In Defense of Dead Philosophers

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Biography

is often some of the best fiction ever created. This can apply to

third person accounts as well as autobiography. Nowhere is this

so applicable as it is to film biography, particularly those based

on prose works written by individuals whose objectivity is compromised.

It approaches the science fiction conundrum of "replicant fading",

the loss of fidelity involved in cloning clones. On a more realistic

level, try making a copy of a copy of a deficient original on any

duplicating machine. Very quickly, everything begins to fade and

the image disintegrates.

That’s

essentially what happens in the video biography of one of the free

markets’ truly great defenders. "The Passion of Ayn Rand"

is based on Barbara Branden’s biography of the novelist and philosopher

who was her mentor and, in Branden’s own view, dear friend. But

one has to wonder about the validity of perceptions offered by a

biographer who was publicly renounced by her subject and never once

responded on the matter until that subject was dead. Having the

last word can be a satisfying experience when one’s detractor is

available for viewing with egg on the face. But when they are permanently

unavailable for comment, it may be more about mud pies than omelets.

It’s

probably true that Any Rand had a torrid love affair with Branden’s

husband. If she did, it’s probably also true that, as Branden says,

she first asked permission of both Branden and her own husband,

Frank O’Connor. Both of these incidents reflect the characteristics

to be found in the protagonists of her novels-incendiary passion

and lack of duplicity, which is to say an inviolate integrity. Granting

that the love affair may have been a fact, the shadings of who initiated

what action when, for whatever motives and under what conditions

or pretenses, remains unchallenged, and unanswered, since Frank

O’Connor preceded his famous wife in death.

The

producers of the cinematic version of this story have, however,

not missed an opportunity to engage in attacking the person when

the argument was unassailable. The argument, of course, was one

so often unpalatable to Hollywood: Lassez Faire capitalism is the

most benevolent system of government ever to have almost appeared

in world history.

As

to replicant fading, the dialogue in this filmography is largely

true to the book. But it is in all the wrong places and given shadings

and nuance which defy and twist even it nebulous source. Most notable

is Any Rand’s view of John F. Kennedy as an enemy of freedom.

Kennedy

was and is a Hollywood favorite and there is no doubt that he favored

socialist policies. There is also no doubt that Nazi stood for National

Socialism. But when Helen Mirren, in the role of Ayn Rand, offers

this parallel from a speakers podium, she does so by underscoring

the comment with a shifty-eyed glance that says, ‘Are they buying

it? Am I getting away with it?’ Anyone who ever saw Ayn Rand speak

knows her eyes were anything but shifty. They were wide, intelligent,

focused, even disturbingly perceptive-but never shifty. It was,

in fact, her very straightforward views on Kennedy that resulted

in her rift with Bennet Cerf and Random House. New American library

welcomed her into their coterie and published her comments without

alteration, reservation, a backward glance, or even, in all probability,

a shifty one.

In

Oliver Stone’s filmography "Nixon," another presidential

nemesis of free enterprise makes key comments of characterization

to his wife in the privacy of their bedroom. Just how this dialogue

fell on Mr. Stone’s ears is a mystery, unless of course there is

another ménage a trios afoot here, one even Stone is not

willing to talk about. Such blatantly "creative" indulgences

have no place in a biography. A similar conversation occurs in the

Rand film, one with just the kind of subtle and shady shadings movie-land

is fond of slipping past us, perhaps with shifty glance of their

own. Alone in their arboretum, Frank O’Connor (Peter Fonda) slips

his arms around his wife in an apparently gentle overture to lovemaking.

She turns in his embrace and complains, "Oh Frank, must you

always ask my permission?" Dutifully, almost shyly, he proceeds

to rip the dress off her back. Apparently the plants have ears and

carry tales.

This

is just more of the effort to tar Ayn Rand with the brush of sado-masochism

stemming from a misinterpretation-if not misrepresentation-of the

aggressive love scenes in her novels. Of one of these so-called

"rape scenes", Rand once commented, "If it was rape,

it was rape by engraved invitation." While this heated passion

was a logical outcome of her protagonists’ motives and the events

of their lives, the "women’s’ movement" emerging late

in the author’s lifetime, felt that she objectified women. Considering

that the heroine and central character of her nineteen-fifty-seven

epic Atlas

Shrugged was a hard driving and beautiful railroad executive,

their accusations of anti-feminism ring hollow. The effort to portray

her as a sinister persona because of her sexuality, is an effort

to denigrate the argument along with the person. It dissipates entirely

in the face of another frank remark the author of The

Fountainhead made when asked for the source of her inspiration

in that novel’s most turbulent love scene. Her inspiration was,

she said openly and honestly to a delighted audience, "wishful

thinking". Her candor reveals this filmography’s attempt to

present her as a twisted dominatrix as just more of the effort to

avoid the argument and attack the thinker.

Capitalism

cannot be impugned by any rational argument. It has freed us from

slavery, drudgery, tyranny, short life spans, pestilence, disease-almost

every disagreeable form of oppression, except the blight of Hollywood

sophistry. Movies are a great source of entertainment and escapism.

So long as they stick to this agenda, they excel. But when it comes

time for directors to venture into biography and docudrama, there

are too many opportunities for "fine tuning" the biography

by the scriptwriter, the script by the director, and the public

perception by intent or neglect. What auteur can pass up the opportunity

to present their timeworn canards as cherished treasures? Their

methods are subtle. The ability to generate larger-than-life visions

are intrinsic to the larger-than-life screen and their facility

in producing equally over-sized emotional responses are limited

only by the nature of the music and the size of the speaker system.

But an emotional response is not an argument anymore than a leg

jumping in response to the tap of a physician’s hammer is an argument.

An argument requires facts and reason. An argument responds in kind

to its antithesis. An argument never attacks personas, unless of

course the mind which constructed it comes to desperately recognize

that there is no other means of making it resemble a rebuttal.

Ayn

Rand was the Jean d’ Arc of capitalism. With a fiery pen, she lanced

fallacy after fallacy and left free market opponents without a square

centimeter of reason to stand on. Consequently, the focus has shifted

to her character. But this too may backfire. What is there in this

account of her life that is not extolled in her novels? There is

the same magnificent devotion to life, achievement and freedom,

which finds expression in a passion fueled by innocence. There is

also an intransigent devotion to principle. The Filmographers’ attempt,

conscious or otherwise, to layer these characteristics with cinematic

filters, cannot hide the magnitude of the mind or the argument portrayed.

As

to the personality, who did you expect, Betty Crocker?

Thomas Kelly is a writer living in New York.

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