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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Careful How Much You Drink from The Fountainhead

In The Fountainhead (King Vidor, 1949), the film based on Ayn Rand's oddball novel, Vidor, through some incredible feat of eldritch magic, somehow transforms Rand's diabolical ideals into a truly remarkable, if surreal and uncanny, film. 

The story's hero, Howard Roark (Gary Cooper), is an architect with uncompromising vision, so the production design naturally showcases a wide range of (to my untrained eye) Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired designs for skyscrapers, factories, office buildings, houses, and farms. Even now, the buildings featured in the film feel retro-futuristic in the Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927) mold, and a number of the interiors are just as impressive, including an expansive office with a luxurious chair set before an array of news stories under glass, like a proto-media wall. 

Cinematography and editing are also on-point, particularly the memorable scene in which Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal) first lays eyes on Roark, who at the time is using a drill to break up rock in a quarry (a job he's taken because no clients will accept his nonconformist designs). Francon is utterly captivated with Roark at first sight, captivated by the beefy architect's bulging, sweaty muscles and his unflappable self-confidence (one might say arrogance). Naturally, since this is a meet-cute moment, Francon is haughty in her seeming dismissal of Roark, but seconds later her true reaction is revealed in a hilarious montage in which she replays Roark's handsome image drilling into the rock. Francon herself carries around a riding crop. The sexual tension is not exactly subtle, and there's a reason their eventual mating is so controversial, perhaps in the novel more than the film.  

Throughout the film, characters fall into three camps: those who meet Rand's image of perfect Objectivist heroes (Roark, and, eventually, Francon), those who could rise to that level but fail through moral cowardice (Gail Wynand, played by Raymond Massey, who plays a newspaper publisher who at first opposes, then supports, and then betrays Roark), and the great unwashed masses, who are called out as too stupid to appreciate and kowtow to their Objectivist betters. Naturally all of the characters in the third group are complete strawmen in this film, ridiculous in their support for conformity and their inability to see the greatness of Roark's designs. Everyone else spends most of the movie justifying their own greatness through dialogue that's somehow hilarious and horrifying at the same time. 

In my view, to enjoy this film you have to imagine the reprehensible characters are as evil as Rand's worldview. I can't decide if the protagonists and supporting characters are aliens who've failed to infiltrate human society, demons intent on destroying it, or simply a collection of psychopaths admiring themselves for being so far above and beyond the proletariat. 

Without question, The Fountainhead is a work of precision and grace in service to grotesque ideals. This film might be cinema's greatest glimpse into the mind of a monster.

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