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
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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