Directed and written by Michael Paxton
Whenever Ayn Rand's name comes up, I have an impulse to scoff, an impulse I think is shared by many others. To its credit, Michael Paxton's Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life--which I'm tempted to call "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Camp"--acknowledges this snobbish impulse more than once. But to its discredit it attributes people's skepticism about Rand almost exclusively to the culture's supposed ideology of collectivism, without taking other factors into account.
Rand's taste in literature and the other arts is an obstacle when it comes to accepting her as a world-class intellectual, as this film clearly does: she revered others besides Aristotle, Victor Hugo, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Fritz Lang of Siegfried and Metropolis. Paxton's film alludes to Rand's touching celebration of the utopian spirit of Marilyn Monroe, offered shortly after the actress's death, but it excludes her appalling defense of the early novels of Mickey Spillane and his hero Mike Hammer as models worthy of emulation. (Spillane eventually became Rand's friend, and she wrote with admiration in The Romantic Manifesto that "he gives me the feeling of hearing a military band in a public park"--one indication of her musical taste, which mainly ran to what she called "tiddlywink music" from the turn of the century.) Page through the index of the recently published Letters of Ayn Rand in search of the giants of literary modernism, and you find most of them are absent--although she does link James Joyce to the "beatniks" as an example of the sort of junk that's "admired in English courses." And Gertrude Stein? "She is being published, discussed and given more publicity than any real writer. Why? There's no financial profit in it. Just as a joke? I don't think so. It is done--in the main probably quite subconsciously to destroy the mind in literature." Whose, one wonders?
But such criticism is secondary. Part of my reflexive scoffing at Rand is intellectual and part is political; but a third part is emotional. I suspect that this part is closely allied with the reasons that many Americans scoff at Jerry Lewis: like Rand, he's come to stand for a stage in our adolescence that we'd rather forget. Rand's vibrant appeal to adolescents, including me when I was in high school, is profoundly sexual: she provokes a sense of exalted fantasy tied up with raging hormones and resolves the vexing need to reconcile self-interest with social and ethical duties. Rand's message that selfishness is empowering and self-sacrifice is destructive can cut through teenage confusion like a piercing yet comforting ray of light, as penetrating as Rand's own gaze, and make one's blood race in the bargain.
Indeed, the sexiness of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is an integral part of their utopianism, making them blood sisters of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Olympia in their kitschy splendor and sexual lift (if not in their political programs). "It seems that erotic verve is indissociable from contempt for all community, from frantic exaltation of individuality in the furtherance of traditional social and moral principles," Luc Moullet wrote in Cahiers du Cinema in 1958, citing Jet Pilot and The Fountainhead as the two summits of right-wing eroticism.
We tend to avoid this brutal fact, but the American dream of untrammeled freedom and glittering self-realization can at times be boiled down to a compulsive desire to relive and rewrite our adolescent traumas, giving them a happier outcome. If Jerry Lewis represents the implied hell of adolescence, Ayn Rand ushers us into the implied heaven, for which her phallic skyscrapers are always reaching. In some ways this makes her as threatening to adult minds as she is attractive to adolescents. Moreover, since Rand herself fled communist Russia to script Hollywood movies when she was 21, surely her own American adventure was a protracted postadolescent episode, for better and for worse.
Paxton is certainly attentive to the romantic side of Rand's legacy, but he skimps on the sexual side. For that story, one needs to turn to Barbara Branden's fascinating and troubling 1986 biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, which offers a compendium of the kind of material that Paxton can't begin to handle. This stretches all the way from a Petrograd friend named Leo (a traumatic infatuation that he didn't reciprocate) to Nathaniel Branden, the biographer's former husband and Rand's designated intellectual heir and key acolyte for the better part of two decades. For 14 of those years--beginning in the mid-50s, when he was 24 and Rand was pushing 50--they were lovers, with the full knowledge and tortured approval of their spouses but almost no one else within their tight, intensely interactive circle. Their affair came to a cataclysmic end when Rand discovered that Nathaniel had been sleeping with another Rand acolyte for several years. He was violently and totally excommunicated--an action accounted for publicly only by Rand's announcement that he'd been involved in a series of personal and professional deceptions.
Significantly, Leo isn't mentioned at all in this purportedly intimate documentary, and Nathaniel is accorded a stretch of about three and a half minutes (out of 145). Meanwhile brave Barbara Branden--who remained a passionate Rand disciple before, during, and after Rand's affair with her husband and one of Rand's closest friends until shortly after his excommunication--barely figures at all. (The complex spiritual links between Ayn, Nathaniel, and Barbara are perhaps rooted in the fact that they all adopted hard-sounding goy replacements for their original Jewish names: Alice Rosenbaum, Nathaniel Blumenthal, and Barbara Weidman. Neal Gabler's provocative thesis in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood--that Hollywood's version of the American Dream was largely the dopey creation of Jews in flight from their ethnicity--can probably be applied equally well to the founding gospel of Rand's Objectivism, which was in turn guided by Hollywood, as this documentary cogently shows.)
Given Rand's monstrous behavior when she unleashed the fury of a woman scorned, it's understandable that Paxton leapfrogs over this pivotal episode and omits the painful story of Leo. But the crushing irony of Paxton's massive act of repression--made in deference to Rand and her own self-representations after her bitter break with the Brandens--is how close it comes to the historical elisions of Stalinism. This is a paradox to reckon with, because it's difficult to think of a 20th-century writer who hated communism in general and Stalinism in particular more than Rand did. But even if this movie dutifully, eloquently articulates that hatred while it simultaneously (and probably unconsciously) enacts a Freudian return of the repressed, the history of the cold war was full of such unnerving mirror effects--like the ideological boomerang that turned this country and the Soviet Union into grotesque twins at the height of their mutual opposition.
In spite of all my objections to Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, I have to admit that I found it compulsively watchable--partly because Paxton is so adept at lacing Rand's arguments with their fantasy inspirations (which in the documentary range from vintage film clips to original animation interludes, with lots of Hollywood gossip in between) and partly because Rand is still a deeply affecting figure. For all her championing of unlimited laissez-faire capitalism, she refused the label of conservative--considering American conservatives even worse than American liberals--preferring the designation "radical capitalist." True, she was stupid enough to declare to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 that the Russian people never smile--"If they do, it is privately and accidentally. Certainly, it is not social"--a fact tactfully omitted in the documentary. But she was also sensible enough to consider these hearings a pathetic farce--a fact that the documentary includes.
One might assume that she would have welcomed Ronald Reagan and his economic reforms with open arms--particularly after one of her disciples, Alan Greenspan, became a top Reagan adviser. But as she wrote to a fan in 1981, "I did not vote for any of the Presidential candidates. I do not approve of Mr. Reagan's mixture of capitalism and religion." (In a warm letter to Barry Goldwater almost two decades earlier, she wrote of the National Review, "I am profoundly opposed to it--not because it is a religious magazine but because it pretends that it is not.") Because her atheism ran neck and neck with her economics, she refused to condone potential boondoggles and convenient alliances. (That same inflexibility could be found in some of her heroes; informed gossip tells me that the reason Frank Lloyd Wright set impossible conditions for designing the sets for the film version of The Fountainhead was that he regarded Rand as something of a screwball.) In fact, the only political campaigning she ever did was for Wendell Willkie in 1940, and she became so disillusioned by what she regarded as his betrayal of capitalism in his speeches that she wound up declaring him "the guiltiest man of any for destroying America, more guilty than Roosevelt, who was only the creature of his time, riding the current." (Betrayals were as vital to her erotic program as projected matches on Mount Olympus.)
Rand's inability to compromise undoubtedly produced a kind of tragic heroism, and Paxton's affectionate portrait amply illustrates her unswerving idealism. After the death of her beloved husband, Frank O'Connor, in her later years, she was asked on a national TV show if she wouldn't entertain the possibility of joining him in an afterlife. Her poised and firm reply was that if she could, she would kill herself immediately. One of the film's final quotations from her is for me the most memorable, encapsulating her art and her metaphysics in a single phrase: "Death isn't important; eternity is important, and eternity is now."
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"Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life," documentary written and directed by Michael Paxton. 145 minutes. Varsity, today through Thursday. No rating; includes mature subject matter.
It's hardly the most balanced of biographies, but Michael Paxton's lengthy portrait of one of the century's most hotly debated and popular political novelists rarely fails to fascinate.
It would take a weak filmmaker indeed to make a dull film out of the stranger-than-fiction tale of the Russian-born Ayn Rand's migration from the Soviet Union to the U.S., her early success as a Hollywood extra in the 1920s, her long marriage to a fellow struggling actor, her creation of the best-selling "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead," and her direct involvement with the 1949 film version of the latter.
Yet this Oscar-nominated documentary's impact is surprisingly mild. Paxton doesn't exactly shun controversy, but he has a way of sidestepping it once it's been introduced. Rand's friendly behavior toward the House Un-American Activities Committee is mentioned, as is her lengthy affair with a much younger married man, Nathaniel Branden.
And that's it: case closed, no need for opposing views or further discussion. You'd never guess from watching this film that Rand's literary reputation is less than exalted, or that her quite public affair with Branden had ruinous consequences, or that her belief that the world is being destroyed by "an orgy of self-sacrifice" is regarded as selfish and repugnant by many.
When the defiant Rand wins the right to keep Warner Bros. from cutting a single word from Gary Cooper's final sermon in "The Fountainhead," Paxton clearly regards this as a triumph over Hollywood compromise. Yet somehow that movie is regarded as a disappointment, even by Rand, who is not held accountable for its failure to create people instead of speech-making stick figures.
Paxton's film makes much of her attempts to produce a miniseries version of "Atlas Shrugged," but it doesn't go into the reasons why it didn't happen. The friends and followers interviewed here give no indication that there might have been some merit in the criticisms of Rand's blend of literature and "objectivist" philosophy.
As heroine-worship goes, "Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life" is nevertheless almost alarmingly watchable. Biased as it is, it can't keep the real Rand from emerging.
Whether she's being interviewed by Mike Wallace or Tom Snyder or Phil Donahue, or appearing as a wild-eyed extra in Cecil B. DeMille's "King of Kings," or just being her cantankerous self, she can't help drawing attention to whatever she does or says.
"A Sense of Life," directed by a devotee who has staged a couple of Rand's plays, turns out to be a most appropriate subtitle. Rand died 16 years ago, but in Paxton's film she still seems quite vibrant.
Next weekend, the Varsity has scheduled a couple of matinees of "The Fountainhead." It plays at 12:30 p.m. only May 2-3. The superior 1942 Italian movie of her earlier novel, "We the Living," is available on video.
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