Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Screenwriting 101

TCM today showed one of the movies which seems to bring out some of the most vitriolically split opinions by those who comment upon and review it: The Fountainhead.

Based upon the novel by Ayn Rand (which I'm sure has a lot to do with the split opinion), The Fountainhead stars Gary Cooper as architect Howard Roark, a man who wants to build the designs he likes, and not what those who pay to have the buildings built would like. More commercially successful is fellow architect Peter Keating (Kent Smith), who produces popular, but unoriginal, designs. There's love interest Dominique Francon (Patricia Neal), who marries Keating first, followed by populist newspaper publisher Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), but really loves Roark.

The crux of the movie, and what usually brings out the political jeers, is that Keating wants an important government contract, but only Roark has enough knoweldge of the new building materials to be able to bring the job in under budget. Keating asks Roark to create the designs under Keating's name, and Roark agrees -- only on the proviso that the plans be altered in no way. Needless to say, this being a government contract, Roark's plans get altered to please a myriad of political masters, prompting Roark to destroy the building, and defend the bombing on the grounds that nobody has a right to his creation. Interestingly, this defense isn't that much different from what happens in William Wellman's 1933 movie Heroes for Sale: a man creates a machine to do laundry more efficiently, but heads a mob to destroy it when the machines are seen to cost people their jobs during the Great Depression. But because Heroes for Sale fairly explicitly supports Roosevelt's New Deal, it doesn't get criticized, while Ayn Rand's strident anti-collectivism does. (I should add a bit about my own political views here: I think Rand generally got things right in The Fountainhead, as I'll explain in more detail below; her later novel Atlas Shrugged, which is generally given greater praise by people receptive to Rand's philosophical views, is in my opinion an interesting story brought down by overlong and too frequent polemicism.)

The movie is visually interesting, as befits a movie about architecture. Many of the designs are fairly nice, angular buildings, reminiscent of the new styles Frank Lloyd Wright was designing: indeed, Rand modeled Howard Roark on Wright. (Interestingly, Wright is usually hailed for starting an architectural revolution, as opposed to the commonly assailed Rand.) Also, watch for an intriguing scene of Cooper working in a quarry. Some commenters have suggested that The Fountainhead would have worked better as a silent movie, and director King Vidor's effective use of visuals, presumably learned from his days directing silents two decades earlier, lends some credence to that argument.

It also brings up what is the major, and fairly well-deserved, criticism of The Fountainhead: its woeful screenplay. Ayn Rand wanted to make sure that the vision she presented in the novel would survive on screen, and so she took on the task of writing the screenplay. However, it's patently obvious that she had no idea of how to write an effective screenplay, especially the idea that what it takes to write a good book isn't the same as what you need for a good screenplay. The dialog is lifted in large parts straight out of the book, which causes serious problems whenever one of the characters delivers an extended soliloquy. While this makes for a terribly flawed movie, it doesn't hurt the book so much. Indeed, the book is quite good, and well worth reading.

The other criticism is that the characters are unrealistic, which is not untrue, but somewhat beside the point. In the book, the characters are more or less archetypes. Not only that; they're pretty much spot on to character types we'd know in real life. Roark's Frank Lloyd Wright has been mentioned; Peter Keating is the man who produces for commercial gain and not artistic merit -- a contention people could make about today's Hollywood and the derivative movies it produces. Gail Wynand is Rupert Murdoch, who's less a right-winger than a populist; if you don't believe this, read some of the comments from the British right about Murdoch's Sky TV in the UK. One other important character I didn't mention is the manipulative Ellsworth Toohey (played by Robert Douglas, although the producers really wanted Clifton Webb and he would have fit the role like a glove). He beats Wynand by getting all his acolytes put into the important positions at Wynand's newspapers, and getting them to strike when Wynand actually develops a conscience, which believe something different from what Toohey believes. The Tooheys of the world have spent the last several decades filling the important positions in America's newsrooms and college campuses (the so-called "Long March Through the Institutions"). One other thing that makes the book so pleasurable, but which didn't make it into the movie, is a blistering critique of "modern art", which even back in the 1940s seemed to be less about how artistic the work was, and more about whether it made the right political points. The artists and critics of the 1940s were apparently just as full of themselves as those of today.

There's one more irony about The Fountainhead: Ayn Rand wrote about a man who was desperate to keep his artistic freedom and integrity -- and indeed, had that same determination herself when she went to Hollywood. Normally, that's considered praiseworthy in a Hollywood type; look at how Orson Welles is lionised; how Citizen Kane wrongly damaged Marion Davies' cinematic reputation for decades; and how it's taken as an article of faith that Welles' bloated The Magnificent Ambersons would have been brilliant if only it hadn't been "mangled" by those wicked studio editors.

Thankfully, The Fountainhead is listed as being available on DVD. (Heroes for Sale, which I referenced in this post, isn't.) If you can get past the idea of the lousy screenplay, and the archetypal characters, give it a try.

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