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Sipping from the Fountain

ART TIMES May 2007

WORD IS THAT the screenwriter of “Braveheart” and “We Were Soldiers”, Randall Wallace, is attempting to boil down Any Rand’s 1200 page novel, Atlas Shrugged, to a two-hour film. Published in 1957, efforts to turn the novel into a digestible film or, at least, a mini-series for television, have come to naught. One problem had been the pseudo-philosophy espoused by Ms Rand in person and through her novels. Called Objectivism (a cult school of which had formed before her death in 1982 and exists today), it laid heavy emphasis on free enterprise, the rights of individuality and the privileges and superiority of the creative person.
            This notion did not sit well with many, sounding as it did a bit Nazi-like. The plot motivation of Atlas Shrugged is the disappearance of America’s free thinkers in industry, science, and the arts and the consequent collapse of society. Considering that most people wouldn’t pay any attention if such types were removed, I suppose it was figured they wouldn’t pay to see a film about it, either. Mr. Wallace will most likely arrive at a standard Sci/Fi film and avoid the philosophical diatribe.
            Ms. Rand’s earlier and first novel, The Fountainhead, was made into a film in 1949. Directed by King Vidor, it held Objectivism to a more manageable level, substituting symbolic expression (liberally drawn from the legend and designs of Frank Lloyd Wright) for Ms Rand’s brand of lengthy rhetoric. Seen as the most bizarre work of King Vidor and the film’s star, Gary Cooper, it was dismissed by most critics, although David Thompson has called it a beautiful film, praising it for exploring the conflict between elemental creativity and the forces of social compromise (it had also generated an intense affair between hero and heroine, Cooper and Patricia Neal). The film’s message was generally viewed as being on the loony side for how could anyone make sense of a character so single-mindedly idealistic, so ego-centered, so perfectly convinced of his creative and aesthetic righteousness that he blows up a building of his own design because another architect of lesser talent had stuck on some superficial classic details.
            Opposing the morally pure architect, Howard Roark (Cooper), is the equally unbelievably evil architectural critic, played in suave nastiness by Robert Douglas, whose negative critiques (always of Roark’s designs) are widely read by the public and cause rioting in the streets. Where Roark would advance the clock of modernism, the critic, out of spite and envy of a true genius, would turn it back. There’s the symbolic conflict, you see, spelled out at length in Roark’s courtroom speech (well, you can’t really go about dynamiting buildings without the law taking some interest) in the film’s finale: the creator versus the parasite, the individual versus the collective. Ever the good man in a bad world, Roark avows that, “… my ideas are my property.” and “… my terms are the right of any man to live on his own terms.” Good stuff, all right, if you don’t mind a little anarchy.
            If the audience in 1949 found the film incredible, today’s will find it laughable. It does pop up on cable channels and is worth watching it for no other reason than to recall there was a small audience back then that much admired both novel and film. The abstract artists of the late ‘40s and for most of the ‘50s in many ways viewed themselves as Howard Roarks. Macho painters and sculptors who had been fighting the heroic fight against the Philistines of art, the uncomprehending critics, galleries, and museums that clung to the past. The art club meetings in New York City resounded with perorations much like Gary Cooper’s. By the end of the ‘50s though, postmodernism was emerging, pop culture was in. Ironically, the stuff-shirt architectural critic of “The Fountainhead” who would halt the march of modernism was right — the day of the Howard Roarks was over.
            “The Fountainhead” may be an anachronism; still it is, in its way, the “Rocky” of the arts. “Rocky”, by the way, has been selected for inclusion in the National Registry of Films — maybe “The Fountainhead” is there, too; I don’t know — it should be. It’s interesting to note that Atlas Shrugged is still going strong, especially among college students. In one way or another, we miss our Howard Roarks.


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