King Vidor's The Fountainhead (1949), adapted by Ayn Rand from her own novel, feels more like dialogue from a pamphlet than a movie script. It's easier to take as overt allegory, too, because little of narrative is well written enough to swallow as straight drama. Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) is a non-conformist architect that wades in obscurity until given the chance to make art on his terms: a contract to design a gas station. It's enough to get him started, and he makes a name for himself. This portion of the story--the architect's struggle--is a pleasant enough allegory for any artist to relate to (for any individual in any field, as a matter of fact): down with the critics who pander to the masses and never recognize "real art." (What is it that Estragon says to Vladimir in Waiting for Godot that is so insulting? "Crritic!" But critics are artists, too, no?)
The end of the film is pleasant enough, too, when Roark dynamites his own building after the contractors have their own way with his original idea. The ensuing trial isn't as much about his destroying property as it is about whether an artist has a right to his own ideas, or he has to work for the greater good of the community. Anti-communist rhetoric is clearly at work here (HUAC is doing to Hollywood what the critics were doing to Roark), and Rand is all for the individualist. Vidor and his actors, however, seem to be on a different track. They don't seem to care much for Rand's politics: they're more interested in the relationship between Cooper and Patricia Neal. All the references to jack-hammers and structures seem more sexual symbols than political ideals.
I liked Gary Cooper's performance quite a bit, partly because he's an odd casting choice. He emanates a soft-spoken conservatism, whereas Roark seems to be a radical liberal in many ways. Roark chooses aesthetics over functionality, high-brow over low-brow; he drafts plans for an apartment complex for another architect without taking any credit or payment because he's all about personal gratification rather than public, and he'd rather be proud than rich. Perhaps, though, Cooper is perfect for the fundamentally anti-Communist tone that Rand wanted to lend her story, because he bleeds a lot of the radicalism out of the role. (Dynamiting public property still seems pretty radical to me, even after seeing the movie.) Ultimately, Cooper's understatment helps keep the film from stepping too far from the Mason-Dixon line that separates politics and entertainment. Rigid individualism or rigid masculinity? The Fountainhead plays both hands like a Siamese twin playing against itself.
Notes for the End of the World
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