Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Fountainhead

I've read The Fountainhead, although I didn't like it all that much. It seemed to me to be based on a basically unlikely premise: one man, impossibly noble (except for the scene where he basically rapes the heroine, although I expect Ayn Rand didn't see the scene that way) stubbornly sticks to his ideals while a lot of people desperately try to tear him down at every turn. Even the people who admire him appear to do everything they can to ruin him, possibly out of envy. Or something. My main problem with the book is that it's a million pages long and that the characters' motivations aren't convincing to me. And all the lesser architects who band together and denounce Roark's work just because it's threatening to them also seem very much like a novelist assuring herself that everyone attacking her is just jealous. The line from the movie is "They hate you for the genius of your achievement." Yeah, that's what they all say.

Also, I think it's weird that the noble, iconoclastic architect in the book is devoted to making giant steel-and-glass skyscrapers, while the unimaginative masses insist on faux-classical the whole time. That's just a relic of the time the novel was written, but it's hard to get away from the fact that "giant steel-and-glass skyscraper" is no longer an exciting, iconoclastic notion. You should see the big, mirrored cube I work in. I expect it was an excitingly new idea at one point, but man is it generic now. And you hardly ever see marble columns on a new building these days, so the pages of invective about the ubiquity of classical facades don't ring true anymore.

I do think it's interesting that Ayn Rand uses architecture as her example, since that's not what most people think of when they imagine individualistic artists. I wouldn't be surprised if its popularity brought more attention to architects. Which I guess means I can blame The Fountainhead for the extremel odd shape of the EMP. Personally, I much prefer the Space Needle. As an aside, the EMP also holds a Science Fiction Museum, where you can see a dress worn in The Day the Earth Stood Still by Patricia Neal, who plays Dominique Francon in this movie. Anyway, the novel is set in a world where people are desperately interested in architectural trends.

So when I found out there was a movie, I was curious how it would handle a million-page book, and what it would do with the flaws I perceived. The first thing it did was dispose of about a quarter of the book in the narration at the beginning of the movie, so that the can get to the story. I have no problem with that. After all, it worked for Les Miserables.

It was off to a good start by casting Gary Cooper. Howard Roark in the book is a standoffish jerk who doesn't inspire pity or (from me) awe. But Gary Cooper can play Impossibly Noble in his sleep, so you can easily see why people would look up to him.

The question of why Toohey (the snooty architecture critic) and Francon (the female architecture critic -- incidentally, how many newspapers have two daily architecture columns? There must have been a lot of buildings going up!) both decide to destroy Roark even though they admire him is a little rougher. The movie gives them both speeches to try to justify their motivations, but I think they're still pretty much cardboard characters. Apparently Toohey wants to prove that all men are weak, and Francon needs to destroy anything she loves so she doesn't get attached to it. Or something. Really, they're just there so that there can be characters who know how great Roark is while still trying to destroy him. And "I daresay no one knows what I'm after. They will, though" doesn't really satisfy, you know?

Frankly, the basic flaw in both the book and the movie is that Roark is described as being so great that it takes a concerted effort to destroy him, and the villains are less convincing than the hero. So I come out assuming that Ayn Rand's trying to tell me that geniuses are unstoppable successes and there's no need to worry about them. Well, okay.

The rape scene from the book is still in the movie, which bothers me. Even when it's Gary Cooper, I do not approve of that kind of behavior in my protagonists.

Overall, the movie is about as didactic as you'd expect, which means that it's about as didactic as it can possibly get. The big courtroom speech goes on forever, and yo can practically hear the director asking if there might be anyone else in the cast who could be used for a reaction shot to break up the visuals for a few seconds. Gary Cooper does his best (although he apparently didn't understand a word of it), but it's a chore. It's possible to do big ranty speeches, but this is no Mister Smith Goes to Washington.

There are a couple of things I liked, though. I enjoyed the scene where Francon tells Roark, "You'd better not be insolent" while tapping a riding crop in her hand. Some scenes are hard to screw up. Also, there were a lot of scenes that reminded me of Monty Python's "architect sketch". I'd like Roark more if his designs included rotating knives.

Oh! You know the Plot Keywords in IMDB? The top five for The Fountainhead are "Jackhammer / Phallus Symbol / Self Sacrifice / Kissing / Selfishness". That paints a pretty strange picture.

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