“Like lice, the writings of Ayn Rand keep reinfesting the American consciousness. Resistant to dousings of rational analysis and common sense, they attach themselves to impressionable adolescent minds, vulnerable hosts for her simplistic pseudo-philosophical rejection of collectivism and religion, and celebration of individualism, capitalism, solipsism, romanticism, and self-esteem. By the time one generation matures sufficiently to recognize the shallowness of her thinking, a new one begins itching.
Filmfest DC’s description of writer-director Michael Paxton’s lack of objectivity in his depiction of the founder of Objectivism. “This is not a kiss and tell or critical study of the controversial author: replete with interviews with her and her associates, letters, diary entries, notes, and family pictures, this is film as autobiography.” Substitute “hagiography” for “autobiography” and you have a good idea of Paxton’s perspective and tone. Produced with the cooperation of the writer’s estate and interspersed with fawning talking-head testimonies by nerdish Rand chums and scholars, it’s a wartless deification of St. Ayn, Our Lady of Selfishness.
Viewed from a less partisan perspective, Rand’s saga could have made a compelling film. Born in 1905 in St. Petersburg, Russia, she was a child interested in both abstract thought (loved Aristotle, hated Plato) and kitsch (rinky-dink pop music, French boys’ magazines, movies, operettas). In 1926, she emigrated to America and soon found herself in Hollywood, where she worked as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings before advancing to editing screenplays for the director and, by the early ’30s, serving as head of RKO’s wardrobe department. Scarred by the Russian revolution’s impoverishment of her family and alarmed by the looming specters of what she regarded as mankind’s greatest follies–altruism and collectivism—she began expressing her individualist views, first in plays (Ideal, Penthouse Legend) and later in novels (We the Living, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged). Dismissed by critics and intellectuals, her books were embraced by postwar anti-Communist readers and still sell 300,000 copies annually. In later years, Rand abandoned art for philosophy, promoting Objectivism in Playboy interviews and on television chat shows (Phil, Tom, Johnny, Merv), where she touted the virtues of unbridled capitalism and eulogized, among other things, Marilyn Monroe and the Apollo 11 launch.”
I doubt that were she around today that Alice would recognize Global Warming — though Jack Cole certainly did
“With her large, luminous eyes and unflappable self-assurance, Rand is a magnetic camera subject.”
“But her ideas bear the same relation to philosophy that Pop-Tarts do to Viennese pastry. As she soberly explains her Objectivist principles to Mike Wallace in the film’s opening sequence, one can’t help recalling Anne Elk’s vapid theorizing in a memorable Monty Python episode. Riding the same hobbyhorse for half a century (and, in Paxton’s movie, 137 minutes), this self-dubbed “fanatic of individualism” quickly wears out her welcome. Paxton glosses over questionable passages of his subject’s history: her shameful alliance with L. B. Mayer, Walt Disney, and Adolph Menjou in the Hollywood witch hunts, her intellectual and extramarital sexual dalliance with Nathaniel Branden, her indifference to the social and political upheavals of the ’60s, her fatuous newspaper articles identifying businessmen as the last hope of U.S. civilization. Ridiculous assertions-such as the notion that leftists owned Hollywood in the ’30s–are offered up as truths, and intriguing psychological keys to Rand’s personality, like her phallicistic obsessions with skyscrapers and trains, are left unexplored.
Like all holy relics, Paxton’s documentary, which presents its subject as an uncomprehended, often vilified, prophet, will be unquestioningly accepted by its cult. But moviegoers expecting a balanced view of the life of this singular cultural phenomenon are advised to search elsewhere.”
The above (minus my interpolations) first appeared in Washington City Paper April 25, 1997
Joel E. Siegel was a friend and colleague much missed by many (hence the blog site on which his Rand take-down has been reprinted.)
“Joel E. Siegel (1940 – 11 March 2004) was a professor of English and film studies at Georgetown University, a film and music critic, a music producer, and a lyricist. He won the 1993 Grammy Award for Best Album Notes together with Buck Clayton and Phil Schaap for their work on the notes for the Billie Holiday box set, The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve (1945-1959).
Siegel received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1962 and his master’s degree and doctorate in English from Northwestern University. Dr. Siegel wrote for JazzTimes, Washingtonian, Washington Newsworks, Washington City Paper, and Washington Tribune.
He acted as producer for albums of Shirley Horn and Patti Wicks.
He taught at Georgetown University until 1998. He resided in Arlington, Virginia. He died at age 63 of spinal meningitis. He was survived by his parents, Sherman and Miriam Danzinger Siegel, and a sister, Judith Siegel-Baum He was “openly gay”.
Indeed he was, which was why he was so perceptive about Val Lewton’s zombies
as well as
Others are less scrupulous. Take for instance Leah Nelson of “Crooks and Liars”
“I was 15 years old when my mom’s friend loaned me a copy of Rand’s first major novel, The Fountainhead. I devoured it in a week. A year later, I’d reread it several times and moved on to Atlas Shrugged.
I made my friends read Rand. I made my boyfriend read her. I talked about her books incessantly. If I’d been aware that they existed, I would surely have entered one of the many high school essay contests run by various Rand-associated organizations.
What was so great about her books? Well for one thing, they’re awesome romance novels. The rape scene in The Fountainhead, where wealthy heiress Dominique Francon is ravished by genius architect Howard Roark, is a little intense, as are some of the scenes in Atlas Shrugged (whose heroine, Dagny Taggart, at one point appears at a party wearing a diamond bracelet that “gave her the most feminine of all aspects: the look of being chained.”) – but heck, I was also reading Ann Rice’s vampire novels at the time. Even when she wasn’t writing straight porn, Rice doesn’t exactly shy from explicit, over-the-top sex scenes.
Also appealing was Rand’s belief, as I (mis)understood it, that smart people deserve to be on top. To a 15-year-old social outcast with a 3.7 GPA and an affinity for books, that sounded like a pretty great idea.
“Dirty Dancing” changed things. (Yes, I read The Fountainhead before I saw “Dirty Dancing.” “Dirty Dancing” is rated R. My parents were strict. So there.) It struck me as disturbing that Robbie, the womanizing Yalie waiter who shrugs off responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy he caused by saying, “some people count and some people don’t,” was depicted as an ardent fan of The Fountainhead as he offers Jennifer Gray his tattered copy of the book.”
Happily “Objectivism” lost out to Adagio Dancing.
“So after conducting some research and learning a more about what she really was about, I grew out of Ayn Rand.
Paul Ryan hasn’t.
I know, I know, in the wake of questions by Christian groups who about have called him out for his apparent elevation of Rand’s “philosophy” over that of a certain Jewish carpenter whose name shall remain unmentioned, Ryan’s been all over the place (here and here, for instance) denouncing her belief system, “Objectivism,” as “atheistic” and therefore despicable.
But as Lawrence O’Donnell observed the other night, “Only for a politician is Ayn Rand’s atheism a strike against her.”
So let’s turn to the parts of Rand’s works that Ryan hasn’t denounced – starting with the scene in Atlas Shrugged that prompted Jason Lee Steorts, managing editor of the ever-more-repulsive National Review, to shut the book two-thirds of the way through a 2010 attempt to reread it.
‘A train is carrying 300 passengers through the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco. America is falling altogether to pieces, its citizens starving to death, because the prime movers — Rand’s term for the productive men and women on whom economic creation and therefore life-or-death depend — have called a strike.’
The train can’t make safely it through the tunnel because the strike has left the world without diesel engines. A government official demands that it be sent through anyway, and all of the passengers die of asphyxiation.
“But that isn’t why I stopped reading,” Steorts wrote. “I stopped because Rand thinks they deserve it.”
That’s not the only reason he shut the book:
‘Then there is the fact that some of the heroes are first-class haters. Foremost here is Francisco d’Anconia, who is pretending to be a worthless playboy so that the looters won’t respect him enough to notice how he is tricking them into destroying their copper supply. He charms with such proclamations as: “The rotter who simpers that he sees no difference between the power of the dollar and the power of the whip, ought to learn the difference on his own hide — as, I think, he will”; and, of women he has manipulated into falsely claiming affairs with him and so destroying their reputations.’
Steorts closes his essay by saying he “cannot damn Ayn Rand” entirely, and offering thanks “for the too few hours of deep inspiration she offered me.” But he concludes, “[i]t got too painful to look any longer, and so, exercising the right of any self-interested reader, I simply closed the book.”
Paul Ryan didn’t. Instead, he gave copies of Atlas Shrugged as Christmas gifts and made the book “required reading” for his interns and staff. He also credited Rand as the chief inspiration for his decision to enter public service.”
Don’t stop believing, Paul.