Thursday, November 8, 2012

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE FOUNTAINHEAD" (1949)


When John Travolta and Sharon Stone submitted manuscripts (a novel and short story respectively) to their publishers, they did so with the proviso that not a precious word of their masterpieces was to be touched. To you, this might be the action of a spoiled five year-old or Keith Olbermann (but I repeat myself). 

To Ayn Rand, however, they were following their noblest cause – that is, not allowing their ideas to be ruined by the collectivist powers-that-be who, in turn, control every move made by what are now known as “the sheeple.” In fact, after watching the movie version of her novel, The Fountainhead, I’d say Travolta and Stone would have been better off destroying their works rather than letting an editor give them the once-over. Which, we can all agree, would have been a good idea.


"Look out below!"
Martin Scorsese has called The Fountainhead “insane,” and I wholeheartedly concur. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of architect Howard Roark, who refuses to cave in to what potential clients demand of him, even if it means having to work in a rock quarry to make money. It’s a movie where Ellsworth Toohey, the effeminate gossip columnist for the New York Banner (a cross between the New York Post and the Weekly World News) can lead a citywide crusade against Roark’s sleek, modern style -- like cabdrivers and milkmen really care that Roark doesn’t do Beaux-Art. A movie where nutty debutante Dominique Francon tosses a priceless Greek figurine out her high-rise window because it’s too beautiful for this ugly world – and she doesn’t want to be tied down to anything or anyone she might possibly love, either, so there! 

But most of all it’s where Howard Roark ultimately blows up one of his buildings when, without his approval, the owners add balconies to the apartments. Really. And he’s found not guilty because he gives a swell closing argument! Talk about Objectivist fantasy. (Considering that Frank Lloyd Wright, whose style The Fountainhead apes, was making a pretty good living at the time makes the story all the more nonsensical.)


The zaniness starts right from the get-go. In a brief series of scenes, we see Roark being yelled at by potential employers as if he’d just killed their dogs, just because his designs don’t include Roman columns. Roark, a young man in the novel, is played by Gary Cooper, 47 but looking 60. His typical one-note delivery, beloved by many, sounds like he had difficulty memorizing any sentence more than six words long. (When the Banner’s publisher, Gail Wynard, says Roark reminds him of his youth, you have to laugh. Raymond Massey, playing Wynard, was only four years older than Cooper.) 
"Is that you, grandpa?"

Cooper’s age (and appearance) makes his character’s affair with Francon (played by 23 year-old Patricia Neal) all the more creepy. On the other hand, they were already in the middle of an off-screen affair usually described as “torrid,” so what do I know? (When Francon first glimpses Roark in a rock quarry, it’s done with a close-up of his massive, throbbing drill pounding into cold, white stone. Oh, I get it.)



"Why can't I find someone my own age
in this screwy movie?"
Yet their affair is doomed – she couldn’t bear to see Roark’s talent beaten down like so much porridge. So she marries Gail Wynard because she doesn’t love him. Wynard, on the other hand… well, let him explain it: “What I want to find in our marriage will remain my own concern. I exact no promises and impose no obligations. Incidentally, since it is of no importance to you, I love you.” I'll have to try that one on my wife sometime. 

So what we have, in the end, is a love triangle involving a criminally-destructive egomaniac, a woman with borderline personality, and a repulsive oligarch. Just who are we supposed to root for here anyway?

In the end, though, it all works out. Roark convinces a jury that a man’s ideas are all he has and, therefore, it’s OK to blow up things. Wynard hires him to build the tallest office building in New York, then commits suicide, apparently feeling guilt for attempting to ruin Roark’s reputation. Roark and Francon – the egotist and the nut – live happily ever after, presumably with the drill.

"And don't call me 'Ann'!"
Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay for The Fountainhead, apparently all in caps with double exclamation marks. Lines like “Artistic value is achieved collectively by each man subordinating himself to the standards of the majority” and “The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing” are two of her pithier zingers. The slogans these characters bray might look good on paper to impressionable teenagers, but when spoken have the subtlety of getting slapped in the face with a dead grouper. Imagine Ed Wood having taken a crash course in philosophy, and you’ll get the idea.

What passes for controversial in Ayn Rand's world.
Did I say “characters”? 
I meant symbols. Roark is a stand-in for Ayn Rand herself – a person who puts the “I” in “idealist.” Wynard, on the other hand, makes Rupert Murdoch look like Padre Pio. For a time he takes Roark’s side, only to go back to his old ways when riots break out after he fires Toohey. Let me repeat: riots break out after the firing of a gossip columnist. 

And as for Dominique – well, Patricia Neal plays her like an intense young Bette Davis, but she’s still a nut. As with the cinematography, there are no shades of gray here, only stark black and white. Max Steiner’s wildly bombastic score only heightens the atmosphere to the point where I wonder if he saw the silliness for what it was and decided to roll with it.

Playing Rock, Paper, Scissors between takes.
One can only speculate what director King Vidor saw in The Fountainhead. Maybe he was thinking back 20 years, when MGM allowed him to make The Crowd, a small, downbeat movie that producer Irving Thalberg knew would lose money but would be “good for the industry.” Maybe Vidor remembered having the opposite problem when, in 1934, he had to go outside the studio system to make another non-commercial film, Our Daily Bread, which lauded a socialist-style collectivist farm (rather ironic in light of The Fountainhead). Or maybe it was his name. Having everyone call you “King” your whole life has got to give you a mighty powerful sense of self-esteem.

For all its nuttiness – make that because of all its nuttiness -- The Fountainhead makes for fascinating viewing. Vidor’s technical direction, along with the sets, often echoes the great German expressionistic silent movies. His handling of the dialogue, whether deliberate or not, heightens the melodrama to the point of hysteria. I recommend The Fountainhead highly, now that it’s been restored to pristine condition, if only for its sheer bizarreness. It’s a fascinating hybrid of Metropolis, Citizen Kane, Peyton Place and an issue of Architectural Digest.

Oh, and the fountainhead never makes an appearance. 
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