Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Fountainhead

"The Fountainhead" (King Vidor, 1949) Ayn Rand's ideological tome about the individual's right to see their vision through without compromise is its own worst argument as a movie. Her stance—what we now call "objectivism," a nice oblique term—makes perfect sense for writers and painters, but in collaborative media like, say, architecture—and the movies, despite the auteur theory—it just seems like impractical hooey. And elitist fascist hooey, at that. Elitist because Rand can't have her way without establishing an adversarial relationship with what she churlishly calls "the mob," the very "mob" that is the core of democracy. The anti-communist Rand looks down her nose at the one thing that separated democracy from autocratic rule—the opinion of her "mob." I guess autocracies aren't so bad when you're the autocrat (which sounds suspiciously like a politburo, either way the shallowness of thought is breath-taking).

Now, writers take their chances and only have themselves to blame if their books don't sell (that is, if you leave out complicating factors like publishers, press-agents, and a good cover designer). But a writer for the collaborative art of film must interact with a lot of artisans (who you'd think also have their right to a vision in their craft) to make it to the screen.*

Not so Ayn Rand.
Her contract—a good one—stated that not a word of her screenplay was to be changed, excised, or tampered with. Once she finished her own final draft, it was set in stone.

Of course,
a writer's vision is passed through many filters in the movies, the art directors, the cinematographers, the director, the actors, etc. Interpretation of "The Word" is all that's left of movie-making after the writing. It seems a little myopic to make that request as it might apply to the dialogue, but the stage directions, descriptions, everything excepting dialogue is always open to interpretation by "those others."

King Vidor had been an established director, starting his career in silent pictures, and, being there at the beginning, contributed to the "language" of film more than most directors working in 1949. He knew what worked on film and what didn't (or else why had he been working for so long?). And yet, when he tried to shorten Rand's rambling court-room speech, he was shot down. What about his film-maker's vision? Certainly his arguments and expertise in film-making had more credence than Ms. Rand's.**

And so, we have what could have been an interesting film with a compelling take on the world that is ham-strung by the purple prose written by its author,
done in a style that recalls the locked-in-concrete work of Leni Riefenstahl. Her philosophy in context is merely pretense and an apologia for shooting one's self in the foot in the practical world of film-making or other collaborative media.

But it's all surface tension, anyway. In "The Fountainhead," her characters have no motivation than what
Rand thinks is important, which is her ideology, even though their actions in particular circumstances seem to run counter to their ideals. Look, I'm with her on architecture—if I see one more greco-roman portico on a McMansion, I may go live in a yurt, but it wouldn't compel me to shoot myself in the head over it, or dynamite it...or, for that matter, fly a plane into it.

But, like the bear in the joke said, "
This isn't about the hunting, is it?" Rand's arguments bog down in practical real-world terms in architecture, but one senses there are other issues at play here. The film is one big "edifice" complex, with throbbing jack-hammers and impressive erections (including "the biggest one in the world!") That the big clinch between Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal is a rape scene complete with ignoring of resistance or saying "no," and then Neal's character, Dominique, runs off, marries another man, whom she doesn't love (Raymond Massey as a publishing king-pin in a performance that can only be called "animatronic") and then races to do architect Roarke's bidding at the drop of a housing project. It doesn't speak well for the character's self-respect, consistency, or even mental health, qualities that one would expect, all things being egomaniacally equal, in the Rand-world.***

I'm all for keeping what's yours for yourself.

But I wish
Ayn Rand had kept her neuroses to herself (by the way, despite being the one who adapted it, she is said to have "disliked the movie from beginning to end." I guess you can't accuse her of having bad taste or being that thing she loathed—a bad critic.)

* Perhaps Rand is the best writer for radio. One of my favorite stories about writers is the one about Rod Serling who was asked which medium he preferred to write for, radio or television. His answer was writerly-complicated: "When I write 'there's a castle on the hill' for television, I turn the script in and if they want to keep the castle on the hill, they work it into the budget and then the Art Director designs the castle on the hill. His designs are given to a drafter who makes up the plans which are given to the carpenters and masons who make the castle on the hill, then it's painted and detailed and set decorators put in the flora for the hill, and when it's all done I've got a castle on the hill. One castle on the hill."

"But, when I write 'There's a castle on the hill' for radio, the announcer reads it and suddenly I've got a million imagined castles on hills. And they're all different."

** Supposedly, though, Jack Warner, a conservative and whose company was paying for "The Fountainhead," trimmed the speech a bit, because he didn't want to lose money. Rand squawked, but apparently didn't blow up Warner Brothers. See, there's the Real World and then there's someone's ideological Fantasy.

*** Things turn so abnormally fraught that the film falls into that sub-genre of drama so histrionic that the wife and I call "Why doesn't everyone get a good night's sleep and start afresh in the morning?"

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