27 August 2006

The Fountainhead

I should probably be clear from the get-go that The Fountainhead is one of my favorite books. So I went and saw the movie, not out of some kind of joy in camp and kitsch, but out of genuine interest in seeing it on screen, particularly given that Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay. It was, alas, a rather disappointing experience, although the process of figuring out exactly why is an interesting one.

I suppose that the first problem is precisely that of rendering the text visual. It’s not just that the people didn’t look the way I imagined them – Gary Cooper as Roark? Please. But generally that the book thrives on potent descriptions that are emotionally resonant but nonetheless rather vague. For instance: “His face was like a law of nature – a thing one could not question, alter, or implore”. Things are often described in terms of the effect they create upon the viewer: “He stood looking at her. She knew that he did not see her. No, she thought, it was not that exactly. He always looked straight at people and his damnable eyes never missed a thing, it was only that he made people feel as if they did not exist”. It is difficult, well nigh impossible, to render such a description in the flesh. This is probably true of any novel, but it’s particularly the case in this one, where so much depends upon the descriptions of the architecture. The buildings are generally described as embodied ideas, with very little detail of their actual physical appearance. And seeing the buildings, or even things like Roark’s signature, which is supposed to be sharp and angular, but looks somewhat prissy, really damages the effect. The film’s aesthetic isn’t particularly original – it’s very much a product of its times (it was made in 1949) – and though it does privilege neat geometric shapes, it isn’t particularly compelling. The book functions, I think, largely by describing certain emotions, which the reader gets carried away on, and the film simply cannot duplicate that effect.

A friend of mine wondered out loud how the movie could be translated into film when so much of it is inner monologue. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember there being much interior narration, but in fact, he was (partly) right. It’s not that there’s a lot of inner monologue, so much as the fact that there’s a great emphasis placed upon people having rigid control of their facial expressions. This is particularly the case for Dominique and Howard, both of whom generally have countenances that are completely inscrutable. In fact, what sets them apart from others is that they are extremely difficult for other people to get a read on, and this is actually crucial to the plot, as is the fact that the reader actually knows what they’re thinking. This, again, is pretty much impossible to convey in film.

Of course, condensing the plot is painful, particularly in a work as epic as this one. I wonder how the film works for someone who hasn’t read the book, if it seems rather scattered and incoherent. Certainly, it lacks the complexities of the novel, which is a great pity. Peter Keating, for instance, is just a boring character whose role is entirely structural, which is unfortunate, because he is such a vital part of the book. There is clearly a desire to keep many of the hallmark scenes of the novel, and this sometimes becomes rather crude; for instance, Dominique tossing the sculpture out the window as Gail arrives at her apartment.

But perhaps the real pity of the film is that it brings the book’s polemic to the forefront. Much as I love the novel, I just don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy. But watching the movie forced me to contemplate why, and for that, I am grateful. Rand’s philosophy is essentially a celebration of egoism. It’s very appealing in her fictional world where it works out quite nicely. It is completely untenable in the real world, not least because people like Roark don’t exist. In fact, in this sense, it has an odd parallel, I think, to the ethics of Levinas (yes, I find this comparison absurd – infinite responsibility to the Other paired with infinite egoism - but nonetheless oddly useful and interesting). In both cases, you have a theoretical system that, in its given universe, is fantastic. Levinas’ ethics of the face involve two people – Levinas himself said that once you add a third, it collapses, hence why justice, which belongs to the collective, and ethics, which belongs to the encounter between the individual and the other, are forever separate. Rand’s worldview of the individual is quite appealing, but the fact of the matter is, we all live in the world. You can’t base a system of politics around the individual. Sure, democracy and capitalism sort of try to, but without concessions to the collective, it falls apart. I believe in welfare. I don’t believe that mercy is inherently degrading. I don’t believe that anyone who doesn’t succeed fails purely because they aren’t good enough. It’s very sad, but it’s true. Furthermore, I do believe that those people who fail because they are actually not as bright or hardworking or what have you as others ought to be helped by those who can help them. I don’t believe that the individual should be a slave to the collective, but I do believe in compromise. But to go back to Levinas and Rand, the problem in both cases is that they only function in an isolated system, and once you add a few billion people into the mix, they falter.

On the other hand, I also appreciate Rand’s celebration of human ability, and glorification of the individual. I love especially the way that she describes the view of a person passionately committed to their work: “(…) before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of person who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity.” I wonder if anyone who studies literature, for instance, does it because they really care about fame, or helping people to understand a text, or god knows what else. I don’t know how anyone could stay up for 60 hours straight working on something if not for the love of the work itself. Certainly, I couldn’t.

Finally, there’s the problem of the love affair, which in the movie is rendered with all the melodrama of its time, and, of course, less of the sheer physicality. People tend to be very put off by Rand’s attitude towards love, because generally it looks a lot like rape. But I read it somewhat differently. I am not apologizing for her, and I have plenty of problems with her female characters, etc, but I nonetheless find some of her attitudes quite appealing, albeit extreme. This is probably more personal than I’d like to be in this venue, but I find the idea of one’s soul mate as one’s worthiest opponent highly compelling. While I wouldn’t try to demolish a person I loved, the sense of love as exquisite torture, both ultimate surrender and ultimate power, the attempt to break someone while nonetheless praying they can’t be broken, revelling in their strength while pushing it to its utmost, is actually quite beautiful. And despite the violence of her love scenes, there is tenderness there as well. And what many people miss, as they read of women surrendering themselves to men, is the reciprocity of those very scenes – the surrender of the man as well. It’s a power play, certainly, but both are vanquished. And everybody wins!

Incidentally, love in Rand’s books is a fascinating case, because it’s the one real challenge to the policy of ultimate egoism, and it’s not fully resolved. I think she attempts to sidestep the issue by generally speaking of love from the female point of view, where the woman is bowing to the man, who is of course superior, and basically submitting to him entirely, but the fact remains that Roark can’t get Dominique out of his head, and suffers without her. And while he drops her at a moment’s notice for his work, one can’t really imagine the book ending without the two of them being together at last. And in fact, it would be a flaw in the fictional world if they didn’t, so there’s some kind of catch. But this I haven’t quite figured out yet. Actually, by coincidence, I’m currently reading We the Living, where it’s a thornier issue. So I suppose I’ll come back to the question when I get around to reviewing that.

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