Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Ayn Rand, Hunt for the Wilderpeople and the 13th Amendment – Reviews #256

Hello there. Below you'll find some stuff about books and films, mostly focusing on The Fountainhead. I've also written a couple of blogs in other places. Here's one about legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, and this is a chat with filmmaker Christopher Nupen about Jacqueline du Pre. The 80-second film he made for BBC Music Magazine is truly beautiful too, it's here.

BOOK: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
FILM: The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949)

Ayn Rand’s book, The Fountainhead, is absolutely fascinating: a strident, remarkable, often ridiculous crowdpleaser that lays out her philosophy of ‘objectivism’, in which self-interest is the driving force of progress.

It centres on a visionary modernist architect, Howard Roark, who wants to be judged solely on his work, without forging the personal relationships and making the compromises that he – and Rand – see as fraudulent and antithetical to great art. His counterpoint is Peter Keating, the golden boy of the architectural world, who excels at Stanton (from which Roark is expelled for insubordination), rises to fame and glory, and then receives an almighty comeuppance, as his nemesis blasts through society’s barriers to take his rightful place at the peak of the world.

Along the way, Rand fires spectacularly and relentlessly at social responsibility, at the masses and at socialism, the latter represented by Ellsworth Toohey, an apparent hybrid of Alexander Woolcott and Bernard Shaw: a hideous, brilliant bird of a man whose motives are kept murky until a stunning speech to the bereft, swollen Keating, 664 pages in. Charity is a way to absolve oneself of guilt or provide meaning to a mediocre life, the masses are revolting, stupid and feral, and socialism is a way to rob man of his individuality and thwart his potential, she argues.

While I find her polemicising utterly lacking in the empathy intrinsic to basic humanity (and perhaps informed by the Bolsheviks seizing her family’s possessions in the ‘20s), there’s no denying that her way of viewing the world is explosive and even revelatory, and it’s hardly surprising that this visceral but cerebral book has become a bible for libertarians. It is, above all, a hymn to individual freedom and a condemnation of society’s skewed priorities – which will fight for an unwed mother but not a beautiful building – with architecture a richly symbolic field in which to state the case for human progress rocketing skywards thanks to the work of a few great men.

It dips massively during two laughable, comically sincere sequences – the first dealing with Roark’s mutually sadistic courtship of journalist Dominique Francon, the second his love-in with Hearst substitute, Gail Wynand – and sometimes slips so deeply into a recounting of Rand’s ‘objectivist’ philosophy that it becomes a textbook rather than a novel (most damagingly during Rourk’s climactic speech), while inescapably featuring an idealised ‘great man’ who’s a rapist.

But it’s also enormously readable – far more so than I was expecting – with a patented contrariness and counterintuitiveness in its language and ideas, a starkly impressionistic vocabulary full of “smears” and “smudges”, “parapets” and “porticos”, and bursts of sudden, shocking violence: in its architecture, its relationship with an imperfect world, its characters’ creativity and cruelty. The first time that Roark reshapes a hackneyed, ignorant design by slashing thick black lines through it, you can’t help your heart beating a little faster.

Rand's contention that the point of life is to create is one that many of her critics will still be able to relate to, though she argues extremely persuasively that this is something one should do for oneself and not for others: anything else is a betrayal of the self, and that is the most heinous betrayal, the gravest sin of which man is capable. She elaborates in her introduction, written in 1968, by saying that religion too is an abuse of man, since it involves us apologising for and debasing ourselves before a higher power. In The Fountainhead, Roark's visionary design for the Stoddard Temple naturally causes outrage – stirred by Toohey, and Wynand's flagship tabloid, The Banner – because it is a temple scaled to man's proportions, which glorifies humanity, and not God.

Donald Trump has said recently that the film, and book, have been a huge inspiration for him. I'd say the chances of Donald Trump having read a 725-page book about philosophy are exactly zero. If I'm wrong and he has, then he must have missed the part in which Rand says that the worst of all the "second-handers", those inferior specimens whose self-worth is based on the approval of others, is he who seeks not just vindication, but power. Hilariously, he even sought to stress his similarities with Roark by quoting an unnamed journalist who thinks that he is terrific:

He then recounted a call he received from a liberal journalist: “How does it feel to have done what you have done? I said what have I done. He said nobody ever in the history of this country has done what you have done. And I said, well, if I lose, then no big deal. And he said no, no, if you lose, it doesn’t matter because this will be talked about forever.

His love of the book, he said, was because "it relates to business (and) beauty (and) life and inner emotions. That book relates to ... everything." As indeed do most books.

In 1949, the book was adapted for the screen, and the subsequent film is fascinating, though not in the same way. When I heard about it, my fear is that it would lose the ideological imperative in translation, but actually the opposite is true: only the ideology remains intact, characters just yelling political slogans in one another’s faces for two hours. When you realise that Rand adapted the book herself, and essentially took over the direction from King Vidor, that makes more sense. Even so, you’d think that a cinephile like Rand, who saw up to 200 movies a year in the cinema, might have learned how to write one. Gary Cooper is simply miscast as Roark: in the book, a gaunt, upright, red-headed, ferociously dedicated, single-minded force of nature who lives only to create, and eschews compromise, populism and personal ties in his pursuit of greatness. Cooper trials to dial down his ‘aww shucks’ charm and his inherent nobility, but there’s nothing in its place: his Roark seems slow-witted, shambling and lacking the enormous creative dynamism that typifies the character. Kent Smith is also spectacularly wrong as the banal but beautiful Peter Keating, playing the ethereal, ringleted fraud as a sort of desperate, sweaty jock gone to seed, while Ellsworth Toohey, the piece’s seductive socialist straw man, chrome-domed Robert Douglas has a few witty one-liners, but is a simple two-faced villain rather than the insidious reptile of the page. Rounding out the tone-deaf silliness is Henry Hull, whose rapidly receding Henry Cameron (Roark’s mentor) is among the worst of his many bad appearances in 1940s film.

There are two quite good turns, though: a disorientating, pained performance from Patricia Neal as Dominique – whose storyline poignantly and uncomfortably mirrors her real-life adoration of Cooper – and Raymond Massey’s imposing turn as self-made newspaper baron Gail Wynand, eventually stirred to start a public crusade he actually believes in, by the persecution of the film’s hero.

I don’t really mind that the film is camp and overblown to the point of hysteria. Even when junking much of the book’s first half and stretching the last quarter across the second hour, there is way too much plot and almost no credible dialogue, but that’s part of its batshit appeal. Instead, what I found most damaging was that it missed surely the greatest opportunity of all, which was to realise on screen the buildings that Rand could only write about. In true Roark style, Frank Lloyd Wright (the inspiration for his character) asked for $400,000 to draft the designs – a tenth of the budget. Baulking at the idea, Warner just did the best they could, producing results that Rand described as “horrible” and which architectural critics pointed out would be unable to remain standing for longer than a few seconds. By contrast, the gothic and renaissance reproductions are supposed to be revolting, but because they’re such cartoonish parodies, the exercise seems utterly fraudulent.

I find it fascinating – and a little terrifying – that in the HUAC era you had a man like King Vidor working on The Fountainhead. By 1949, he was a member – with Rand and Cooper – of the MPA, the red-hunting organisation that facilitated the Hollywood blacklist. Just 15 years earlier, he had directed unquestionably the most radical Hollywood film of its decade, Our Daily Bread, which despite featuring the ‘man of destiny’ not uncommon in his oeuvre, was also explicitly and proudly pro-communist. Even then, the film was considered too controversial for a major studio to handle, so he produced it independently and released it through United Artists.

To see Vidor, of all people, directing a hymn to individualism, a film with such vitriolic contempt for solidarity, empathy or even basic human decency, is absolutely shocking. At times, I found myself genuinely astonished at how sinister and terrifying The Fountainhead is, especially as an example of mass market entertainment. That it was bankrolled by Warner Bros, the socially-conscious studio responsible for the likes of Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang tells you basically everything you need to know about late-‘40s Hollywood.

It isn’t, by any criteria, a good film, but it is a compelling social document, with a few minor artistic virtues: Neal’s performance, some avant-garde framing and set design, and a stunning final shot of sheer, jaw-dropping fascism. By contrast, the book it’s based upon is a genuinely important artistic and political statement, however repellent and ridiculous it may be.

Incidentally: halfway through the film, a guy in front grabbed the bloke next to me by his shirt and threatened to punch him in the face if he didn't stop kicking his chair. Typical Ayn Rand crowd.

Book: (3.5)
Film: (2)


"What's a Tupac?"
"He's just like this really cool rapper and he's pretty much my best friend."
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi, 2016) – A winning, unpredictable and disarmingly hilarious Kiwi comedy from writer-director Taika Waititi, about unwanted 10-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) going to stay in the country with a new foster family, only to end up on the run with grumpy, taciturn father figure 'Uncle Hec' (Sam Neill).

It's packed to bursting with brilliantly unexpected jokes (“Are you gonna manslaughter him?”, "Well, they got that wrong because you're obviously white”), balanced by moments of universality and deft sentiment, and accompanied by a lovely musical score, coming off as a sort of more genuine, less antiseptic cousin to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom.

The only shortcoming lies in the (admittedly amusing) climax, which narrowly misses the target, and a wrap-up that contains one soppy callback too many. It's a wonderful film, though. (4)


13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016) – This Netflix documentary about the prison-industrial complex argues, quite brilliantly, that the 13th amendment which abolished slavery never really did, since it removed human rights from those sent to jail, and then began to systematically imprison African-Americans, first to prop up the post-Civil War economy, then to undermine the Civil Rights movement, and finally – and most dangerously – via the ‘War on Drugs’.

Between 1973 and 2014, the prison population rose from 300K to 2.3m (while violent crime actually decreased, a point not made in the film); as bills backed by private prisons saw ever-harsher law and order measures, including ‘three strikes’, an accent on plea bargaining, and a drive to make offenders serve 85% of their stated sentences. Today, 1 in 3 black men in America will go to jail at some time during their life.

Ava DuVernay's film uses archive footage, and testimony from politicians, academics and activists (Angela Davies!), to make a strong polemical case that lacks some of the virtues of similar recent documentaries – The Interrupters’ accent on human stories, The House I Live In’s unerring focus on the drug issue – but offers greater context, more wide-reaching analysis and, crucially, an unfailingly African-American perspective, as those two earlier works, magnificent though they were, came from white documentarians.

Like Spike Lee’s recent Chi-Raq its use of on-screen hip-hop lyrics (in a kind of ‘dissolving chalk’ aesthetic) is a major boon, though unlike Chi-Raq it doesn’t include an incredibly boring central story about a sex strike. And the (slightly disingenuous) sequence in which Donald Trump's petulant speech about beating up protesters soundtracks a montage of Civil Rights-era outrages is simply a wonderfully visceral bit of filmmaking.

It’s also nice to see Lillian Gish’s consummate artistry being introduced to a new audience: that’s her celebrating with the Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s abhorrent white supremacist masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. I can lend you more of her work if you’re interested. (3)


Thanks for reading.

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