Sunday, May 08, 2005


the book to the movie, part one:
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.

This book was crap. Not total crap, like Atlas Shrugged, but mostly crap. 85% crap, something like that.

The biggest problems:

1. The characters:

(a) Almost all the characters are archetypes, symbols, totems, something, anything but real people. I know this is a Novel of Ideas, but jeez, c'mon... every single major character stands for some trait that Rand either applauds or denounces. It wasn't as bad as Atlas Shrugged in that regard, but it was still like everyone walks around wearing a sandwich board announcing, "I'm the spineless no-talent weasel," "I'm the cynical, manipulative villain," and so on.

(b) Even worse, the villains and weak, contemptible characters are strawmen, especially Keating. (The portrayal of James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged was just as bad if not worse). All the moneymen and committees who refused to give work to Roark were two dimensional parodies. The extent to which Wynand and Toohey were able to shape public opinion was probably unrealistic, although I'll give Rand the benefit of the doubt; the world may indeed have been something like this in the era of W.R. Hearst et. al. Still, I don't think the public is quite that sheep-like. She's got a compelling and provocative argument, but who can tell how strong it is if she's going to send it out there against the Washington Generals?

2. The dialogue. Actually, there isn't much dialogue. There are a lot of scenes where two characters talk to one another, but most of those that aren't mere exposition consist of Grand Pronouncements from one of the favored characters, with the other character providing whatever is necessary to let the favored character make his point. That's not dialogue, it's a series of sermons. She has lots of passages where there are maybe a dozen lines of speech without ever using the standard "he said," "she said," "they said" constructions. But see, she can't use the word "said," because no one ever just "says" anything! If she used any descriptive terms at all, they would have to include constructions like "Toohey lectured," "Wynand hectored," "Roark expounded," "Dominique declared," "Mallory explained," and so on, because that's all anybody ever does! For six...hundred...pages. In combination with the character problems (archetypes, strawmen), this reduces her grand intellectual arguments to the level of an L. Ron Hubbard treatise.

3. Rand's grand philosophy of "Objectivism," as presented in this book (and again, more so in Atlas Shrugged), is indefensible in that it rests on the assumption that the individuals who would move the world (a) possess an infallible instinct for self-selection and (b) are universally benevolent actors. I know she was reacting to her times, specifically Nazism, Communism, whateverism, but at base, this is a book about human nature. Human nature doesn't fundamentally change. Rand believes that pursuit of individual gain, or "selfishness" as she approvingly terms it, is necessarily a moral virtue that unfailingly keeps her uber-men on the straight and narrow. Sure, tell it to the poor saps who invested in (or, better yet, worked for) Enron.

4. 600 pages of The Passion of Howard Roark, all so he can make his Big Speech at the end! This is a manifesto strung out to the length of a novel, but that doesn't invest it with the complexity or subtlety of a novel. Didn't anyone edit this woman?

5. About that speech:

(a) As in Atlas Shrugged, Rand contrives her plot so that a righteous and earnest man convinces a skeptical, even hostile, world to agree with him simply by presenting a rational explanation for his anti-social behavior from a very big soapbox at exactly the right, shining moment in time. The world doesn't work that way. It didn't in 1945 and it doesn't today. You can't change the minds of 100 million people with a 10 minute display of Rationalism. This doesn't even make sense in the context of Rand's portrayal of the way Wynand and Toohey manipulated public opinion up to this point in the story. In modern parlance, we would say that Roark was on message but needed a media filter to spin his story to the target audience before the news cycle moved on.

6. Last and most importantly, Roark is just plain wrong. Or, more precisely, Rand is right, up to a point, but she stops before reaching the point that would undermine her own argument. Yes, Roark owns his work, "his work" being defined as the skill and labor he input into a larger product. But he doesn't own the resulting work product. The entity that paid for the finished product owns it. Throughout the book, Roark refuses to work on any terms but his own. In his final speech, he says that he designed Cortlandt, so he was justified in blowing it up -- he is the creator who giveth and taketh away. But he doesn't own the things he designed. The men who paid for them do. He worked on commission. The fact that it may have been paid for by committees or collectivists may shoot the aesthetics all to hell, but it doesn't change the fact that whoever put up the money owns and controls the finished product. Rand is confusing beauty and truth. If she had the courage of her own argument, she would have written a book about an entrepreneur who blows up a beautiful work of art because the artist he commissioned to produce it deviated from his wishes.

(b) Roark has absolutely no claim whatsoever to Cortlandt. I suppose Rand set it up this way to underline her point. But Roark designed it in secrecy and had no agreement at all with the people who actually own, and therefore, control, the project. He had a contract (if at all) with Keating. How can he get all pissy about the rightful owners of the project not respecting his wishes, when he never even directly communicated with them?

(c) So let's say you buy into the Big Ideas in Roark's speech...isn't he still guilty of the crime he was charged with? Letting him walk is not only melodramatic, but represents a betrayal of Rand's beloved Rationalism. A rational jury would have nodded at the speech, but, applying Roark's (and Rand's) own standard, had no choice but to find him guilty.

The movie, on the other hand, wasn't bad at all. It was certainly way better than I expected. The screenplay is credited to Rand herself, and whether by her own efforts or otherwise, it does a very good job of retaining the essence of the book while cutting out a lot of the extraneous stuff. In fact, I think the cuts make it crisper and tighter, and the movie still comes in at almost 2 hours. The early scenes at Stanton and with Henry Cameron are disposed of in about 3 minutes. The whole Stoddard Temple sequence, which runs for probably hundreds of pages in the book, is completely absent. I say so much the better -- what does this sequence do that the Cortlandt homes sequence doesn't? Some characters are likewise gone, most notably Mallory, Catherine and Keating's mother, and they're not really missed. Some of the minor characters like Alvah Scarrett and the rival architects are filled in the good old-fashioned Hollywood way -- by giving quirky character actors a line or two in a scene, then getting them out of the way. Even Keating and Toohey get this treatment, more or less, and the story is really none the worse for it. The one instance where the character is cut back to the detriment of the story is Wynand. The guy who (under)plays him (Raymond Massey -- who?) didn't help, either.

Gary Cooper was actually probably the right choice for Roark. He's the strong silent type, and you end up kind of liking him. At first I thought Dominique should be played by someone like Grace Kelly (Cooper's co-star in High Noon), but her iciness probably wouldn't have worked. In a movie that cuts out 75% of the book, Patricia Neal's physical style helped her seize her limited opportunities to make an impression.

The one thing about the book I thought wouldn't translate at all was the contrast between Roark's designs and everybody else's, especially Keating's. It worked great. Actually, it worked better visually than Rand's tedious descriptions in the book did. All it took was the early scene where the bankers offered a job to Roark, but only on the condition that he add some classical elements to his modernist design. It's too bad the movie was stuck with the crap story it was based on, but it mostly succeeded on its on terms, and even made the Big Ideas and Grand Theme of the book seem almost reasonable.


Jozet said...

You are so sexy when you deconstruct Ayn Rand.

Much more sexy than when you sat in front of the teevee watching baseball and football.

Aren't you glad we got rid of cable?

The wife

Anonymous said...

Very uninteresting.

I've read shitty arguements done much better than you did here. I could deconstruct your seriously flawed logic but won't waste my time.

Excepting your one glimmer of intelligence, your last point about the Jury. Very true. Amazing insight you have! Roark should have been guilty of blowing up the building, expecially because he admitted to it!

He only convinced the JURORS.

He proved that his intellectual rights over the work--
including his CONTRACT with Keating stating that his PAYMENT was the work be EXACTLY as he designed it, was not met.

Obviously it would be illegal for him to blow it up. Illegal in the current world.


Kath said...

Wow - you really didn't like A.S., did you! My theory about people who didn't like it is that they recognized themselves in one of the characters - and it wasn't Dagny, Galt, Hank, etc. Which is why I doubt my hubby will enjoy it either.

When did you read it last? Maybe you'd enjoy it more now, in light of current events.