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She’s So High, High Above Me:
Watching The Fountainhead on TCM

2,176 words

You know I always wanted to pretend that I was an architect.
–George Costanza[1]

The Fountainhead is something of a rite of passage or gateway drug on the Right. Back in the 1960s/’70s it was more likely the movie than the book that one stumbled upon. I suppose I must have seen it on some afternoon movie show back in the ‘60s. Was it the Bill Kennedy at the Movies show on CKLW out of Windsor, Ontario on Saturday afternoons?

It must have made some kind of impression on me, because I bought and read all the other books, in their chaste-white Signet paperback editions, and even subscribed to the Ayn Rand Letter (there was some kind of postcard subscription form bound into the paperbacks; remember that stuff?). I read through all the back issues that were bound up at the library, as well as its predecessors, The Objectivist and, yes, The Objectivist Newsletter.

Those were the days, when people like Rand, or Lawrence Dennis, or Wilmot Robertson – Right-wingers exiled from the smooth, well-moneyed world of Buckley’s Conservativism Inc. – would type out four-page bi-weekly missives, mimeograph them, fold them into No. 10 business envelopes, and mail them out to their tiny subscribers’ list. For some odd associative reason, they always called to mind cold, lonely mornings on a quiet street of a small town in far eastern Long Island.[2]

At some point in this reading I must have been made aware of the Great Branden Schism, at least as publicly discussed, which happened back in the ‘60s, but I don’t recall much interest in it; it wasn’t my Kronstadt.[3] I guess I simply grew out of it.

The movie doesn’t seem to get much love, even from Rand fans (Random?). Looking for a copy recently, I could only find a barebones Korean bootleg of the DVD from eBay; it doesn’t seem to have had an official DVD or Blu-Ray release, although you can view it on Amazon; even TVTropes lists only the novel, not the film.

Over the weekend, TCM showed the film as part of its month-long Gary Cooper festival, and I decided to take a look. I found it to be . . . provocative, as strange as ever; and here’s some of my real-time observations.[4]

  1. Patricia Neal looks like Marlene Dietrich, sounds like Katherine Hepburn. She’s so high!
  2. The side piece they want to add to Roark’s bank building makes it look like Philip Johnson’s “postmodern” ATT building, with the Chippendale top-piece. One of the directors at the table has Philip Johnson glasses. Did Rand predict postmodern architecture, simply by imagining something so stupid that no one could miss her point? What’s that say about critics who find her “implausible” or “unrealistic”?
  3. People snark about the dialogue, but the overwrought rhetorical style actually recalls many of the “gotcha” moments of the “oh so great” Citizen Kane – “What would you like to have been? Everything you hate,” and so on. Look! There’s Ray Collins from Kane, as Roger Enright. Joe Mankiewicz is supposed to have pumped-up the script for Kane; his grandson, Ben, handles most of the introducing chores on TCM since the passing of the original, Robert Osborne. He skipped this one; I guess it’s too infra dig for him. Ben always tries to add some crude, agitprop angle to his intros; A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957; Patricia Neal!) is obviously all about Trump; I mean, how could the tale of an Arkansas grifter cheating on his wife as he grasps for the White House possibly be about anyone else? Ben, I discovered, hangs out with the Young Turks, and you can see him on the hilarious freakout they had on Trump’s election night. “Things started to change when we reported these real results . . .” “The electoral college doesn’t matter . . .”
  4. What’s really noticeable is the weird combination of said dialogue style with crude, silent-movie style acting; it begs for the MST3k treatment. I found myself doing so; Peter Keating swanning around in struggling Roark’s office with his pimp hat reminds me of the hotel detective in their version of The Beatniks and suggests all kinds of cheap gangster lines – 23 Skidoo! Yeah, see? Real sweet, see? And ultimately, “the cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter,” from Maltese Falcon. Dominique Falcon? Was that the bird she dropped down the airshaft? (MST3k: “Ow! Hey, lady!”)
  5. Along with Laura (starring Clifton Webb, who was Rand’s choice for Toohey),[5] All About Eve, Sweet Smell of Success, and The Man Who Came to Dinner, the film recalls an era when newspaper columnists ruled the world. These were the media gatekeepers of the day. Thank God for the interwebs. Imagine if Sarah Jeong actually wielded influence![6] I’m also concerned about Wynand’s managing editor (he has “Managing Editor” over his door in big Art Deco letters, so you know who he is) consulting Toohey and Dominique for The Banner’s next smear campaign. The architecture critic and the House Beautiful girl (who hate each other). Is that how shallow his bench is? Is this the best The Banner has, or the only columnists they have (we never see anyone else)? Couldn’t Wynand buy up all the columnists in town, like Kane does? Rand’s dramatic economy, or studio cheapness?
  6. Wynand talks about the “bank buildings” he puts up. Do rich publishers, or anyone, just put up “bank buildings”? I always assumed the banks put them up (like insurance companies, they have lots of money and invest it in land and buildings). They’re not like apartment buildings you put up and then expect banks to ask to rent space in. Banks and insurance companies don’t make money by paying rent to the likes of Gail Wynand. Celluloid Skyline: New York in the Movies by James Sanders has a nice chapter on The Fountainhead. He notes that the New York skylines shown outside Wynand’s office and elsewhere are effective refutations of Roark’s whole philosophy: the skyline works because the buildings fit together, acknowledge each other and their past; if each was “an individual, like a man,” as Roark demands, it would be a chaotic, Lovecraftian nightmare of clashing styles. Again, only the autistic libertard opposes zoning and environmental regulations that enable us to have nice things.
  7. Wynand: You two know each other. Dominique: Yes, he’s my rapist.
  8. Wynand backpedaling on the Enright campaign to Roark, whom he now admires, sounds like some cuck apologizing for his tweets. Or Sarah Jeong: Hey, I was just trolling ‘ya!
  9. Roark’s speeches in a nutshell: “I am autistic, accept that.”
  10. When Keating confronts struggling Roark, he says they were “best friends” at school. We’ve only had one scene prior to this with the two of them, and there’s nothing to suggest friendship. And why would Roark have any friends, much less a striver like Keating? Does Keating actually think Roark was his best friend? I find that very sad, and wish the movie had explored that. We only see a front porch in the movie, but the book gives us a whole backstory about them living in somebody’s home while at archy school. The future Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom I think lived together in some family’s home; was that a thing then? Today, people go to college to escape “stupid families.” Did Keating have a secret man-crush on Howard at school? Howard and Wynand certainly have a powerful bond (MST3k: “Oh, just kiss him and stop talking him to death!”). Roark doesn’t seem the Männerbund type; he cares for no one and he’s not gay, just autistic. He’s the hero we don’t need, so of course the libertards and PUAs love him. Keating clearly is engaged to Dominique only to advance his career at her father’s firm; he gives her up to Wynand easily enough, for the same reason. Wynand snarks on his lack of chivalry, or self-respect – “This is when you hit me. You were supposed to do so some time ago”; maybe he’s more interested in hitting Wynand, in a way, than holding onto Dominique. In the book, I recall, he has a later girlfriend, some sad sack who I think is Toohey’s niece, which is cut here, but only underscores his inability – or unwillingness – to seriously try to find a mate on his own. Keating loses Dominique to Wynand, loses Howard to Dominique and Wynand. What a schlemiel. All he ever wanted was to pretend to be an architect.
  11. Kane again! Toohey’s “Roark must be sacrificed” speech (an example of the trope known as “The Reason You Suck Speech”) recalls the shooting of Kane’s campaign for governor speech. Why are there box seats, on the same level as the orchestra seats? Too cheap to build a real set with height?
  12. Wynand: “I’ll save Roark. I have The Banner. I’ve never lost a fight.”[phone rings] “Hello?” [MST3k: “You lost!”]
  13. Society Lady: “I just fired my cook, caught her reading The Banner.” Compare Tom Wolfe’s remarks on the uncomfortable relations of rich SJWs with their prole servants in Radical Chic.
  14. Henry Cameron is a public drunk who litters the streets with torn-up newspapers. Giuliani would put him in jail, in accordance with the Broken Windows Theory. Then, in Roark’s office, he grabs a t-square and breaks a window. Again, Celluloid Skyline compliments the set designers for Roark’s ramshackle office; it looks just like the sort of collection of random, dull pieces an autiste like Roark would surround himself with, while designing his super-duper houses for others (and yes, I assume Roark, for poverty and other reasons, is living in his office). Very unlike supposed model Frank Lloyd Wright. Roark’s office is so random and shabby it comes with a wood- or coal-burning stove, right out of Kane’s family cabin. Is this his source of heat? Did the heat get turned off, like the electricity, and he (being an architect and all) installed it himself? It does come in handy to burn Cameron’s sketches. Did offices, even cheap ones, have such things back then? It looks like it’s connected to one of those roof chimneys Vito Corleone throws the gun parts down after he kills Don Fanucci. I don’t recall seeing one in Sam Spade’s office, for instance. Speaking of zoning, how is this legal? The New York City Fire Code banned them decades ago; only about five pizzerias were grandfathered in (John’s on Bleeker St., for example) and so are the only places you can get “authentic” pizza. Roark burns Cameron’s sketches, as requested. Kafka asked Max Brod to do the same with his unpublished writings; he agreed, but published them instead. Does this reflect a racial difference in where one’s loyalty belongs? Discuss. (Hint: Roark’s later buildings look a lot like Cameron’s “unfinished” sketches; just saying). Why does Roark burn Cameron’s nameplate? How does it burn?
  15. Impossible to listen to Roark’s Big Speech without wondering how William Shatner would have handled it. After all, he did make a movie in Esperanto.
  16. When the verdict is read, Wynand stands up. For some reason, the judge doesn’t tell him to sit the f*** down. When the [impossible] not guilty verdict is read, Roark glances at Wynand and the latter leaves hurriedly. We know Wynand will now kill himself, taking on Roark’s guilt. Passing the buck!
  17. Margo Metroland says that all the characters are Irish.[7] That seems right. If not literally true, it conveys the atmos’ throughout of plucky immigrant upstarts (like Alissa Rosenbaum and the rest of her Tribe) who deserve to triumph over the WASP elite through talent and hard work; the Irish usually stand in for the Tribe, to make the message – “We will replace you!” – more palatable.[8] “I stand ahead of no tradition, though I may start one.” Hey, Howard, try to remember: “You know, we’re living in a society!”

Notes

[1] Seinfeld, Episode 78, “The Marine Biologist.”

[2] I think this came from seeing the title of Whittaker Chambers’ Cold Friday (Random House, 1964), which I’ve never actually read. The image is recurrent in Burroughs, but of course I can’t find one right now, trust me.

[3] “When asked the symbolic question of the precise moment of his “split” with Marxism-Leninism, “Comrade, when was your Kronstadt?” – a reference to the once pro-Bolshevik sailors who mutinied for food and pay and whom the Red Army mowed down like rabbits – [Daniel] Bell’s reply was as simple as it was indicting of his entire radical cohort: “Kronstadt was my Kronstadt.” “The Bell Curve” by Michael Weiss; The New Criterion, January 29, 2011.

[4] I thought of formatting this by timecode, like, “He Writes! You Read! They Live” (reprinted in The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics & Popular Culture; Second, Embiggened Edition, edited by Greg Johnson [San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017]), but I must confess some of these are second thoughts as the movie scrolled, so that would be both pointless and misleading.

[5] See “The Babysitting Bachelor as Aryan Avatar: Clifton Webb in Sitting Pretty.”

[6] See Max West, “The Songs of Jeong and Lee.”

[7] Personal communication.

[8] See “This is a Shirtsleeve Operation,” reprinted in The End of an Era: Mad Men and the Ordeal of Civility (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2015).

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9 Comments

  1. Dick Powell
    Posted August 16, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    I first saw the movie after having read all of Rand’s books and was disappointed. Mostly because I just cannot stand Gary Cooper. He must be one of the most overrated actors in film history. He, like the even worse John Wayne, somehow became one of those guys we are just supposed to like and no one ever wants to just say “hey, dummies, wake up, this guy sucks!” He is awful. He is awful in everything he is in.

  2. Franz
    Posted August 15, 2018 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Late addition maybe, but this movie is the proximate reason execs out in Hollywood thought Rand was an idiot.

    Her contract for this picture stated in bullets that “not one line” of her sacred script would be cut. This was followed. To the letter. Because Rand, genius who got a lift from C. B. De Mille on her first day in town, managed to forget how the fine print works.

    Hollywood was totally happy to give script approval to conceited writers because what matters is final cut approval, which they keep for themselves.

    Back when FOOFs (“friends of old films”) were transferring rapidly-deteriorating oddities to video, one had a COMPLETE version of Gary Cooper/Roark giving the courthouse speech, and it was wonderfully incendiary. If some patriot ever put it online, I have not yet run into it. The chopped “official” version does not even make sense.

    But then it works that way. Rand tried to win one for the writers in the 40s, and failed. Gore Vidal thought to do the same with a Roman movie in the 70s, and it was even a bigger disaster.

    As long as movies are in the centralized hands of a few subversives, we won’t see anything approaching even Rand’s misguided notions of individualist heroics onscreen. The beatniks were right over a half century ago: Culture in America is just another word for commerce.

  3. Madden
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    The Fountainhead is something of a rite of passage or gateway drug on the Right.

    A great part of the appeal to the libertardian right is The Fountainhead’s insistence that the great problem that has plagued humans throughout the ages is too much government, rather than too little. Rand gets away with this by sneakily substituting the stifling influence of religion for the (allegedly) stifling influence of government. This is most evident in Roark’s courtroom monologue.

    Rand has Roark begin by talking about the furious reactions men often have to new ideas; reactions which, he claims, date back to the earliest ages. Ideas were, of course, for the longest time all but the sole preserve of the priesthood, and it can safely be assumed that the priesthood was indeed anxious to maintain a closed shop, and thus denounced threats to its dominance. Even at this point, however, Roark lamely tries to claim that the inventor of the first wheel had to face down an outraged mob – already shifting the goal posts from ideas per se to their physical manifestations.

    By the time Rand has Roark denouncing altruists because they believed in the perfect society reached through the guillotine and the firing squad. Nobody questioned their right to murder since they were murdering for an altruistic purpose, we are beginning to glimpse Rand’s true purport, which is to denounce government rather than (or in addition to) religion.

    And by the time Rand has Roark saying civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men, it is perfectly clear what Rand’s target is: government itself.

    The civilizing process has indeed involved freeing men from servitude to certain other men. There is, however, another part of the civilizing process – no less important – that Rand completely misses, which is the transformation of the purpose of government from securing the well-being of rulers, to securing the well-being of the ruled. By failing to note this crucial distinction, Rand is free to equate the liberation of a serf from servitude to his lord with the “liberation” of a worker from the welfare, healthcare, and education provided by his government.

    Fatally for Rand’s thesis that “the altruists” necessarily suffocate the individualists’ creative impulses, the period when the reach of the state was greatest – the 20th century – witnessed the greatest explosion in creative output in the history of the world.

    Lastly, Rand fatally contradicts herself by having Roark claim permanent control over his creation, even after ownership of it was transferred to its buyers. If it is a tragedy that the buyer of the Mona Lisa is free to burn the painting (or the buyers of Roark’s design free to alter it), then the absolutist institution of private property that confers such a right must be attenuated, not strengthened. Roark is, in effect, arguing for more collectivism, not less.

  4. Madden
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    First things first,

    there was some kind of postcard subscription form bound into the paperbacks; remember that stuff?

    “Remember” it? It wasn’t that long ago they still did it. I could swear the first two copies of Rand’s work I ever purchased (“Virtue of Selfishness” and “The Unknown Ideal”), in 2002, still had the cardboard inserts.

    Onto more important matters,

    The Fountainhead is something of a rite of passage or gateway drug on the Right.

    That seems strangely true, although I think any lasting influence it has on rightist minds reduces to the simple admonition: “society doesn’t own you!” Needless to say, there are better – and certainly more efficient – ways of expressing the same point than slogging through Rand’s monotonous pap.

    Yet for all that, the movie version of The Fountainhead has something of a hold on me. I must have seen it half a dozen times, maybe more. To this day, I’m not sure I really know why, but I think it has something to do with finding its melodramatic portrayal of defiant ‘me against the world’/’I did it my way’ attitudes appealing.

    I was convinced Roark’s big dreaming and his stoic acceptance of setbacks was the way a man ought to be. (When his initial efforts fizzle, he doesn’t complain about the injustice of it; he’s happy to turn an honest buck at the quarry, whereas lesser men might have cracked.) And when Roark delivered my favorite line in the film to in response to Toohey’s prompt to tell him what he really thinks of him – “But I don’t think of you” – I about jumped out of my seat, “Yes, yes!”

    It was almost like adding a darker twist to a line from the Optimist Creed: “To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too earnest to permit the opinions of lesser minds to interfere with my own

    Roark’s having us on, of course. He may not wish to volunteer it, but no one can go through life without having some kind of reaction – almost always (eventually) in the form of an opinion – to the people and other forces shaping his life. Indeed, it would be downright irrational for Roark not to think about this Toohey fellow who is impeding his goals. Even if Roark believes that Toohey is perfectly within his individual rights to influence other people against him, it would be only rational to think about Toohey in order to better counter him. (Did this even occur to Rand?)

    Ultimately, I decided that Roark was a fool. It made no sense to me to turn off one’s would-be clients with a huffy ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. Roark needn’t have (gah) ‘compromised his artistic integrity’; he could have simply tried wooing his prospects rather than showing them the door at the first sign of displeasure.

    As for the film’s depiction of romance, the less said the better. So I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Norman
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Randdom, more correctly. But Autism is precise enough.

    @Anonymous: Why do so many people jump on any bandwagon? Marketing, advertising, sales, unrelenting reundance, limited alternatives, and a captive audience. Edward Bernays wasn’t Sigmund Freud’s nephew for nothing.

  6. leech
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve never read “The Fountainhead”, but I did manage to slough trough “Atlas”… She’s no great writer, on any level, but I guess that “Atlas” can be enjoyed as a cheesy SFish pulp tale (if only it was of a length that such tales had in pulp magazines of its era, rather than being never-ending whale of a novel).
    I’m not completely unsympathetic to Rand, her philosophy is almost like Crowley for unimaginative hard materialists.

  7. Paul
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    “He did not laugh as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him. His face was like a law of nature – a thing one could not question, alter or implore.

    He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.
     
    These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.”

    Modernity in a nutshell.
    Rand is a worthwhile read all right, though not for the reasons she would have liked.

  8. Anonymous
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    Rand was an Autistic Jewess whom the very concepts of empathy and collective culture were alien to. Hence, she wrote about a fictional world where all the heroes were Autistic people whom the very concepts of empathy and collective culture were alien to. And she developed a political ideology that would work only in a society where the vast majority of people are… Autistic people whom the very concepts of empathy and collective culture are alien to.

    It is easy to understand why Autistic people would be drawn towards Rand. The odd thing about her is how many non-Autistic people jumped the Rand bandwagon. This is something I never really managed to make sense of.

  9. Guy White
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 4:56 am | Permalink

    Will Objectivism conservatism ever recover from Leonard Peikoff? Maybe after he is dead of milking Randianism as his way of life.

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