Saturday, March 18, 2006

Rigid Individualism or Rigid Masculinity: The Fountainhead

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.

8 comments:

mfiore said...

I'm reminded, Cullen, of Louis Kahn's having died "bankrupt," but also that when, "in my youth" (though I don't remember what age, maybe in college) I read the novel, I ate it up. Maybe the melodrama made it sort of a beach book, maybe the connection to my brother's architecture degree studies. I only vaguely remember finding the propaganda boring; I sort of remember not recognizing the novel's politics until reading about them later.

What prompted you to watch this? A King Vidor festival?
Margaret

Pacze Moj said...

I just learned that this film existed mere days ago, and here's a review!

I haven't read Ayn Rand's book, but I like to watch films scripted by novelists -- even though they usually aren't great. A novelist adapting her own work is always fascinating: a glimpse into what the author thinks the best parts of her own book.

I wonder if Francis Ford Coppola's ever going to make his The Fountainhead-inspired Megalopolis film.

Cinema Journal said...

I haven't read anything by Ayn Rand yet--and even though I wasn't crazy about the movie, I'm still interested in reading the book (or anything by her, really). It's interesting, Margaret, that you mention the melodrama of the book--I wasn't sure if it was as prevelent in the book as it is in the movie. I'd like to find a review of the film from its initial release to see if the tension between melodrama/politics was commented upon.

I've only seen one other King Vidor movie, "The Crowd," but I have dvds of "La Boheme" and "The Patsy" laying around, screaming to be watched (hopefully sooner than later).

Pacze Moj: I agree that it's fascinating to see a novelist's adaptation of their work, especially considering Rand's position on the artist's control over their own work in "The Fountainhead." I recently saw Carol Reed's "The Fallen Idol," which Graham Greene adapted from his own short story. Interestingly enough, Greene's script is much better than his story (and different, as well): richer characters and more humor.

scoot said...

you're due for a new post...

Cinema Journal said...

I really am overdue...between job and school all my time seems to be eaten up these days...I'm working on a post now, hope to have it up soon. Thanks for the patience!

-Cullen

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