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Movie & Blu-Ray Review: Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997)

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Strand Releasing’s 1997 documentary Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, is, in retrospect, a cinematic achievement. The 143-minute movie debuts on Blu-Ray on July 28.

Other than a new trailer and enhanced English SHD sound, this is the same product as the Collector’s DVD edition several years ago. But Objectivists, Ayn Rand fans and those who recognize the power and relevance of her novels We the Living (1936), Anthem (1938), The Fountainhead (1943) and, in particular, her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), and her books and other writings, should invest in owning this film if they don’t already have it.

Given the historic events since writer and director Michael Paxton‘s Oscar-nominated movie was released in movie theaters, the reasons to see it have multiplied.

In silent movie clips, letters, pictures, drawings, paintings, interviews, dramatization and animation, Paxton pieces together the ideas, stories and events in Rand’s life in chronological order. This approach allows the viewer to discover, rediscover and appreciate her life, career and philosophy. It is factual, thoughtful and respectful, even reverential, without being overloaded, dense or dogmatic. Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life depicts Ayn Rand (1905-1982) as the heroic figure she was.

Backed by documentary evidence, from her original name on a ship’s passenger manifest during her escape from Soviet Russia to highlighted stills with Rand as an extra on Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings, Paxton presents Ayn Rand’s life in terms of essentials. For example, he integrates a movie diary entry and early clip of the silent film era’s Gish sisters with their later intersection in Ayn Rand’s life. This theme of realizing heroic ideals and goals recurs throughout the faded photograph-styled motion picture, with movie stars such as Greta Garbo and Gary Cooper. Aided by actress Sharon Gless (Burn Notice), who narrates the film with grace, and Jeff Britting’s correspondingly ascendant score, segmented snippets, scenes and stories converge as a whole picture. Among those interviewed are Objectivist intellectuals who knew Rand, including her heir and Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff (for full disclosure, I am an Objectivist and I’ve met and studied, worked or become friends with some of those involved or who appear, including Paxton and Peikoff). The late CBS News journalist Mike Wallace is also interviewed.

Accordingly, one gets a strong sense of a personal life, including the affair with psychologist Nathaniel Branden, which is telescoped here for practical purposes, and her friends, associates and preferences. Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor, is a steady yet elusive figure.

But the focus is on her intellectual development as a philosopher and progression as a writer, from childhood and studies in St. Petersburg and witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia to her brief time in Berlin, on the trans-Atlantic voyage to New York City, months in Chicago, Hollywood years and on lecture tour. Finally, Ayn Rand triumphs in New York City, where she creates Objectivism and writes Atlas Shrugged. The movie deposits each part of her life into the big picture. Of course, it is larger than life.

Asked to write a screenplay for DeMille called “The Skyscraper”, selling an adaptation of her story Red Pawn, seeing her play, Penthouse Legend, morphed into something else, one sees the challenge, effort and struggle of the young writer Ayn Rand. The initial allure of a screen version of her anti-dictatorship novel We the Living, which was published in Hollywood’s Red Decade, draws attention from Bette Davis, who apparently indicated that she wanted to portray the heroine, Kira, until she was advised that doing so might hurt her career. A pirate film version was made in fascist Italy (the best movie based on an Ayn Rand novel; read my review here) in 1942. A Sense of Life recalls Ayn Rand meeting the only actress to portray Kira on screen, Alida Valli, who tried to persuade David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to make We the Living in Hollywood.

The nation’s decline permeates the film. Ayn Rand begins life as an eager newcomer, distressed to have missed a sight of the Statue of Liberty while entering New York, where her life ends after it seems as if almost everyone in America missed the point of her novels and philosophy. Part of what makes A Sense of Life an accomplishment is its objectivity with regard to her legacy. Ayn Rand’s answers, estimates and explanations, presented in quotations, papers and audio-visual excerpts, speak volumes.

“If anyone destroys this country,” Ayn Rand says at one point in a late night interview with Tom Snyder on NBC in the 1970s, “it will be the conservatives. Because they’re all altruists.”

Whether appearing on the Today Show, the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson or Snyder’s Tomorrow Show, Ayn Rand was extremely clear and concise. Those familiar with her books will find much to think about. Even those who are agnostic or hostile to her philosophy may gain from seeing her in action through archival material. Those who are new to Ayn Rand will learn about the philosophy in a general, not pedantic, sense. Each viewer will learn more about what moved her to create a system of thought so radical, controversial and enduring. Everyone watching the movie can judge Ayn Rand as she thought, wrote and lived.

This includes her relationship with her husband, whom she apparently adored, and her professional connections with those who advocated for the publication and adaptation of her books, including Warner Bros.’ advocate for making The Fountainhead, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ayn Rand’s family. Whether in a movie clip of Ayn Rand at her Richard Neutra-designed home in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley or footage of her congressional testimony against Communist infiltration of Hollywood studios, Paxton ranges over the sweep of her private and professional life.

However, this is earned in steps, not lobbed as a propaganda piece (such as 2012’s Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of Altas Shrugged), and Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is gentle, not overbearing.

There is an emphasis on Hollywood, which deals in pictures, and the film regards her foremost as an artist who is a philosopher, not the reverse. Pictures evolve into its progression and vice versa: Ayn Rand meets legendary movie producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca), for whom she wrote Love Letters with Jennifer Jones and You Came Along with Lizabeth Scott, writes Anthem, campaigns for Wendell Willkie’s 1940 presidential candidacy, is deemed “too harsh” by Hollywood conservatives and suggests Garbo, with whom The Fountainhead director King Vidor subsequently met, to portray Dominique Francon on screen (which did not happen; the part went to Patricia Neal).

That’s merely when she was young. If Ayn Rand’s life is like something out of Ayn Rand’s fiction—meeting DeMille on the movie studio lot, meeting her future husband by chance in a Hollywood library, being invited to dine at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright—it is because she chose to pursue happiness. As she might have put it, she wanted to be selfish.

Ayn Rand’s selfishness, the highest Objectivist virtue by this admiring account, was consciously practiced. Again and again, with New York City as the pinnacle of man’s achievement and the Empire State Building as a visual focal point, unfolding from an artist’s portrait of Ayn Rand to the crowning achievement which is Atlas Shrugged, the woman at the center of A Sense of Life lived by the exalted ideals she identified, explained and dramatized. She visited steel mills in California, Chicago and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and rode on trains and studied architecture as research for her work. She gave herself a renewed sense of purpose in adapting Atlas Shrugged as an NBC miniseries after her husband died in November of 1979, when it became abundantly evident that America was falling apart.

As her career winds down and Ayn Rand is seen seated at an intellectuals’ round table surrounded by men, she had been invited to the Apollo 11 rocket launch putting man on the moon, an event which she attended, denounced racism—appropriately, a sign held by a somber-looking black woman reads “Integration”—and attended an invitation-only dinner at the White House with President Gerald R. Ford and the First Lady, Mrs. Betty Ford.

Before social media, proving that she grasped what most did not about objective communication, Ayn Rand had created courses, conferences, lectures, discussions and publications emanating her philosophy, Objectivism, and disseminating her ideas across multiple media platforms, from radio and television (Today, Tonight, Tomorrow) and theater and movies to an interview in Playboy and other print media. She even wrote a column for the stagnant Los Angeles Times. It’s all here. The evidence of her genius but also her strength is plain; she never lets up, she does not stop acting to advance her values, she never lets what matters go.

Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life positions TV’s talk show pioneer Phil Donahue as a proxy for the general public with regard to understanding Ayn Rand and Objectivism. In her two Donahue appearances, one sees his evolution as a host, as the powerful pair discuss God, altruism and the death of her husband. Relentlessly clarifying confusions, Ayn Rand acts as a springboard to an entire examination of one’s deeply held premises.

Donahue challenges. Rand responds. Donahue reflects. The viewer thinks.

This is the effect of the film. I have seen it several times since I attended advance screenings and the premier in 1997. Whether on a home theater screen or a movie theater screen, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life plays like the absorbing, accessible and enlightening movie it is. It prompts the viewer to think—about her comments, ideas and books and her stories, heroes and themes—about whether and how these apply to one’s life. The film is a solid cinematic introduction to and retrospective of Ayn Rand, Objectivism and her books.

In it, one also learns the early history and first stage of a movement made by her philosophy. It’s not flawless—occasionally, musical cues are distracting and Anthem gets short shrift—and moviemakers should continue to explore her life. But, unlike her detractors’ psychologizing, almost everything asserted here derives from the facts of reality or conclusions based on the firsthand observation of its fascinating subject, Ayn Rand.

If you’re up to it, to paraphrase Objectivism’s creator, check those premises; Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life is a good place to start.


The Blu-Ray Edition

As I wrote, this is the same two-disc edition as the earlier release, a DVD Collector’s edition, with a couple of additions and enhancements other than the film’s transfer to the crisp, higher-definition Blu-Ray format. Chapter selections are clearly marked.

The extras include a new trailer, which was not on the DVD, a rare photograph gallery, a deleted dance sequence evoking Ayn Rand’s unpublished work in progress “To Lorne Dieterling”, the complete filmed version of scenes from Ayn Rand’s play, Ideal, and more. Cast and crew bios, an interview with writer and director Michael Paxton, (whom I interviewed for the movie’s release; read the archived newspaper article here), stills, bonus footage and additional information are all included. Fans and Objectivists should not skip the additional interviews with Ayn Rand’s friends, scholars and associates, including Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff, as they have more to say about her than is contained in the 143-minute movie.

In a July 2015 statement accompanying press materials, director Michael Paxton says that “telling stories about independent and heroic women have always been and continue to be a theme in my work as a filmmaker.” He should be proud that Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, which continues to earn interest in the themes, books and philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a heroic story well shown and told.

Click to Buy Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life Blu-Ray edition

 

Thoughts on Lizabeth Scott

LizabethScottLizabeth Scott is gone. She was 92. The actress, who reportedly died in Los Angeles on January 31, was striking, talented and unjustly undervalued and underemployed in Hollywood—where she was viciously smeared. But she was both luminous and, in a way, premature for a world that matched her ability. Having briefly met her, I think she probably knew it.

Many, possibly most, readers probably haven’t heard of her and there’s no reason why they should. The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native was raised as a Catholic, quit college to start working in New York City, and was discovered by legendary producer Hal Wallis (Casablanca, True Grit, Anne of the Thousand Days, Love Letters, The Furies, Now, Voyager, Sergeant York) who put her as the female lead opposite Robert Cummings in You Came Along (1945), directed by John Farrow and written by Ayn Rand. But she never truly got what she deserves.

Miss Scott was usually better than her parts and films. She possessed all the qualities being written about her in and throughout today’s media—the coastal Times newspapers predictably peg her as a ‘film noir’ actress—including the sexual intensity, the intelligence, the voice, the slightly androgynous air and the unaffected, tough exterior embedded with the will to submit at her discretion. She wore Edith Head’s glamorous costumes well and she was radiant, though she was rarely given the role in which to shine. From her early pictures, such as You Came Along, which she told me when we met was her first and favorite of her 22 movies, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) to Loving You (1957) with Elvis Presley and Pulp (1972) with Mickey Rooney, she almost always added depth and at least brightness to the screen. She makes her films, which are mostly mediocre, worth seeing.

Miss Scott lived alone in the Hollywood Hills, evoking one of Scott’s heroines, screen legend Greta Garbo, and, throughout her career, she was an individualist, which left her open to ridicule and innuendo. Having once expressed that she wore men’s cologne and pajamas and confessed that she hated frilly dresses, she was smeared by a hack (and former Communist) who insinuated that Lizabeth Scott was a lesbian. This nearly destroyed her career. Citing damages, Scott sued for $2.5 million in 1955. The New York Times reports in Scott’s obituary that the lawsuit is “believed” to have been settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. As a leading lady in film noir and noirish pictures such as Desert Fury (1948) and Too Late for Tears (1949), Lizabeth Scott—who had co-starred with Burt Lancaster, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Ladd, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Michael Caine and with Charlton Heston in his film debut—was finished. She withdrew from movies, focusing on occasional television appearances, a musical recording career and auditing philosophy courses at the University of Southern California (USC).

When I met the actress briefly during an event at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) honoring her late co-star Barbara Stanwyck several years ago, she was still the would-be movie star, not so much moving through as glowing throughout the room and taking everyone’s breath away while leaving them bewildered as to why. I told her that I had enjoyed her performances and I expressed an interest in interviewing her, which she at first waved off. Then I mentioned her first film, You Came Along, the Ayn Rand-penned picture in which she portrayed a government worker who falls in love with a troubled soldier on a bond tour. At the mere mention of this movie, she paused, moving closer. Her eyes grew wide and she gripped my hand and said: “I loved Ayn Rand.” She explained her reasons and we talked about my favorite writer, whom she said was one of the few in Hollywood whom she felt understood her ability. Then, Lizabeth Scott turned to her escort and asked him to give me the contact information to schedule an interview. I later proposed to interview Miss Scott as part of a series for the Ayn Rand Archives, which had just produced the long-awaited 100 Voices. But, while I would have treasured the opportunity to interview Miss Scott, I remember my moments with her fondly and I am confident that her proper place in motion pictures will be recognized in time. As she once said:

I don’t want to be classed as a ‘personality,’ something to stare at. I want to have my talents respected, not only by the public but by myself.”

Miss Scott was constantly compared to the late Lauren Bacall, another sultry, smoky-voiced actress from the same era in movies. But I think Miss Scott might have been the better actress, with wider range and a more compelling presence on screen (I mean no disrespect to Bacall, whom I appreciate in pictures such as Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and The Shootist with John Wayne). It is too bad that Miss Scott is remembered as an early film noir prototype and not much else. The term femme fatale does not do her justice. Sadly, it is too late for that now. I think that it is probably still too soon for Lizabeth Scott and that the world is possibly not yet ready for the actress she might have become. But I experienced firsthand that Lizabeth Scott was ready for the world and on her own terms—and this is a grand lifetime achievement.


Reference links

Movie Review: Too Late for Tears (1949)

Interview: Leonard Maltin on Lizabeth Scott (2015)

Interview: Robert Osborne on Lizabeth Scott (2015)

 

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, Part 3

ASP3WIJG posterAs I previewed last month, the new and final part of libertarian businessman John Aglialoro’s independent movie trilogy adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, features Christian libertarian ex-congressman Ron Paul of Texas. It’s a plot point that, however small, makes no dramatic sense. Like much of this movie, easily the worst of the three pictures, Ron Paul’s cameo both distracts from whatever remains of Rand’s philosophical theme and distorts the meaning of Atlas Shrugged.

Introduced by John Stossel, screened at this year’s libertarian FreedomFest in Las Vegas and opening in theaters nationwide this September, the film, Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt?, fundamentally changes Rand’s plot (stop reading this if you insist on seeing movies without any essential plot knowledge).

I’ll get right to the fact that Atlas Shrugged 3 gives Rand’s brilliant story a happy and, even on its terms, undeserved ending. With an awful cast (the emaciated actress playing Dagny this time misinterprets the character’s rationality as a blank slate) and forementioned transgressions peppered throughout the 90-plus minute picture, the movie pastes a news montage and begins in earnest with a poorly staged adaptation of the 20th Century Motor Company scene. Everyone looks like an actor and the extras overemote. They’re not alone. John Galt is portrayed by an actor who means well but is apparently directed to come off as a soap or soft core porn star. “This is John Galt speaking…” should be delivered with a blended sense of heart-skipping dread and anticipation, both crashing down and cashing in on the events preceding the great, momentous line. Here, it plays as a self-conscious voiceover. This is Galt as studmuffin, not as the man who invents – and stops – the motor of the world.

As depicted, Galt’s Gulch could double for a Hallmark Christmas movie, complete with luminaria, and Francisco d’Anconia, who is supposed to have grown up with Dagny, is played by an actor who appears to be old enough to be her grandfather. At least he projects competence. This Dagny is so vacuous she couldn’t run a rinse cycle let alone a transcontinental railroad. When she awakens after Part 2s plane crash in the Valley, the face with no fear, no pain and no guilt achingly portrayed in Rand’s poetic scene is nowhere to be found. Neither is Ayn Rand’s crucial line about never needing to take any of it seriously. There are only actors who resemble the Marlboro man (Ellis Wyatt), male model types in neatly trimmed facial hair (Ragnar) and Foster Grants (Galt) and lots of bugs around Hugh Akston. Somehow, Taggart Transcontinental, the best thing about Part 1, became the equivalent of a commuter rail line. Forget about making love on the train tracks, too.

It gets worse. With chants of “We Want Galt!” from the American public, the opposite of Rand’s point in the novel, which dramatized that the reader faces a fundamental philosophical choice, and cameos from Fox News personalities, Bitcoin and Glenn Beck, the central thesis that the power of the West is fading in proportion to enslavement of the man of ability is utterly trashed. In its place, without a single reference to altruism or self-sacrifice (on the contrary, Dagny silently sanctions sacrifice) is a bastardization (that is the word for this movie) of Atlas Shrugged as populism. With Eddie Willers saved, dispensing with another key point from the novel about what happens in such a collapse, and Cherryl’s life cruelly tossed aside as an afterthought – betraying what Rand’s philosophy holds as the ultimate value – the theme here is that libertarianism will save the world. Among the glaring inconsistencies and inversions are Dagny’s ever-changing hair from straight to permanent wave and back, clean-shaven villains and facial-haired heroes and, worst of all, Galt’s agonizing torture minimized in every sense; the counterpoint to Christ on the cross is reduced to a carefully posed and partially clothed actor making faces to special effects.

That it’s all dramatized in the style of a flat, boring cable movie where nodding off makes not a lick of difference seems to fit what has turned out to be an ill-conceived undertaking by a businessman who does not understand the novel. The proof of this comes straight from the businessman’s mouth. As Aglialoro told the premiere audience, he made this trilogy to “save America from government.” Herein lies the libertarian’s anti-intellectual error across the decades. Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged (and Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism) do not in any sense seek to save America from government. Atlas Shrugged dramatizes the heroic tale of a life lived large and, to the extent it’s about the collapse of the West, it’s about saving America from government control. Atlas Shrugged Part 3, as part of the libertarian’s counterfeit claim to Rand’s philosophy, totally fails to check its premises.

Preview: ‘Atlas Shrugged Part 3’

ASP3 posterAccording to the filmmakers, and this is a so-called spoiler alert, former Congressman Ron Paul appears in a cameo in the third and final installment of the independent movie trilogy, which they’re calling Atlas Shrugged: Who is John Galt? (Read my reviews of Atlas Shrugged Part 1 and Atlas Shrugged Part 2).

I’ve learned that Ron Paul, a libertarian Christian who does not grasp let alone advocate and practice Rand’s philosophy, appears in a scene following Galt’s speech. Besides Ron Paul, Atlas Shrugged Part 3 includes appearances by Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Grover Norquist, Matt Kibbe, Jonathan Hoenig and other conservatives, libertarians and fans of Rand’s work. The film is directed by James Manera, produced by Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro, and it features Kris Polaha as John Galt and Laura Regan as Dagny Taggart. The film also includes Rob Morrow, Joaquim de Almeida and Greg Germann. I’m planning to post a review this summer before it opens in September.

Whatever the artistic merits of the picture, which I expect to be bad or mixed, the press release about Congressman Paul’s appearance includes a quote with which I partly agree: “Atlas Shrugged is a fantastic book, but [it’s] much more than a story – [it’s] a philosophy. It’s influenced millions of people already and because of its greatness [it’s] going to continue to influence a lot of people.” Actually, her novel is a literary presentation of Rand’s philosophy. The question, besides “Who is John Galt?” is whether anyone whom the novel, its theme and Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, influences will be free to think, create and live. This, as Rand dramatizes in her 1957 masterpiece, is up to each of us.

Victory in Virginia

ECofficialRepublican Eric Cantor has served Virginia’s 7th Congressional district since the turn of the century. Today, in a stern rejection of Cantor’s moderate views, voters of his own party chose to terminate his service. It’s the American way. But the historic defeat – Cantor is the first House Majority Leader to lose his party’s primary – represents a fundamental repudiation of the status quo, left and right, Republican and Democrat.

The GOP challenger, an economics professor who claims to have been influenced by Ayn Rand but quoted the Bible in his victory speech, Dave Brat, co-wrote a paper titled “An Analysis of the Moral Foundations in Ayn Rand.” Whether devout Catholic Brat takes Rand’s Objectivism seriously or not (remember when Objectivsts were excited that Paul Ryan had praised Rand?) what matters most is that Brat beat Cantor based on his assertion that Cantor was a moderate and, in this assertion, he is right on. Cantor is soft on Big Government at almost every pivotal and procedural turn as President Obama dismantles the law and destroys the nation, from ObamaCare to compromise with the White House over immigration. Brat (read more about him here) didn’t convince voters that he deserved to win as much as persuade them that Cantor deserved to lose. As CNN’s John King observed, it’s not just that Tea Party types trounced Congressman Cantor, who is as oily as Clinton and Gingrich; a key part of the defeat is caused by Cantor’s usual rank and file conservatives not showing up to vote. The status quo defenders – the knee-jerk Bush sycophants that wink, nudge and sidewind about opposing ObamaCare while muttering in mock confidentiality that no one can really expect to repeal ObamaCare – gave up the fight, stayed home and lost. This indicates a weakening of the entrenched welfare state mentality that feeds the Washington beast.

It is crucial to understand this aspect of Brat’s victory; that the win is less a galvanizing of support for Dave Brat for Congress than it is an exhausted abandonment by Republicans of fraudulent figures like Cantor pretending to be opposed to Big Government. As John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker, Brat “kept hacking away on the immigration issue, saying, “A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote for open borders. A vote for Eric Cantor is a vote for amnesty.” This is true, too, and what is obvious to anyone watching Cantor, who with his fake smile embodies the worst of Washington politicians, was made explicit by voters in his district, who could no longer ignore or evade Cantor’s complicity in aiding Obama. Brat may be an honest, conservative Catholic who once sought to understand Ayn Rand’s ethics of egoism, and now he will be up against another college professor from the same faculty and voters may get an intellectual contest between a Christian professor whose program was funded by the head of the Cato Institute and a sociologist Democrat.

In the victory speech, Brat quoted the Bible and exclaimed that: “This is a miracle from God!” Lest apologists interpret this as an aberrant outburst, he later told Sean Hannity on Fox News that he is “humbled that God gave us this win.” On his Web site, Brat describes himself as “a man of deep faith” and it will be easy to challenge a professed advocate of capitalism on religious grounds because pure capitalism is based on an egoistic, not altruistic, premise. But, unlike Cantor and the Washington establishment, Brat opposes the NSA’s indiscriminate mass surveillance and he made a point to differentiate himself from Cantor on this issue. Unlike Cantor, Brat vows to repeal ObamaCare.

Dave Brat, like most Americans, holds mixed premises. Whether Brat thinks he is a vessel of God, and the anti-abortion conservative wrongly claims that “[o]ur fundamental rights … come from God, the Author of Nature”, there is no denying that Cantor’s defeat is a blow to Big Government’s establishment. Thus, today’s electoral end of the House Majority Leader is a victory for America. It may be too late to save the nation. It may be too soon for an American renewal of our founding principles. But Eric Cantor was an obstacle to liberating Americans from what’s becoming a totalitarian state and that makes his decisive defeat a timely and welcome result.