Friday, January 13, 2012

THE FOUNTAINHEAD 1949



When it comes to The Fountainhead, I wish there were a way for me to return my mind back to the state of blissful ignorance I enjoyed the first time I saw this amazing film. That was many years ago. Back when The Fountainhead’s chief attractions for me were director King Vidor’s overripe, purple-prose approach to the material―a style always threatening to soar even more over-the-top than his notorious sex-and-sand opus, Duel in the Sun (1946)―and the overheated, over-emphatic screenplay by famed author, Ayn Rand, adapted from her hefty novel.

The plot of The Fountainhead: ruggedly individualistic architect Howard Roarke (Gary Cooper, still sexy, but looking a tad careworn at 47) doing battle against a world of cartoonishly single-minded villains hell-bent on commodifying his genius— was always less interesting than its presentation. What I took delight in was the dramatic persuasiveness of The Fountainhead applying a patently theatrical and artificial method of acting to a script of arch, over-embellished dialog, all in service of an extravagantly overwrought post-German Expressionist visual style. Ayn Rand’s verbose, almost feverishly nonsensical novel resisted any kind of realistic adaptation.  King Vidor, in never once rooting the film in any kind of recognizable reality, managed to fashion an compellingly excessive film that served her work well.
Gary Cooper as Howard Roark
Patricia Neal as Dominique Francon
Raymond Massey as Gail Wynand
Robert Douglas as Ellsworth Toohey

As a dyed-in-the wool visual aesthete whose lifelong relationship with film has been a battle with the influence of style over substance; I’m aware that my fondness for The Fountainhead has little to do with a sober assessment of its merits and faults. I’m nuts about the movie chiefly because it’s so visually striking and intoxicatingly stylized. I respond on an almost visceral level to how dazzling it is to look at, and I marvel at how closely the performances, in all their profound solemnity, hew so closely to that mannered, posturing style so expertly played for laughs in those old Carol Burnett Show movie spoofs. Indeed, in all of the areas where The Fountainhead seems to overplay its hand (it makes its points early and easily, then goes on to reiterate those same points, ad nauseum, scene after scene) I find I don’t fault the film so much as chalk it up to a particular type of broad-strokes, post-war American filmmaking.

The window of the past can do that…things you’d find unforgivably false in a film today look perfectly acceptable in a black & white film from the late 40s.
 Examples of The Fountainhead's breathtaking cinematography (Robert Burks) and art direction (Edward Carrere).


Well, that’s how things started for me and how things remained for some time. Unfamiliar with Ayn Rand or her philosophy (in any direct way), I was content to revel in The Fountainhead’s overwrought romantic melodrama and ravishing imagery with nary a thought given to its portentous themes. Themes that, even as a callow youth, struck me as slightly sophomoric.

When, many years later, I finally got around to reading The Fountainhead, I was actually surprised at what a windy polemic against Collectivism it was. I enjoyed the novel’s descriptive passages very much, and welcomed the fleshing out of the slim characterizations of the film, but its central plot was almost buried below a lot of ideological redundancies. It was nevertheless a book I enjoyed immensely, and, intrigued by Rand’s penchant for narrative overkill, I ventured forth and tackled her last and most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged. Bad move.
 I won’t turn this post into a diatribe against Objectivism or the unfortunate adoption of Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s philosophies by America’s Tea Party Movement. But let’s just say that when it came to learning more about Ayn Rand’s philosophical beliefs, more was decidedly less.
Flirting with Fascism
Ayn Rand liked to make it easy to identify the heroes and villains.
The villains have weak, effete names like Ellsworth Toohey, and are prone to striking dictatorial poses at the slightest provocation

  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Before I had read The Fountainhead, It never crossed my mind that the film adaptation was, in some ways, little more than a visual-aid lecture on Objectivism. I just thought it was a great-looking movie saddled with an over-obvious, poorly-written screenplay. In viewing the film from Rand’s perspective, I can well imagine why she despised it; the power of King Vidor’s images overwhelm her words. 
And it's a good thing, too, for The Fountainhead is a real “movie lover”s movie. And by that I don’t mean lovers of good film; I mean folks who love the stylized artificiality of film. Realism in film has its place, but films that attempt to speak to us through metaphor or symbolism (like Charles Laughton’s The Night of The Hunter) benefit greatly from an overabundance of cinematic stylization. The Fountainhead is such a film. It’s full of gorgeous cinematography; sumptuous sets; movie stars who look like movie stars; fabulous costumes, and soap-opera emotions. That none of it bears the slightest resemblance to human life as we know it only adds to its charm. 
The Fountainhead is one of those movies where people carry on entire conversations without ever looking directly at one another. Here, Patricia Neal assumes a familiar pose (looking off into the distance) while Raymond Massey and Gary Cooper try in vain to get her attention.

PERFORMANCES:
I’ve always liked Patricia Neal. Her unadorned earthiness in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963) were the best things about those films. In a sea of lacquered, blonde bombshells, Neal was a home-grown Anna Magnani reminding us that sex appeal didn’t require a bullet bra and the disavowal of intelligence. Familiar only with latter-day Neal, imagine my surprise in seeing her at 22, given the full Hollywood-glam treatment in The Fountainhead, her second film. I had no idea she could be so stunning.
Cast as the Dominique Francon (was a time you’d have to open a novel by Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins to find a name like that) The Fountainhead’s sole female character, Neal is first seen heaving a Greek statue out of the window of her high-rise apartment because, “I wanted to destroy it rather than let it be part of a world where beauty and genius and greatness have no chance!”
And if you think there’s not an actress on earth who can pull off dialog like that, well, you’re right. It’s just the first of several scenes where Neal strives mightily against some of the strangest human dialog ever committed to page. She’s not always successful, but she’s never less than fascinating to watch. Juggling numerous lovers and hard-to-fathom-motives, she manages to be glacially aloof and sexually agitated at the same time. 
Dominique Francon is a woman of high ideals who, before finding her spiritual equal in the noble Howard Roark, feels frustrated at having to live in a world that worships mediocrity. She vents her frustration by engaging in behavior favored by smart and successful women to this day: she intentionally becomes involved with inferior men. 
Her fiancĂ©, the weak-willed Peter Keating, she chose because “He was the most safely unimportant person I could find.” She later weds hack newspaperman Gail Wynand to make good on her promise, “If I ever decide to punish myself for some terrible guilt, I’ll marry you.” 
Dominique is nothing if not a gal with a few issues she needs to work out.
Obsessing over Howard Roark's drill

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Shave off all the whiskers and fluff from Rand’s one-sided proselyting and The Fountainhead is a pretty satisfying triangular love story with a few interesting things to say about society. The rather unconventional romance between Dominique and Howard (controversially incited in the novel by an off-putting rape, but, thanks to the usual stylistic obfuscation of sex in Production Code-era Hollywood, comes off in the film as the usual yes/no, male/female roundelay) is lent credence by the palpable chemistry between real-life lovers Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.
The rather salient points made by Rand about the dangers of a society committed to the lowest common denominator (are you listening Michael Bay, Vin Diesel and Adam Sandler?) lack the bite they might have due to the deck being so heavily stacked on the side of Roark and his philosophy that there is almost no real conflict. Indeed, Gary Cooper (not the most expressive man with dialog) is asked to reiterate his character’s position so often that the effect is created of someone trying to convince himself of a argument, not others.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Living in Los Angeles, a city of agonizingly random architectural design, I can identify with all the heated discussions on the subject in The Fountainhead.  Indeed, in establishing an analogical relationship to architecture and any creative endeavor that must struggle to maintain its personal integrity in the face of public opinion, The Fountainhead is most successful. In this age when individuals justify the most heinous points-of-view with the claim “I’m not the only one that feels this way!” (as if that was ever a gauge of honor), and when widespread ignorance is proudly defended as anti-intellectual-elitism, The Fountainhead should feel more relevant than ever. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand can’t seem to get out of her own way long enough to let the points she wishes to make stand on their own merits of logic. Like the character of Ellsworth Toohey, who feels he has to tell the public what to think, Rand doesn’t trust the viewer to weigh the issues of Objectivism for themselves. Rand's fondness for words fails to let the medium of film do what it does best; evoke, not explain. Rand's handling of her own work is all too obvious. When I say The Fountainhead is black and white, I’m not just referring to the cinematography.
Ayn Rand wasn't fond of the architectural designs art director Edward Carrere used in the film. She wanted the buildings to reflect the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Watching the film today, it takes considerable effort to get my mind to relax and just let the movie entertain me as it did in the past. It feels like I spend the first ten minutes or so just trying to blot out the sermonizing. Mercifully, if I allow myself to focus on the sumptuous Max Steiner score (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca), and sink into Robert Burks’ rapturous cinematography (Vertigo, North by Northwest), pretty soon I’m back where I want to be. No longer a postulate at the lectern of Objectivism, just a movie fan enjoying a favored film.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

7 comments:

  1. It's been a little while. I was afraid you'd decided to stop blogging! What a treat to come here today and see that you're back in action.

    The screen caps are unbelievable. What a striking, striking film. I've seen it twice, I think, and enjoyed watching it very much, though your insights with it have added some new dimension to it for me.

    I have read, over the years, SO MANY actors and actresses in interviews give Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead as an answer when asked, "What is your favorite book?" I have yet to read it myself, but always mean to just to see what all the fuss is about. Not sure when I'll make the time...

    Thanks!

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  2. Hi Poseidon3, Happy New Year! The New Year always starts out very busy for us folks in the fitness business (those resolutions tend to hit the dust by March) so I haven't blogged in a while. Very nice of you to even notice. However, I see that you've been VERY prolific on your blog with some great posts.
    http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com
    Yes, "The Fountainhead" is a pretty amazing book, and I can well understand why so many actors consider it a favorite. It literally turns egoism and self-obsession into a philosophy. The Howard Roark courtroom speech is the perfect thing to read to chase off bouts of pre-audition jitters and any guilt born of making obscene amounts of money for play-acting. :-)
    As always, Poseidon, thanks for taking the time to read!

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  3. I find that, when encountering a film that is cinematically excellent but filled with long chunks of problematic dialogue.... it helps to turn the dvd's language setting to "French". Seriously. It got me through the STAR WARS prequels.

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    1. Wow! In the words of Hayley Mills, What a scathingly brilliant idea! Even if you are joking (and I don't think you are) it's the perfect solution for my "The Fountainhead" problem. I'm going to try it with "Casino," too...I love that film, but Joe Pesci's voice...Yikes! Much appreciated, anonymous!

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  4. This film had long been on my "must-see" list, and now that I've experienced it for myself, I am able to re-read the above review with new perspective.

    So many observations...where to begin?

    Perhaps some context might help: I saw this film right after a screening of "The Grapes of Wrath". So it was the dirt-poor sharecropper Tom Joad against the filthy rich skyscraper architect Howard Roark--collectivism versus individualism. I'm genuinely curious if John Steinbeck and Ayn Rand ever met each other.

    I'm not an expert on Ayn Rand, but her philosophies as put forth in "The Fountainhead" leave something to be desired. I can dig a lot of what she is saying, but to label collectivism as "parasitic", all the while (and correct me if I misinterpret her) trumpeting the virtues of individualism and capitalistic endeavour in a free enterprise society, is a massive contradiction.

    Howard Roark says in the film that he never works for free (i.e. he never lets someone else have an idea for nothing), because to work for free is slavery, something that he opposes. That's a laughable philosophy when one considers that capitalism is a system where one person can get filthy rich from running a business that, at the other end, has children in a third world country working twelve hours a day for less than a dollar an hour. I'm also reminded of the "two and a half cents" earned by workers in "The Grapes of Wrath".

    Ayn Rand calls collectivism "parasitic", but then what does that make capitalism? Howard Roark's buildings do not appear magically by themselves. Capitalism IS a collective agreement, one made between workers and employers. Let's see the Howard Roarks of the world achieve anything "to the best of their ability" without thousands of worker bees and drone ants scurrying about the place, working for crumbs while the Howard Roarks reap the big fat dough.

    "The Fountainhead" is a rather entertaining film, but it does get pretty silly near the end. I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say that Gail Wynand sure has a funny way going about ensuring his "legacy". As for the final scene, all that was missing from Gary Cooper was a cape flapping in the breeze and a fat letter 'S' on his chest!


    Ellsworth Toohey, as played by Robert Douglas, is an absolute hoot! He's like a fiendish collectivist Vincent Price!

    As much as there is happening on the screen, one remembers that at the time this film was made, there was behind-the-scenes romance/turmoil involving Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. But perhaps more interesting is how the main players might have felt about Ayn Rand and her ideas. As you said, Ken, it's not at all surprising to learn that many folks in Hollywood endorse the Ayn Rand philosophy.

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    1. Hi Mark
      So glad you finally got to see "The Fountainhead"! I'm no expert of Rand either, but the points you make seem pretty spot-on for me. The best observation you make is how her philosophy as presented in the film makes no allowances for the fact that "someone" has to build these things, and an individualist like Roark is dependent upon them (and their financial subjugation) to remain as rich as he is.
      None of it pans out very thoughtfully and I loved your seizing upon that fact. It is, however, a beautiful film to look at, but alas, not to listen to. Oh, and your link to that "building" in Melbourne is a classic capper! Indeed, just the sort of individualism in architecture that Roark would have applauded! Thanks for your great comments, Mark!

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  5. Oh, just one more thing: I'm proud to say that I saw "The Fountainhead" inside the ACMI building, noted for being the most prominent post-modernist eyesore in Melbourne! I couldn't think of a more fitting venue! They ought to rename it "The Howard Roark Building". Need convincing?

    http://journal.media-culture.org.au/files/journals/1/articles/225/supp/225-836-2-SP.jpg

    http://cache.websetters.com.au/images/1145-300x800invisible_speakers-federation_square.jpg

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