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I read The Fountainhead when I was nineteen. I was going camping and needed reading material, and because it looked as good as anything, I threw it in my pack. A few days later I was laying in my tent, trying and failing to sleep, so I brought the Ayn Rand novel out and started reading it. I still remember the first pages: They blew my nineteen-year-old brain. Howard Roark felt exactly the same way I did. He too wanted to do his own thing. He too wanted to work for himself. He too hated authority.
Over the last few years that initial (sympathetic) reception of Ayn Rand and The Fountainhead has been compromised. For one thing, I’ve seen more vitriol thrown at her than any other philosopher, even Heidegger (and he was a Nazi). For another, I’ve listened to philosophers and students of philosophy discuss and dissect her ideas. Almost all of them agree that Ayn Rand was not a respectable thinker, but somebody who made wild claims and didn’t back herself up with detailed argument.
Although, because I’m stubborn, up until recently I’ve continued to hold sympathy for The Fountainhead. Yes, I agree, Ayn Rand’s political philosophy is ruthless. Yes, she dismisses Kant, Descartes, Wittgenstein, and others, without properly engaging with them. But, I told myself, her ideas concerning artistic integrity were still good. Who could reject Howard Roark’s dedication to a personal vision? I certainly could not. I think people should try as much as possible to be original, and I think people should stick to their principles. However, after watching the 1949 King Vidor film The Fountainhead, based on a script written by Rand, I realize that her conception of creative originality is hugely flawed. I’ll address this presently, but first, I’d like to discuss the movie itself, in terms of its non-philosophical elements.
I’m the type of person who enjoys ranting about movies I love rather than ripping on movies I hate. A crappy movie is a waste of time, so I really wanted The Fountainhead to be good as a movie (ignoring its philosophy). I mean, maybe the formal elements of film (cinematography / mise-en-scene / sound / editing), along with the acting, would make Ayn Rand’s story more enjoyable?
The answer to that question: kind of. It works on some levels and fails on others. When it works, it has nothing to do with Rand’s philosophy. A lot of the film’s (limited) charm comes from the cast of talented character actors who tried their best with the corny dialogue and occasionally pulled off engaging performances. Raymond Massey in particular does well with the material – although, this probably has to do with his character, Gail Wynand, who is probably the only person in the story that actually changes (Roark has the same outlook at the beginning as he does at the end, same with Toohey, Same with Keating, etc., etc.).
I can’t fault the film for its mise-en-scene and cinematography. They compensate for a story that, in terms of visual impact, is potentially bland. It contains little else but faces, words, and rooms, but still manages to be fun to look at. The courtroom scene in particular, where Roark gives his (in)famous speech, is appropriately oppressive. An aspect of cinematography I was surprised to see under-utilized is low-angle photography, which is a strategy generally used to make characters appear “god-like.” You would think, given Rand’s intention to make her character a “super man”, that the director would have shot Roark from below a bit more.
As for the other two formal elements of film? The editing is adequate, in the sense that are are less jarring transitions than in many older films. I wish I could say the same the same for the music, but I can’t, because it is the definition of jarring, and one of the worst things about the movie. It’s horrible: high-pitched and over-dramatic, it always comes on when something “big” is happening in the plot; i.e., Howard Roark’s building is tampered with… cue the music. Toohey is talking about sacrifice…. cue the music. Dominique slaps Roark with a riding crop… cue the music, etc., etc. Not only is the music unpleasant, it also has a tendency to play over the dialogue… and the dialogue is already unpleasant enough as it is without the high-pitched dissonance.
And that dialogue really and truly is unpleasant. It lacks sub-text. Each character says, in painstaking detail, exactly what he thinks. Take this exchange between Roark and Peter Keating, when the latter visits Roark at his office with news that he joined a big firm:
Keating: I guess I don’t have to tell you that Guy Francon is the number one architect in the country.
Roark: No, you don’t have to.
This dialogue is solid, if not amazing. Along with Keating’s body-language, I could tell that he was boasting about his success, even though he wasn’t being too obvious. But then, he says this:
Keating: You see, I told you once I’d rise.
And then the dialogue goes from solid to shite. What was once implicit (Keating’s intention to subtly boast to Roark) goes to explicit (he makes a plain assertion about his objective to boast). The sub-text becomes text. This is not interesting: It is the consequence of Rand’s desire to communicate a philosophy with each character.
Now, I personally believe that fictional characters should have philosophies. There should be guiding principles that determine what they do and why. The problem with The Fountainhead is that Rand wants her characters to discuss their philosophies out loud. This takes away the mystery and ambiguity that makes for good fiction. For this reason The Fountainhead is more like a propaganda film than anything else: It has more in common with Battleship Potemkin than Citizen Kane (without being nearly as good as those films). I think this is deliberate because Rand, however kooky and fueled by resentment, was a smart person. I believe she knew that a philosophical world-view can be made implicit within a story, but she chose instead to make everything obvious because she wanted to teach people her self-devised ideology. Thus, her characters become mouth-pieces for objectivism (this was probably obvious to anybody who has read the book). Take Howard Roark: he is the “Randian Hero.” There is not a shred of self-doubt in his consciousness. He knows exactly what he will do and why, and he never, ever gives in to the demands of those around him. Every word he utters is a direct expression of what Ayn Rand thinks people, “The Rational Creature,” should be. He is of course unrealistic.
I can usually forgive the unrealistic nature of a fictional character, and I almost can forgive Roark’s impossibly ideal personality. In someways, he’s like Sherlock Holmes: intelligent, single-minded, and solitary. Like Roark, there has never been a person like Holmes and there never will be. But despite this, Holmes is still an intriguing character. He has flaws. He has internal conflicts. He has an inner life.
Roark doesn’t. He is the rare fictional character who is both unrealistically powerful and utterly boring. He doesn’t have flaws. He doesn’t have internal conflicts. He doesn’t have an inner life. And you just can’t have an interesting character without these things. Without them, everything they do is obvious because every action has only one meaning. For this reason, Roark comes across more like The Terminator than an existential hero. All of his goals are external (to make his own buildings). He is an action hero in a soap opera about architecture: A robot who says “yes” or “no” when the other characters confront him with long-winded philosophical challenges.
But what about his antithesis? I’m speaking about Ellsworth Toohey, who is obviously somebody we’re supposed to hate based on his name alone. He’s the architectural critic who thinks Roark’s “modernism” is an aberration and spends most of the film trying to fuck with Roark’s shit. Sound interesting? Not really. Unfortunately, Toohey is just as bland as Roark because the game is so totally rigged against him. Right from the start, Toohey is a two-dimensional villain destined to lose. There is no serious exploration about the merits of artistic tradition, represented by Toohey, versus the merits of avant-gardism, represented by Roark. This is because in Rand’s black-and-white world-view, anybody who imitates is a thief, and anybody who creates something “original” is a hero (she makes the assumption that originality is conceived in a vacuum without reference to what has come before, and not something that comes from the synthesis of pre-existing ideas).
And this brings me to the most ridiculous aspect of The Fountainhead: Rand’s conception of creative originality. The best illustration of this is Dominique Francon’s attitude towards Roark’s “genius.” She seems to think that, because he is doing something “new,” the other architects will try to “destroy” Roark (because, let’s face it, anybody smart enough to become an architect has a knee-jerk reaction against newness). Rand wants us to believe that “every new thought was opposed” and “every new invention was denounced.” Really? What about the steam engine? What about the car? What about the movie projector? What about electricity? What about D.N.A? What about Newton’s laws of physics? What about Shakespeare’s plays? What about all of the other inventions, discoveries, and experiments that were embraced by the public. Not every innovator was treated like Galileo.
Rand also believes that “every great achievement has come from some independent work of some independent mind.” This should sound like utter b.s. to anybody who has read more than one biography. Rand ignores the fact that inventors, scientists, and artists rely on the work of their predecessors and contemporaries. She also ignores the fact that many of these “independent minds” relied on other people for support (like herself, when she stayed with relatives for a few months after coming to America). I’m not a great inventor or scientist, but even I know that people don’t live in vacuums. We are social creatures. We rely on each other for feedback and support.
If only the overt philosophical pretensions of the book were thrown away when this film went into production. The basic premise of a ruggedly individualistic architect is interesting. If Rand wanted to make the story “pro-objectivist,” she could have done so without hammering the audience over the head with her philosophy, and instead insert little clues as to what the film’s message is. I just watched the documentary Room 237, a film about all of the various theories people have developed about what Kubrick was saying in The Shining, which is such a deep film because everything is so implicit. Kubrick doesn’t make anything obvious. The Shining forces you to think about what it is saying. The Fountainhead does not. I knew exactly what Rand was saying from start to finish and I disagreed with almost all of it.