July 25, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Passion of Ayn Rand

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Passion of Ayn Rand (1999)
Written by Howard Korder and Mary Gallagher, based on the book by Barbara Branden
Directed by Christopher Menaul

Ah, the Objectivists; those crazy f---in' nutjob Objectivists! Yeah, I know, I'm practically begging for hate mail today, I know; after all, that's part of what makes the followers of Ayn Rand's "capitalism as lifestyle" philosophy Objectivism known as nutjobs in the first place, is that they tend to violently attack anyone who dares to offer a criticism of the philosophy, even going so far as being unable to agree which of the two centralized Objectivist Institutes out there is their "official" one. And this is ultimately what makes so many of us have such a complicated relationship with Objectivism as well, is that in some respects Rand really was talking a good game, and advocated certain things that half a century later have become staples of most modern people's lives -- believing in yourself, believing in your abilities, believing that you have something constructive to contribute to the world, learning to "visualize" those constructive things -- even as she was completely off her rocker a lot of times as well.

The Passion of Ayn Rand

In fact, I'll go so far as to say this, concerning the two massive Objectivist manifestos slash novels she wrote in her lifetime, 1943's The Fountainhead and 1957's Atlas Shrugged; that the reason so many of us can appreciate the novels, even as we roll our eyes at much of the "philosophy" being displayed, is that many of us can acknowledge how beautiful a thing Objectivism is in purely theoretical terms, which of course is the kind of world in which her novels take place. Only in a made-up land, after all, can people be both totally committed to selfishness (as Objectivism teaches us to be) and be a decent human being; only in such a place can the world function without the slightest bit of compromise or altruism or governmental human-rights protection taking place. And man, if you ever want a perfect example of what I'm talking about, of how exactly Objectivism falls apart when one tries to actually implement it in the real world, look no further than Rand's own life, according to the 1999 cable-television movie The Passion of Ayn Rand, based on the kiss-and-tell memoir of infidelity from former best friend turned enemy Barbara Branden. You want to see a woman unconsciously turn into the exact kind of dictatorial tyrant she spent her entire adult life fighting against? Then press play and get ready to cringe, my friend.

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Because that's one of many important things about Rand to realize, for those who don't; that many of her adult views of the world, much of what originally informed Objectivism, was a simple backlash against the Soviets driving her out of the pampered St. Petersburg Tzar-era elitist life her family was grooming her to have in 1920s Russia. It was the events of the Soviet Revolution that drove Rand to America, which is what led to her embracing capitalism as zealously as she did; and it is also part of what led to her so fanatically being against authoritarian regimes as well, is that she always saw the Soviets as having "taken" something from her that by all rights was "hers" to begin with (an entitled life in the Russian aristocracy, that is). But as they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree -- and according to both Branden's memoir and this Showtime-produced adaptation, as Rand's success in America increased, she became the very fascist that she was dedicating so much time bemoaning in public, demanding that the top executives of her organization blindly follow her decisions without ever questioning them. And as anyone who's familiar with Objectivism can tell you, such a demand goes directly against one of the main tenets of the philosophy itself; that one should always make up one's own mind about every situation, and never under any circumstances blindly follow another person's decisions without question.

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Yeah, not exactly a great situation for anyone to find themselves, much less Barbara Branden (played here by Julie Delpy) and her husband Nathaniel (Eric Stoltz) when they first meet Rand (Helen Mirren, as deliciously great here as always) -- as star-struck 19-year-old college students, that is, and with Rand already in her mid-forties and at the peak of her career. According to Branden (which of course is hotly contested by the Ayn Rand estate), Rand ran the entire Objectivist organization with an iron fist in those days, seducing some into the fold and browbeating the rest, wearing them down psychologically until they were no longer in a position to argue with what Rand wanted in the first place. This is certainly the case, for example, when Rand and Nathaniel decide that they need to have a one-year sexual affair together, in order to determine what it is that exactly exists between them; but that as the True Objectivists they are, it is of course only fair to notify their respective spouses beforehand, both Barbara and Rand's cuckold alcoholic husband Frank O'Connor (Peter Fonda).

The Passion of Ayn Rand

It is here, according to Branden, where we see the real two-faced hypocritical nature of Objectivism at work; how it treats individual thought as holy, but can only thrive through a hive-mind mentality and a healthy dose of traditional hero worship, with the "rights" of each person involved falling in a freakishly old-fashioned Soviet-style hierarchal pyramid when all is said and done. And indeed, there might have been a great movie here to be made with such material, something that merely confirms how much better of projects cable television routinely produces than regular network television; but unfortunately, under the pandering and plodding script by Howard Korder and Mary Gallagher, and the pedestrian direction of Christopher Menaul, The Passion of Ayn Rand manages to gloss over even the most basic precepts of the Objectivist philosophy, giving us absolutely no context for understanding why this seemingly ho-hum affair was in fact an ironic mess for everyone involved, and at the end manages to turn the entire complicated thing into what can only be called "The Red Shoe Diaries for Nerds."

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Because seriously, what else can you call it when a movie about the human failings of Objectivism contains not even one uninterrupted scene about what Objectivism actually is, yet devotes over 20 minutes of screen time to soft-focus close-ups of Mirren Boobs and Stoltz Butt, cut to the horrible blarings of a faux-'50s-film-noir lonely-saxophone soundtrack? UGH -- I swear, I was just waiting for Stoltz to eventually turn to the camera, light a cigarette and mutter, "She was a dame, see, a special dame, and her gams were like the irrefutable logic of A equalling A. Her heaving breasts were like the shining beacons of the Industrial Age against the steep cliffs of liberal regulation, and all I wanted to do was set them afire!"

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Thankfully for the producers, the natural drama of the actual events makes this movie compelling no matter how bad a job they did with the script; but let's face it, that if you don't already have a deep understanding of both the Objectivist philosophy and the movement's historical leaders, there isn't a damn thing in The Passion of Ayn Rand that's going to make you any more illuminated, and in fact it'd be rather pointless for you to even bother watching it in such a situation without spending an afternoon at Wikipedia first. And that's a real shame, because this is a stupendously dramatic story that's just begging for a decent treatment -- the story of a half-passionate, half-rational sexual liaison between two of the most well-known intellectuals the Modernist Era ever saw, whose very public breakup literally split their entire organization in two, a split that still continues to this day (with both Nathaniel and Barbara still very much alive at this point, in fact, and Nathaniel even still very active in both psychiatry and public speaking).

The Passion of Ayn Rand

Make no mistake -- this stellar roster of actors make the most here of what they have, and single-handedly save The Passion of Ayn Rand from being an unwatchable mess; but that is no thanks at all to the sloppy, amateurish script on display here, which treats the entire philosophy of Objectivism as "big words that people shout at each other very quickly while in the middle of taking their clothes off." As critical as I am about the philosophy's various precepts, I think this movie does a real disservice at explaining even the basic concepts of Objectivism, or of why an affair between Rand and Branden was as legitimately scandalous as it actually was. There is a great story here to be told, and I hope that someone one day gets around to telling it; The Passion of Ayn Rand, however, unfortunately ain't it.

Out of 10:
Writing: 1.7
Acting: 9.2
Directing: 2.1
Cinematography: 7.0
Overall: 5.1

Best viewed: By yourself! Damnit, you don't need external validation to confirm your own freaking awesomeness!

Next on my queue list: Primer, the 2004 no-budget independent heady science-fiction thriller, which has perhaps the most universal set of praise at the Internet Movie Database that I've ever seen. And don't forget, my review of The Squid and the Whale is coming Friday!

Read even more about The Passion of Ayn Rand: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:30 AM, July 25, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |