required objectivity, even as it often strayed into hagiography.

  Why anyone would think that this book could be the basis of a film of any import is baffling, yet, in 2001, just months before 9/11, apparently filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker did find Wakefield’s book interesting enough to film. Unfortunately, the film posits Wakefield as the cultural epicenter of New York City, and the Big Apple as some Mecca of culture in a sea of Eisenhoverian gray. In reality, this is simply not true, for the bulk of New York was NOT Bohemian, but full of the dull gray bankers Wakefield and company deplore, and a model of the Eisenhower years.

  That this film, at a mere 72 minutes in length, feels much longer, is tribute to how little information of any depth comes out of the mouths of the usual suspects of talking heads and featured celebrites, which include Gay Talese, Robert Redford, Nat Hentoff, William F. Buckley, Joan Didion, Steve Allen, James Baldwin, John Gregory Dunne, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Calvin Trillin, and Mark Van Doren. One would think that al of these thinkers and artists would have great anecdotes about each other, but they don’t. Yes, they preen on about how New York in the 50s was like Paris in the 20s, but they all seem to forget to mention exactly HOW?

  The reason, of course, is obvious: it is Left Wing hagiography, and they all believe that if you repeat something long enough, regardless of factuality or factitiousness, people will believe it, and one suspects all of the folks assembles genuinely do believe their lives were great, but none of them can point to any reason why. Of course, almost all are white liberal elites, so this may be expected, as is the love of black culture, especially jazz, and the worst of the Beatnik movement. Unsurprisingly, the film ends with some of the talking heads claiming the 1950s really lasted into the Kennedy years, and only ended with his assassination. Ultimately, the film is not even interesting visually, as the print has a washed out look to it, perhaps to intentionally invoke a 1950s documentary feel. If so, it fails.

  Blankenbaker wrote the film’s screenplay, as well as directed the film, but technically, it has an amateurish look and feel to it. Take a pass on New York In The Fifties.




  If New York In The Fifties is merely amateurish in look and feel, the 2012 ‘documentary’ Ayn Rand & The Prophecy Of Atlas Shrugged looks and feels like a cable tv ‘history’ show on sightings of cryptids, or the like. This is because, while slickly made and produced by supposed journalist Chris Mortensen, the 83 minute film makes absolutely no attempt to be objective. It is clear that the film utterly buys into almost all of its titular subjects claims and beliefs, as well as feeling the monstrously written titular novel is a masterpiece of 20th Century fiction. It claims that readers chose Atlas Shrugged as the greatest novel of the 20th Century, while critics left it off the Top 100 list, even as it never names the source for this claim for Rand’s book. This is understandable since it is well known that, just as L.Ron Hubbard and Scientologists bought up massive quantities of his books on his cultic beliefs, to prop them up on bestseller lists, so did the Objectivist cultists of Ayn Rand do the same for their leader’s works.

  Similarly, Mortensen assembles mostly gullible college aged kids who don’t have the maturity to understand a) that Rand is a terrible writer of prose, regardless of her beliefs, and b) has beliefs that, on the surface seem plausible, yet get increasingly bizarre and unrealistic the more deeply you read of them, as well as unknown but wealthy CEOs who decry the current political state as being quasi-Socialistic, even as the financial crisis we found ourselves in, in recent years, is an absolute result of the guilt-free hedonism the rich who practiced what Rand preached have inflicted on the nation for almost three decades. Perhaps the only interesting thing about the film is that the director actually found subjects willing to talk about their love of Rand, since most of her devotees do not, as I found out in a recent interview with one of the biggest Randians around, philosophy professor Stephen Hicks.

  The film never explores what Rand’s actual simple black and white ideas are, as it merely quotes ill wrought sentences from the book, as if these de facto apothegms say it all, whatever it all may be. This libertarian leaning film was clearly produced with the 2012 Presidential election in mind, but fails so miserably that one might have a good case to argue that it actually makes a case for the recent re-election of our current President, as its embrace of deregulation, which got us into this mess, is so ahistoric as to be mind-boggling.

  One wonders if Rand, herself, would have approved of Ayn Rand & The Prophecy Of Atlas Shrugged since, as paper thin as her ideas are, to begin with, after watching this documentary, it’s almost impossible to objectively (sorry!) take them seriously. The droning somber music, the claims of oppression by people clearly in the upper 1% of society, plus the scenes of ‘recruitment booths’ all make this bad agitprop film more of an Objectivist hagiography of Rand, and not a work of journalism, despite Mortensen’s credentials.




  If the Ayn Rand film reviewed above is bad because it is a simpleminded work of propaganda, then the 1998 documentary, Homo Sapiens 1900, fails because it is simply a work of bad art. Overall, this 84 minute film has absolutely no vision. It is the visual equivalent of reading through the dryest encyclopedia entry you can find, and given how explosive a topic eugenics has historically been, this is indeed amazing. How the hell could someone make that topic boring?

  Let me state, up front, that eugenics is not a bad idea, in the abstract. Improving the human race with genetic and artificial modifications has occurred in our recent past, and will only accelerate. The problem has been that in its first incarnation, at the turn of the century, in America, Sweden, and later in the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany, it became an undeniable tool of oppression, racism, and genocide. Yet, this all stands in counterpoint to the droning narration, the overuse of still photos, and lengthy silent black screen shots between images. One wonders if director Peter Cohen was actually trying to turn people off to the idea, since he so clearly turns people off to the film. The narration, by Jan Holmquist reminds me of a documentary series on film I recently watched, The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, wherein that film director’s enunciation was so slow and offputting that many viewers and critics ripped the film for it. Fortunately, or not, there is plenty more to rip this film for.

  The film does go into the good ideas and intentions of the movement and its founder, Francis Galton, and does differentiate between positive eugenics, which emphasizes unnatural selection, and negative eugenics, which led to mass castration efforts, and also genocide of seemingly ‘inferior’ peoples. The film also gets points for digging up an early agitprop film for eugenics- an early silent film called The Black Stork, wherein a real doctor, Harry Haiselden (playing himself), refuses to assist a deformed baby, claiming it is sometimes crueler to help than not to help.

  However, the film ultimately provides no real insight into the movement, nor its champions, that a good Google search could not equal nor surpass, and, as mentioned, its poor artistic style weighs heavily against it. One final possible positive is that the film simply renders these facts dryly and ‘truly’ objectively,’ hence letting each viewer deal with the ethics presented. On the negative side, this approach means the film has no overall analytical stance, and makes no attempt to break new ground in historical research of the movement.

  Like the first two films under review, Homo Sapiens 1900 can be missed by most viewers with no loss to their knowledge of science nor history.




  Overall, these three documentaries on political failures, of one sort or the other, fail in different ways. But, hewing to the line that a failure is a failure, all can be equally ignored. Viva democracy!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]

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