[Anytime] Film Recommendation: The Fountainhead

Keith appears not to have reviewed this pearl, so here goes:

I came upon this on TCM recently.  A movie about a heroic architect, with Coop and Patricia Neal, what could go wrong?  If you met Ayn Rand at the appropriate age  and never went back to it, you have a really fun campy wallow in store.  Like everyone else, I read The Fountainhead as a college sophomore or freshman, while I was still connecting up neurons into some sort of functional system.  I didn’t think much of the philosophy, or whatever it is, even then, but it was the trigger that got me interested in architecture as I realized I had no idea what the buildings Rand gauzily described as masterpieces would actually look like, and took some courses to find out more.

Like the novels, the film is drenched in unintended self-parody and clearly marked out with signposts for us.  The heavy is named Toohey. (Rhymes with phooey, get it? Like his doppelgänger in Rand’s other big lift, Wesley Slouch, I mean Mouch.  The failed woulda/coulda/shoulda who compromises his principles has the non-gender-specific moniker Gail. You are never lost or in doubt in Randworld.)  Rand wrote the screenplay, and a preachier, speechier bunch of unplayable lines I have never heard.  The whole thing was some kind of bonfire of postwar Hollywood craziness: Cooper and Neal had an affair during the filming, Rand was on the set meddling (and didn’t like the result), and (I just learned from the linked article) Bogart and Bacall, beloved lefties, were initially cast for the leads–did they read the script?

The architecture we are supposed to admire is “modern” architecture as imagined by the people who gave us the sets of Astaire/Rogers films, or maybe the Wizard of Oz.  The great building that caps the film is, of course, thus because it’s the tallest; Burj Khalifa theory of architecture and all the cluelessness it implies.  If you got the subtle functioning of the names, and I bet many of our deepest, sharpest readers did, you will catch the 642 separate instances of phallic this-and-that, especially including Coop tickling a mountain with a little pneumatic drill held about waist-high.

All in all, though, the idea that a communist could orchestrate the decline of everything by getting the rabble stirred up about architecture, or that an architect could save us from collectivism, is so delicious and loony that it redeems the film. It’s a hoot from start to finish, check it out.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

32 thoughts on “[Anytime] Film Recommendation: The Fountainhead”

  1. I’ve seen the first 20-30 minutes of it. It’s still better than the book.

    I’ll give Cooper his due – he actually manages to make Howard Roark seem somewhat human. Roark always and forever rejects modifications to his perfect vision in the book, whereas in the movie there’s a moment after he’s been told that they’ll put something extra around one of his buildings where you see him hesitate for a moment. For a brief moment, he actually seems torn between his obsession and his desire to actually get something built.

  2. “The architecture we are supposed to admire is “modern” architecture as imagined by the people who gave us the sets of Astaire/Rogers films, or maybe the Wizard of Oz… the idea that a communist could orchestrate the decline of everything by getting the rabble stirred up about architecture, or that an architect could save us from collectivism, is so delicious and loony that it redeems the film.”

    Think of the whole thing as a love letter to Albert Speer.

    1. Ouch.

      Speer? Really? I haven’t read enough Rand to know how she felt about the NSDAP’s minion-in-chief.

      1. IIRC, Rand’s model (using the term rather loosely) for Roark was Frank Lloyd Wright: a genius who imposed his designs on his patrons, whether they liked it or not.
        A very simplistic (natch) view of Wright’s life and work, but a perfect vehicle for her own eccentric ideas.

        1. According to the Chicago Reader‘s longtime movie critic, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Frank Lloyd Wright was approached to design the sets for the movie. His form of refusal was to make demands that couldn’t possibly be met, because apparently — again, according to Rosenbaum — he viewed Rand as a crank. That’s right: even the object of Rand’s endless mash note couldn’t stand her.

          Rand’s fictionalized version of Wright, Howard Roark, is portrayed as a brilliant structural engineer and architect. Frank Lloyd Wright, whatever you think of him as an architect, was not a great engineer, and several of his homes required retrofitting to fix structural problems. Of course, if you’re willing to gloss over reality, you can make anyone look perfect.

          1. Re: Wright as engineer – while Wright’s buildings did often require some structural help after the fact, this is not such a knock on his engineering abilities as you might think; it’s due to the fact that he was a relentless experimenter who was often trying out novel structural ideas (at a time when concrete and steel were still in their relative infancy as building materials). Sometimes he succeeded brilliantly. There’s a famous story about the Johnson Wax Building where Wright was informed that his design for the concrete “mushroom” columns in the great workroom would never work structurally; to prove them wrong, he had a test column built and invited all his critics to a demonstration in which he loaded it up to several times the design load. After the critics told him “you’ve made your point” he insisted on continuing the test until the column failed, just to rub it in their faces.

  3. “We the Living” was made in Italy during the war and is well worth seeing. It is remarkable for having been made while Fascism ruled the country and the Axis was at war with Russia; there is great sympathy for the Russian people which cannot have sat well with people who thought that Slavs were an inferior race. I saw it sometime in the late 1980s and remember the music and dancing and the general quality of the acting and direction.

  4. Having read the fictions of one Carl T. Bogus, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Twain quotes: “The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to be credible.” The names were hardly the worst literary excess in Rand’s works, that sort of alignment of name and nature actually does happen in reality occasionally. You want a real literary offense, how about that endless speech by Galt? Anyway, it should be understood that this was a stylistic choice by Rand, she wanted to write in archetypes, figured that if you wanted real life, why were you reading, or something like that.

    My own opinion of Rand is that she had one or two useful insights, but not really the makings of a real philosophy. But she did have those insights, which is more than most could say.

    1. Blackadder: It started badly, it tailed off a little in the middle and the less said about the end the better, but apart from that it was excellent.

    2. My own opinion of Rand is that she had one or two useful insights, but not really the makings of a real philosophy. But she did have those insights, which is more than most could say.

      Nothing of interest here. One should expect smug modern libertarianism to treat its forebears with arrogant scorn.

      1. Now, why wouldn’t any libertarian treat Rand the way she treated us? Her position on libertarianism, as I understand it, was that libertarians were ripping off her philosophy, because we agreed with her on some things, and doing a bad job of ripping it off, because we dared to disagree with her on other things.

        You want a humorous discussion of this, read “It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand“, by Jerome Tuccille.

        1. This is true. Rand viewed herself as being the heir to Aristotle and Aquinas and considered her work primarily moral rather than political; she regarded her philosophy as (to borrow a term from Catholicism, just because I suspect it would tick her off) a “seamless garment” in which there were no optional or separable elements. You could get thrown out of her circle just for having different taste in art, because disagreement made you a bad Objectivist (the parallels with Stalinism here are hard to miss).

          1. Yeah, a classic example of immigrants bringing with them what they fled, without even realizing it.

        2. Now, why wouldn’t any libertarian treat Rand the way she treated us?

          Hilarious. And I don’t mean that because of the inherent little-boy spite.

          Rather I am thinking of that little fence lizard that liked to brag it was related to the dinosaurs. Here the little fence lizard strikes a mighty pose and asserts it is superior to the dinosaurs. Why I bet these modern libertarian lizards won’t even change their names to hop on Medicare. Not them. So superior and smug are they, that I bet they won’t tarnish their dignity, morality, idealism and individualism by imbibing Medicare. No name change needed for these little lizards!


    3. The names don’t really bother me that much, personally. Hell, Dickens did basically the same thing.

    1. Speaking as someone who studied both of these guys, I’m not really sure what this means. (If you mean to describe who is the real archetypal megalomanical modern architect, the answer is Le Corbusier and it’s not even close.)

      1. i meant that m-rohe’s work is how i imagine rourke’s would look like…more minalimalistic, like the cover art on the Fountainhead. The Seagram building is really something to experience, especially from the inside.

        1. Ah, that makes sense. Personally, I think Walter Gropius or early Corbusier would fit that mold even more perfectly; not only ultra-minimalist and fiercely geometric, but also full of machine-fetishizing symbolism and such. Mies, to his credit, was never so utterly taken with that futuristic ethos. Probably because his dad was a stonemason. I’ve been to several of his buildings; wish I had gone inside the Seagram Building, whose interior (by Philip Johnson, I believe) is said to be spectacular, though uncharacteristically sumptuous for Mies.

          1. I had some business meetings there and was with 2 colleagues who, unlike myself, did not know the building was famous. So I was curious to see their unaffected reaction. The building is seemingly unassuming. On the surface it just looks utilitarian, like Soviet architecture. Frank Gehry it is not.

            But still, you just sense something. There’s an unmistakable attention to detail and the materials give off a certain light. It’s been a while but I recall the guts of the building as exposed. You see the bolts around the windows. for instance.

            But i knew this going in. They did not. We had been to a lot of cool buildings together but, as it turned out, this was the only one they ever commented on with such awe. They were blown away.

            I would definitely recommend seeing an office there. The 4-Seasons of course is really cool…if you can’t get upstairs.

  5. The thing came on the tube about a year ago. I thought, ‘Cooper and Neal. Cool.’ So I listened to maybe fifteen minutes of the crap before I turned it off.

  6. I dunno. I labored through the entirety of “Atlas Shrugged” (the book) and considered it a complete waste of time when finished. I didn’t make it very far into Fountainhead before my boredom and annoyance got the better of me. Perhaps watching the movie from a “Reefer Madness” perspective would make it bearable, if not enjoyable, but the comments of others who have seen it don’t provide me with much hope.

      1. Yeah, I read ’em in the wrong order. Shrugged was getting all the hype and I was curious, so I picked that one up first. Unimpressed with that, I was told to check out Fountainhead, but I found it couldn’t hold my interest. I wasn’t about to wade through that much crap all over again for another disappointing ending, like I had with Shrugged.

    1. Perhaps watching the movie from a “Reefer Madness” perspective…

      If you do that you will feel like Woody Allen sitting on a parkbench making comments, not about passing strollers, but about the passing platitudes that come out of Coop’s mouth. You’ll bust a gut. Especially if you have a witty friend or two sitting alongside.

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