In Defense of Dead Philosophers

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.